Why Is The Media Ignoring Author Exploitation?

The Amazon-Hachette dispute has caught the media’s attention. But what about the story the media refuses to cover?

The media is more concerned with one-sided accounts of Amazon’s perceived actions – when no one really knows the exact nature of the dispute.

The media is more concerned with what Amazon might do in the future, than actual author exploitation by the world’s largest trade publisher: Penguin Random House.

Penguin Random House owns the world’s largest vanity press – Author Solutions – which is currently subject to a class action for deceptive business practices, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violation of business statutes in California, New York, and Colorado.

The court papers cover the same ground that I’ve been blogging about for the last three years, that Writer Beware has spent even longer documenting, and others like Emily Suess and Mick Rooney have covered in extensive detail.

If you are new to the Author Solutions story, and how Penguin Random House has aggressively expanded its scammy operations since it bought the company in 2012, this is a good starting point.

The short list of recurring issues includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author’s consent, 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, and calling at least one customer a ‘f*cking asshole.’

The CEO of Author Solutions, Andrew Phillips, was given a chance to address all of this by the Alliance of Independent Authors, and he instead chose to use it as an opportunity to dissemble, spin, and shill.

I’m curious as to why the media spends so much time publishing negative stories about Amazon, no matter how ridiculous, but spends zero time covering this story.

Take the New York Times for example, which broke the story on the Amazon-Hachette dispute and has published several follow-up pieces since. You won’t find any mention in its pages of Author Solutions’ exploitative practices. You will, however find plenty of stories showing Author Solutions in a positive light as you will see from a simple search of its archives.

And the trade press is no better. The last big anti-Amazon push in the media was led by Publishers Weekly who whipped up a storm about Amazon’s affiliate arrangement with the LA Times Festival of Books, and completely ignored the real scandal of author exploitation happening at the event – despite my repeated attempts to get them to cover the story, or comment on my piece.

Choosing A Self-Publishing Service

Because the media is so awful at highlighting the abuses of vanity presses like Author Solutions, the job falls to writers to warn each other. And you guys have been excellent at sharing and spreading my posts on the topic.

Unfortunately, we tend to reach more experienced writers – the ones less likely to fall for these scams. It’s the inexperienced authors that are targeted by companies like Author Solutions, and we have to come up with alternative ways to get the message to them.

The Alliance of Independent Authors is launching a book at BookExpoAmerica today called Choosing A Self-Publishing Service which is aimed at newer self-publishers who are confused about all the options they are being bombarded with.

Authors Jim Giammateo and Mick Rooney uses a very rigorous method to evaluate all author service companies – from reputable providers like Smashwords and KDP to the vanity end of the spectrum. You won’t be too surprised to hear that the scammy brands from Author Solutions – such as iUniverse, Trafford, AuthorHouse, and Xlibris – receive terrible marks.

Victoria Strauss from Writer Beware wrote the introduction, and I was happy to give them an article too. As the book was already going into great depth about the abuses of vanity presses like Author Solutions, I covered different ground this time – explaining why it’s hard to get sales moving unless you keep control of your books and avoid these exploitative self-publishing “services.”

I’ve excerpted that below so you can read it for yourself. And the next time you encounter a new self-publisher who is confused by all the different companies out there, and wants to read an objective, independent analysis of the various outfits, point them towards Choosing A Self-Publishing Service.

The Value of Control (by David Gaughran)

I’ve been self-publishing for three years and making a living from book sales for the last eighteen months—despite being a slow writer, working in less popular genres, and not coming from traditional publishing armed with a backlist ready to upload. What I did have in my favour was a lot of time on my hands. I was able to carefully analyse what the biggest sellers had done to increase their sales and then experiment with adapting those approaches to my own books. After three years of doing this, it’s clear that the key advantage of self-publishing is control.

If you self-publish, you get to pick yourself instead of waiting (forever) to be picked. You get to choose an appropriate cover for your book, not one foisted on you by a publisher anxious to move onto the next batch of titles. And you get to set a price that will encourage readers to take a chance on an unknown author, instead of being over-priced and ignored. Some of this you may know already, but control is also important in a much more fundamental way that won’t be obvious until you start self-publishing and trying to reach readers.


It’s obvious from talking to prospective self-publishers that marketing is the task that causes the most stress and trepidation. Of course, scammy operators know this. They prey on these fears by offering a series of magic bullets at exorbitant prices. And they don’t work. At all!

