The Authors Guild Doesn’t Serve Writers

It’s official: the Authors Guild has lost the plot. In their (seemingly endless) quest to smear Amazon, they don’t care who they wheel out as an injured party. Spoiler alert: it’s PublishAmerica. Yep, you read that right.

But before we get to that, how did we get into this mess?

At the beginning of March, The President of the Authors Guild – Scott Turow – called for the Department of Justice to drop their unfinished investigation into e-book price-fixing.

That call, of course, went unheeded, the investigation continued, and a suit was filed. A settlement was agreed with three of the Price Fix Six (with the rest electing to go to trial), but that settlement had yet to be approved by the court. Meanwhile, a wave of news stories appeared bashing a company not alleged to have participated in that price-fixing: Amazon.

The allegations against Amazon were successively absurd, culminating in a ridiculous story which claimed that Amazon’s charitable donations were a nefarious attempt to co-opt critics. It was quite clear at that point that we were witnessing a concerted PR campaign to sully Amazon – with reporters openly admitting that these stories were being fed to them by publishing executives.

The next step was a series of disingenuous open letters to the Department of Justice from various publishing industry professionals, prompting me to write my own letter, which was co-signed by around 200 fellow writers, and mailed a few weeks back (thank you again).

The reason for all these letters flying around is that, pursuant to the Tunney Act, the Department of Justice is compelled to accept comments from the public on the proposed settlement for a period of 60 days, and then both publish them and file them with the court.

On Monday of last week, just before the deadline for public submissions expired, Paul Aiken (the Executive Director of the Authors Guild) published his own open letter to the Department of Justice on the Authors Guild website, furnishing some of the aforementioned news stories as “evidence.”

Unsurprisingly, the Authors Guild’s letter barely mentions the voluminous (actual) evidence that the Department of Justice have compiled in relation to the price-fixing allegations, but instead focuses on a company not named as a defendant in this case: Amazon.

The letter is quite long, and worth reading – if only to get an idea of the mindset at the helm of the leading writers’ organization in America. I’m not going to go through the entire letter, but I will highlight a typical passage to show I’m not dismissing it out of hand.

(At this point, I should remind everyone that I’m not a lawyer. While I once pretended to be a law student to gain access to a college photocopier, none of the small-talk around the machines centered on US anti-trust law.)

How Amazon Captured 90% of the Market

From the AG’s letter:

It was precisely this practice – selling frontlist e-books at below cost to discourage and destroy competition – that helped Amazon capture a commanding 90% of the U.S. e-book market.

Completely untrue. When Amazon released the first Kindle in November 2007, there was no real e-book market to speak of. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-books were only responsible for 0.6% of trade book sales at the time. The market was tiny and Amazon’s only competition was a half-hearted offering from Sony, which was plagued with supply problems and limited title selection.

Amazon essentially created the e-book market in America. By the time Apple and Barnes & Noble had woken up to the fact that there was real money to be made in e-books, the market had grown by 600% (to 3.2% of all trade books sold) – with most of those new customers buying Kindles.

In short, Amazon got to (an estimated) 90% of the market because they were the only ones really playing the game, and the market was so small that a focused offering could make serious inroads.

The Authors Guild & PublishAmerica

The rest of the letter is just as bad, and I’m not going to waste time going through it all. I’ve dealt with most of these arguments already (and anyway, the commenters on The Passive Voice have done a pretty good job of dissecting the numerous fallacies, and there are a few zingers over at Digital Book World).

Instead, I want to focus on one particular section – the Authors Guild’s summary of the tactics Amazon used to establish CreateSpace (formerly known as BookSurge, who Amazon purchased in 2005).

Quoting from the original letter:

More importantly and profitably to Amazon, by forcing iUniverse and other author centered on-demand service providers to use BookSurge, Amazon severely constrained effective competition for its own author centered on-demand service provider, which became known as CreateSpace in 2009. Amazon’s vertical integration of on-demand printing eliminated the ability of iUniverse, PublishAmerica, XLibris and others to offer authors better royalties when selling through Amazon. CreateSpace appears to have thrived ever since. [Emphasis mine]

The first time I read that, I was in shock. The Authors Guild are so desperate to tar Amazon that they are willing to roll out PublishAmerica as a victim. And the more I think about it, the more mad I get. Really? PublishAmerica? Are you serious?

