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Writers Share the Burden for Vanity Publishing

authorsolutionsprhDavid Gaughran has it in for Author Solutions. With good reason – Author Solutions rips people off. They offer marketing packages with huge markups that will likely have very little effect on sales. Recently, I attended the L.A. Times Book Festival and the Author Solutions booth was hocking a book about racial purity. Incredibly disgusting, but all’s well and good for AS because they got their fee.

That said, I think much of the onus with Author Solutions problems is laid at the foot of the writer. Author Solutions may be predatory, but it is not enough to say that AS is taking advantage of inexperienced writers. Those writers should know better. He writes:

I previously reported that Author Solutions made around $300,000 from selling book signing packages for the Toronto Word On The Street Festival in 2012, made over $500,000 from selling similar packages for the 2012 Miami Book Fair, and made over $900,000 from selling packages to sign copies at the 2012 LA Times Festival of Books.

I should note that these packages don’t include travel or accommodation costs. Authors receive some copies of their book to sign, and an hour signing slot. That’s it. To show how overpriced these packages are, an author could have purchased their own booth, for the entire duration of the Miami Book Fair, for just $1,000.

All that writer had to do was crunch the numbers and determine that it would be cheaper to buy direct. Author Solutions sucks because they’re profiting off of people’s ignorance, but that doesn’t excuse people’s ignorance. I would argue that people are being so blind that it rivals AS predatory practices.

The same can be said for something like the housing market bubble and crash. The real estate system was entirely predatory, but the blame is partly on the homeowner as well:

I think homeowners bear a lot of responsibility for their own wishful thinking. What you have is essentially a mass social mania. And it was infectious — you have a homeowner seeing their neighbor moving up to a bigger, better house because their broker is offering them a loan. Yes, the interest rate will adjust, but they can refinance in two years when it does. People wanted to believe. I traveled across the country for this book and interviewed many many, many homeowners and people who sold them mortgages and homes. And Americans’ capacity in general for delusional thinking, wishful thinking, fantastic thinking really just flourished.

That “wishful thinking” could translate to people spending exorbitant funds for packages like these:

The real estate piece goes on: “This isn’t to say every homeowner was in this position. There was no shortage of horrifically exploitative practices, lenders who preyed and continued to prey on people’s financial desperation.”

Same exact thing is happening with Author Solutions. Terrible company, uninformed customers.

I understand why people use a service like iUniverse, Xlibris, or AuthorHouse. Actually, Xlibris was my introduction to self-publishing back in the POD era. A friend published his novel (in 2004 or so) and I was amazed how it looked like a legit book, with a publisher’s logo and everything. I was one of those naive writers. Soon after, I saw a full page at in the NY Times Book Review for AuthorHouse books. They had the appearance of being on a legitimate press. I understand why that’s attractive. Yes, you could sign up with Createspace and farm out design and editing with independent contractors, but the fact that someone else is handling everything makes it seem more like traditional publishing. The basic novel package at Xlibris is $499 – it’s not terrible, and makes sense why someone would pay the fee and have someone else do all of the work.

The marketing packages are another animal and offer little value for the price.  Author Solutions is banking on people’s naivete and using old scamming tricks to get people to buy unnecessary packages. The reason that the “Reader’s Digest” ad is in there is so the other offers look cheaper (called the Anchoring Effect). Author Solutions should be called out on these practices. But so should writers. If the narrative is that self-publishers should hire editors, cover designers, and be otherwise professional, then some of the burden is on them as well to stay away from these services.

Further reading from the Society of Authors: Fool’s gold? Alison Flood investigates controversies surrounding self-publishing service companies such as Author Solutions (PDF)

About Henry Baum

Avatar of Henry Baum
Author of three self-published novels and one traditionally published (Soft Skull Press, Canongate, and Hachette Littératures). Recipient of Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival, the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction, and the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize. He lives with his wife Cate Baum in Los Angeles. He's the founder of SPR.

7 comments

  1. I think much of the onus with Author Solutions problems is laid at the foot of the writer

    Really? You read the 2,000 words I wrote detailing exactly how the Author Solutions scam works, and all the deceptive methods they use to ensare and trick writers, and you want to blame the victim?

    I specifically went through the reasons why we shouldn’t blame the victimes (aside from that being a crappy thing to do). Quoting from my post:

    Some complain that prospective customers of Author Solutions should do more research – caveat emptor and all that. This is a little unfair for three reasons.

