Publishing Is Rotten To The Core

The ethics of the publishing industry are askew and the most egregious behavior is routinely ignored in favor of pursuing pet targets. It’s worth asking whose agenda this serves and why writers allow themselves to be used as pawns in this game.

This post is from 22 September 2014. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open.

Exhibit A: Harlequin

Amazon is regularly slated for the way it manages its tax affairs. I have written extensively about this before, but, in short, Amazon is using common methods for minimizing its tax bills that are used by every major tech company, and many other multinational corporations too).

You can argue these loopholes should be closed (and I would agree, for what it’s worth), but these actions are legal. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the major publishers, and the global media conglomerates which own them, are doing the exact same thing.

Take Harlequin, for example. Harlequin doesn’t just use these corporate structures to minimize its tax bill. It has also used them to reduce the 50% digital royalty rate agreed in some of its initial ebook contracts to a paltry 3%. Harlequin is facing a class action suit because of this, but you won’t find coverage of that in the news media or outrage about Harlequin’s actions among publishing professionals.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I think exploiting authors in this manner is worse than using legal means to minimize your tax bill.

Exhibit B: The New York Times

I have a fun game you can play! Well, it’s more of a thought experiment and it goes something like this: try and construct a hypothetical scenario where the New York Times writes an article that is critical of a major publisher.

Seriously, give it a shot. It’s probably harder than you think, as it would need to be something worse than price-fixing or exploiting authors on an industrial scale, subjects which the New York Times routinely ignores, or whitewashes.

It would also have to be worse than a publisher pretending it was a victim of the Nazis when, in reality, it secretly donated to the SS, used Jewish slave labor to publish hits like The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth, and then refused to apologize in 2002 when caught lying about it!

That publisher is Bertelsmann, 51% owner of Penguin Random House. I guess being a global media conglomerate keeps the right stories on the front page and helps the wrong ones disappear.

Exhibit C: LA Times Festival of Books

The biggest controversy in the publishing world this year, before the Hachette mess, was Amazon’s involvement with the LA Times Festival of Books.

Amazon wasn’t sponsoring the event, or even appearing at it. The deal was an affiliate arrangement where the LA Times Festival of Books would make a percentage on any Amazon transactions that occurred via its own site. The anger subsided when the organizers also struck an affiliate deal with IndieBound – an umbrella group for independent booksellers.

However, there has been no such controversy over Author Solutions’ partnership with the LA Times Festival of Books. Not a peep of protest over the $900,000 that Author Solutions scammed out of writers at last year’s event alone. Author Solutions has been appearing at the LA Times Festival of Books for years without encountering any opposition from indie booksellers, or howls of protest from publishing professionals.

Maybe I’m nuts, but I think partnering with a company famous for scamming authors, who is currently facing a class action for deceptive business practices, is a little bit worse than agreeing an affiliate deal with Amazon to make a percentage from transactions that were likely to occur anyway.

Exhibit D: Publishers Weekly

The crusade against the affiliate deal with Amazon was led by Publishers Weekly – who whipped up a moral panic among booksellers and industry professionals which, in turn, led to calls for a boycott of the event.

Despite numerous requests from me, Publishers Weekly refused to cover the Author Solutions story, or comment on the record about my article regarding same. Of course, Publishers Weekly has a business relationship with Author Solutions, permitting the vanity press to sell six different Publishers Weekly advertising packages (costing up to $16,499) to its customers victims. The high-pressure sales tactics used by Author Solutions to sell such packages were explicitly mentioned in the papers filed in the class action suit.

But exploiting authors isn’t important. Let’s get mad about an Amazon affiliate deal instead.

Rotten To The Core

Publishing likes to think of itself as a moral business with strong values but I think that’s complete bullshit. No industry with the smallest amount of ethics would permit a giant scam like Author Solutions to happen under its nose.

No industry with the tiniest modicum of respect for writers would keep quiet about Penguin Random House owning the biggest vanity press in the world. No industry with any sense of decency would look the other way when Simon & Schuster partners with Author Solutions, or when Harlequin and HarperCollins happily profit from the exploitation of writers with their own white-label vanity imprints.

The moral compass of publishing is completely broken and we can’t look to the media to hold them to account, because the media is parroting talking points from the major publishers.

We are the only ones who can push back against this crap, so the next time The Guardian publishes an Amazon hit piece, ask them why they have never covered the Author Solutions story.

The next time the Wall Street Journal runs an article claiming the judge in the price-fixing trial was biased and calling her “a disgrace to the judiciary“, ask them why they didn’t disclose that the Wall Street Journal is owned by NewsCorp, which also owns HarperCollins – one of the five major publishers who illegally colluded to fix the price of e-books.

The next time the New York Times acts as an uncritical mouthpiece for a pro-publisher organization which has just spent $104,000 on a full-page spread, ask them why they don’t direct similar moral outrage towards publishers who are cheating writers out of contractually agreed royalties. Ask them why the only time they mention Author Solutions is in an uncritical or even glowing manner. Ask them if it’s anything to do with the amount of money that publishers (and Author Solutions) spend on advertising.

The next time Publishers Weekly leads a crusade against Amazon, claiming to defend the values of this business, ask them how much money they make from Author Solutions advertising. Ask them if this is the reason why they never subject the most successful author scamming operation in the world to any level of scrutiny, and instead print endless puff pieces about a company they have a long-standing and lucrative partnership with.

And ask them what those values are, exactly. Because this business is rotten to the core.

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.