Authors Guild Dumps Author Solutions (And Pretends It Was All A Bad Dream)

AGASThe Authors Guild – which bills itself as America’s leading writers’ organization – has terminated its partnership with Author Solutions.

The Authors Guild joins companies like Bowker, Writers’ Digest, and Crossbooks in cutting links to Author Solutions – a company which has faced a sustained campaign from writers targeting its deceptive and exploitative practices, as well as multiple class actions which are still working their way through the courts.

Burying the Lede

The announcement was made yesterday at Book Expo America, but the Authors Guild decided to bury its own lede. No mention is made of Author Solutions, just a brief mention of the subsidiary which the Authors Guild was partnered with: iUniverse. If I hadn’t been waiting for this announcement, I would have missed it.

It’s almost as if the Authors Guild is trying to airbrush its partnership with Author Solutions from the history books. As if it was all just a bad dream.

Not so fast. Continue reading

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Digging Deeper Into Author Earnings

authorearnings

The Author Earnings team are attempting to do something which hasn’t been done before, and their work can’t be refined and improved unless there is some intelligent criticism of their approach and findings.

Today I’ve invited Phoenix Sullivan to blog on the topic. I’ve known Phoenix for a few years now, and if there’s a smarter person in publishing, I haven’t heard of them.

KBoards regulars will already know that Phoenix understands the inner workings of the Kindle Store better than anyone outside Amazon. And I can personally vouch for her expertise: she was the biggest influence on (and help with) Let’s Get Visible and also the marketing brains behind a box set I was in, which did very well indeed.

Phoenix offered to take the raw data from Author Earnings, drill down and analyse it, and then see if her conclusions differed from theirs, and whether there were any improvements she would suggest. Phoenix has also been able to pull some fascinating new insights from the Author Earnings raw data.

Here’s Phoenix with more:

Digging Deeper Into Author Earnings

I set aside some time recently to dive into the Author Earnings raw data for the May 1, 2015 Report. The irksome thing about the scraped data is how much of the puzzle that is Amazon’s ebook sales is missing and/or open to interpretative analysis. It isn’t the data’s fault or even the fault of the collection method. It’s simply that the data made public is limited, which in turn means a lot of creative interpretation goes into even so simple a task as coming up with the number of ebooks sold in a day. While the raw data itself isn’t changeable, different tools and assumptions applied to the data can yield different results, thereby opening up the analysis to differing interpretations.

My goal was to apply a set of tools and assumptions that update and possibly correct those being used by the Author Earnings team. The environment has changed dramatically in the 15 months since the first report came out, yet the analytical tools, in my opinion, haven’t necessarily kept up with the times. That in itself does not mean the results are wrong, but without a challenge to them, we’ll never know, right? Of course, even if the results are the same, there can be various ways to interpret those results, but we’ll get to that later.

Playing with someone else’s spreadsheet and formulas can be exhausting in itself. And time-consuming. Which is probably why there haven’t been many challenges to the essence of the AE data and analysis. My own methods for the challenge are likely cruder even than AE’s, and, like AE’s Data Guy, I’ve had to make certain assumptions along the way as well as do a little eyeballing and guesstimating.

Some bits, of course, are purely statistical and can be taken at face value. I’m not challenging the majority of the raw data, so my first assumptions are along the lines of:

  • Ranks are correct.
  • Publisher info is correct.
  • Whether a title is in KU or not is correct, with the exception that several Amazon Imprint titles were not indicated to be in KU.
  • An average 50% of KU downloads are sales; the other 50% are borrows.
  • Authors at the Big 5 are, in general, earning 25% of actual net, not list, under the Agency model.

Assumptive corrections I’ve made include marking the four April Kindle First titles as having a sale price of $1.99 rather than $4.99. As the data was captured on the first of May, those Kindle First titles still in the Top 10 would have changed price around midnight and would owe their ranks to borrows and $1.99 sales. So other assumptions are:

  • 10% of Kindle First titles are sales at $1.99, with normal royalties credited to the authors; 90% are borrows and are uncredited. For this exercise, that’s 12,000 borrows accounted for manually.
  • For this exercise, I was forced to ignore the ghost borrow effect on rank, so the caveat is that most titles in KU are still being credited with more borrows and sales than they in fact have.

Sales-to-Rank Calculations

By far the biggest assumptive correction I’ve made is two-fold: The first part is applying a new set of sales:rank calculations to the dataset and the second part is applying calculations to maintain ranks rather than using the multipliers needed to hit a rank. Let’s be clear that these multipliers are observed only, and best guesses across a lot of observations. However, I do believe the multipliers currently being used by AE are 1) outdated, and 2) don’t reflect the actual number of sales happening for the majority of books that are maintaining rank in the store and not seeing huge rank swings on a day-to-day basis.

