Penguin Random House Merger Boosts Giant Scam

Penguin and Random House officially merged on July 1 creating the largest trade publisher in the world. This merger has given fresh impetus to one of their subsidiaries to scam unsuspecting writers: Author Solutions, the largest vanity press in the world.

This post is from 16 July 2013. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links, but it’s important to preserve these older posts on author exploitation and the comment section remains open, as always.

One of my blog readers, who will remain nameless, has forwarded me emails from an AuthorHouse sales rep touting that company as the “self-publishing wing” of Penguin Random House. AuthorHouse is one of the many brands of Author Solutions, a tangled web which is deconstructed here.

When Penguin purchased Author Solutions in July 2012 for $116m, I warned that the Penguin brand would lend legitimacy to Author Solutions – who were already the market leader in author exploitation.

Defenders of the deal claimed that Penguin would clean up Author Solutions – a universally reviled vanity press which has been slammed by every watchdog in the business, and which is currently the subject of a class action suit for deceptive business practices.

author solutions
How The Author Solutions Scam Works – a detailed breakdown.

Needless to say, all that has happened in the year since is that Penguin has aggressively expanded the operations of Author Solutions – a task that is a little easier when you can add the names of two historic publishing houses to your logo, and to your sales pitches.

As you can see from email excerpt below, AuthorHouse is trading off the Penguin Random House merger to try and hoodwink their customers into buying a massively overpriced YouTube advertising package that simply won’t sell any books.

penguin random house author solutions scam

The price of that package, by the way, is a staggering £2,221 (approx $3,400). But that’s not even the most expensive marketing add-on that Author Solutions aggressively upsell when customers’ books, inevitably, fail to find any readers (thanks to shoddy covers, terrible editing and proofing, anemic book descriptions, poor formatting, and incorrect attachment of metadata such as categories).

Author Solutions uses any customer complaints as an opportunity to guilt their customers into buying various overpriced marketing services. Their sales reps know exactly which buttons to press, and they are very good at it too. According to their own figures, Author Solutions makes a full two-thirds of its revenue from selling services to authors (rather than, you know, selling books).

Author Solutions Makes Bank Scamming Literary Event

I received some spam recently from Xlibris (yet another Author Solutions brand), touting a literary event – the Word on the Street Festival in Toronto this coming September.

For £299 (approx $450), I was offered the opportunity to place my book in a “new title showcase” at the event. I’ve seen these shelves at the London Book Fair – a tired assortment of books, usually in an out-of-the-way part of the hall. I walked passed on numerous occasions to see if I could catch anyone browsing the books. I never did.

But that wasn’t the worst deal on offer. For an astonishing £2,999 (approx $4,500), I was offered the chance to host a book signing at the same event. To avoid any confusion, flights, accommodation, and personal butler aren’t included in this price. Not even a free ticket to the event. All you get is an hour slot at the Author Solutions booth and some free copies to sign – if anyone shows up.

You might think that no-one is gullible enough to spring for this. But you would be wrong. At Word on the Street 2012, Author Solutions had over 300 client books in their “new title showcase” and 36 book signings.

By my reckoning, Author Solutions brought in $297,000 from this wheeze. That’s from one year. And one event.

I don’t know if the Word on the Street Festival is aware of what Author Solutions are doing with their booth, but they should be appalled, and I sincerely hope they will put a stop to it before anyone else gets scammed.

Caveat Emptor?

Some people can be quite hard-nosed about this stuff, saying that Author Solutions’ customers must share at least part of the blame for not doing their research. I think it’s a little unfair when you consider Author Solutions’ approach to Google and social media.

I wrote a whole post explaining the various insidious ways that Author Solutions dupes prospective clients, including creating fake social media profiles purporting to be “independent” publishing consultants who only recommend Author Solutions brands, and fake “independent” publishing advice sites which only exist to hoover up email addresses and phone numbers of potential victims (and to exclusively push Author Solutions’ services).

Regarding the latter, a favored tactic is to flood Google search results with ads on terms that inexperienced writers tend to search for (such as “I need a literary agent” or “how to find a publisher”). On many of these terms, Author Solutions have multiple ads running – which creates the illusion of choice, but is also in breach of Google’s policies on double serving.