For those unaware of the checkered history of PublishAmerica, a quick summary:

1. They are one of only two organizations to earn the dubious honor of having their own sub-forum on Absolute Write’s Bewares & Background Checks (the other being Robert Fletcher’s infamous web of companies).

2. Preditors and Editors have a lengthy entry warning writers away.

3. The Better Business Bureau rates PublishAmerica as an “F”.

4. The leading industry watchdog – Writer Beware – regularly cover PublishAmerica’s various attempts to squeeze money out of their writers (e.g. here, here, here, here, here, and here – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg).

5. PublishAmerica are now the subject of a class-action suit, the allegations being very familiar to anyone who has followed the company (full complaint can be read here).

In short, PublishAmerica is probably the last place I would recommend to a writer.

However, the Authors Guild feels that PublishAmerica’s rights have been trampled upon. If Amazon hadn’t been such a bully, PublishAmerica could have gained more customers. Will Amazon stop at nothing in their evil quest to take over the world?

PublishAmerica wasn’t the only company that the Authors Guild sprang to the defense of; to be fair, the letter spends more time talking about iUniverse.

Question for lawyer types: shouldn’t the Authors Guild disclose their relationship with iUniverse when writing about them?

That relationship, of course, is the Authors Guild Back In Print program, which is run by iUniverse (and promoted heavily on the Authors Guild site). If you are a member of the Authors Guild, this service will get your book back in print, for free.

The catch is that you have to assign print rights to iUniverse. In exchange, when they sell a copy of your book, iUniverse pay writers around 15% of their list price. (Authors may terminate their relationship with iUniverse with 30 days notice, but iUniverse will retain a non-exclusive right to sell that book for a further ten months.)

The first question I have for the Authors Guild is this: do you benefit financially (or otherwise) from this partnership? And, even if Authors Guild doesn’t benefit financially (or otherwise), shouldn’t this relationship be mentioned when writing about iUniverse (and especially when writing a letter to the Department of Justice regarding a proposed settlement)?

More importantly, however, I would like to ask the Authors Guild whether they genuinely believe that the Back In Print program is the best way for writers to get their reverted titles published? Additionally, I would like to know if the Authors Guild feel that iUniverse provides a good service – both to Guild members using the Back In Print program and to writers in general?

I ask, because I know how I feel about iUniverse.

For those who don’t know, iUniverse was purchased by Author Solutions in 2007 (who also own AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, and Trafford, among others). Since then, industry watchdogs such as Writer Beware have received a litany of complaints regarding their service (summarized here).

Aside from flogging overpriced and ineffective services to writers, iUniverse also pays terrible royalty rates. To give you an example, CreateSpace pays me $5 every time someone buys the paperback edition of Let’s Get Digital from Amazon. Had I published that edition through iUniverse, I would receive just over $2. (And the rates for the Authors Guild Back in Print program are no better.)

I can’t conceive of a rational argument for choosing iUniverse over CreateSpace. I find it sad that an organization which is supposed to represent writers is delivering them into the clutches of a company with an inferior service and terrible royalty rates.

But hey, it’s only print rights. All the money is in e-books these days, right? Unfortunately, iUniverse has come to the same conclusion.

Just before Christmas, iUniverse mailed their existing customers (and presumably those Authors Guild members who availed of the Back in Print program) with a very special deal. They offered to turn their customers print books into e-books and upload them to the various retailers FOR FREE!!!

The catch – and it’s a doozy – is that you have to fork over half your e-book royalties to iUniverse. That’s right: 50%. (Don’t panic if you missed out! This astonishing deal is also available to new customers.)

This kind of gouging should be roundly condemned by everyone. But do you recall the stinging rebuke from the Authors Guild? Do you remember the blog post written by Scott Turow or Paul Aiken advising Guild members to use alternative services?

Nope. Neither do I.

The Authors Guild seems more concerned with defending the rights of Author Solutions and PublishAmerica than its own members. And they seem so desperate to tar Amazon, that they don’t care how they do it.

They are so blinded by their hatred of Amazon that instead of advising writers how to take advantage of the excellent free services provided by Createspace and KDP to get their books back in print (which will also leave their royalties intact), they are pushing them towards a company with a terrible service record and awful royalty rates.

The Authors Guild should be ashamed of themselves.

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.