Experienced authors tend to chastise vanity press victims for not doing sufficient research, but the murky web of vanity partnerships — and the uncritical coverage which invariably accompanies same — makes it difficult for newer writers to chart a safe path.
Some vanity presses are very good at crafting a veneer of legitimacy, one which can be very convincing to those starting out. Infamous vanity press conglomerate Author Solutions figured this out very early on, creating partnerships with Penguin, Harlequin, Writer’s Digest, Random House, HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson, Hay House, Reader’s Digest, Lulu, and Barnes & Noble. (And the Author’s Guild as well, although they would very much like you to forget that.)
These partnerships served two purposes. First, they delivered an endless stream of victims directly from the companies themselves who would refer business to Author Solutions in return for a cut. Second, they helped Author Solutions whitewash its past, acting as a reputational fig leaf, hiding its seamy nature until it was too late.
It wasn’t just publishing partnerships that Author Solutions engaged in, but marketing and media partnerships too. Author Solutions sells a range of products to its customers (like all vanity presses, revenue predominantly comes from selling things to writers, rather than selling books on behalf of writers). These include themed marketing packages which promise to get you exposure in the New York Times, or reviews from industry magazines like Kirkus, or appearances at literary events — in all cases charged at staggering prices.
The media partnerships were especially insidious as they seem to have muzzled a lot of criticism — Publishers Weekly immediately comes to mind — but it turns out that not all companies which Author Solutions used in this manner were willing participants in that embrace.
I spoke with the New York Review of Books about the long-standing practice of Author Solutions re-selling ad space in its magazine. The New York Review of Books was unequivocal: it has no partnership whatsoever with Author Solutions. In fact, Author Solutions is not permitted to resell its ad space, and has been warned a number of times to discontinue the practice.
Despite this, Author Solutions continued to sell a New York Review of Books-themed marketing package across its various vanity imprints such as Xlibris, Trafford, AuthorHouse, Balboa Press, Archway, LifeRich, Palibrio, and iUniverse for some time. Indeed, at the time of writing, Author Solutions is still selling a New York Review of Books marketing pack at Archway Publishing — the vanity press it runs on behalf of Simon & Schuster.
The ad space that Archway is selling to its customers for $2,499 is being sold at a significant mark-up. Archway squeezes in fifteen books in this advertisement too, bringing in a serious sum. This mark-up looks especially bad when compared with the prices charged if you go direct to the New York Times Review of Books yourself, where you can buy a slot for $300, and you will only have to share the page with 8 other titles.
Author Solutions is also still selling a New York Review of Books package via its subsdiary Xlibris, this time for an astonishing $4,899 (although it’s unclear how many books they shoehorn into that particular ad).
The New York Review of Books had very strong words for this practice, explaining how upsetting it was that Author Solutions persisted in this manner, particularly that Author Solutions makes it sound like they have some kind of partnership with them, or that the New York Review of Books is aware of, or endorses, the practice of marking-up and reselling.
I would really appreciate it if you’d make your readers aware that if they’re being charged more than a few hundred dollars to advertise a book with New York Review of Books, they’re being scammed.
Of course, the greatest trick that Author Solutions ever pulled was getting itself purchased by Penguin in 2012 — a move which gave it instant credibility, but also generated a huge outcry among writers, particularly after a couple of class actions revealed the grim nature of its business practices in forensic detail.
However, Penguin Random House now seems to have quietly severed all links with Author Solutions. After selling the company for what is widely assumed to be a huge markdown in 2016, it still maintained various partnerships with the company. The white label vanity press Author Solutions ran for it in Africa, India, and Singapore – Partridge – now seems to have removed all the previous Penguin branding and links it had been adorned with. and it appears to be run as a standard Author Solutions imprint.