I can prove this too. Take the vanity press of your choice. Search for the publisher name on Amazon. Check the ranking of the book that comes up first (that should be the one selling best). See how poorly it’s doing?

Read the stories of successful self-publishers. Notice how none of them have used a vanity press. Notice how none of them recommend the kind of marketing being sold by the vanity presses (such as spamming millions of people who don’t care about your book or buying YouTube advertising packages). That should tell you something.

At this stage, I’ve tried almost everything in terms of marketing, and can draw clear lines between what’s effective and what isn’t when it comes to promoting books. And I think I can put your mind at ease. Out of all the marketing tools at your disposal, the ones that tend to take up too much time, cost a lot of money, or make you feel uncomfortable tend to be the least effective.

So what is effective? In proof of the ultimate serendipity of the universe, the tools that actually shift books in meaningful numbers won’t cost too much, eat into your writing time, or make you feel like a slimy huckster.

The stuff that is actually proven to work includes things like running a limited-time 99c sale, especially in conjunction with a reasonably priced ad on reputable reader site. Other powerful promotional tools don’t even cost anything, such as building a mailing list of readers that are genuinely interested in your work. Or making the first book in your series cheap or free. Or getting together with a group of authors in the same genre to cross-promote your books.

You can find plenty of information online about these marketing techniques but the important thing to note for now is that you will not be able to use them if you go with a vanity press, or other self-publishing service which doesn’t give you control of your book’s product page at the various retailers.

Losing Control

In the rest of this book, you will have been given innumerable reasons to avoid vanity presses like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, Balboa Press, Archway, Westbow, Abbot Press, and BookTango. I want to give you a few more reasons. When you sign up with a self-publishing “service” like this, you lose control in the following ways.

You won’t be able to directly control which category your book appears in on the various retailers. This is crucial for both discoverability and visibility. All of the retailers have a huge variety of virtual shelves which your book can appear on, and these can be quite granular. In a physical bookstore, books tend to be divided up into quite general categories like Self-Help, Romance, Science Fiction, and Thrillers. Online retailers like Amazon have much more specific categories like Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction or Political Thrillers. And they give you the ability to place each book on several such virtual shelves.

Getting on the right virtual shelf is incredibly important. You need your book to appear to readers who are interested in it. There is zero value in your epic Space Opera series appearing to readers searching for Inspirational Christian Romance. And the only way to ensure your book will appear on the right shelf on Amazon is by uploading directly to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). If you use a middleman service, there is a strong likelihood that you won’t get in the most appropriate granular sub-category for your book, and a reasonable chance you will get put in either a useless general category like Fiction or the wrong shelf altogether.

Many vanity presses don’t let you change your book’s price at all, and others charge a fee for any such price changes. Even when you can change price, it can take days or weeks to take effect. But when you are running a limited time sale you need to be able to change your price within hours, not days. The only way to control price in this manner is to upload directly to Amazon’s KDP.

All of the major e-book retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo) provide up-to-date sales figures in your account interface. This is crucial for measuring the effectiveness of any marketing. These near-live sales figures allow you to know what works and what doesn’t, and the results can often be counter-intuitive. For example, I learned that being interviewed in the Sunday Times shifts less books than taking out a $20 ad with a small reader site. It’s nice to appear in a newspaper, of course, but knowing the precise value of that exposure shows me what kind of attention I should actively pursue.

If you use a vanity press or self-publishing service to publish your books, you won’t have up-to-date sales figures at all. You will be flying blind, unable to measure the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. Without this data, you won’t be able to know what was a waste of time and money, and what’s worth trying again.

Keeping Control

There’s a simple way to keep control of all this stuff and give your book the best possible chance of success, and the best thing about it is it won’t cost you a penny. Uploading to Amazon is free, until the point that you make a sale. Uploading to Kobo is free. And instead of paying a fee or percentage to access those marketplaces, you will keep all your royalties.

Getting into Apple necessitates owning a Mac (and the process can be daunting) and there are many other retailers but you can have access to them by using a reputable distributor like Smashwords, BookBaby or Draft2Digital. These services don’t charge upfront fees and only take a small percentage of your royalties, at the point of sale.

Don’t fall for the vanity press propaganda. It’s not “easier” to pay a lump sum and have someone take care of all this for you; it will end up causing far more heartache in the end when they publish your book in a sub-standard way. Worst of all, you won’t be able to use the proven marketing techniques of successful self-publishers.

