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.