How Jessica Mitford Took Down A $48m Author Scam

She took on the American funeral industry, the California Department of Corrections, and the Ku Klux Klan, but it was Jessica Mitford’s 1970 exposé of The Famous Writers School which led to Time calling her “The Queen of the Muckrakers.” And if a courageous editor hadn’t reversed his decision to kill her story, it might never have happened.

Jessica Mitford had been aware of The Famous Writers School’s existence for some time. Anyone who was a frequent reader of newspapers, books or magazines would have seen its ever-present advertisements, inviting aspiring writers to cut out and apply for the free aptitude test. While Mitford was suspicious, she didn’t have anything concrete until her lawyer husband took on a new client.

Bob Treuhaft was approached by a 72-year old widow, living on Social Security, who had cleaned out her bank account to make a down-payment to The Famous Writers School. On the same day Mitford heard the widow’s sorry tale from her husband, she received a book in the mail for review: Writing Rackets by Robert Byrne, which also mentioned the school.

Jessica Mitford had lunch with Bill Abrahams not long afterwards – then the West Coast editor of The Atlantic. She shared tales from Byrne’s book on literary frauds and the story of the cheated widow, and Abrahams asked her to write a short piece for The Atlantic covering both.

The following day Abrahams called to say that the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, Robert Manning, had decided not to run the piece after all. While Manning agreed that the bold claims made in The Famous Writers School’s advertising were “probably unethical,” he pointed out that The Atlantic had made “many thousands of dollars” from those self-same ads and felt it would be equally unethical to run a piece criticizing the school.

Jessica Mitford was aghast and asked Abrahams if he would kill a piece on lung cancer on the grounds that The Atlantic took ads from tobacco companies. He accepted her point and said that he would try again with Manning, and that if anything changed he would get in touch.

A week later, Mitford had no further response from The Atlantic but now had the bit between her teeth. She queried the articles editor at McCall’s who was extremely enthusiastic and wanted a full investigation of The Famous Writers School, commissioning a 7,000 word piece. Mitford was delighted and threw herself into exhaustive research.

The Famous Writers School

Jessica Mitford soon realized that the well-known faces attached to The Famous Writers School’s advertisements played a very different role than suggested. She knew she was going up against some powerful individuals – some of the leading lights of America’s literary establishment.

The Guiding Faculty of The Famous Writers School consisted of people like Paul Engle (long-time director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame), mystery writer Mignon Eberhart, Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Catton, and romance author Faith Baldwin. Day-to-day operations were managed by Gordon Carroll (Reader’s Digest editor) and John Lawrence (former president of William Morrow publishers).

The biggest name of all was the man Mitford would later describe as “the ringleader” – Bennett Cerf, founder and president of Random House, and household name in America since his long-running stint on What’s My Line?

Knowing that Cerf could cause her problems, Mitford decided to interview him last.

jessica mitford bennet cerf faith baldwin rod serling famous writers school

How The Scam Worked

Jessica Mitford investigated how The Famous Writers School attracted students – focusing on those ubiquitous advertisements featuring the Guiding Faculty. Along with Baldwin, Eberhart, Serling, Catton, Engle, and Cerf, there was also John Caples, Bergen Evans, Clifton Fadiman, Rudolf Flesch, Phyllis McGinley, JD Ratcliff, Max Shulman, Red Smith, and Mark Wiseman – all noted writers in their fields.

The ads promised a free aptitude test which would “help you find out whether you can be trained to become a successful writer” and gave the impression that the Guiding Faculty would actually grade your test. The promotional materials also led potential students to believe that Cerf and his famous friends would act as their tutors and mentors throughout the course, and greatly exaggerated the market for freelance authors as well as the likely financial outcomes for students. Nowhere in the ads was the cost of the course mentioned.

After talking to various members of the Guiding Faculty, Mitford confirmed that they had nothing to do with either grading the aptitude tests or tutoring students. When Mitford presented Faith Baldwin with an ad which claimed the opposite, she responded with:

Oh, that’s just one of those things about advertising. Anyone with common sense would know that the fifteen of us are much too busy to read the manuscripts the students send in.

Jessica Mitford asked Mark Wiseman about why the ads claimed the market for freelance writers was in rude health when the opposite was true. He said:

That’s just a fault of our civilization. You have to over-persuade people, make it all look optimistic, not mention obstacles and hurdles.

