FYI: Penguin Random House Is Still In The Vanity Press Business

Penguin Random House announced the sale of Author Solutions on Tuesday, leading to headlines stating it has exited the self-publishing business and various commentators congratulating it for cleaning house. Unfortunately, neither of those things are true.

This post is from 7 January 2016. 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.

Four Penguin Random House-owned vanity presses will remain in operation – Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, and MeGustaEscribir – and will be run as Partner Imprints. You can read more about how Partner Imprints work here, but the short version is that Author Solutions will operate these four vanity presses on behalf of Penguin Random House, and PRH’s job will be to provide leads (aka newbie writers), lend its name and brand to the effort, and then sit back and collect its commissions.

This is precisely how Author Solutions operates Archway Publishing on behalf of Simon & Schuster, Westbow for HarperCollins, and Balboa Press for Hay House, among others. In short, Penguin Random House is still in the vanity business, it’s just flying under the radar – along with many more famous names in the industry.

These troublesome little details were overlooked by the press who were keen to trumpet Penguin Random House’s move. Indeed, it has been quite revealing watching the reaction unfold.

When Penguin purchased Author Solutions in 2012 for $116m, virtually all the press had the same angle: Penguin was making a smart move into the fast-growing world of self-publishing. No mention was made of the controversial business practices of Author Solutions, or that the giant vanity press resembled a viable self-publishing platform much in the way a glass of hydrochloric acid is a recommended way to cleanse after the holidays.

Fast forward to 2016, and suddenly Author Solutions has become “controversial” and even “toxic” – and selling the company is being hailed as an even smarter move. But what happened in-between 2012 and 2016? What did Author Solutions do to become toxic or controversial? Why was purchasing the company seen as smart in 2012, but getting rid of it was seen as even smarter in 2016?

Readers of this blog will be fully aware, but readers elsewhere will have no idea whatsoever because the press refused to cover the story. Indeed, in most publications, the only stories they ran on Author Solutions in the last four years were the purchase and the sale – no mention whatsoever of its awful business practices, the widespread protests from the author community, even the class actions.

An Accidental Inheritance

One line being pushed by publishing professionals is that Random House somehow accidentally inherited Author Solutions in the Penguin merger. I can picture CEO Markus Dohle pinching his nose as he made the head of Author Solutions part of his global executive team – obviously under some kind of duress.

More seriously, it’s patently ridiculous to make this claim. Penguin Random House happily continued the aggressive international expansion of Author Solutions commenced by Penguin – even to the point of opening a vanity press right in the offices of Random House Spain and pimping out its editors to sell 4,000 Euro evaluation reports.

Let’s also not forget what then-Penguin CEO John Makinson said when purchasing the company 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.”

His current job? Chairman of Penguin Random House.

Not Much To Celebrate

I can understand the impulse to celebrate this news. Having the world’s largest trade publisher operate the world’s largest vanity press was an abomination – handing Author Solutions a gold-plated fig-leaf for its shady operations. Even worse was the craven way the industry operated a kind of Omerta, refusing to talk about Author Solutions, let alone making any attempt to address the problems. Hopefully, some of that will now change.

Before we get carried away, we must remember that Author Solutions isn”t closing down; it will continue to operate under a new owner – one which has announced no plans to reform the worst abuses, and which instead signaled its intent to continue the aggressive international expansion that was the hallmark of Penguin Random House’s ownership.

We must also remember that a whole host of companies still have links and partnerships of various kinds with Author Solutions. Pressure must now be exerted on them to dump the company.

I try and maintain and up-to-date list, but tracking down the extent to which Author Solutions has infiltrated our industry would be a full time job. There are simply too many companies with their noses in the trough. Below is but a partial list of its publishing partners:

Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing), Lulu (marketing services), Harlequin (DelleArte Press) – partnership terminated 2015, Hay House (Balboa US, Balboa Australia), Barnes & Noble (Nook Press Author Services), Crossbooks (LifeWay) – partnership terminated 2014, Penguin (Partridge India, Partridge Singapore, Partridge Africa, BookCountry – marketing services), HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson/Zondervan (Westbow Press), Random House Spain (MeGustaEscribir), Writer’s Digest (Abbott Press) – partnership terminated 2014.

