Penguin Random House is speeding up the international expansion of its vanity press operations, while also seeking to integrate them more closely with the traditional side of the business – hoping to counteract flat growth for Author Solutions at a time when self-publishing is booming.
This post is from 21 November 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.
Author Solutions launches a new self-publishing service company for the Spanish market next Tuesday – MeGustaEscribir – which contains the usual mix of crappy publishing packages and ineffective, overpriced marketing services, as well as some extremely questionable practices such as reading fees (more on that below).
The way the Author Solutions scam typically operates is detailed exhaustively in this post, but here’s a brief summary.
How Author Solutions Squeezes Newbie Writers
Customers are captured through a variety of deceptive means – such as fake “independent” websites which purport to review all the self-publishing options available to writers (but only compare the various Author Solutions imprints); fake social media profiles pretending to be writers or “publishing consultants” (who only recommend Author Solutions companies); and, a “bounty” to various unscrupulous parties to deliver Author Solutions fresh blood.
Obviously, Author Solutions needs to use such deceptive measures because authors who have used its services aren’t recommending it to their fellow writers. Instead, they are warning them away.
Once Author Solutions has a writer’s contact details, it moves fast – endlessly harassing them by phone and email until they cave and purchase an overpriced publishing package. When the publishing process is almost complete, an Author Solutions sales rep then contacts the writer to let them know some exciting news: they have won a fake award – invented by Author Solutions.
The catch is this. To receive the award, the writer must purchase one of Author Solutions wholly unsuitable, completely ineffective, and crazily priced marketing packages. These include (quoting from my report in June):
- A “web optimized” press release for $1,299.
- Podcast interviews for $10,669.
- Ads in Readers’ Digest for $143,990 (that’s not a typo).
- A book signing appearance for $3,999.
- YouTube ads for $5,499.
- Hollywood Pitching for up to $14,999.
- Infomercials on small, local stations for $10,699.
Using high-pressure sales tactics, and careful targeting of the most inexperienced and vulnerable writers, Author Solutions squeezes an average of over $5,000 out of its customers, who then go on to average sales of just 150 copies (from Author Solutions’ own figures) – obviously coming nowhere close to recouping that staggering outlay, despite the accompanying overblown promises from Author Solutions sales reps.
Closer Integration With Penguin Random House
This new Spanish imprint from Author Solutions also continues the trend of very close integration with the local Penguin Random House operation – one aspect of the merger and subsequent reorganization that doesn’t receive any attention in the trade press.
MeGustaEscribir is being marketed as “the supported self-publishing platform of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial” and the logo of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial (PRH’s Spanish subsidiary) is all over the site.
This strategy of closer integration was flagged long in advance. When Penguin Random House Chairman John Makinson appointed company man Andrew Philips as CEO of Author Solutions in May 2013, he said that “a new chief executive from within Penguin would connect the business more closely to Penguin’s curated publishing activities.”
This shows how central Penguin Random House views author scamming to its future. Partridge India shares offices with Penguin Random House India, and touts its connections to its parent company all the time. The other two international imprints launched since the Penguin purchase – Partridge Singapore and Partridge Africa – are also keen to highlight the Penguin Random House connection. And all three Partridge imprints disingenuously dangle the possibility of a traditional publishing contract in front of newbie authors to get them to sign with Author Solutions.
The Return of Reading Fees
MeGustaEscribir goes one step beyond, firmly embracing an unethical practice which had been consigned to the dustbin of publishing history: reading fees.
Heavily touted on the MeGustaEscribir site is the Recognition Program – where customers will be recommended for review by an editor from Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial.
Here’s the really shocking part. Consideration by a Penguin Random House editor is contingent on writers undergoing an Editorial Evaluation Report by MeGustaEscribir. The only publishing packages which contain this Evaluation Report are priced at 2,899 Euro (around $3,600) and 3,999 Euro (around $4,970).
Author Solutions always amazes me with new and shittier ways to screw writers, but I’m genuinely surprised that Penguin Random House is pimping out its own editors to gouge thousands of dollars in reading fees from newbie writers.
Andrew Philips (pictured right) was President and CEO of Penguin Books India when he set up Partridge India. Here’s what he said when promoted to CEO of Author Solutions:
The launch of Partridge, the first Penguin Author Solutions partnership in India, gave me firsthand experience of the huge opportunities that exist both in developed and emerging markets.
But is there another reason why Penguin Random House is investing so much time, money, and effort into an aggressive international expansion?
Flat Growth For Author Solutions in the US
There is obviously a huge pool of potential victims in India, Africa, and the combined Spanish-language world, but I think something else is going on here. Namely, Author Solutions is running out of road in America, where a years-long campaign by writers is starting to take effect.