Paul Engle was even more forthcoming about the actual role of the Guiding Faculty:

I only go there once in a great while. There’s a distinction between the Guiding Faculty, which doesn’t do very much, and the teaching faculty, which actually works with the students.

What the Guiding Faculty did do was provide some of the teaching materials used in the course. But it’s clear their main role was to make the course sound more attractive to potential students. In return, the faculty members received substantial stock holdings and a 1.6% cut of the school’s annual gross revenue.

Both these forms of compensation turned out to be extremely lucrative for the Guiding Faculty. Revenues for the school (together with its parent organization the Famous Artists School) rose from $7m in 1960 to $48m in 1969, while the stock improved from 5 to 40 over the same period.

The school was able to generate such staggering revenue (approximately $310m in today’s money) because of the huge enrollment numbers and the absurd price of the courses. 65,000 students were enrolled in 1970, including nearly 2,000 veterans via the GI Bill. The cost of the course – only revealed when a salesman came to your home to close the deal – was $785. That was a considerable sum in those days so most students went for the payment plan, pushing the cost up to $900 (approximately $5,800 in 2014 dollars). Mitford estimated this as roughly twenty times the cost of similar correspondence courses offered by universities at the time.

Jessica Mitford also established that the school was taking on students which had no place being on a professional writer’s training course: non-native English speakers with a poor command of their adopted tongue, those with no flair for language or composition, the barely literate, the penniless. The pass rate for those taking the free aptitude test – 90% – was so high because the bar was set ridiculously low.

Robert Byrne, the author of Writing Rackets, submitted an aptitude test under an invented name with deliberately mangled prose; the applicant was accepted in glowing terms. And when Mitford’s husband asked his widow client to write out an account of her experiences with the school, it was “garbled” and “semiliterate” – very far away from the level of someone suitable for such a course. Nevertheless, the widow was also deemed to have passed the aptitude test “with flying colors” by The Famous Writers School.

After being presented with complaints about the high-pressure sales tactics, The Famous Writers School said that its salesmen were carefully screened, that they received rigorous training in ethical salesmanship, and that every effort was made to ensure that their presentation of the course was both accurate and truthful.

But Jessica Mitford was never one to take such claims at face value and secretly arranged to witness one such salesman closing the deal in her neighbor’s living room. The salesman told a series of outrageous lies regarding the school. He said the Guiding Faculty spent a lot of time at the school grading assignments and mentoring the other teaching staff, that one of the faculty would personally review her assignments, and that the staff-pupil ratio was uniquely favorable – 300 instructors for 3,000 students – when in fact there were 55 instructors for 65,000 students (and 800 salesmen). He then disingenuously dangled the possibility of a publishing contract and made false claims about the success of graduating students.

The dropout rate for these courses was extremely high. Through looking at the company’s books and running the numbers, Mitford estimated that only a tenth of students completed the course. However, not all of this was down to unethical salesmen targeting the unsuitable.

Jessica Mitford spoke with a whole range of competent students who had enrolled and dropped out, with many citing the poor quality of both the course materials and the feedback given on assignments – particularly that a different person graded each piece of coursework. Those who attempted to get out of their contract without paying the remaining installments were threatened with legal action, but otherwise The Famous Writers School seemed unconcerned at the high dropout rate.

Indeed, Phyllis McGinley, a famous poet who was one of the Guiding Faculty, admitted to Mitford:

We couldn’t make any money if all the students finished.

jessica mitford bennet cerf faith baldwin rod serling famous writers school

Bennett Cerf’s “Appeal to the Gullible”

Now that Jessica Mitford had established exactly how the scam operated, it was time for the final interview. She met Bennett Cerf in his “wonderfully posh” office at Random House, where he remained president of the company he started despite selling his stake to RCA. Cerf explained how he helped found the school and put together the Guiding Faculty.

We approached representative writers, the best we could get in each field… The idea was to give the school some prestige.

He admitted that he did no teaching, wasn’t involved in recruiting the teaching staff or establishing standards, and didn’t supervise the school’s operations.

I know nothing about the business and selling end and I care less.

Cerf refused to disclose what compensation he received from the school, but described it as “quite generous.” When confronted with the inaccurate claims made in the advertisements bearing his name, Cerf said:

I think mail-order selling has several built-in deficiencies. The crux of it is a very hard sales pitch, an appeal to the gullible.

When Mitford asked him how many books by Famous Writers School students that Random House had published, Cerf replied:

Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg – no person of any sophistication, whose book we’d publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write.