Your book deserves better. You deserve better. Keep your control.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

67 Replies to “Why Is The Media Ignoring Author Exploitation?”

  1. Oh dear. My heart bleeds when I read this. I wonder why I hadn’t found this at the first place.

    I signed up for Paltridge Singapore already and now I’m so afraid. I haven’t submitted my manuscript but I’ve paid them for two months now.

    I really don’t know what should I do.

  2. I have read that Author Solution has Mob/Mafia connections and even launders money for organized crime, that may be why the big news outlets never touch any negative thing about them despite all the evidence that they regularly commit fraud. As you said in one of your blogs they took the scam global, they are huge and yet they scam almost all their customers. I also read stuff about Xlibris hacking people who complained. At first I thought, as you might, that the person making this complaint was crazy, had schizophrenia or something Xlibris wouldn’t really be hacking them. Then I came upon more and more online complaints detailing the same thing. Xlibris going into their computers and deleting emails and files related to Xlibris of people who had made public complaints about them. There are criminals working for Xlibris and Author Solutions. There appears to be serious illegal activity going on with this huge multinational company that many many people are turning a blind eye to.

    1. The American media won’t cover anything that doesn’t fit their agenda. The problem lies with a small group of people the general public cares nothing about. I read similar comments online. The victims did not get together and plot to make up the stories. The accounts appear valid. Scam companies do hack personal computers to steal/tamper with evidence and steal unpublished material. The attacks include people who aren’t victims yet write negative comments on social media sites.

  3. Great info here, but it is kind of discouraging for indie authors like me. Trad publishing is a hornet’s nest and now self-publishing seems to be going that way as well. 🙁

  4. Marketing your book can be daunting…as you pointed out. It is sooo tempting to pay the lump sum and not worry about it, especially when you don’t know what you are doing. Then you find posts like this that gives you information on a few ways to go about it while explaining why the ‘lump sum – some one else’ option isn’t the best ,and you think that maybe it’s not that hard after all.

  5. Reblogged this on pennyspages and commented:
    David Gaughran has great insights on the indie publishing industry. Every time I read his articles I learn something new, and I am encouraged about the direction I am going with my publication and marketing goals.

  6. In an episode of “The Sopranos,” Mob boss Tony is pleading with another faction leader not to start a war because as long as no one’s getting killed in their “business,” people figure that the only victims are degenerate gamblers and no one cares about such people.

    I believe that’s the reason the Media ignores predatory practices like these: they consider the victims to be unworthy of their pity or coverage. They’re just suckers who should have gone through proper channels, and it’s their own fault they spent their life savings on vapor. This is further complicated by the fact that the Media itself has a similar “break-in” model to the traditional publishing industry, where reporters start small and work their way up, hoping they get assigned a good story that gets noticed. It seems probable to me that such people would look down on anyone they perceive as taking a shortcut when they’ve had to work so hard (or so their internal narrative informs them!).

    I think there’s a real lack of compassion in the media when it comes to self-publishers. Because they need people to buy into the idea that big media and its hooped ladder is the only appropriate avenue for publicizing ideas. That they are not, in fact, heartless corporations motivated by profit alone, but guardians of the public against low-quality work.

    I fully admit I’m making some assumptions, but the fact remains that newspapers, television networks and other old media platforms are astoundingly silent on this issue.

    1. As journalist who came up through the publishing ranks, I think you make a valid argument. That said, many self-published writers do themselves no favors by publishing books that are not ready for prime time, which has led to broad and scornful generalizations about all self-published works.

  7. My first four novels were originally published by Raider Publishing in New York at an average cost of £400 per book. Sale were almost zero. In August 2012 I went down the self published route. I now have 6 published books. I do my own editing, my own formatting, my own covers. I do my own publicity and promotion. Paperbacks are still poor sellers but I have sold 20000 ebooks. Okay so I’m not raking in millions, but I’m earning a reasonable sum. Be aware of any company that offers to self publish your works, at a cost, or to do a book cover for you, at an exorbitant amount; or offers to market your book “and just watch your sales zoom”. No one can guarantee a sale. I am more than happy to do everything myself. It costs me nothing, and I am in full control.

  8. Reblogged this on A.J. Sendall and commented:
    Penguin Random House owns the world’s largest vanity press – Author Solutions – which is currently subject to a class action for deceptive business practices, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violation of business statutes in California, New York, and Colorado.

