Michael Hyatt has successfully reinvented himself as an author and speaker – one of those quasi-experts on marketing who slowly morph into a life-coach type guru. It’s a well-trodden path and these guys all tend to present themselves in similar ways.
Here’s Michael Hyatt reclining among soft furnishings. Here’s Michael Hyatt enjoying a tender moment with his dog. Here’s Michael Hyatt projecting success with a shiteating grin for the ages. It’s almost easy to forget what he did. Almost.
In 2009 when Michael Hyatt was CEO of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, he was instrumental in the creation of WestBow Press – one of the first white-label vanity presses operated by Author Solutions on behalf of an established publisher.
The shadiness began right from the start, with the choice of name. WestBow was already an established fiction imprint at Thomas Nelson, with titles still in print and stocked in stores, and it seems the idea was to either create confusion among store owners and book buyers, or to make newbies feel like they were getting a real book deal – a ruse as old as vanity publishing itself.
Here is what literary agent Rachelle Gardner had to say about that at the time:
If you search Amazon for WestBow, you’ll find books by authors like Ted Dekker, Karen Kingsbury, and Colleen Coble […] It seems like it might fool unsuspecting consumers.
It’s instructive to look back at the 2009 launch of WestBow and re-examine some of the claims made by Michael Hyatt.
The first big one was that there was going to be huge growth in the sector. And like a dog-dirt sun-dial which is right once a day, Michael Hyatt was correct about that. Only 7 titles were published by WestBow in that first year, but by 2012 the yearly output had peaked at 3,869. With publishing packages costing up to $19,999, that was a serious amount of cash for Thomas Nelson, Michael Hyatt, Author Solutions, and Thomas Nelson’s new owner, HarperCollins.
(Michael Hyatt stepped down as CEO when the purchase of Thomas Nelson was announced in April 2011, but stayed on as Chairman until the deal completed in mid-2012).
The second big claim was that WestBow would be a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing. While self-publishing has firmly established itself as a viable option, vanity publishing most certainly has not. The only people making serious scratch from vanity publishing are the vanity publishing companies (and their traditional publisher-owners).
A more serious foul than an overreaching sales pitch was a long-banished practice, one resurrected by Michael Hyatt to help hit those big numbers – referral fees.
As a former agent, Michael Hyatt would have been very aware of the insidiousness of unscrupulous agents referring rejected writers to vanity presses. It’s such an obviously exploitative practice that no legitimate agents engaged in it – and has been explicitly banned in the Canon of Ethics adopted by the American Association of Authors’ Representatives for years and years. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware also had plenty to say about this tawdry practice and the potential for abuse inherent in such a system.
None of this stopped Michael Hyatt from offering agents a bounty for each writer referred to WestBow, and defending the practice too.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely nobody took him up on that offer. Well, I wish that were true. I received a copy of the combined affiliate list for all Author Solutions imprints and there are around 5,000 names on it. Agents, editors, book doctors, quaint little indie bookstores (seriously), life coaches, book doctors… it’s quite depressing leafing through it.
The WestBow affiliate program was managed by a guy called Pete Nikolai, who is still working for WestBow as its Publisher, currently serving as the Director of Publishing Services for HarperCollins Christian Publishing, and who was also the driving force behind HarperCollins’ recent launch of yet another Christian vanity press called Elm Hill.
Anyway, one asshole at a time.
Author Solutions Partners and Affiliates
Michael Hyatt has 239,801 Likes on Facebook, 292,000+ Twitter followers, and an incredible 703,972 subscribers to his blog. He has repeatedly used that platform to recommend WestBow’s services, especially to first time authors. Here’s how he described WestBow and Author Solutions in 2009 (my emphasis):
In creating WestBow Press, we are partnering with Author Solutions, Inc. (ASI), the world’s leading self-publisher. I have personally visited their offices in Bloomington, Indiana, along with my senior executive team and several of our publishers. I can vouch for the fact that ASI is an extremely well-run organization. Their primary strength is customer-service. They have hundreds of publishing professionals on their staff and deliver the kind of quality that you would expect from any trade publisher.
Here’s a different quote about Author Solutions, this one from a class action suit, detailing how Author Solutions staff used underhanded tactics to sell questionable marketing packages:
98. On June 2, 2011, Foster was informed that she had also received the Rising Star designation.
99. In a June 21, 2011 email, the Rising Star Board indicated that “[i]f you purchased marketing services or your marketing plan was based on services offered by iUniverse and you decide to cancel or do not purchase mentioned services indicated in your Rising Star Marketing Surveydah or to your Marketing Consultant, the Rising Star distinction will be removed from your title.” This email was the first time Foster was made aware of additional requirements to participate in the Rising Star program.