With Cerf interviewed, Mitford’s research was complete and she submitted the final piece to the articles editor at McCall’s. But the tale didn’t end there.

jessica mitford bennet cerf faith baldwin rod serling famous writers school

Killing The Jessica Mitford Story

On reading the contents and seeing the famous names mentioned therein, the editor-in-chief of McCall’s balked and refused to run the story, wary of angering Random House and Bennett Cerf, and conscious of their advertising relationship with both the prestigious publisher and The Famous Writers School itself.

Later on, Jessica Mitford discovered that Bennett Cerf exerted direct pressure on McCall’s to kill the story, despite his explicit promises to the contrary when interviewed. But Mitford knew none of this at the time, all the editor-in-chief of McCall’s told her was, “I don’t think it’s very good.”

Despite her ostensible opinion of the piece, she paid Mitford’s research expenses and the full agreed-upon fee for publication, instead of the kill fee that was standard in such situations.

Two years later, that McCall’s editor admitted the truth to More magazine.

I did not want to offend Bennett Cerf at a time when McCall’s was trying to improve the caliber of its fiction.

Jessica Mitford was undeterred by McCall’s rejection (and pay-off). In fact, she was furious, more determined than ever to get her exposé published. She queried Life Magazine – who were extremely keen and promised that it would be a major story, with photographers deployed to take pictures of the school. But the piece was killed when Life’s advertising manager revealed that he had just agreed a $500,000 ad campaign with The Famous Writers School to cover the next six months.

It seemed like Mitford’s investigation would never see the light of day, until Bill Abrahams at The Atlantic said that Robert Manning had a change of heart: he had cancelled The Atlantic’s advertising contract with The Famous Writers School and wanted to run the story. True to his word, Manning published it as the cover story in the July 1970 edition, under the title Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers.

The article is a classic piece of investigative journalism, a complete dissection of how the scam worked as well as a delicate filleting of the famous faces profiting from this misery.

But even the most optimistic reporter couldn’t have predicted what happened next.

The Aftermath

In her wonderful book Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking, Jessica Mitford explains that she had written articles on controversial topics for The Atlantic before, but even a piece like her coverage of The Dr. Spock Trial or the secret medical tests being conducted on Californian prisoners only generated “six to ten letters a piece” from readers.

Even before the July 1970 issue hit newsstands, The Atlantic had received an unprecedented fifty letters from subscribers who were privy to early copies of the magazine. After the issue went on sale, a further three hundred readers wrote in to share their experiences with The Famous Writers School.

Jessica Mitford had touched a nerve. Robert Manning told her that this issue had the largest newsstand sale of any in the The Atlantic’s history. Her article was subsequently picked up by the Des Moines Register and the Washington Post, and Mitford herself was invited onto The Dick Cavett Show to talk about the famous names involved with this scam.

As law suits from Attorneys General in several states were being prepared against The Famous Writers School, Congressman Laurence J. Burton of Utah read a copy of Mitford’s piece into the Congressional Record.

In his introductory remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives, Burton said the following:

I have written to both the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Deceptive Practices, and the Veterans’ Administration, registering my concern, and requesting that they provide reports on the activities of the Famous Writers School. […]

High-pressure tactics and misleading information should not be used to gain enrollments for a course which would not attract enrollees on its merits. I believe the people of this country are entitled to protection from such unfair practices.

All this negative publicity had a profound effect on the fortunes of The Famous Writers School. Its stock plummeted from 35 to 5 before trading was suspended in May 1971, and the operation formally went bankrupt at the start of 1972 – a few months after the death of Bennett Cerf.

You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty. – Jessica Mitford. Image: Open Media Ltd. via Wikipedia CC-ASA.
“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” – Jessica Mitford. Image: Open Media Ltd. via Wikipedia CC-ASA.

Jessica Mitford’s Temporary Success

Mitford later called it “one of the clear-cut successes however temporary in my muckraking career. She felt the qualification “temporary” necessary because The Famous Writers School reappeared a few years later. In fact, it’s still in existence, although it has never quite operated on the same staggering, and lucrative, scale.

The spiritual successor to The Famous Writers School is another matter. Author Solutions is undergoing a massive international expansion under its owners – Penguin Random House. And there appears to be no one in today’s media with the courage of Jessica Mitford and her editors at The Atlantic willing to investigate its operations.

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.