The case of Random House’s Spanish self-publishing platform MeGustaEscribir is a little different. It also seems to have dispensed with Author Solutions’ services but have held onto the platform itself, hiring another white label publishing service called Lantia to run it on their behalf instead. Although, it was amusing to note the familiar, overblown promises about being promoted by the biggest publisher in the world and joining the ranks of esteemed authors like Ken Follett and Isabel Allende, contrasting with the reality hidden in the legal small print, which clearly states that Penguin Random House would have nothing to do with the book. Some things never change.
The number of publishing partners for Author Solutions has dwindled considerably. Crossbooks, Barnes & Noble, Harlequin, and Writer’s Digest all terminated their various partnerships in the last few years, joining the likes of Bowker and The Bookseller who ended advertising/marketing relationships in 2013/14.
Some Author Solutions partnerships have proved surprisingly enduring, however. Westbow Press – the Christian-flavored vanity press infamously set up by Michael Hyatt – continues to be run by Author Solutions on behalf of Thomas Nelson/Harper Collins. And Archway, of course, is still being quietly operated by Author Solutions on behalf of Simon & Schuster, shamelessly playing up its supposed links to the New York publisher, even though the role that Simon & Schuster plays is strictly limited to delivering victims and collecting the money.
As for marketing and media partnerships, Author Solutions still re-sells products like Kirkus reviews, Guardian Weekly ad spots, and space in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, usually at exorbitant mark-ups. Whether those organizations are aware of this re-selling and price gouging is unclear as they refuse to discuss the matter. Although I should note that when the New York Times does cover Author Solutions, the coverage is unfailingly positive, despite incessant complaints from writers about those business practices. For example, the New York Times didn’t cover the class actions at all.
The case is a little clearer with literary events such as Word on Street Toronto and the Miami Book Fair. Author Solutions sells book signing packages to its customers for thousands of dollars. The organizers of these events are aware of this but have refused to put a stop to it – no doubt influenced by the large rows of booths that Author Solutions purchases at their events each year.
Another company that plays a central role in Author Solutions marketing packages is Publishers Weekly – the supposedly respectable trade industry magazine. Author Solutions sells Publishers Weekly-themed marketing packages for up to $11,999.
Not only does Publishers Weekly refuse to stamp out this exploitative practice, it has also allowed it to spread to other vanity presses such as Readers Magnet — a real shady enterprise that is said to be set up by former Author Solutions staff, which is now selling Publishers Weekly packages for an astonishing $13,999.
Publishers Weekly is particularly bad on this front. While it is fond of engaging in flag-waving about its own pet issues such as Amazon’s dominance, its conscience goes very quiet indeed when it comes to accepting ad money from companies with questionable business practices. The walls between advertising and editorial are so non-existent that you will only ever see positive coverage of companies like Author Solutions, Morgan James, or Austin Macauley.
Indeed, here is Writer Beware criticizing Publishers Weekly for just that — giving glowing, uncritical coverage to companies “whose business model is largely built on author fees.”
This practice is spreading too. Porter Anderson is the editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives. He wrote a puff piece on Austin Macauley last week, which immediately attracted strong criticism from Writer Beware in a comment underneath. One week later, Porter Anderson has refused to explain why he is promoting this company, despite Victoria Strauss pointing him to this blog post about Austin Macauley and the 100+ comments it generated underneath.
In this particular case, I think Porter Anderson’s client is Sharjah Publishing City rather than Austin Macauley (he didn’t respond to inquiries). Either way, this is another example of the influence-peddling circle jerk that is plaguing the industry. One which makes it incredibly difficult for new writers to sort the good from the bad. Especially when companies further spin that glowing coverage in their own marketing.
While I strongly urge all authors to conduct appropriate due diligence before signing any contract or handing over any money or entering into any business relationship, the preponderance of these partnerships — and the uncritical coverage which invariably accompanies them — muddies the water considerably.
Newer writers especially tend to be the most vulnerable, unaware of the many nuances in publishing. So the next time you hear someone blaming a vanity press victim for not doing their research, perhaps you should point to the famous names doing all this pimping.