100. Foster’s Marketing Consultant confirmed that she was required to purchase a Marketing Package, and Foster purchased a marketing package for $3,999.00, since she did not wish to lose her Rising Star designation and she wanted to market her book aggressively.
In case you think Michael Hyatt didn’t know what Author Solutions were truly like in 2009, here he is in 2012 working with its Author Learning Center:
(Note: I’m not linking directly to many of these sites to avoid giving them my sweet, sweet Google juice.)
At this stage – 2012 – the business practices of Author Solutions were well known in the industry. By 2015, the class actions were common knowledge and even the outside world was starting to hear the horror stories from Author Solutions victims. And yet there is Michael Hyatt boosting the company, yet again, on his podcast.
Quite handily, Michael Hyatt has provided a transcript. Here’s how he describes the world’s most reviled vanity press, one which took author exploitation to insane levels:
Probably the biggest purveyor of this model would be a company called Author Solutions. What they do is… They are kind of like a networking company. They take your work, and they find the people who are going to design the cover, the people who are going to typeset it, the people who are going to sell it into the marketplace, and all of that.
A networking company? That’s like saying Jeffrey Dahmer was a big eater.
At the time of making that comment, Michael Hyatt was no longer leading Thomas Nelson so he had no material interest in recommending Author Solutions.
Or had he?
Above I mentioned that someone leaked me a list of all Author Solutions affiliates. Obviously, Michael Hyatt, or someone on his behalf, decided that the gravy was just too rich to pass up.
There are two different kinds of Author Solutions affiliates – those who get paid for leads, and those who get paid a cut of publishing packages purchased by writers. The two numbers on the right hand side indicate that Michael Hyatt (or someone on his behalf) signed up to get bounties for both types of referrals. By the start of 2011, WestBow was paying $5 per lead and a $100 per publishing package sold to its affiliates.
Perhaps you’re thinking that Michael Hyatt might not have used the affiliate links. Well, let’s go back to his 2009 post announcing the launch of WestBow. See that link underneath the opening para (ironically decrying the label of “vanity presses”)?
That link contains Michael Hyatt’s Author Solutions affiliate code – AF00012 – and he continued recommending WestBow to first-time authors while using affiliate links long after leaving the company.
Note: I did not find any instances of Michael Hyatt disclosing this affiliate status.
White Labels & Mark-ups
Right after that launch announcement in 2009, there was an interesting discussion between himself and Mike Shatzkin about how WestBow would work. After responding to a couple of searching questions, Michael Hyatt left this last one unanswered – quite tellingly:
Aside from “visibility with Thomas Nelson”, isn’t every other aspect of WestBow really provided by ASI? And wouldn’t they offer approximately the same services (bundled or unbundled) to any of their customers, whether they were part of WestBow or not? It is certainly useful to know that Nelson has vetted ASI’s raft of capabilities, but isn’t that vetting valid whether the author signs up to buy his clothes (or his food) with the WestBow label or the normal ASI “store brand”?
What Mike is essentially getting at with this line of questioning is: aren’t you just flogging the same Author Solutions services with a WestBow sticker? The reason Michael Hyatt didn’t respond should be obvious – Mike hit the nail firmly on the head.
WestBow Press was what was known internally at Author Solutions as a “Partner Imprint” – just like Harlequin’s DelleArte, Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Penguin’s Partridge, Hay House’s Balboa Press, Writer’s Digest’s Abbot Press, and so on. The only real difference, aside from the stickers, were the internal targets for the sales consultants.
Remember those crappy, overpriced marketing packages? Sales reps had much higher targets for WestBow (et al) than for the in-house imprints like AuthorHouse and Xlibris, meaning they had to work twice as hard at selling them – because the profit was split with the partner, in this case Michael Hyatt’s Thomas Nelson. From that post:
The figures below are in US dollars, and these are monthly targets.
- Publishing Consultant, Core Imprint: $20,000
- Publishing Consultant, Partner Imprint: $40,000
- Marketing Consultant, Partner Imprint: $60,000
- Book Consultant: $75,000
You will notice straight away that sales reps working for the Partner Imprints have much higher targets – and this is to cover the royalty the partner receives for each product sold. In practice, this means that sales reps working for Simon & Schuster’s Archway imprint will have to sell much more crap, at higher prices, and writers using Archway will be subjected to even more squeeze. (Thanks, Simon & Schuster!)
WestBow authors get the same crappy Author Solutions experience just with the serial numbers filed off, an extra bit of mark-up to cover Thomas Nelson’s end, and then double the hard sell too. And Michael Hyatt gets to pass off his whole time there as a huge success, position himself as a high-level mentor, and rake in speaking fees.
What a business this is.
UPDATE OCT 2: Michael Hyatt has finally responded – not directly to me but in the comments of a podcast covering the story. You can read his response (and my further response to claims therein) here.
This was the most interesting part to me: