The Real Scandal At LA Times Festival of Books Isn’t Amazon

The trade press whipped up a storm on Wednesday when Publishers Weekly brought news of a deal between Amazon and the LA Times Festival of Books, resulting in calls for the publishing community to boycott the event. But Publishers Weekly is ignoring the real scandal.

This post is from 8 March 2014. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links, but it’s important to preserve these older posts on author exploitation. Comments remain open.

Amazon isn’t listed as a sponsor or scheduled to appear. The “deal” in question pertains to the LA Times Festival of Books signing up as an Amazon affiliate so they can earn a percentage from sales made through their website. Mary Williams, of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, complained that sales will be “siphoned away” by Amazon.

I’m not so sure that charge sticks. Either someone at the event buys the book in front of them or they don’t. I can’t see how the festival website being an Amazon affiliate changes that. If readers are going to spot a book, then check the price on Amazon (or wherever) to see if they can get a better deal, they would do that whether the website had affiliate links to Amazon or not.

Many independent booksellers have complained that the organizers should have partnered with IndieBound instead. That’s a better point, but perhaps the organizers had a valid reason to choose Amazon instead. I don’t know their logic, but I can think of three compelling possibilities:

  • Amazon’s affiliate scheme is much more lucrative. Not only does it pay a higher percentage than IndieBound, Amazon also sells a wide range of other products, many much more expensive than books. I’m an Amazon affiliate, and even though I only link to books, I make more per year from non-book items – more than doubling my affiliate income.
  • Many readers might not know who or what IndieBound is. They may feel more comfortable giving their credit card details to a retailer they are familiar with (indeed, with one-click purchasing they won’t have to get out their credit card at all).  In e-commerce, if you give the customer reason to hesitate there’s a fair chance you’ll lose them.
  • Amazon has a much larger selection. Many indie bookstores don’t sell e-books, choose not to stock self-published paperbacks, or sell anything that comes from Amazon Publishing. Perhaps the organizers wanted to partner with someone who stocked all appearing authors’ work (like Lee Goldberg, who has digital-only titles, self-published books, and some published with Amazon’s imprints).

It could have been any of those reasons. It could have been all of those reasons. But Publishers Weekly didn’t explore any of that, instead lining up a string of indie booksellers to attack the decision. The reaction was predictable:

The LA Book Festival is a place where book publishers, booksellers, and book lovers come together as a community to celebrate their shared values. Those values are far removed from Amazon’s. Giving Amazon such a prominent role is, to say the least, inappropriate and insensitive.

Give me a break. This is the same LA Times Festival of Books that has been welcoming Author Solutions for years without a peep. And aside from scamming writers in general, Author Solutions has also been scamming authors at the event.

I reported last month that Author Solutions is selling $3,999 book signing packages to appear at the LA Times Festival of Books, and that by Author Solutions’ own figures, they screwed authors out of an estimated $900,000 at last year’s event alone.

This book signing scam has been going on at the LA Times Festival of Books for at least five years. Where’s the outrage? It’s pretty hard to miss the giant row of Author Solutions booths at the event. Why didn’t all these indie booksellers and publishing professionals threaten a boycott over Author Solutions?

And why hasn’t Publishers Weekly covered this story?

It’s pretty standard for media organizations such as Publishers Weekly to wheel out the “objectivity” defense – that they are just reporting the news. But that’s rubbish.

A media organization, and the editors and journalists that work for it, makes subjective choices all the time. They choose to run a story about Amazon’s partnership with the LA Times Book Fair. They choose to print six negative reactions to the news and zero critical analysis. They choose to make this their headline story. And they choose to cover the Amazon angle and ignore the much worse Author Solutions story. Objectivity, as always, is a fig leaf.

While Publishers Weekly is strangely reticent to cover the Author Solutions story, it’s more than happy to take its money. Author Solutions sells six different Publishers Weekly advertising packages – costing between $2,599 and $16,499. These are pushed by its huge team of sales consultants, who are famous for putting the squeeze on inexperienced writers and making false promises, behavior which has led to a class action suit for deceptive business practices.

Author Solutions makes two thirds of its income from selling crap like this to writers (instead of making money with writers by actually helping them sell books). And you can see the full list of companies who have such dealings with Author Solutions – a virtual Who’s Who of traditional publishing – at the bottom of this post.