160 Replies to “How Jessica Mitford Took Down A $48m Author Scam”

  1. Phyllis was my grandmother — I asked my mom about this and she said Phyllis felt absolutely horrible when she found out. but still, yes, heartbreaking

    1. Phyllis was my grandmother — I asked my mom about this and she said Phyllis felt absolutely horrible when she found out. but still, yes, heartbreaking

  2. Bravo to you on this post and WordPress for flagging this as Freshly Pressed. There are a lot of writing scams publicized in all manner of print (dubious poetry ‘competitions’, etc.) and I’m glad that attention is being given to the subject, happier even to find out that they’re being exposed for the scams that they are.

  3. What a great story. Money really can be a cancer of morals. I only became aware of Author Solutions when I read Lets Get Digital recently. At one point I was thinking of approaching one or two of the online publishers…. scary thought…

  4. Reblogged this on Bojenn and commented:
    “We couldn’t make any money if all the students finished.”

    Bennett Cerf’s “Appeal to the Gullible”

  5. What i want to know is, if Random house get negative press? Or Random house president at the time (cerf) lent his name to attract people to the school and the publishing house lefy untarnished…Nice piece, it’s what people won’t discuss about writing.

  6. Who wouldn’t want to be one of The Famous Writers? I did, and as a kid I took the test. Even then I thought it was a little too good to be true, and when I saw there was a cost, I backed off. And went to journalism school. We need courageous writers like Jessica Mitford.

  7. Reblogged this on Ketchastar and commented:
    Greed and the Greedy….plain, simplified and most defiantly guilty. . .of course we can change this world with understanding of the few Malcontented individuals for all display of guilt . . .exposed.

  8. Skepticism can be our savor! When it sounds “To good to be true, than it’s probably NOT!” Always listen to your gut instint, it’s like a mother who can feel like “something bad” is about to happen to their child & then intercepts the situation! It’s natures safety net! Great historical post! Very intetesting read, one that i will share with my two boys who love to write!

  9. Interesting. I know of some scammy practices in the writing field but I hadn’t heard of this one, or its progenitors. Thank you for your coverage of this. Gives me another sort of operation to label as ‘sketchy’ – but then anything that makes wide boasts usually is pretty sketch. In any case, it’s always good to know more specific examples.

  10. I really admire the investigative tenacity of Jessica Mitford. I also want to congratulate David for his great post about the scam.

    I used to be a long-time subscriber to Writers Digest which always featured the ubiquitous ad of Famous Writers School. I also filled up the aptitude test form and got a passing grade with flying colors.

    Fortunately, I didn’t have the dollars to pay for the course. Instead,
    I had to read the Writers Digest and every book on writing I could get my hands on.

    I chose to specialize in agricultural journalism because I felt that will be most helpful to my countrymen who are in farming. I am now the Agriculture Editor of a daily newspaper that is 114 years old where I have a section twice a week. I also have an Agri-Talk column in the Sunday magazine of the newspaper that has been running for 23 years.

    I also edit a monthly Agriculture Magazine published by the Manila Bulletin which is the most widely circulated magazine of its kind in the country. My agri articles also appear regularly the the four vernacular magazines published by Manila Bulletin. People who might want to visit my blog should log on to:

    Thanks again, David, for your great post.

  11. To all who participated in getting the story published congratulations. I’m sure they’re not so naïve that I don’t understand that some made money in the process nor do I resent this especially on back of those who took the risks required to make the story public knowledge. It is possible there are still ethics American business. My hope for 2015 is that honesty will be trending!

  12. I was never aware of this scam. But it seems that nowadays there is a very similar strategy, facilitated by the Internet. This is what I have learned from this year’s International Festival of Authors, where many of them offered their own classes and help to the amateur writers. But it was impossible, exactly for the same reason cited in the article – they could not possibly have enough time to just read the pieces they receive. So even this old exposure of the problem of someone profiting from their fame. I can just hope that people are more aware nowadays, thanks to blogs and information from the internet, and don’t fall for this strategy too often.

  13. Really enjoyed this – I had never heard of this story before, so thank you for bringing it back to the forefront (at least on WordPress and now Freshly Pressed). Your writing has that ‘investigative reporting’ feel to it, great read.

