Michael Hyatt Has Something To Sell You

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 Naming

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.

The Launch

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).

The Kickbacks

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:

Michael Hyatt engages in promotion with Author Solutions

(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.

Michael Hyatt recommends author solutions in 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.

MIchael Hyatt listed as an Author Solutions affiliate

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”)?

Michael Hyatt using his Author Solutions vanity press affiliate links

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, as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

Author Solutions: White Labels & Mark-ups, and Michael Hyatt’s role

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.

Michael Hyatt Responds

Michael Hyatt did eventually respond, by the way, a couple of weeks after the initial publication of this post – not directly to my invitations (he blocked me instead) but in the comments of a podcast covering the story.

You can read his response here, for what it’s worth:

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.

55 Replies to “Michael Hyatt Has Something To Sell You”

  1. My experience with WestBowPress was horrific to say the least. I wouldn’t recommend them to satan himself! Oh-he has them in his pocket already…..
    My concern if about Elm Hill…

  2. I"m at the very start of this self-publishing lark (nowhere near ready to self-publish book 1!) and am REALLY pleased that I discovered you, David, your Let"s Get Digital, and Simon Wistler, Johanna Penn, Stephen Campbell, Mark Coker……BEFORE the likes of Hyatt and Author Solutions found me!

  3. Thanks David. Your reporting and Michael Hyatt"s gracious response encourage me that journalism is still alive and effective, when the motive is positive change to help others.

      1. That may yet be forthcoming. And we don"t know for sure that he was completely aware that Author Solutions was a rip-off do we? Because I have been wrong in the past and have later found out that I had made a mistake, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt until I hear that they intentionally meant to harm people. Intentionality is the lynch-pin for me. I agree with you, that “I"d feel better . . . if he expressed any kind o remorse . . . ” especially because Christians are to specialize in repentance and restitution. Thanks again David for your tireless work on our behalf.

  4. Oh my, I was about to pay Westbow to self publish my Christian Non Fiction book in the next two weeks. This is shocking news. What are the best self publishing options out there? Thank you man

    1. Hi Ben, happy to help. There are two main problems with using any of these third-party companies. They all promise to do it easier and cheaper in one package but neither of those things will be true.

      1. Many of these companies are scammers that will milk you dry and publish your book terribly, giving you no chance of making that money back. I have tons of posts on my site here about Author Solutions and various other vanity presses which you must avoid at all costs. (Note: the “Christian” ones are often the worst – be especially careful with those.)

      2. Even if you somehow manage to avoid the scammers and end up with one of the good guys, this is still not the best way to publish your work – not if you want to reach readers. If it"s just for yourself, or something you are crossing off a bucket list, or your grandfather"s memoirs for the family, or whatever, then fine. But if you want to build an audience or reach readers or make money then you should look at what professional self-publishers are doing. None of them use companies like this because you don"t get live sales reports, you get paid less, you get paid slower, you don"t have any idea of what marketing is working and what isn"t, your book will often be more expensive, you will be in the wrong categories on Amazon – the list really is endless.

      I strongly recommend following the path of virtually every successful self-publisher which is to publish it yourself – the whole point of self-publishing. This doesn"t mean you edit the book yourself, or do your own cover, you outsource all that the same way you might hire a plumber. It"s much easier than you think.

      Here"s a free comprehensive guide – a series of videos – put together by a successful indie telling you everything you need to know: https://davidgaughran.com/2017/08/30/this-self-publishing-course-is-free-and-great-too/

  5. David, I always appreciate your work. Thanks. I do have one question. As an investigative reporter in Boston back in the 1970"s, I always contacted the person I was planning to report on for comment just prior to publishing the story. Did you contact Hyatt for his response before posting? I"d be curious to hear his response.

    1. Ideally, I"d have a comment from Michael Hyatt – I"d love to debate him at length on the whole issue – but that"s never going to happen.

      When I first started writing about Author Solutions and its myriad tentacles five years ago, I used to do this, and then web pages containing crucial evidence would disappear and articles would have to be shelved – and people never, ever commented either. So I learned my lesson.

      Besides, my comment section is always open and unmoderated and he has an ongoing right of reply – which I"m sure he won"t exercise. They never do on this subject. And anyway, he is on record enough times at length not just defending Author Solutions but expressing how enamored he is with their business practices.

      FWIW, I did attempt to contact him after publication to get his response and he failed to reply to me on Facebook and blocked me on Twitter.

      1. Thanks David. I understand. I actually had my life threatened in a back hallway of my downtown apartment building after a particular story and I likewise had to go to press without comment by those surrounding the investigation I was pressing at the time. But when dealing with “normal” people, I tried to give them an opportunity to clear the record. Thanks for the increase in confidence I have in your reporting. FWIW, good job! Keep the truth coming.