But the tide is beginning to turn. As I shared last month, The Bookseller has now banned Author Solutions from advertising, forcing them to stop selling these exploitative packages. A couple of weeks later, attendees at the 2014 San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) were delighted to see that Author Solutions didn’t make its usual appearance.

In previous years, Author Solutions had sponsored the event, giving away “prizes” of publishing packages for contest winners. This year, they were banned. A source told me that SFWC determined that Author Solutions’ business practices were not properly aligned with SFWC’s mission of empowering and informing writers.

And there’s more. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) appealed to Bowker, impressing upon them the concerns of the author community regarding their links to Author Solutions. The head of ALLi, Orna Ross, shared the following welcome news by email:

The manager of Bowker’s self-publishing wing, Laura Dawson, is to be greatly commended for her appreciation of the issues and her author-centric approach. Bowker no longer recommends Author Solutions to writers interested in self-publishing and Dawson’s stance strikingly contrasts with some other companies within traditional publishing institutions.

I should also note that Orna told me that “whenever an author turns up to the ALLi Watchdog desk seriously out-of-pocket, and feeling deceived and aggrieved about an author service, 99 times out of a 100 investigation reveals the culprit as an Author Solutions company.”

The LA Times Festival of Books should follow SFWC’s lead and give Author Solutions the boot. Publishers Weekly should heed the example of The Bookseller and ban advertising from Author Solutions and its subsidiaries.

And start reporting the real news, not this hypocritical, self-serving sideshow.

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.

47 Replies to “The Real Scandal At LA Times Festival of Books Isn’t Amazon”

  1. How is charging thousands of dollars for a book package and harassing authors with a hard-sell sales pitch not the behavior of a vanity press? The fact that Barbara Santos would endorse such tactics says a lot about where she stands in all of this.

  2. A week late to the party here, but the hypocrisy runs deep with Publisher’s Weekly.

    Personally I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. They have an outstanding collection, low prices, and they make shopping easy. On the other hand they don’t treat their workers well in some states, and Wall Street gives them a pass to operate at a loss thus allowing Amazon to price out any competition.

    On yet the third hand Bezos is building his own space program, and as an aerospace engineer that’s hard not to love.

  3. I am very grateful to you, David Gaughran, for exposing Author Solutions. People write to celebrate their souls. To cynically ensure that their first publishing experience is soul crushing makes me truly disgusted. Thank you for being a warrior on this issue. It does make a difference.

  4. “I wanted to set the record straight that Author Solutions was not banned from the San Francisco Writers Conference.”

    Well, you should. Those people are scammers and thieves and anyone who takes their money needs to check their values.

  5. I wanted to set the record straight that Author Solutions was not banned from the San Francisco Writers Conference. What an odd thing for you to say. I am the SFWC marketing director and AS has been an extremely professional exhibitor and/or sponsor at our event for many years. SFWC believes our attendees should be able to meet with many different companies to see which publishing model works best for their book project. Perhaps we are considered one of the best writers’ conferences in the world because we embrace the idea that every writer has a story worth telling and we arm them with the information they need to get it published. We have a 4-day event filled with bestselling authors, publishers and editors from traditional publishing houses, and many self-publishing leaders. Banning companies that may offer exactly what a writer wants, or doesn’t want for that matter, doesn’t make much sense.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      I’m confident that I portrayed the situation with SFWC and Author Solutions accurately. If you feel I haven’t, then why don’t you give us a little more detail? Why don’t you tell us why Author Solutions – after sponsoring SFWC for years – weren’t at SFWC 2014? I trust the information I’m getting from my source 100%.

      I didn’t want to get into the full history of the relationship between Author Solutions and SFWC – I wanted to celebrate the great decision SFWC had made. But seeing as you are casting aspersions on me and my characterisation of events, here it goes.

      SFWC has been sponsored by Author Solutions for years, and Author Solutions people have regularly attended the event. And if that wasn’t bad enough, until this year, SFWC ran a writing competition for newbies – the “prize” being a publishing package with Author Solutions. Needless to say, the winners of the comp, and other attendees, report being endlessly harassed by Author Solutions sales reps trying to get them to buy overpriced and ineffective marketing packages for thousands of dollars – just like the ones I described above.

      But you know all this. You know they are a scammy vanity press.

      Which makes me curious as to your response. Is it anything to do with the work that you, personally, have done with Author Solutions? A little digging turned up this series of webinars that you did in December 2013 for the Author Learning Center (an Author Solutions Company):

      Paid work, I presume.

      But if anything is inaccurate here, please do come back to me and I’m happy to “set the record straight.”


      1. Gaughran 1 Santos 0

        I noticed she has not responded. Funny what a little digging will do. Good job David. Thank you for your posts

  6. Reblogged this on Le Café Noir and commented:
    I was not even aware of this. I always go to the LA Times Book Festival, but even with a scandal, I am unsure if I could even resist the temptation of going.

  7. I live in LA. Never been to the LATFoB. Costly to attend and just not worth the time, hassle, and money, IMHO. It’s always seemed to be designed to be more of a benefit for the Times than for LA area readers and book lovers.

    It used to be on the UCLA campus in Westwood. A nice area, just damn tough to find parking. Now it’s moved to the USC campus, UCLA’s arch-rival. I’ve wondered what brought about the change of venue. My guess it’s more money for the LA Times.

    Now I’m sure I’ll never go. USC is ***NOT*** in a “nice” part of town. Pretty rough neighborhood. Oh, well, never missed it when not going before; won’t miss going now and in the future.

    1. Since this article is being linked from a recent post, I’m adding a comment even though this post is long past its expiration date. But:

      1) LATFoB is FREE to attend. FREE. One can buy a Festival Pass for $35 that allows unlimited access to the Indoor Conversations (and there are plenty of outdoor stage events that are completely free), but individual Indoor Conversation tickets are free plus $1 service charge if purchased in advance, or free (if still available) on the day of at the festival. Not sure where you got the impression the Festival was costly, but you are absolutely wrong.

      2) SInce USC is easily accessible by public transportation – there’s a Metro Expo Line stop right next to campus – parking is not the problem it was at UCLA. The availability of public transportation also makes the Festival easier to attend for a wider variety of Angelenos. I’m guessing this is what prompted the change, as the Festival should be for everyone, not just Westsiders who can’t decide whether to drive the Porsche or the Bentley to the Festival. In addition, USC’s campus is flat while the Festival had to be spread out over UCLA’s hills, which also makes USC easier to navigate for a wider variety of people.

      3) Not sure where you live in LA, but you haven’t ventured east of the 405 or south of the 101 in some time, I would suppose, judging by your ignorance of the area around USC’s campus. Yes, West Adams still has its rough spots, but the area next to campus has seen a massive burst of redevelopment in the last ten years. You’re missing some terrific museums in Exposition Park as well as some of the best historic architecture in the city by refusing to go to the neighborhood. Your loss, sadly.

      But don’t worry about refusing to attend. As the Festival is dedicated to widening people’s horizons though the power of words, close minds will not be missed. There are over 150,000 of us Angelenos who do find the Festival to be an enormous benefit to the city.

      As for Author Solutions: when I attended the Festival this year, I noted that most of its booths were empty. Tumbleweeds would’ve felt right at home. So while I am not a fan of the company, it doesn’t seem very many people took them up on their packages. And it made that area of the Festival look rather pathetic, as the empty booths were in the middle of the main thoroughfare and the lack of people was conspicuous. Hopefully someone at the Festival noticed and won’t allow them back.

  8. Work for Amazon do you? Know the real story before you pose as telling the “true” story. Amazon has employees camp out in front of college campuses encouraging students not to shop in the school stores. Amazon makes a living using indies as show rooms. Why not wait until the festival to see what tactics they’re going to use to have the entire festival be a show room?

    1. “Amazon has employees camp out in front of college campuses encouraging students not to shop in the school stores.”

      Do you have proof of that? What is the real story? David supplied links to backup all his claims. What did he miss?

    2. I find it interesting that because I take a (presumably) contrary viewpoint to yours that you accuse me of working for Amazon. That aside, we could argue about what their behavior will be like, but we’ll find out very soon. One thing is for sure: Author Solutions will be there. But you don’t seem to have a problem with that.

    3. In case you haven’t noticed, this is a capitalist society.

      That said, if this is the story you’re talking about:

      So what? They were promoting their business in a legal manner? Is that the “big” story here? You’re not more concerned with University bookstores that charge quite a bit for their books (sometimes more than $1000 a year for a full set of classes)?

      Of course you can rent those textbooks as well to save money.

      Oh wait, that’s what Amazon is offering, in addition to saving money when buying textbooks… because they were promoting this:

      And no, Amazon does NOT make a living using indie bookstores as show rooms… they were simply smart in how they use bookselling as an introductory service into the rest of their business (which is selling electronics, and a TON of other stuff).