  14. Thanks for your curative effort. Yes, i agree with you that we need someone of great courage as Jessica’s. I can relate to this. I am an aspiring author and in last one year i have come across many known big names iin publishing that are resorting to encash this virgin market of freelance writers and aspirants like me looking forward to mget published. They have mega call centres established in third world countries. Thanks to internet and low cost international calling solutions, they can approach the gullibles. Prominses are big, sales pitches are high. There are many gullibles like me waiting for the bait and cant resisit. I resisted though. But, there is no Jessica to stop them

  15. Dammit (or is it damnit?)–should have google first before opening my mouth. As you already knew, “in rude health” is a good thing. A huge mystery to me, and yes, the first time I’ve heard of it in 59 years of readin’ and writin’, but it’s a real phrase. Sorry about that.

  16. I tried to comment earlier but your post suddenly disappeared; maybe it was trying to tell me something. Anyway, great post, and so odd that so many of our “beloved” icons of literature were involved in this scam.
    I usually consider it “trollish” behavior to correct someone’s post, so I’m saying that the line is okay and I’m just interpreting it wrong. Is the line:
    “Mitford asked Mark Wiseman about why the ads claimed the market for freelance writers was in rude health when the opposite was true” correct? Or should it say “in good health?” I’ve never heard the phrase “in rude health” before. But then, I don’t get out much.

  17. Holy Crap… you mean it was just a big scam? So that is why after I sent in $875 and a sample blog post for my blog way back in 1968, I never heard back from them. I am still hoping the picture of the parrot I drew as a pirate was not also a scam… That one was only $650 to become an artist. Great Job, and congrats on being freshly scammed.. I mean freshly pressed.

  18. Also, I’m amazed that Corf and the rest of them actually talked about how the school was a scammy piece of shit. If I were Bennett Corf’s lawyer, I’d be telling him to close his dumbass mouth from now on and keep it shut until such time as I give him permission to talk.

  19. Damn it. I still like the Twilight Zone, and Rod Serling… can I just pretend he didn’t know what was going on somehow?

    As a couple of people have already mentioned, I would think the internet pretty much has destroyed the potential of ripoff programs like this one for how easy it makes doing your due diligence. But if they still exist, maybe that’s not the case.

  20. Fantastic article. Really makes me wonder about those “aptitude tests” for Writer’s Digest School and others. I’ve often wondered how many people pass those tets “with flying colors” and end up signing up.

  21. I still see online advertisements promoting how to be an author. The cost is revealed after clicking through several promotional programs, and finally the cost is revealed in excess of $700.00 for 6 weeks.

    The local colleges in Florida provides creative writing, Journalism and english major programs with far better networking connections and freelance opportunities,

    Currently there are free online classes offered by Massive Online College Courses that can be to an aspiring writer who wants to explore the idea of writing.

    However, since most aspiring writers fail to focus on the content of the classes offered, and compare it against another writing program, which is similar to research and investigative thought and decision making.
    There will always be those who are willing to provide writing courses at a cost the consumer is willing to pay.

  22. Great piece of journalism about another great journalist. I read The American Way of Death at a formative age and it set the standard for me of what investigative journalism could do. It’s hard for me to understand why prospective authors still fall for this kind of thing in the age of the Internet, but in fact I know two people who have used ‘publishing advisors’ (or whatever the current phrase is), none of whom seem to understand how to correct typos or even lay out a book (e.g. page numbers and book title on ALL the forematter as well as the main content). Perhaps as self-publishing becomes more prevalent, and good advice even easier to find on the Net, companies like Author Solutions will fall by the wayside. One can only hope.

  23. Bravo! This is one of the finest blog posts I’ve read. I truly don’t have much time at all in my schedule, and I read maybe the first sentence or two of any blog post before clicking the “Back” button.

    This post, and its story within, captivated me. And I am not easily captivated. I read the entire post, quite a stunning feat for me.

    Again, bravo to you, and brava to Mrs. Mitford for, among many virtues, persistence and truth-seeking.

  24. David,

    This is a great post, Jessica Mitford’s expose. I love your post or is it your blog? Regardless, your writing stops me from writing; It’s various and most interesting. I’m a newbie to the art of writing and self-publishing.

    I owned a construction business for 40 years, retired to write, something I’ve always wanted to do but this self-publishing business has turned out to be what I retired from, a full time business.

    I have just self published my first novel of a trilogy, about an Irish family in Memphis, “A Chasing After The Wind” (Amazon). I’ve finished the sequel, and I’m working on the trilogy. But between all the media of blogging, tweeting, websites, etc., I’m overwhelmed.

