The Combined Book Exhibit and Author Scams Bewares Publishing

The Combined Book Exhibit has been taking its traveling bookshelf, packed with hopeful authors’ books, to trade events and book fairs around the world for 85 years. But while it may have started as a vehicle for genuine publishers and authors to showcase their wares at far-flung events, today it is notorious for enabling a very particular kind of author scam.

If an author approaches the Combined Book Exhibit directly via its website, they can display their ebook or print book at prestigious events like the London Book Fair or BookExpo America for $325. This is a considerable fee when you consider what the author gets in return, especially if you have seen these tired, unloved bookcases at industry events. The idea that an agent or editor or movie producer would peruse these shelves, let alone actually acquire something from them, is risible.

Package deals are also flogged to authors. For example, to have your print and ebook edition displayed in the New Title Showcase at the London Book Fair and BookExpo America next year costs the considerable sum of $900. And then something called the 2020 International Package will take your hopefully sturdy paperback to the London Book Fair, BookExpo America, Beijing Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, Sharjah Book Fair, and the Guadalajara Book Fair, at a cost of $1400 or $1650 if you want to include the ebook also.

Needless to say, this is quite a lot of money for some rather questionable return. And when you sign up for one of the smaller packages you are quite strongly pushed towards the more expensive ones – indeed, the individual shows are hidden away behind a button. Even if you do discover it, and select the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair, for example, at a cost of $400, additional services are pushed: Ads in Exhibit Catalogues for $150-$350, Autographing slots for $695. All of which the author will struggle to get any kind of return on whatsoever.

Of course, the Combined Book Exhibit has been hawking these questionable products with the full-throated support of the publishing industry. It has endless partnerships and is pretty much protected from any criticism.

However, some criticism has pierced that bubble. One of the Combined Book Exhibit’s most controversial practices doesn’t just involve hawking overpriced services of questionable quality, but reselling those services to exploitative vanity presses who then go on to add an incredible mark-up on top of these already high prices. Of course, these vanity presses tend to adopt the hard-sell, making outrageous promises regarding what these services can achieve.

Writer Beware has written multiple times about the plague of vanity presses coming from the Philippines right now, mostly inspired by Author Solutions, often directly set up by Author Solutions alumni. There are so many of these companies now that Victoria Strauss needed two separate posts to detail them all (Part 1, Part 2).

The key lesson these vanity presses learned from Author Solutions was that you can adopt an instant veneer of respectability by partnering with well-known companies at the heart of the traditional publishing business. Author Solutions infamously did this with HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson, Harlequin, Writers Digest, Hay House, Simon & Schuster, Lulu, Barnes & Noble – even the bloody Authors Guild – before netting itself the big kahuna: getting purchased by Penguin. (All that really happened right? It wasn’t just a crazy dream?)

The Author Solutions copycats since found a much easier way to get that fig-leaf of legitimacy: just purchase packages from Combined Book Exhibit for the purposes of re-selling, and then offer services to authors promising to “take their book to the London Book Fair.”

These vanity press copycats are now cold-calling authors, often rerouting their number via the USA, and deploying the language skills they learned on the job at Author Solutions, under Penguin’s tutelage.

The situation has gotten so bad that Combined Book Exhibit themselves have issued a warning on their own site about these scams. And, really, this was a huge surprise to me because, a few years ago, when I asked the Combined Book Exhibit about their policies surrounding the reselling of their packages to companies applying huge mark-ups, they responded by… blocking me on Twitter.

While I commend the Combined Book Exhibit for warning against specific companies on their site – including companies that have been aggressively cold-calling authors like Books Magnet and Capstone – and detailing red-flag practices too, I can’t help wonder about a couple of things.

First, if Combined Book Exhibit was truly worried about this scam and these companies, it could stop it tomorrow by stopping the reselling of its products to these companies. Why continue to do business with companies that you yourself have labelled scammers? Why would they continue to allow the reselling of your products for, in their own words, “exorbitant rates upwards of $1,800.”? If you stop selling them your display case slots, they have nothing to re-sell. Problem solved… if you really want that. Otherwise this looks like a giant ass-covering exercise.

Second, and rather more pertinently, there are very obvious omissions from this list of problematic companies. The reselling of Combined Book Exhibit products is not limited to some fly-by-night operations out of the Philippines. These book display packages are resold, often at crazy mark-ups, often in very aggressive and disingenuous ways, by a whole host of self-publishing service companies, vanity presses, and “hybrid” publishers.

I can only speculate about why the Combined Book Exhibit chose not to include Lulu on its list. Here they are selling another book display package of seriously questionable value at $1,799 – just a dollar shy of the “exorbitant” level warned about by Combined Book Exhibit.

