The most prestigious event in the UK publishing calendar, the London Book Fair, welcomes predatory operators with open arms, deliberately positions them opposite author events for extra cash, and then helps to whitewash their reputation – even running misleading interviews and puff pieces on its own website to help them get more leads.
I’ve been campaigning against vanity presses and author exploitation for five years now, and one thing that became apparent is the key role of book fairs and industry events in this mess.
Vanity presses are always keen to appear at these events because it:
- lends their seamy enterprise an air of legitimacy to inexperienced authors who don’t know better;
- gives them direct access to a pool of newbie writers attending the events; and,
- creates an opportunity to sell various products to their users such as book signing services and book display packages costing thousands of dollars.
I’ve written previously for the Alliance of Independent Authors about how worthless book display services are a lucrative part of these events, and how they are mis-sold to inexperienced writers.
I’ve also written here about how book signing scams are a major source of income for vanity presses like Author Solutions (and a major source of heartache for the authors paying thousands of dollars and seeing little in return). While these articles have created awareness, not one of these events has taken action.
We aren’t talking about fly-by-night operators here – these are established, prestigious events like the Miami Book Fair or the LA Times Festival of Books. Most shockingly of all, the London Book Fair goes further than any of them.
On Tuesday, I wrote about a despicable trend: UK vanity presses who are shamelessly passing themselves off as legitimate trade publishers and only hitting authors with the news that they have to pay-to-play, and the (considerable) bill, when it comes to signing contracts.
One of the comments to that piece was particularly worrying:
Austin Macauley had a booth at LBF last year right in front of the Author HQ (I know, why would the good folks at LBF turn down a vanity publisher’s money, eh?), with one “publisher”, and 3, well… we decided to call them “booth babes”, holding a bunch of flyers and handing them to every passer by.
They basically combine all the cliches of a dodgy business — but the problem is that a lot of people will fall for these, and places like LBF keep putting them front and centre in their “self-publishing HQ.”
I was at the London Book Fair in 2013. The Author HQ is, like the name suggests, the focal point for writers at an event which is more geared towards publishers (and those providing services to publishers). Most of the author-focused events take place in that HQ area, and the passageways around it are where writers generally congregate. It’s probably the most heavily trafficked part of the fair (aside from the agents’ champagne bar).
And that’s where the organizers of the London Book Fair put vanity press Austin Macauley – the same one I wrote about on Tuesday which is masquerading as a trade publisher.
Could this have been an accident?
I called the London Book Fair this morning posing as a potential exhibitor called Arthur Kerr (sorry, couldn’t help it). Actually, the person I dealt with so nice and helpful that I felt terrible for the subterfuge, but I needed to establish some key points:
- It costs more to exhibit near the Author HQ, especially directly opposite same.
- Part of the deal (costing several thousand pounds) is a marketing package which includes “lead generation” – marketing speak for “we will deliver even more authors into your clutches.”
- No vetting whatsoever is done of exhibitors – even those who explicitly state they are engaged in author services and wish to take a stand directly opposite Author HQ. There were more questions about how many chairs I would like than what my “company” actually did (a big fat zero on the latter).
You might have guessed all of this already, but it was good to get it confirmed: the London Book Fair has absolutely no problem with exploitative author services being positioned where most writers will congregate.
Not only that, but the London Book Fair will also directly assist in whitewashing your reputation. Here is an interview with Austin Macauley conducted by the London Book Fair and hosted on their site, where they breathlessly describe them as “an energetic and imaginative independent trade publisher.”
Imaginative is one word for it.
I’m sure many of you are angry about this – and you have every right to be. This is the leading event of the UK publishing industry, and one of the most prestigious in the world. And the London Book Fair is not just allowing these guys to appear, but it’s actively generating leads for exploitative services, and directly engaging in PR efforts on their behalf to make them seem like legitimate publishers.
And it has to stop.
Here’s my proposal: the London Book Fair must immediately ban exploitative vanity presses and author services from appearing at its events. It has to end the practice of profiting from these predatory operators which are causing untold misery to authors across the UK.
Organizations like the Society of Authors should immediately back this call. If they can’t protect the most vulnerable writers from the worst of the worst, what’s the bloody point?
This is down to us authors. We can’t expect the publishing establishment to help us. Over 25,000 publishing professionals attend the London Book Fair every goddamn year and say nothing about this seedy crap.
Before I sign off, I’d like to deal with some reasonable objections that came up on Twitter when I floated this idea yesterday – primarily all variations on a theme. Namely, how do you define a vanity press or exploitative service? Where do you draw the line?
Well, if there is general agreement in principle that shady operators should be banned then working out the rest is just details. I’m skeptical the appetite is genuinely there, but I’ll play along.
I see two possible approaches:
- Start with the very worst operators and work from there. I’m sure that we (i.e. people like myself, Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware, Mick Rooney, the SFWA, and Orna Ross & the Watchdog team at the Alliance of Independent Authors) could easily come up with a solid list to start with – which I imagine would comprise of people like Archway, Tate, Austin Macauley, AuthorHouse, Xlibris, Balboa Press, Partridge, America Star Books (formerly PublishAmerica), Strategic, Trafford, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, iUniverse etc.
- Alternatively, hammer out a working definition of a vanity press/exploitative service. Potential starting point: is this service making money with authors or from authors? If that all feels a bit loose, the Alliance of Independent Authors have put an incredible amount of work into a comprehensive scoring system for vanity presses/self-publishing platforms/author services which I’m sure they would be happy to share.
This problem can be solved – you just have to want to solve it.
I’ll leave you with this thought: vanity publishing and associated predatory services are generally assumed to be at the fringes of the industry. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The deeper I dig – five years of this, let me remind you – proves that these guys are central to the industry, and that whole swathes of the publishing establishment is geared towards separating inexperienced writers from their money in incredibly dishonest ways. And we never even talk about it, let alone take action.