In addition to these publishing partners, Author Solutions has also forged a variety of marketing partnerships. Again, this is very much a partial list:

The Guardian Weekly, Baker & Taylor, Miami Book Fair International, New York Times, Women of Faith Conferences, The Bookseller (relationship terminated in 2014), Kirkus, The Combined Book Exhibit, Word On The Street Festival Toronto, Publishers Weekly, International Christian Retail Show, Library Journal, MindBodySpirit Festivals, ForeWord, LA Times Festival of Books, Bowker (relationship terminated in 2013/4), New York Review of Books, Hay House “I Can Do It!” Conferences, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Bay Area Book Festival, Clarion, AARP National Event & Expo, London Review of Books, Ingram, Ellery Queen Mystery Monthly, Tucson Festival of Books.

A veritable Who’s Who of Publishing, and many of you will notice several media companies on the list, companies which have never published anything critical about Author Solutions – a coincidence, one presumes.

Some of the above-named companies simply carry Author Solutions ads and allow the company to upsell its products at insane mark-ups. Others have deeper partnerships, and it has been speculated that those partners also receive commissions.

For example, Publishers Weekly not only allows Author Solutions to re-sell ad packs to wholly unsuitable newbies at insane prices, it also lets them re-sell access to its mailing list and banner ads on its site, among other offerings. Publishers Weekly refused to comment when asked if it receives a commission from those sales.

Indeed, not only has Publishers Weekly refused to acknowledge the existence of its partnership with Author Solutions, it also never even discloses same when writing about the company – a clear breach of the most basic journalistic ethics.

Lessons Learned?

I wish I could end on a more positive note, and list off all the ways the industry will change after this sordid episode, but I can’t. Nothing whatsoever has been learned – except, perhaps, the extent to which this industry will go when it comes to exploiting writers.

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.

39 Replies to “FYI: Penguin Random House Is Still In The Vanity Press Business”

  1. Thanks for this. Like many others here, I"ve reblogged, along with a link to your excellent book, David, and your "basics of self-publishing" post. Link here:

    Just yesterday on an author forum we had to break the news to an excited newbie who wanted to know why her book wasn"t selling: "I"m sorry, hun, but you"ve just wasted your money…."This is a terrible thing to have to tell someone. I so wish people would just check your blog first.

  2. Hey David,
    You would think after everyone"s rally call to avoid Author Solutions you still would not hear respectable people in the know recommend them, but today on Michael Hyatt"s podcast/video he recommends them by name to authors who want help indie publishing their books. Given who he is I believe it is mostly ignorance and not malice or greed that makes him recommend them, but it is discouraging how many people truly do not know the problem with this company.
    Here Is the link to his video/podcast (he mentions Author Solutions around the 19 min. mark)
    Just an FYI. Hope all is going well with you.

  3. Thanks for this piece. It enforces my perception that main stream publishing, like all corporations and governments, should never be trusted. But of course, they of the main line are all corporations, aren"t they?

  4. As I mentioned, we don"t have direct partnerships but do provide space for companies who wish to connect to retailers who sell product to end-user customers and readers. The point of trade shows is to bring buyers and sellers together. I personally am not aware of high-pressure sales tactics by Author Solutions or other companies. I do know that it is difficult for authors in a changing publishing industry to find solutions to create, produce, and market their titles. Personally speaking and not representing the trade show or the association, I think as more authors publish independently the dynamics of content delivery will change dramatically. If 25% of Amazon"s top 100 titles are independently published, it underscores what is happening to the creative class. They are on their own. The way things are now, it"s sad that authors must choose between e-book sales through an easy online source where they get more margin but fewer unit sales and having access to physical stores with physical product that may multiply unit sales. Regardless, whichever direction an author takes, the content must still be good enough to generate an end-user sale.