Another curious omission is AuthorHouse – especially given that AuthorHouse is considerably larger than any of the called-out companies. It’s also charging significantly more than that “exorbitant” figure of $1,800 which Combined Book Exhibit specifically called out. Here’s one such AuthorHouse package for the quite frankly bonkers sum of $2,699.

Even stranger again is the omission of Partridge Publishing, a vanity press based in India and Singapore and South Africa which is charging the barely credible price of 197,599 rupees – approximately $2,800.

And I know Combined Book Exhibit is aware of these packages and their pricing because it was this was what I was querying when they blocked me.

These style of packages were also previously offered by Simon & Schuster-owned vanity press Archway, HarperCollins-owned Westbow, (formerly) Writers Digest-owned Abbott Press, Hay House-owned Balboa.

What do all these companies have in common, aside from some rather famous names which presumably inure them from criticism? All of these companies are actually operated on the ground by Author Solutions. Yes, even Partridge Publishing, which is still owned by Penguin Random House BTW, is operated on their behalf by Author Solutions.

Which means Combined Book Exhibit must be doing a hell of a lot of business with Author Solutions every year. If only there was a way they could prevent all this price-gouging, right? The very price-gouging which they themselves call a “scam” on their own website? If only.

There are all sorts of scammers and weasels in publishing. And partnering with known and trusted entities is how they dupe authors in such huge numbers, particularly inexperienced authors, very young authors, or those of more advanced years – who make up the overwhelming majority of victims.

We are supposed to be able to trust famous names like Penguin and the London Book Fair. They aren’t supposed to act as fig leaves for industrial-scale author exploitation.

Keep in mind that the Combined Book Exhibit isn’t an unknown entity operating at the margins of the publishing industry, it is right at the heart of the traditional end of the business, with long-standing partnerships with the most prestigious industry events and deep links with the likes of Publishers Weekly and some writing organizations too (who should know better).

Unlike many author scams, this one actually has a pretty simple solution. Combined Book Exhibit could review its reselling policies, it could stop all this tomorrow, but it most likely won’t – I suspect Author Solutions is a huge chunk of its yearly income.

Which means the onus is on those partnering with the Combined Book Exhibit. Will you continue to play your own part in this operation? Or will you use your influence to make it right?

The choice is yours.

17 Replies to “The Combined Book Exhibit and Author Scams”

  1. Once again David, thanks for the heads-up on this. So many Indie authors are writing day and night to advance their careers and earn a living from it – while these scammers come along ready and willing to take from them in one swoop as much of the authors’ earnings as they can get their hands on – and for what? Nothing worthwhile to the authors. A case of “WRITERS BEWARE indeed.

    1. Great post, David. I was almost going to sign up for a Combined exhibit at LBF in 2014. Instead I went there to see what it was all about. There were no visible signs of throngs of agents or publishers rushing to ‘buy’ the rights. I decided to pass, figuring the hundreds of dollars could be better spent on good editors and designers. More research revealed even more dubious companies calling themselves “Traditional” publishers but charging for services. I also realised that some authors who want to go independent do need help and assistance doing the mechanics themselves or procuring services (editing, formatting, design etc) and it is okay for them to pay for those services – but only if they are made aware up front of what is and is not included. Dangling hope is the worst ‘sales hook’ that can be used with authors, young, old or naive. Posts / blogs like yours and any other ways we can spread the word about the realities of the marketplace for indies the better. I was so annoyed by the whole thing I started a business to ethically assist indie authors. Roll fwd a few years and now (next year) I will have my own stand at LBF promoting what we do and warning of the traps that are out there.

  2. David,
    They find people who believe that their book at an expo is a chance for some kind of magical discovery. And the truth is in any kind of industry expo, it’s basically a sales opportunity. You talk to people about whatever is being hawked, software or training or indestructible laptops for use in defense. But no one buys anything. No deals are made unless the seller is there pushing it.The great triumph is to get a business card and call someone post conference. Expos are very ’50s in terms of business practices; in some ways they currently reside in a kind of business Jurassic Park. The two things that break my heart 1) the number of dicey enterprises make lots of money directly from the insecurity of writers and 2) writer giving their work away free.

  3. I have been approached by one of these hucksters, allegedly with offices in San Diego. They may or may not be a vanity press and after numerous calls I avoided, I did listen to the pitch. The callers are skilled, but their dialogue is limited to the information on their script. I suspected I was talking to someone either from or in the Philippines because I recognized the speech patterns aws similar to my Filipina friends. I received an email containing a two-page proposal, a dead give away when it described the several different levels of programs, but no mention of the price. There is nothing included that an experienced ebook author does not already know. I am currently consulting with two aspiring writers on self-publishing techniques, and I can see how the proposals might attract a writer who is unaware of the pitfalls.

