The Combined Book Exhibit Scam

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.

Combined Book Exhibit

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.

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.

Combined Book Exhibit

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.

Combined Book Exhibit

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.

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.