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.