    I noticed your post about Ms. Mitford was in a blog that I subscribe to, David’s “The Passive Voice” and I wasn’t sure of the process of using someone’s post in your own blog. My questions is, “Could I use your post in my blog with your permission and of course your name with the post? Is this a common practice or am I way out of line?

    My blog is just starting out and it is in my website, (if you have time to look I would appreciate any feedback) but may need to be a stand-alone site?

    Thank you,

    Jim Carson~

  25. Besides the obvious benefit of exposing a horrific scam, this piece also shows the hardships of a writer trying to publish – even an excellent one – and how editors, etc. will say what they must (true or untrue) about the material presented to them. It is a curious, and not all together ethical, field in which we choose to work.

  26. I was fortunate to take a mail-order writing course from the Institute for Children’s Literature in Redding Ridge, Connecticut. I had a competent and well-published author working with me and grading my assignments — pointing out discrepancies and highlighting the best of my work. Their promise at the time was to work with me until I was successful in getting an article published in a children’s magazine, and that is exactly what they did. I highly recommend them to anyone who is looking for that kind of mentoring relationship with a writer. (I remember that I thought it was expensive – $500 in 1975 – money I didn’t have because I was at home caring for a baby while my husband worked. But one night he went out drinking and ended up in jail, which cost us a $500 fine. I decided if he could spend $500 on that, then I deserved to spend $500 on a writing course. So glad I did. Still writing and loving it!)

    1. You’re lucky in your experience. In my experience, I took the course in the early-mid 90s. My “guide” did nothing but criticize without offering suggestions on improvement or anything constructive. The names of some characters were termed too similar & confusing, although it was nothing different than what Beatrix Potter had used, leading me to doubt my instructor’s credentials, and an article on an animal was termed an infomercial without any thoughts on improvement. I gave up and stopped submitting, and no-one from the “Institute” ever tried to contact me as to why. Once they had my tuition in full, what did they care if I continued. I consider them to be a scam.

  27. I actually -own- a complete copy of the Famous Writer’s School curriculum … picked up at an estate sale for $10. I grabbed it years ago when I was contemplating writing fiction and, believe it or not, I found the exercises to be useful at a rudimentary level, for example, akin to those entry-level college writing classes, what would probably be ‘Communication Skills’ plus ‘Creative Writing 101.’ For $10 I was quite pleased with my investment, and even more pleased with the notebook which came with the gently-used course with the prior owner’s usually neatly hand-written or hand-typed assignments, all painstakingly corrected, and the red-ink feedback notes which were mailed back from the Famous Writer’s School instructor, all good, sound feedback about rudimentary advice such as using shorter sentences, being clearer about your writing goals, and other advice you would usually find in a sound entry-level college-level writing class. Most of the assignments were everyday examples of writing, business letters, short pieces of prose, short stories you might submit to a magazine or newspaper op-ed piece. Towards the end of the course it begins to talk about plotting out an entire novel and, once again, the advice is rudimentary but sound, the kinds of things you might find in a college Creative Writing 102 class.

    Alas, around Book 3 of 4 the writing assignments for my previous owner petered out and then stopped, so I assume she is one of those dropout statistics, though she seemed determined to try to slog through it and her writing -did- improve. I often wonder whether my prior owner ever got a book or story published, but I googled her and came up empty so I suppose not.

    Back then, very few people went to college, and the course textbooks + instruction would have helped an average, middle-class, non-college person become a better writer and communicator for everyday use. I suppose that is why the sales-pitch worked so well. It held out the hope of an ‘upper class’ education at a time when colleges were still not friendly places for adult learners who had been unable to afford college at age 19 and now, tied down with kids and jobs, had no place to go to learn. It wasn’t like back then you could just go take a couple of adult-ed night classes at the local community college. It’s too bad they got greedy and turned it into a scam. If they’d just marketed it for a fair price for what it really was, it would have helped a lot of people become better communicators without fleecing them of their life savings using the ‘Author Solutions’ scam of promising the buyer/student would become the next Ernest Hemingway.

  28. Excellent piece, David. I shall await the court case with interest. Curious to see if the media make any mention of the result or if a discreet veil is drawn over it. Shared.

  29. No, not the founder of Random House! Or famous writers!

    The internet has transformed this kind of nonsense for anyone with basic google-fu. It’s given us the ability to spread information on unethical scams like this without fearful and unprincipled advertising managers blocking the way.

  30. “And there appears to be no one in today’s media with the courage of Jessica Mitford, and her editors at The Atlantic, willing to investigate its operations.”