    1. Sticking to the matter at hand, Eric, are you saying that the International Christian Retail Show is aware that Author Solutions is reselling space at the event at these mark-ups? I"m happy to provide you with ample evidence that Author Solutions uses high-pressure sales tactics. On receipt of same, will the International Christian Retail Show kick Author Solutions to the kerb? If you really do want to know, this post will give you a perfect primer on the abominable tactics used to sell marketing packs like this:

      This stuff is so clearly beyond the pale, we shouldn"t even be discussing it. However, I suspect the International Christian Retail Show is just like all the other events listed above, and will use any excuse to look the other way and take the sweet, sweet Author Solutions cash.

      I"d love to be proven wrong. I would love if the International Christian Retail Show would follow the lead of companies like Bowker and The Bookseller and cut ties with Author Solutions. And, to be quite frank, the excuses don"t fly at all. Being self-published has nothing to do with anything. Authors deserve better than this.

  5. Just for the record, the International Christian Retail Show does not have and has not had a partnership with Author Solutions. Author Solutions has exhibited at the trade show and has exhibited with other companies at the event, but there is no direct relationship between Author Solutions and the trade show or its host, CBA, the Association for Christian Retail.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Eric. I"m more than happy to correct any information that is incorrect.

      However, Westbow Press, which is operated by Author Solutions, appears to be re-selling book slots at your event. Author Solutions is charging $499 per title for its customers to exhibit at your event. Here"s the link:

      And here"s the screenshot, in case it gets yanked:

       photo icrs_zpsiw1mtyij.jpg

      Additionally, at events such as these, Author Solutions often sells “book signing” packages – which take place at the stalls it rents from the vendors – charging several thousand dollars per person (and nothing is included in that package other than a one hour signing slot at the event, and some free books). I"ve written about that here:

      So my question to you is this: is the International Christian Retail Show aware of these practices? Are you aware of the high-pressure sales tactics Author Solutions employs to upsell these packages? Will you pledge to take any action regarding this?

  6. And here I was, cheering that a Big 5 publishing house had decided enough was enough. Thanks for your insight, David.

  7. Thank you everyone for sharing. Twitter especially is lighting up, which is great because it’s heavily populated with publishing and media professionals as well as writers of all stripes. If anyone else feels like sharing, there are handy buttons at the bottom of the article, or you can just click the embedded tweets spread throughout (trying something new!).

      1. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Author Solutions always comes back to bite me!

        Yes, he said he would remove the posts and continue the discussion by email. I was fine with that, when assuming he was being genuine. The truth looks rather different now, eh? Commenters on the Passive Voice dug up even more on this guy:

        It looks like he is paid by Westbow to convince writers to use them:

        And then there is this too:

        Quite the character. I sense a blog post in my future 🙂

      2. I look forward to it . . .

        In case you didn"t know, Writer Beware also commented on JJ"s vanity press:

        Unfortunately, WestBow isn"t the only vanity press targeting Christian authors – Tate Publishing also manages to make the Writer Beware Thumbs Down Publishers List.

  8. Great points well taken. But I think for breaking into writing, self-publishing is vastly overrated and really a form of vanity press. One can spend thousands on services including layout, editorial, cover design, paid reviews, ads, contests, etc. And then you"re on your own. How does that differ from using a vanity press? The whole idea of linking up with a reputable publisher is having a partner that takes its risks with you and shares in a successful outcome.

    But the rise of Big Publishing has made a mockery of this. Unless you"re one of those natural-born “authorpreneurs,” which admittedly I"m not, I think the only hope is the emergence of small publishing houses, following the traditional rather than the Wall Street model.

    A case could be made that, with exceptions of course, self-publishing works primarily for authors who have already made a name for themselves through traditional publishing.

    1. Comparing proper self-publishing to what vanity presses are doing is ridiculous. But before I get into this, let me be very clear about something: writing is a tough way to make money. Writing books in particular. For most of my professional life, I"ve made money from words in one form or another. It"s much easier making money as a copywriter. But JFC I have run out of words to describe how premium a vodka is or how much you can save with a coupon! But, yeah, it"s tough out there.