    1. The deceptive practices outlined above.

    2. Author Solutions keeps launching new brands (20 at last count) with similar prices and practices, but without the internet baggage. This makes a mockery of Author Solutions CEO Andrew Phillips’ recent claim that “we are not trying to deliberately confuse anybody” (pictured right, and more thoroughly debunked here).

    3. Finally, it appears that most prospective customers do actually research the company thoroughly and step away. Out of the 475,000 leads, Author Solutions only converted approximately 5% into customers.

    Now you can see why Author Solutions needs to adopt the spamming business model. It knows that if a prospective customer starts googling thoroughly, it is going to lose them – so it must work on a giant scale. And this is probably why they spend so much on Google ads and SEO – it certainly doesn’t want people scrolling through those search results and reading the horrific experiences that customers have had (and the class action the company is facing).

    • Avatar of Henry Baum

      If you read my post, I’m not solely blaming the victim, because that would be insane. Repeatedly I say that AS is the culprit, but part of the problem is writers not doing due diligence. If you read reviews of any electronic on Amazon, some of those are possibly for hire. It’s up to the consumer to see what’s legit or not – that’s part of the wild west of the internet. If self-publishing gives more power to the individual, the individual needs to do more work. So, yes, writers are to blame in all this – so are people who fall for a Nigerian scam email. I don’t want to come off as an AS apologist (it says “AS sucks”), but if you’re giving in to hard sell tactics, is that 100% the fault of the salesman or is some of it wishful thinking.

      • Here’s where we agree: I absolutely think writers should research thoroughly but I would hesitate before attaching blame to any victim of a scam – especially one as slick as Author Solutions. And especially now that a major publisher (well, several of them) are implictly endorsing the company.

        After all, who doesn’t trust that cuddly little penguin?

        Writers go to supposedly respectable literary events, where Author Solutions are implictly endorsed by being allowed to purchase a whole row of booths, or even sponsor the event. One such event – which will remain nameless as they have since banned the practice – went as far as to offer an AS publishing package as a “prize” to writing competition entrants. Even worse, they passed contact details of *all* entrants to AS, who traded off this connection to hoodwink a whole bunch of writers.

        That’s just one event and one ruse. AS has been masterful at insinuating itself into supposedly trusted institutions like the New York Times, Hay House, Bowker, Simon & Schuster, Ingrams, Thomas Nelson, the Libary Journal, the London Review of Books, Writers Digest – the list is endless.

        When all the “respectable” institutions endorse a company, is it really that fair to attach blame – any blame – to its victims? And, maybe, does doing so allow PRH and AS to wriggle off the hook a little bit?

        I actually do respect the position in your post. I have expressed identical thoughts myself in the past. But as I learn more about how sophisticated the deception AS practices is… I find it hard to blame the victims at all.

        But it’s all good. I know your position on AS. I’m just touchy on this particular point. Perhaps unfairly.

        • Avatar of Henry Baum

          Thanks, David. Agreed – they’re being legitimized by endorsements. Perhaps the people who aren’t doing due diligence are places like the NY Times and Library Journal. Or they are, which is worse.

          • I’ve become more disheartened on this as I’ve gone along. Like, I assumed when I contacted that literary event, The Word On The Street Toronto, that they didn’t know what AS was. But their replies made it clear they didn’t care.

            And so on.

            But hey, it’s not all bad news. I genuinely believe the tide is turning against AS. Partners are getting twitchy. Some have dropped AS already. And more are on the way. I’ll get into all that in the next post – probably not until next week though. Have to fling another book out of the cage first…

  2. I’ve blogged extensively about publishing scams, and have read the comments on your article. Many seem to feel there’s a guilty party and an innocent party. Certainly, predatory publishers are as common as uninformed writers; there’s a sucker for every con-artist; there’s a math ignoramus for every crooked lender.

    But I tend to favor your point of view. With so many people ringing the alarm bell, any author who takes the “publishing dreams” bait is one who has failed to do their homework. Type “publishing scams” or “self-publishing” advice into a search engine and you’ll be flooded with good advice.

    Failure to get informed is less criminal than selling snake oil—and “blame” that falls on the author doesn’t excuse culpability that falls on the scammer—but in the end, predator and prey are participants in the publishing eco-system. Wear a condom. Don’t share needles. Don’t assume everything you read is true. Check references. Don’t accept candy from strangers. What advice can we give to new writers that doesn’t fall into this commonsense category?

    Thanks for your article.

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