  9. Great post, David. I’m going to include a link to Choosing a Self Publishing Service on my blog. Perhaps if we all did that the newbies amongst us might see and take note.

  10. PG has some nice commentary supplementing the topic here (via an article from The Atlantic), at : http://www.thepassivevoice.com/05/2014/how-the-amazon-hachette-fight-could-shape-the-future-of-ideas/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ThePassiveVoice+%28The+Passive+Voice%29

    And my own two cents is, the media ignores publishers’ author exploitation, for the same reason major distributors don’t say anything definitive about or for authors either, it’s simply not in their business interest.

    Personally, I get mixed up about whether to be pro or con “agency model” or anything else. Mark Coker on his Smashwords blog did a good job explaining it, but then when the term turns up in other discussions, I’m again at a loss why I can’t figure out if what’s being said is simply good for me, as an author.

    I’ve suggested, there and elsewhere, mostly tongue-in-cheek, we authors need another term, besides “agency model” and who knows what else, that simply denotes what’s best for an author, esp an indie writer.

    Any way, great post David. Keep us posted, literally 🙂

  11. I’ve recently announced a box set with 9 other others, and my sales doubled just after the announcement. The only explanation is the increased visibility to other author’s readers. I can’t wait to see what happens when we go live June 19th.

  12. Reblogged this on geraldineevansbooks and commented:
    AUTHORS BEWARE! With so many sharks circling in the writers’ waters, get wise and protect yourself in the David Gaughran shark-repellent! Forewarned is forearmed.

    Here’s what David has to say about Penguin / Author Solutions and the media’s strange reluctance to tackle the sharks, preferring instead to indulge in yet another Amazon-rant. If you want to wise up, read on.

  13. I thank God daily that I’m an old bird at this publishing lark. Like all newbies, I was a total innocent abroad when I started getting published back in the early nineties. And although the contracts of the trad publishers were (and are) rubbish from the author’s POV, at least they didn’t try to take you for every last farthing.

    David, you’re providing a tremendous service for the current crop of innocent newbies; long may you continue. Reblogging on geraldineevansbooks.com.

  14. Reblogged this on Polishing Your Prose and commented:
    I agree with David in principle and I, too, believe this is an important issue. I have espoused (and continue to espouse) similar thoughts. However, I object to the repeated and tiresome use of the term “the media,” which has become an over-used cliche often employed by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. This term has become just another stereotype for laying blame where no other target seems to be available, and it weakens one’s argument, IMHO.

  15. I agree with David in principle and I too believe this is an important issue. I have espoused (and continue to espouse) similar thoughts. However, I object to the repeated and tiresome use of the term “the media,” which has become an over-used cliche often employed by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk. This term has become just another stereotype for laying blame where no other target seems to be available, and it weakens one’s argument, IMHO.

    Someone please define “the media,” which is such a broad generalization that it now includes social media, as well specialty information sources. If it is supposed to mean the “news media,” i.e., organizations whose ostensible ‘raison d’être’ is disseminating news as opposed to social media or talk-radio rants, then please say so.

  16. Great post. I always share these on Facebook, etc., hoping to warn at least a couple of people.

    As for the question in the post title, at least part of the answer is that the publishing companies are owned by by same companies that own the big media outlets. Unbiased news from big media is a joke, especially where their own money is concerned.

  17. Shared and re-blogged at stacyclaflin.com, adding this comment: This is a very important issue for authors and inspiring authors.

  18. I’d be surprised if Author Solutions ever saw much in the way of bad press. They belong to Randy Penguin, which means they belong to Pearson (who still owns ‘the Economist’ I believe) and Bertelsmann, the multinational mass media conglomerate. Bertelsmann owns the RTL group, which is one of the biggest media concerns on this planet.
    It’s chilling to read about Bertelsmann’s activities during the late thirties and early forties. If they kept their slave labor history quiet for so long, keeping a scammy vanity press under wraps should be no biggie.

  19. Hi David. It’s Roger Radford here in London. I am a freelance journalist, as well as a self-published thriller writer. I have just worked on a major health story for the Sunday Times. Sometimes it’s a question of who you know when it comes to getting something in the media. I know you’re in Prague at present. My colleague is a senior reporter at the Times, and he’s interested in what you have to say. If we can find a fresh angle, I’m sure we can get something published. Will you be visiting London soon? Please contact me at radford46@ntlworld.com and we’ll see what can be done. Best regards as always, Roger Radford. http://www.rogerradford.com
    Ps. Remember, when it comes to the media, the angle is the thing, and timing helps too.