      Here"s the good news: It"s much much MUCH easier than it was five or ten or twenty years ago. Self-publishing has given us another, alternative path to readers. Digital publishing has given us cheap/free/easy ways to distribute our work and reach readers at incredible scale. Together, digital self-publishing is supporting thousands of additional writers who weren"t making diddly squat under the old system (I"m one of them, and very thankful for it).

      Easy? No. Better? Hell yes.

      Now I"d like to address what you directly said. First off, you shouldn"t be spending thousands on those things you mentioned. You should be spending anything on contests or awards – total waste of money. Don"t pay for reviews either. Waste of money AND unethical. Ads – you should only advertise on a small number of recommended sites where you will get your money back within 24 hours. Everything else is a waste. BookBub is one that easily falls into that camp (in 99% of cases). Layouts are cheap (or free if you learn yourself).

      The only thing you should spend significantly on are covers and editing. And even covers can be done cheaply if you are in a pinch (see sites like Editing – expensive, but an investment in your career IMO.

      Overall, it really shouldn"t cost thousands. There are a million variables here, but if you are spending two grand to release a book, you are probably overspending. I cover the basics here for anyone who is interested:

      Finally, to address the question of which way is the “easiest” to break in – large publisher, small press, or self-publishing, Author Earnings clearly shows that self-publishing is breaking more new authors than anyone else (and watching the Amazon Top 100 for a spell should convince you of same too):

  9. Indeed, an excellent point, David. There are multiple news reports, blogs etc., using terms like dumped and kicked in relation to this. Let"s be very clear. Penguin has not ended its association with AS. AS has just changed ownership and it continues to provide the publishing engine and marketing partnerships for Penguin Group Partridge imprints as well as some of tbe other big and small publishers out there.

  10. Anyway, David, thank you for the update on this tragic misuse of resources. Why be in the business of putting out good books and helping people illuminate the human condition when you can dash dreams and be $9,999 richer? Read a story in the WSJ a few years back about scams on Florida Seniors (you know the demographic group who might have a treasured memoir about a loved one they want to publish) that scam involved finances and the con man who had been caught was very, very ill at the time of the article"s writing. In the story he outlines his scam and commented about how he thought always about the people whose money he had stolen and what that loss meant to them. We can only hope that the conscience of some publishing people might be awakened. Your diligence and commitment to this cause are admirable.

  11. Thanks for the heads-up, David. Everything you say here, and have ever said about this travesty, is something that everyone should read before getting suckered into paying one cent to these thieves. All of this is a good reason for sticking with Amazon and the other legitimate indie publishers.
    But $10,000 for a bundle of junk? For instructions on how to do something, when you can get it from Amazon for nothing? Or by grabbing a copy of your book? That"s just a ripoff.
    You do all of us a real service when you post these warnings about the vanity press business. It does not seem to be the same as indie publishing. I"ve never had any issues with Amazon, as I"m just getting started in this. Could you, some time in the future, provide a listing of the better options such as Amazon and Smashbooks? There are so many genuine venues to go through that it seems as though we should have that, too.
    Tthanks, again.

    1. Hi Sara, It"s about time I posted some up-to-date walkthroughs on self-publishing and I"m planning to do just that – starting Monday with a great guest post from an author who is kicking some serious ass. More to follow after that.

      This could do with a little updating, but there is a Basics post here which might be a good starting point:

  12. When I saw the news the other day my reaction was, “Oh lord, what now?” The dishonesty and corruption in publishing runs so deep it leaves me a little numb. Thank you so much for all your investigation into this.

    Please put a donate button on your site so that those of us who benefit can at least pay you for some of your time and so the information keeps flowing.

    1. Hi Jaye. I"ve been asked before but decided against it. I could give all the logical reasons but it just feels wrong. But hey, what do you think about this idea? I could put a donate button up for some charity or NGO, maybe literacy related or some such, and if people really feel like kicking a couple of dollars in someone"s direction, then they can do it for a good cause. What do you (or anyone else) think?

  13. Persistent Bassett hound David. You are a one man hero for this thankless task. As always Congratulations! And a Happy New Year!

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