FYI: Penguin Random House Is Still In The Vanity Business Bewares

asandfriendsnewPenguin Random House announced the sale of Author Solutions on Tuesday, leading to headlines stating it has exited the self-publishing business and various commentators congratulating it for cleaning house. Unfortunately, neither of those things are true.

Four Penguin Random House-owned vanity presses will remain in operation – Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, and MeGustaEscribir – and will be run as Partner Imprints. You can read more about how Partner Imprints work here, but the short version is that Author Solutions will operate these four vanity presses on behalf of Penguin Random House, and PRH’s job will be to provide leads (aka newbie writers), lend its name and brand to the effort, and then sit back and collect its commissions.

This is precisely how Author Solutions operates Archway Publishing on behalf of Simon & Schuster, Westbow for HarperCollins, and Balboa Press for Hay House, among others. In short, Penguin Random House is still in the vanity business, it’s just flying under the radar – along with many more famous names in the industry.

Smart, Selling Smarter

These troublesome little details were overlooked by the press who were keen to trumpet Penguin Random House’s move. Indeed, it has been quite revealing watching the reaction unfold.

When Penguin purchased Author Solutions in 2012 for $116m, virtually all the press had the same angle: Penguin was making a smart move into the fast-growing world of self-publishing. No mention was made of the controversial business practices of Author Solutions, or that the giant vanity press resembled a viable self-publishing platform much in the way a glass of hydrochloric acid is a recommended way to cleanse after the holidays.

Fast forward to 2016, and suddenly Author Solutions has become “controversial” and even “toxic” – and selling the company is being hailed as an even smarter move. But what happened in-between 2012 and 2016? What did Author Solutions do to become toxic or controversial? Why was purchasing the company seen as smart in 2012, but getting rid of it was seen as even smarter in 2016?

Readers of this blog will be fully aware, but readers elsewhere will have no idea whatsoever because the press refused to cover the story. Indeed, in most publications, the only stories they ran on Author Solutions in the last four years were the purchase and the sale – no mention whatsoever of its awful business practices, the widespread protests from the author community, even the class actions.

An Accidental Inheritance

One line being pushed by publishing professionals is that Random House somehow accidentally inherited Author Solutions in the Penguin merger. I can picture CEO Markus Dohle pinching his nose as he made the head of Author Solutions part of his global executive team – obviously under some kind of duress.

More seriously, it’s patently ridiculous to make this claim. Penguin Random House happily continued the aggressive international expansion of Author Solutions commenced by Penguin – even to the point of opening a vanity press right in the offices of Random House Spain and pimping out its editors to sell 4,000 Euro evaluation reports.

Let’s also not forget what then-Penguin CEO John Makinson said when purchasing the company in 2012. “We spent time getting to know the people at Author Solutions and their sophisticated operation,” Makinson said. “They have skills that can help us at Penguin.”

His current job? Chairman of Penguin Random House.

Not Much To Celebrate

I can understand the impulse to celebrate this news. Having the world’s largest trade publisher operate the world’s largest vanity press was an abomination – handing Author Solutions a gold-plated fig-leaf for its shady operations. Even worse was the craven way the industry operated a kind of Omerta, refusing to talk about Author Solutions, let alone making any attempt to address the problems. Hopefully, some of that will now change.

Before we get carried away, we must remember that Author Solutions isn"t closing down; it will continue to operate under a new owner – one which has announced no plans to reform the worst abuses, and which instead signaled its intent to continue the aggressive international expansion that was the hallmark of Penguin Random House’s ownership.

We must also remember that a whole host of companies still have links and partnerships of various kinds with Author Solutions. Pressure must now be exerted on them to dump the company.

I try and maintain and up-to-date list, but tracking down the extent to which Author Solutions has infiltrated our industry would be a full time job. There are simply too many companies with their noses in the trough. Below is but a partial list of its publishing partners:

Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing), Lulu (marketing services), Harlequin (DelleArte Press) – partnership terminated 2015, Hay House (Balboa US, Balboa Australia), Barnes & Noble (Nook Press Author Services), Crossbooks (LifeWay) – partnership terminated 2014, Penguin (Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, BookCountry – marketing services), HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson/Zondervan (Westbow Press), Random House Spain (MeGustaEscribir), Writer’s Digest (Abbott Press) – partnership terminated 2014.

In addition to these publishing partners, Author Solutions has also forged a variety of marketing partnerships. Again, this is very much a partial list:

The Guardian Weekly, Baker & Taylor, Miami Book Fair International, New York Times, Women of Faith Conferences, The Bookseller (relationship terminated in 2014), Kirkus, The Combined Book Exhibit, Word On The Street Festival Toronto, Publishers Weekly, International Christian Retail Show, Library Journal, MindBodySpirit Festivals, ForeWord, LA Times Festival of Books, Bowker (relationship terminated in 2013/4), New York Review of Books, Hay House “I Can Do It!” Conferences, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Bay Area Book Festival, Clarion, AARP National Event & Expo, London Review of Books, Ingram, Ellery Queen Mystery Monthly, Tucson Festival of Books.

A veritable Who’s Who of Publishing, and many of you will notice several media companies on the list, companies which have never published anything critical about Author Solutions – a coincidence, one presumes.

Some of the above-named companies simply carry Author Solutions ads and allow the company to upsell its products at insane mark-ups. Others have deeper partnerships, and it has been speculated that those partners also receive commissions.

For example, Publishers Weekly not only allows Author Solutions to re-sell ad packs to wholly unsuitable newbies at insane prices, it also lets them re-sell access to its mailing list and banner ads on its site, among other offerings. Publishers Weekly refused to comment when asked if it receives a commission from those sales. Indeed, not only has Publishers Weekly refused to acknowledge the existence of its partnership with Author Solutions, it also never even discloses same when writing about the company – a clear breach of the most basic journalistic ethics.

Lessons Learned?

I wish I could end on a more positive note, and list off all the ways the industry will change after this sordid episode, but I can’t. Nothing whatsoever has been learned – except, perhaps, the extent to which this industry will go when it comes to exploiting writers.