  20. Great post, David. In the short time I’ve been looking into some of these scams by companies like ASI, I’ve been amazed at the number of authors who fall victim to their spiels. One thing to remember, fellow writers, if anyone is promising you anything, beware. If any company tells you they can generate sales for you, beware. And if you catch even a whiff of a ‘hard sell’ — beware.

    My best advice is before you do anything, ask questions of people in the business who know. The folks at ALLi are fantastic, and they share their experience and knowledge.

  21. This is spectacular! Thank you for sharing the excerpt, most especially. I am a non-published (novel) author playing the query game, and the more I read and gather information about the archaic nature of the publishing world, the more I contemplate going the self-pub route, if nothing else but to have control from creative to legal. Cheers!

  22. Nice one David – the Publishing game aint what it used to be and I feel for the wannabe authors being devoured by these charlatans

  23. Good effort David – I think it’s fantastic the way you’ve championed this struggle against Author Solutions. When you first started talking about their shady practises I Googled them and found only (dubious) praise, marketing sites, and fake review sites designed to funnel business to them. Now, the top results for AS are all about scam warnings and law-suits… and I’ve a strong feeling you’ve played a major role in this change of fortunes! Good effort mate, I reckon your reportage has saved tens of thousands of dollars for indie and wannabe authors who can scarce afford to lose it.

  24. Getting a book out there is a very smart way to attack this issue! Bravo. (I try to do my part by having the very first section of my Indie Author Survival Guide all about “How To Not Get Eaten By Sharks” – I quote and link to you heavily in there, David!)

    1. Thanks Susan, I’ll be returning the favor in the 2nd ed. of Digital. One thing that has improved hugely in last three years: the amount of resources available to prospective self-publishers. The bottleneck right now is getting them to start looking for the right stuff. After all, surely that cuddly Penguin wouldn’t be up to no good…

      1. Wow, thanks for the shout out in Digital!

        Yes, it’s really hard to convince people sometimes that Simon&Schuster’s selfpub arm isn’t actually awesome (their first thought). I had an exchange with another writer who was recommending S&S’s vanity press to uninformed/new indie writers… it took several links and choice quotes, but eventually she figured it out and became “disillusioned” with S&S (her words). But at least she stopped recommending them to others.

        Gotta have each other’s backs on this – which you do an exceptional job of, David!

  25. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is a very important subject and one all authors should get behind. Please re-blog if you have authors among your followers.

  26. This is only a rumor, but I’ve been hearing it for the last few years. I have had reports that some of the stalker trolls who attack indie authors are employed by Penguin to try and drive promising new authors to traditional publishing.

    1. I’ve considered that as a possible theory for a long time. I can’t understand why a reader or a writer would attack an author on the Amazon forums (for example). It makes no sense to me. There’s no motivation for it. Readers like books, so generally they want more of those. Attacking the provider is counter-productive to what they want. Writers generally like other writers, and they tend to like helping people or entertaining people. Writers like to give something, either enlightenment or happiness to other people. That’s why they write. It’s part of their psychology.

      Only people who want money are motivated to attack authors. To do that, you need to not care about books at all really. You just want your product to sell more. It’s all about profit rather than readers or writers.

      I’m sure some writers and some readers have trolled because they’ve been bullied at some point, but I suspect that unfair harassment caused them to be defensive. I’ve met many authors who seem snarky. Then I find out that they were harassed and they’re now just being defensive. It’s like a vicious circle. Some authors are so paranoid now that they spend their lives doing background checks. That’s something that was done to them. It’s like a form of psychological warfare. They don’t feel safe anywhere.

      Then there’s Wattpad. Wattpad has no trolls, barring a couple of kids who like to be silly, but they’re light and fluffy compared to what you’ll encounter in places like Goodreads or the Amazon forums. They have no agenda but silliness.

      It’s impossible to make a profit from Wattpad (the readers there don’t buy books as a general rule). So there are no trolls in a place where there is no money, but there are thousands of readers and writers there. who don’t try to hurt each other on a daily basis. I find that quite unique, and it does make me wonder about who the trolls in the other writer forums really are. One thing is certain, the only reason for a troll to exist, regardless of what they say, is money.

      I worry that one day Wattpad will also be invaded by trolls, but I think as long as you can’t make money there, it will be safe. If they monetize Wattpad, I don’t think it will stay nice for very long. I hope they never do.

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