      Plus, it’s not Amazon using bookstores as showrooms, it’s the price-conscious consumer who is using the bookstore as a showroom.

      As with everything business, sometimes outdated models of doing business get pushed aside (notice I didn’t say “die,” there are still thriving bookstores everywhere). Time for the ones that rely on outdated ways of doing business to wake up I suppose. 😉

    4. “Amazon has employees camp out in front of college campuses encouraging students not to shop in the school stores.”

      Dear Lmwebb,
      Work for a college bookstore do you? It has admittedly been many a year since I attended college, but I when my children attended I found things little changed, in regard to college bookstores. Required texts were tremendously overpriced when new, then bought back by the bookstores at a pittance at the conclusion of one year, to be recycled to the next class of suckers (er … students) the following year at multiples of the ‘buy back’ price. It was an unconscionable scalping of a captive audience. If Amazon is providing a bit of competition and letting students know about it, I’d consider that a public service, not a nefarious activity.

      And further to the point, that has absolutely nothing to do with David’s point on the fraudulent operation of the various Author Solutions companies.

    5. Lmwebb work for Author Solutions do you? We know what AS does but as David said you don’t seem to concerned about that.

      1. Actually Author Solutions is not beyond trolling the internet and posting as Lmwebb has done.

        Remember this is the organization that set up fake author testimonials with fake pictures touting how great Author Solutions was.

        Author Solutions is being sued with a class action suit for its deceptions and this clown Lmwebb wants to ignore that.

  9. That’s excellent news. Last time you posted a story like this, I basically said there was little we could do because AS was already in bed with the Big X publishers. Well, looks like I was wrong. The organizations making money from AS will do it until they’re shamed out of it, or lawsuits are threatened. Others that ACTUALLY CARE about authors will abandon them once they see the truth, and that will help to create pressure on the others. Bowker is a big step.

    Good work for your part in this, David!

    1. It’s great that we now have three examples – The Bookseller, the San Francisco Writers Conference, and Bowker – of how these companies should break ties with Author Solutions. But there’s so much work to do. From my post last month, here’s the list of companies with ties to Author Solutions. We need to pressure ALL of them to do the right thing.

      Author Solutions Subsidiaries & Brands: AuthorHouse, Trafford, iUniverse, Xlibris, Palibrio, BookTango, WordClay, FuseFrame, PitchFest, Author Learning Center, and AuthorHive.

      Vanity Presses powered by Author Solutions: Archway (for Simon & Schuster), Partridge (for Penguin), Westbow (for Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins), Balboa Press (Hay House), Abbot Press (Writers’ Digest/F+W Media), Dellarte Press (Harlequin).

      Customer Service/Marketing Packages by Author Solutions: BookCountry, Lulu.

      Companies which recommend Author Solutions: Sony, Overdrive

      Publishers with vanity presses run by Author Solutions: Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Thomas Nelson/Harper Collins, Hay House, Writers’ Digest/F&W Media, Harlequin.

      Conferences/Festivals that allow Author Solutions scams: Toronto Word on the Street, Miami Book Fair International, LA Times Book Fair, Tucson Festival of Books

      Companies which run Author Solutions ads: London Review of Books, Guardian Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, New York Review of Books, Readers’ Digest, ForeWord, Clarion, Ingram, and the New York Times.

  10. Reblogged this on Love, Sex & Other Dirty Words and commented:
    I attend this event every year and always end up with an armful of books – so Amazon tie-in or no, Publishers Weekly’s argument does not hold water. The real culprit, like David says, is Author Solutions. Heck I didn’t even know they were charging THAT much to authors for book signing packages.

  11. I agree with your perspective on this situation. Readers who go to the event to meet authors and buy their books will buy them in person to get a signed copy and share a conversation. Other readers will also look for other titles and formats available from that author. If that exploration is spurred by the LA Festival of Books, then from a business perspective, that venue should be entitled to some monies from that exchange through the best medium available.

    1. Exactly. I get that show-rooming is a thing. If I owned a bookstore, it would drive me *crazy*. But show-rooming is a challenge faced by everyone in physical retail. It’s a challenge that would exist with or without Amazon. And it’s a challenge that certainly exists whether the LA Times Festival of Books becomes an Amazon affiliate or not.

  12. Interesting post David. It really does seem like just the routine Amazon outrage. I will be signing up as an affiliate again myself, now that Amazon have reopened the program for North Carolina residents – it might make up some of the sales tax I now have to pay for purchases from the site!

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