I know the AE team is reluctant to introduce another variable into their quarter-to-quarter comparisons, but really this is pretty core to the reports. Not adjusting for sales numbers in a sales-based report is akin to not adjusting for currency exchange rates for companies doing business internationally. Especially when the discrepancy in earnings could be as much as a 25% deviation. Besides, KU’s thrown the whole sales:rank model askew already, so “consistency” really is no excuse here for not updating.

Compared to the rank chart AE is currently using, there’s about a 10% increase to hit #100 today and about a 50% increase to hit #1000. Closer to the #100,000 mark, there’s less of a deviation. While store volume is likely up, I highly doubt it’s up in the double digits, much less by 50%. What the increases are and where they’re occurring in the ranks indicates to me is that this is all part of the KU Effect and is more a product of ghost borrows (credit to Ed Robertson for the term) and converted borrows than of an increase in store volume. More titles are moving, true, but that volume movement isn’t all converting into earnings.

For a fun comparison, I applied the updated chart for the number of sales to hit a rank to see what that would look like. Predictably, it showed about a 7.7% increase in units sold and a 4.3% increase in total revenue from the original AE report for May 1, 2015.

sales-rankHowever, Amazon’s algorithms take historical sales – among other variables, such as velocity – into consideration when calculating rank. The longer a title remains around a given rank, the fewer sales it takes to maintain that rank. Observably, anywhere from 10-50% fewer sales. That means the multipliers for hitting ranks are not good indicators of unit sales numbers for the majority of books in the dataset. Here is my observed chart for average sales to maintain rank, along with the old and new numbers for hitting rank. More work needs to be done to fill in the upper brackets on the maintain side. I used the same numbers from my Sales to Hit chart when I felt I didn’t have enough data points on the Maintain side to chart new numbers in, but the safe assertion is that the Top 500 in my own data is over-reporting by a conservative 10%.

Plugging numbers from the maintenance chart into the calculation tool AE supplies in the raw data report better represents sales volume, I think. For the dataset, that means AE is reporting 17.4% more unit sales than what my calculations indicate (which, remember, are likely a bit high themselves), with the trickle-down effect of inflating the market as a whole. More on this later. Continue reading

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Author Solutions and Friends: The Inside Story

ASandfriendsweboptAuthor Solutions has forged partnerships with a long list of famous names in publishing – from Simon & Schuster and Hay House to Barnes & Noble and Reader’s Digest.

Recent disclosures in various lawsuits, along with information sent to me by a Penguin Random House source, detail for the very first time exactly how these partnerships work and the damage they are causing.

Since a second suit was filed at the end of March, Author Solutions is now facing two class actions, with the new complaint alleging unjust enrichment and exploitation of seniors on top of the usual claims of fraud and deceptive practices. It also has a wonderfully precise summary of Author Solutions’ operations:

Author Solutions operates more like a telemarketing company whose customer base is the Authors themselves. In other words, unlike a traditional publisher, Author Solutions makes money from its Authors, not for them. It does so by selling books back to its Authors, not to a general readership, and by selling its Authors expensive publishing, editing, and marketing services (“Services”) that are effectively worthless.

Indeed.

You may not have heard about this second class action as most of the media felt it wasn’t worth reporting – even the trade press like Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller – but you can peruse the complaint here (PDF).

(Note: the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in both class actions are still looking to hear from anyone who has published with Author Solutions. You can do that here.)

Despite Author Solutions’ mounting legal troubles, and an unending stream of complaints against the company from both its own customers and a whole host of writers’ organizations and campaigners, companies are still queuing up to partner with Author Solutions.

Penguin Random House – its corporate parent – has shown no inclination towards reforming any of the deceptive and misleading practices of Author Solutions, or addressing any of the long-standing issues its customers face, handily summarized by Emily Suess as:

  • improperly reporting royalty information
  • non-payment of royalties
  • breach of contract
  • predatory and harassing sales calls
  • excessive markups on review and advertising services
  • failure to deliver marketing services as promised
  • telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars
  • ignoring customer complaints
  • shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories.

Instead of making any attempt to tackle that list, Penguin Random House has focused on international expansion of Author Solutions, a process which has also seen the re-introduction of practices which had previously been banished from the industry, like reading fees. Continue reading

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Fighting With Both Hands

The LibertiesThis blog has been quieter than usual lately and I thought I should let you know what I’ve been doing.

I’m going to prattle on for quite a while; you might want to get comfortable (or head off to Tumblr).

So…

It’s good to do a bit of soul searching now and then, to look at what you have achieved, where your career is headed, and to decide if you are on the right track.

My goals and dreams have changed a lot since I started self-publishing in 2011. I haven’t been a big success, but I’ve been able to tick off little career milestones along the way. Some months my sales are wonderful, some months they are terrible – generally a function of how long it is since I released or promoted something. Overall, the good months more than outweigh the bad and I’ve been scratching out a living for a while now.

Dream: achieved.