Note: I lodged a formal complaint last week with Google and I’ll update you with any progress. At the very least, I hope to get some of these ads taken down.

Author Solutions Media Whitewash

If a prospective Author Solutions customer attempts to dig a little further, the media is no help either.

Book trade publications provide uncritical (and sometimes glowing) coverage of Author Solutions, never mentioning that industry watchdogs such as Writer Beware have received more complaints about them than any other company.

But they don’t stop there.

As I noted in a previous post, some of those publications – such as The Bookseller and Digital Book World – go as far as censoring critical comments about Author Solutions or about (what seems to be) their editorial policy of whitewashing.

Digital Book World’s motivations are easy to guess at. They are owned by F+W Media – the same company that owns Writers’ Digest, which has its own Author Solutions-powered vanity imprint called Abbott Press.

I was a little more puzzled by The Bookseller, especially when they made the misguided decision to invite Tim Davies to blog for their digital offshoot FutureBook. It’s one thing to ignore criticisms of a company, but quite another to give your significant platform to a former executive of Author Solutions to write a puff piece – without disclosing his relationship with the company – and then censor critical comments on that same piece.

It has transpired that Tim Davies was no low-level flunky, but the head of AuthorHouse UK. He was obviously taking notes because he has since launched his own dodgy vanity press.

All of which makes The Bookseller’s decision more puzzling. Until you flick through their print edition and see this:

penguin random house author solutions scam

In case it isn’t obvious, that’s a full page spread in The Bookseller advertising books published by Trafford and Palibrio (which are Author Solutions subsidiaries). Now it’s a little easier for me to understand The Bookseller’s regressive position on Author Solutions.

Author Solutions has a variety of (what they call) Bookseller Magazine packages – ranging from £2,199 (approx. $3,300) to a jaw dropping £6,999 (approx. $10,500). When you see how many books they squeeze into one page, it’s clear that this is quite lucrative for them. I don’t know what The Bookseller charges for ad space, but I’m sure Author Solutions are adding a significant mark-up (as they do with all their services).

It’s not just The Bookseller. Author Solutions also offers overpriced packages to advertise with the London Review of Books, the Guardian Weekly, the Library Journal, Kirkus, ForeWord, Clarion, Readers’ Digest, Ingram, and the New York Times (details here and here).

These organizations might claim that advertiser dollars don’t influence their policies, but then how do you explain the New York Times providing uncritical coverage of, and free PR to, Author Solutions over and over again?

Let’s put this all together. Prospective Author Solutions’ customers are assailed with fake social media profiles, ads on Google touting faux-independent “advice” sites, and wall-to-wall uncritical coverage in both traditional media and trade publications. And we blame them for not doing their research?

The final piece in this intricate propaganda puzzle is the publishers themselves. Penguin and Random House are both well-known and trusted brands. But Author Solutions isn’t just trading off the names of their owners.

Author Solutions also has a white label operation which sets up (and operates) vanity imprints for a wide range of publishers including some of the biggest names in the business: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Harlequin.

Magazine publishers such as Writers’ Digest are in on the game too. Author Solutions has its fingers in so many pies, it’s impossible to count them all. But my current favorite is the vanity press they have set up to target first responders.

penguin random house author solutions scam

As the above shows, there really is no emotional button they won’t press to try and squeeze money from people.

My question to The Word on the Street Festival, The Bookseller, the New York Times, and the rest of the organizations mentioned above is this:

Do you still like the color of their money?

Update 14 Feb 2014:

The above post led to a dialogue with Philip Jones, the editor of The Bookseller. Last week, he told me that The Bookseller that it is no longer accepting such ads. Here’s the money quote, reproduced with permission:

The Bookseller is no longer taking advertising from Author Solutions or its subsidiary companies. We’ve previously asked them to update the information they display about us on their websites, and have now asked them to remove it entirely.

This is wonderful news and Philip Jones and The Bookseller should be applauded for taking this step.

I should also note that they didn’t have to do this. The Bookseller is under no legal obligation to stop taking ads from Author Solutions. The Bookseller was selling ad spaces to Author Solutions at standard rates, and it isn’t legally responsible for what third-parties charge when they re-sell that advertising.

The Bookseller took this decision because they felt it was the right thing to do.

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.