  4. I get calls from these types at least monthly. The company names are different but the pitch is always the same—-as you’ve discussed above. One or two times a skilled hustler with decent English will temp me, but thank God, my instincts have always told me to hang up. Thank you for reinforcing my instincts. What really pi**es me off is that after spending well more than a year writing and publishing a new book and investing $$$$ in editors and publishing fees, rather than trying to actualy provide a valuable service is that they are now trying to scam authors seeking good PR out of yet more money. A pox on them all!

  5. In my early days of book writing, I paid American Star books to include my first memoir in their catalogue and display it on their bookstall at the Miami Book Fair. Though I live in Europe, I visited Miami to collect some awards and I combed the fair looking for their stand. My book was absent. I pounced on two girls hawking round ‘catalogues’ of books being promoted by American Star books. I leafed through, no book. “Ah that’s in tomorrow’s hand out,” I was told as I looked at the badly photocopied, hastily stapled sheets of A4 paper. Never again.

  6. By coincidence I just looked at FSB Associates, a book marketing sepcialist promoted in the latest Ingramspark newsletter. Their basic package costs $13,500 for a 3 month campaign. That seems extortionate to me and is certainly way beyond my means, as I explained in my reply to their e-mail response to my enquiry.
    Have you come across them? If so what are your thoughts?

    1. Never heard of them, and that’s crazy money – but a quick glance at their website seems to show a lot of tradpub clients. A traditional publicist is very expensive and mostly useless to self-publishers. We simply do not get anything like the same return from appearing in the (traditional) media as someone whose book might be on the front table in every Barnes & Noble nationwide. Pushing ebooks requires a very different kind of approach, and thankfully a much cheaper one.

      1. I looked into these guys just yesterday too, based on the Ingram newsletter. Putting it mildly OM**!!!! $4,500 per month with a minimum 3-month contract. Their other packages are similarly expensive.

  7. I recently won a publishing award valued at $1,300 from Authorhouse/Authorsolutions/Author-learning Center. An agreement was sent and I immediately received several calls urging me to sign it, which I didn’t. Knowing something about their history, I asked a lot of questions and did a lot of research. Their payment for sales could extend to 6 months, and Authors pay around $11 to purchase their own books. My first book (published a few years ago through Createspace) costs me $5. My next book hasn’t been written, so I stalled and told them I wouldn’t sign until I had something to publish. I won’t repeat what I’ve heard from a friend who can’t trace payments for books she, or others, purchased and for which there is no record. I can’t understand why the heads of this group are regularly invited to be Keynote speakers at conferences.
    Thanks so much David for all your informative, invaluable emails and articles.

  8. You mean to tell me that I can’t just give someone $4-, 5- or $1500 and make 10 times that much with my book? Then go on and be famous? And get a huge advance on the sequel?

    I spent so many hours writing this book. It’s gotta be good and everyone has to like it. I know it’s good. I mean it took me 3, make that 4 years to write. It’s good I tell you.

    They have a great website. And they appear to have great connections. Yeesh! It’s a shoe in. They are professional marketers, aren’t they? Of course, they are trustworthy.

    Give them my money and get a 10-fold, 20-fold return. Why wouldn’t I trust someone with a big price tag to share the wealth with a hard-working, honest person like me? And why shouldn’t I get that much in return for my blood, sweat and tears effort? I deserve it.

    Who should I write my check to next? Got advice?

  9. David, it’s time that companies started focusing on ways to help authors make more money, not take money from authors. As we know, the publishing landscape has shifted tectonically over the past ten years and there has been a “resettling” of the environment that has ramped up competition for the publishing dollar and drawn in those companies that play on authors’ drive, and in some cases, desperation, to break through and make a living at their craft.

    Thank you for pointing up the pitfalls of these “opportunities” that would take advantage of authors. Let’s continue to invent new possibilities for authors to make money at what they do: write and publish the books that readers want to read.

  10. Thanks for the blog David!

    I was approached by an officer from New Leaf Media telling me that their scout spotted my book on Combines Book Exhibits (I didn’t pay to get my book shown there and didn’t even know the existence of the CBE before). He told me they would like to republish my book and work as an agent to reach traditional publishers, and the publishing costs will all be on them, while on my end I will invest in the marketing service. Will this really be an opportunity, or is it just a scam?

  11. Thank you very much for this David! I will take your advice and run away from them. They did confuse me and make me suspicious in that one of the staff called me on the phone at 4.30 a.m. American time (I’m in China by the way). I didn’t think about the time difference first but it came to me soon afterwards. I questioned the calling time in a polute way, and was told not to worry because he has clients in the UK as well so he’s on a flexible schedule to accommodate his clients. Emmmm… think I know the truth now.

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