But the sales maw, as all writers know, is insatiable. So I’ve been noodling ways to take my career to the next level. Continue reading

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Bay Area Book Festival Defends Author Solutions Sponsorship

BABFASI discovered yesterday that Author Solutions was sponsoring the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival – something at odds with the breathless verbiage on the event’s site:

A new kind of book fair… the largest, most innovative, and most inclusive… [we will] create the nation’s leading book festival.

The event doesn’t take place until June, so I thought it was a good time to try and stage an intervention.

After I sent that tweet I felt a little bad.

Maybe the organizers didn’t know the full history of Author Solutions. Maybe they weren’t aware of the specific scam that Author Solutions runs at events like this. Deciding to give them the benefit of the doubt, I emailed the Executive Director of the festival, Cherilyn Parsons.

According to her bio, Cherilyn Parsons has “visited book festivals around the world to bring best practices to the Bay Area Book Festival.” Great, I thought. Surely those “best practices” don’t involve accepting sponsorship from a known scammer. Right?

I sent Parsons an email giving her the full background. I explained how Author Solutions was universally reviled in the writing community, why every major writers’ organization and watchdog group warned authors against using the company, and that Author Solutions was facing a class action for deceptive practices.

I also detailed the way Author Solutions uses its presence at events like this to ensnare new customers and milk existing ones – a common ploy being to sell off one-hour book signing slots for prices up to $4,000 (or up to $10,000 via Archway).

And it was a complete waste of my time.

In their response, The Bay Area Book Festival explained the “logic” behind accepting Author Solutions as a sponsor. The reasons presented were threefold: Continue reading

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Barnes & Noble’s Dirty Little Secret: Author Solutions and Nook Press

NookPressAuthorSolutionsNook Press – Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing platform – launched a selection of author services last October including editing, cover design, and (limited) print-on-demand.

Immediate speculation surrounded who exactly was providing these services, with many – including Nate Hoffelder, Passive Guy, and myself – speculating it could be Author Solutions. However, there was no proof.

Until now.

A source at Penguin Random House has provided me with a document which shows that Author Solutions is secretly operating Nook Press Author Services. The following screenshot is taken from the agreement between Barnes & Noble and writers using the service.

NookPressAuthorServicesBloomingtonopt

You will see that the postal address highlighted above for physical submission of manuscripts is “Nook Press Author Services, 1663 Liberty Drive, Bloomington, Indiana.”

Author Solutions, Bloomington, Indiana. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, uploaded by Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0

Author Solutions, Bloomington, IN. Image from Wikimedia, by Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0

There’s something else located at that address: Author Solutions US headquarters in Bloomington, Indiana (pictured right).

Barnes & Noble has never disclosed that Author Solutions is providing these services, either in the press release announcing same, the communications to Nook Press users, or on the site itself.

Indeed, Barnes & Noble refused to respond to three separate requests last November for information on same from Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader (now renamed Inks, Bits & Pixels).

Also, Barnes & Noble fails to disclose Author Solutions’ involvement to authors purchasing these services. The Nook Press Author Services site goes into great detail about these services but never once mentions that Author Solutions is fulfilling them. In fact, the way the FAQs on the site are worded makes it sound like Barnes & Noble/Nook Press carries out the work itself – which is extremely misleading.

Finally, authors who use Nook Press Author Services are not informed that their personal details are shared with Author Solutions, along with explicit permission to use those personal details to upsell Author Solutions’ infamous marketing packages. Continue reading

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How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson two crime/thriller writers who have been working together to increase their promotion and marketing range since June 2014

I’m hosting a discussion today between two authors who are using creative ways to share audiences, something which has the happy side-effect of increasing their respective sales.

As I said on Thursday, I think creative forms of collaboration – especially in terms of marketing strategies – are going to be big this year.

Traditionally published authors may have to compete with each other ways that may not be relevant/important to self-publishers – like agents, deals, grants, prizes, or co-op. But self-publishers have nothing to fear from cooperating with authors they are nominally competing with, and everything to gain.

The market is so large that no writer will ever reach all the readers out there, and the odds of getting noticed can improve greatly with the right kind of cooperation – as many authors with box sets saw last year.

If you are still skeptical, consider this: Amazon’s recommendation engine can drive sales like nothing else. The Also Boughts (the strip of other titles under your book on its Amazon page) are central to that recommendation engine in ways that we only partly understand. What we do know is that they are key influences on all those emails which are sent to Amazon customers.

Did you ever have an unexplained bump in sales that couldn’t be tracked to a mention somewhere? There’s a reasonable chance you started appearing in the Also Boughts of a popular title in your genre, and then your book suddenly got recommended by email to a bunch of new readers in your target audience. Also, this phenomenon in reverse is often behind an inexplicable drop in sales (and is more comfortable than tin foil!).

Savvy authors are now pooling audiences in an attempt to influence their Also Boughts and get Amazon’s system to recommend their books to each other’s audiences. I noticed crime/thriller writers Matt Iden and Nick Stephenson doing this in interesting ways over the last few months, and invited them to spill the beans.

Here’s Matt & Nick with more:

Continue reading

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