    Nonsense. Victoria Strauss and the late Ann C. Crispin were the forces behind “Writer Beware” and spent years exposing writing scams which prey on wannabe writers (and those who should know better.) Victoria is still at it. Their work has resulted in convictions and many threats of suit. Funny, but no action against them has been successful.

    1. David is talking about journalists and major media outlets. Writer Beware is a site for writers, if they find it. That’s quite different from putting a piece out into the mainstream consciousness where everyone will eventually hear about it.

      And once again, there are managers standing in the way. Advertising dollars, plus the way the Big X are intermingled with the big media conglomerates, puts their interests elsewhere.

    2. Hi Christine, I’m well aware of the fine work of Victoria, Ann, and Writer Beware. I was referring to the media – either mainstream publications like The Guardian, the Washington Post, and The New York Times or trade publications like Publishers Weekly or The Bookseller.

  31. Snake-Oil is one of the few rare products that does absolutely nothing but make money for the seller. Each time it appears in new packaging, there is not shortage of buyers. Thanks David, for the history lesson and reminder to keep our eyes OPEN! Shared everywhere!

  32. “Oh, come on, you must be pulling my leg – no person of any sophistication, whose book we’d publish, would have to take a mail-order course to learn how to write.”

    Different times, same prevailing attitude, if you consider Penguin Random House’s “gateway” service aka Author Solutions with its ludicrous pricing and absurd packages.

  33. Great piece! I well remember those advertisements when I was a child. We can only hope that Author Solutions will encounter its own Mitford. And kudos to you for continuing to shine a light on the murky doings of AS.

  34. Interesting, all the way to the end when you mentioned AS, I kept thinking “Ah, he’s making an analogy to XXXX” (insert various expert gurus selling high-priced webinar courses backed by super famous writers). And now they have high pressure working 24/7 via automated sales mails.

  35. Hats off to you, David, for leading the fight to shine a light on Author Solutions’ business practices. And great to be reminded of this history and role of courage in making change.

  36. David, great story telling. I remember seeing a direct mail advertisement on my Dad’s desk about them. They followed the model of the company (forget the name) that has a “drawing test” to see if you could be an artist.

    Glad to see that scam shut down, and hopefully, Author Solutions will follow suit.

    1. There were probably several such artist/cartooning schools, but one I think still in existence in Minneapolis, “Art Instruction, Inc.,” did that sort of advertising. Charles Schulz (of Peanuts, Charlie Brown, and Snoopy fame) took their course and worked there for several years afterward “grading papers” (he was originally from the Twin Cities) until he was making enough money to quit and go out on his own cartooning skills. He spoke highly of the school, though many considered it a scam. I’m no artist, so I have no opinion.

  37. Love it when we can learn from the past – very interesting post David. Thanks for digging out Mitford’s story – Maybe this time the court procedings can stop the past from repeating itself.

  38. I LOVE knowing about this scam and Mitford’s work. I was unaware of all this (I was in high school in 1970) and never tried to use any of these “schools,” myself, but they remind me of the “Are you a 98-lb. weakling?” ads in the backs of comics promising scrawny boys a chance to become “Mr. Universe.” So sad.

    Yeah, investigative journalism, and yeah, Jessica Mitford for persevering. We need more like her NOW, don’t we?

  39. Excellent, thank you! I read Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” when young and it impressed me strongly. There always have been operations which basely benefit from people’s emotions, those of writers included. As for any once-and-again association of my former publisher Random House with plans to help writers, should I be surprised?

    1. Rachel, this part of scam history just proves again that ‘money talks’. Newspapers and magazines have to make profit, and advertising is an important part of revenue for them. That’s where profit thinking prevails over ethical thinking. It’s a weak point of the system that the Writers School used as an instrument to keep their scam system alive for so many years. Fortunately there are people in this world who value ethics higher than money, and always will. It’s an ongoing battle, and all we can do is to stand up for our believe and remain strong.

  40. Poison Penmanship is an awesome memoir and a valuable book. I read it in college thirty years ago as part of curriculum and I still have my copy, it’s one of those books that’s worthwhile rereading every now and then.

    As someone who survived not only iUniverse (I was with them before AS bought them, and the before/after is staggeringly different!) but also the Writer’s Digest school, you’d think having read PP that I would have known better or seen it coming, and I still didn’t. Never hurts to be too vigilant or skeptical.

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