      2. There are plenty of times when I have sought a response first, sometimes even going as far as showing a draft of the whole article, depending on the circumstances. But that"s on other topics. I quickly found it was pointless on this particular subject. So it goes.

      3. Thanks for taking the time to respond. This has been a well researched, well-written piece. Disappointing to hear this about Hyatt, because he is well esteemed in Evangelical publishing circles. By the way, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate the lead you gave us to A-Z Self-Publishing. What a GREAT set of instructional videos. I really like Iain Rob Wright. So, thanks!!

  6. Thank you for this! I was wondering about him. His name seems to come up a lot in various newsletters, but I noticed some (many) of them are just fronts for sales pitches delivered through “free” webinars — which can wind up rather expensive in the end.

    I appreciate your advocacy for writers and decency.

  7. Bravo! I"ve been waiting for you to get around to Michael Hyatt. As you may recall, I mentioned him and his scammy ways to you some years ago in a comment on your blog. But like you said, “one asshole at a time”. Finally, it"s his turn for your laser-like gaze. Thank you!

  8. Around three years ago, when I was really new to indie publishing, I saw an ad for WestBow and clicked on their offer for a “free self-publication guide” It came in the mail (if I remember correctly) and turned out to be an extended ad for their services. Well, okay, the literature was free and my novel wasn"t finished yet anyway. I put it away for future reference.

    But very shortly after that I got a call from some guy at WestBow, telling me they were Really Interested in publishing my writing. This surprised me, since they hadn"t seen a page of it. I tried to dampen the rep down a bit telling him that I"d published a good chunk of it already on my blog, Moreover, it dealt with some themes that might be pushing the envelope for Christian fiction.

    He was undeterred. Send it in as soon as it was finished, he urged me again and again. They were looking for good novels, and for a starting price of around $900 they could advise me on editing, cover art, formatting, and so on.

    Uh . . . no. It wasn"t merely the cost that put me off, it was the enthusiasm he wouldn"t stop expressing for a piece he had never seen. And then the Let Us Publish Your Novel!!! emails started. I moved them all to the spam folder and haven"t had contact with them since.

  9. Didn"t Hyatt just do the rounds of the various publishing/productivity gurus plugging some kind of assessment quiz? I saw it at least three times and on the third time took the quiz, only to back out when I was required to give my email address to get the results. I didn"t want the marketing emails that would follow. I presume this was just a list-boosting exercise, or is he about to launch a new product? Anyone know?

    I"ve got to admit, I was completely fooled by Hyatt and was pretty surprised to see this article. I followed him avidly a few years back but dropped him from my blog feed eventually. I"m not sure why–perhaps there were too many sales pitches, which is usually why I drop a podcast or blog. I just knew when I got to the end of that assessment I didn"t want to get back on his email list.

  10. -shiver- Grifters and conmen. At 64 I remember a world in which spin was called a lie and fraud was punished by prison time. The lies and the fraud continued to happen – human nature never changes – but society did not applaud the shysters as astute businessmen. There was a /stigma/ attached to being a liar, or being suspected of being a liar.
    If we want to stop the Michael Hyatts of this brave new world, we have to stop accepting the lies, no matter how seductive they may be.

  11. I find your timing on this both ironic and appropriate. This weekend is the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, a place filled with people who think Hyatt can do no wrong, gush about how awesome he is, and would come on here in droves and call you names for daring to cast suspicion on one of their golden people. And yes, he lives in the US. Nashville, to be specific, unless he"s moved in the last five years.

    He"s always given off predatory vibes to me. I also know entirely too much about what goes on behind closed doors at Thomas Nelson, which makes me even less a fan of the man because he laid the groundwork for it. The circle he"s part of in the writing world is almost inbred, and I"m so grateful I"m no longer in it.

      1. I"ve actually been around him in person, heard him speak, and listened to him personally push his Platform book like crazy. He"s one of those people who pushes the whole author platform thing for fiction writers and says you must have a massive one before ever attempting to get published.

  12. Interesting – I thought that Author Solutions had been shut down. Looks like any other scam outfit though, they just changed the name and continued scamming people. Amazing really when you think about all the money that writers lose with outfits like this – had they just hired out the services via freelancers they"d have paid much less and probably ended up with pretty decent book launches. This whole thing makes me think of those spending years paying off student loans. Sad.

    1. Definitely haven"t shut down. All that happened was Penguin sold the company – but it is still running vanity imprints for Penguin, HarperCollins, Hay House, Simon & Schuster, and Random House under a variety of different names.

  13. This is amazing – thank you David! Not only informative, but you made me laugh out loud several times as I was reading it. Of course, I"m reading from the position of someone who stayed away from these vampires – not someone who was one of their victims.

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