ISBNs are an imperfect measure of self-publishing because you don’t need an ISBN to publish with Amazon’s KDP, Apple, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, or Kobo Writing Life. However, Author Solutions is primarily focused on publishing packages which include an ISBN, so we can measure its growth.
Out of the 211,269 self-published titles tracked by Bowker in 2011, Author Solutions imprints accounted for 41,605 books while a (reputable) competitor like CreateSpace registered 57,602 titles.
Fast forward to 2013, and the self-publishing boom has taken full effect – for everyone except Author Solutions. Bowker tracked 458,564 self-published titles which had been assigned ISBNs. Virtually none of that growth went to Author Solutions, despite launching several new imprints, including a high profile vanity press partnership with Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing).
Author Solutions’ total for 2013, despite the staggering growth in self-publishing during that two year period, was just 45,574 – a barely noticeable increase on 2011’s numbers. For comparison CreateSpace registered 186,926 ISBNs that year, and Smashwords came out of nowhere to register 85,000.
While the self-publishing market is booming in the US, Penguin Random House needs to pull out all the stops just to keep numbers flat. In other words, its market share is shrinking and the campaign against Author Solutions is finally having an effect.
The PublishAmerica Playbook
PublishAmerica faced the same conundrum recently – its name had become mud in the writing community, after a concerted campaign against its shady practices, and a search for it on Google turned up all sorts of reports of complaints, scamming, and legal actions.
Author Solutions now finds itself in the same situation (for much the same reasons). Googling its imprint names like Trafford, iUniverse, Xlibris, or AuthorHouse brings up a litany of abuses that Author Solutions has committed and all sorts of warnings from writers to stay away, as well as details of that class action for deceptive business practices.
PublishAmerica solved that problem in the manner of a con on the run – changing name and moving country. PublishAmerica’s new name is America Star Books and now explicitly targets foreign authors. It’s interesting to see Author Solutions follow the same template.
The launch of MeGustaEscribir has another feature worth noting, as Penguin Random House becomes increasingly sophisticated at adding Teflon to the scammy operations of Author Solutions. Like Partridge, it has chosen a fairly generic name that won’t easily pop to the top of Google searches.
Which is hilarious – it’s like negative SEO. Penguin Random House doesn’t want you to easily find information about the company through a Google search because it knows that those searches will soon become filled with customer complaints and detailed breakdowns of how the scam works. Having a generic name like MeGustaEscribir (translation: I Like Writing) or Partridge is much more effective for burying customer complaints than a unique name like Xlibris or iUniverse, and Author Solutions can still capture those customers through its heavy investment in Google ads (many of which lead to those faux-independent comparison sites mentioned above).
The BookCountry Trojan Horse
MeGustaEscribir also follows the BookCountry template of using an author community/social network as the Trojan Horse to gain the confidence of users before slapping on a vanity press to shake them down. MeGustaEscribir opened in 2008 as a community where authors could share manuscripts, before being re-tooled this month for next week’s launch.
(In case you are not up to speed with BookCountry’s development, it has since given up any pretence of being independent from Author Solutions and has now outsourced all customer service operations to Author Solutions – who is, in turn, using that channel to upsell all those scammy marketing packages to BookCountry users, with the blessing of Penguin Random House.)
This new vanity imprint has also received a publicity boost in the mainstream Spanish press – for example in El País. Once again, this follows a trend we have seen in the US and the UK, where media organizations like the New York Times, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller continually give uncritical (and in some cases, glowing) coverage to Author Solutions, despite the unending stream of complaints from authors who have been scammed, and despite the class action that Author Solutions faces for deceptive practices.
Traditional Publishing Turns A Blind Eye
There is much heated debate about Amazon’s disruption of bookselling and publishing. What is spoken about a lot less is how Amazon (through KDP and CreateSpace) has disrupted the scammy vanity press industry, along with smaller platforms like Kobo and reputable distributors like Smashwords.
Author Solutions is on a shrinking piece of ice in the US, now it needs to find fresh victims in new markets. Meanwhile, traditional publishing has turned a blind eye to these unscrupulous practices – too busy profiting from them, I guess – and the trade press refuses to report the story, along with the rest of the media.
It sums up the hypocrisy which characterizes this industry when the loudest voices protesting Amazon become completely silent when it comes to Penguin Random House and Author Solutions.
The traditional end of the publishing industry seemed to react with stunned silence when Penguin purchased the company two years ago, and those that did speak publicly mostly restricted comments to hoping that Penguin would end the worst practices. But the opposite has happened and Penguin Random House has aggressively expanded operations around the world, without addressing any of the unending complaints against Author Solutions.
It really should have been no surprise. Once again, I’ll remind you of what Penguin Random House Chairman (and industry hero) John Makinson had to say when Penguin purchased Author Solutions in 2012.
“We spent time getting to know the people at Author Solutions and their sophisticated operation,” Makinson said. “They have skills that can help us at Penguin.”