Home » David Gaughran, Self-Publishing » The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers

The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers

4 June 2014

From David Gaughran:

The more you study an operation like Author Solutions, the more it resembles a two-bit internet scam, except on a colossal scale.

Internet scammers work on percentages. They know that only a tiny fraction of people will get hoodwinked so they flood the world’s inboxes with spammy junk.

While reputable self-publishing services can rely on author referrals and word-of-mouth, Author Solutions is forced to take a different approach. According to figures released by Author Solutions itself when it was looking for a buyer in 2012, it spent a whopping $11.9m on customer acquisition in 2011 alone.

This money is spent on:

  • Paying bloggers, websites, and companies a “bounty” based on how many writers they can deliver to Author Solutions.
  • Buying a huge presence at writers’ events such as the Toronto Word on the Street Festival the Miami Book Fair International, and the LA Times Festival of Books.
  • Setting up a whole string of misleading websites which purport to offer independent self-publishing advice, but which actually only recommend Author Solutions companies (such as iUniverse, Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and Trafford).
  • Lots and lots of advertising, particularly Google AdWords ads, to drive inexperienced writers towards these deceptive websites, as well as SEO to push down critical voices.
  • Setting up fake social media profiles of people claiming to be independent publishing consultants… who only recommend Author Solutions companies.
  • Spambots – because the world needed more of them.

. . . .

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”.
  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.

. . . .

Author Solutions also needs to aggressively pursue new business because its existing customers don’t come back for more. According to figures released by CEO Andrew Phillips, Author Solutions and its subsidiaries have published 225,000 titles by 180,000 authors – an average of 1.25 titles per author. The lack of repeat business is in stark contrast to someone like Smashwords which has 310,168 titles from approximately 80,000 authors – an average of around 3.88 per author.

. . . .

Author Solutions sold 27,500 publishing packages in 2011 and, in the information sent out to attract a buyer in 2012, Author Solutions forecasted that the number of publishing packages sold to authors would increase to 30,700 in 2012, and to a staggering 49,015 in 2015.

These packages are widely considered to be massively overpriced compared to competing services but where Author Solutions really makes its money is in aggressively upselling a range of additional services to authors – not included in those expensive packages they first purchase. Most packages don’t even include editing, and this is the first area where sales consultants try and hit their internal targets (claimed in the class action to be $5,000 per customer).

When these sales consultants contact authors, they invariably claim they are calling from Bloomington, Indiana. I should note however that approximately 78% of its staff is actually based in Cebu, Philippines – including the sales and marketing departments. The actual location of Author Solutions staff is important for a number of reasons, not least ascertaining the English ability and editing qualifications of staff working on these books.

. . . .

Penguin [decided] to purchase the company for $116m in July 2012. At the time, the writing community expressed shock at that move, given Author Solutions’ well-known history, and the long-standing warnings from watchdog bodies like Writer Beware.

Some expressed hope that Penguin would clean house, but all it has done is aggressively expand Author Solutions’ operations, with new imprints targeting Spain, Malaysia, India, and South Africa, as well as new white-label self-publishing services for huge companies like Simon & Schuster.

It was clear that Penguin knew exactly what it was purchasing. Companies don’t splash out $116m without doing a thorough check. John Makinson (Chairman and CEO of Penguin at the time), when announcing the purchase said, “We’re looking to upsize not downsize. There are no plans for layoffs, this is an opportunity for growth.”

Penguin’s name also lends credibility to Author Solutions, and its sales consultants have dangled the prospect of Penguin picking up customers’ books. One writer who published with Xlibris (an Author Solutions company) relayed the following:

They told me that with Penguin buying them they could, basically, guarantee that Penguin would look at my book and because it was so good (she’d read the first couple of pages) they would definitely pick it up.

Needless to say, Penguin did no such thing.

Link to the rest at Let’s Get Visible

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David Gaughran, Self-Publishing

33 Comments to “The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers”

  1. I know so few legal terms but I’ve pick up a few. Here’s one that comes to mind now. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus.

    If Penguin is comfortable with this deception in Author Solutions, is that culture of corruption pervasive throughout the company?

    • I don’t know. From everything I’ve read about the big pub, this seems the next logical step. After all, their business model has always been to make money off the work of authors. In a way, isn’t this more honest?

    • “Caveat scriptor.”

    • I think authors should assume that the whole company culture is like that. As soon as Penguin bought Author Solutions, I stopped taking them seriously. They’re just another scam outlet now. There’s no way that they didn’t *know* that Author Solutions was a scam company, so that makes them in on it.

      In business, your reputation is everything. They trashed theirs.

    • I will be digging into this aspect a little more in Part 2 – when I lay out the web of partnerships that Author Solutions has cultivated – but I can say this. When AS pitches its white-label services to publishers, this is the slogan:

      Monetize your slushpile.

  2. I think most people would google “Author Solutions” and be warned off. Perhaps they should also know the other names under which the company operates.

    • A friend of mine has used them (iUniverse, I think) to publish his books, and he did so even after I pointed out Gaughran’s site and all the information about how crappy AS was.

    • According to Gaughran most do not fall for it. But some do. People who know nothing about publishing and who don’t do their homework fall for these kinds of things. I have family friend who fell for something like this recently. He’s not the kind of person you can talk sense into though. He didn’t do a lick of homework and yet insisted that he had made up his mind. You just can’t stop some people from doing stupid things.

    • I make sure to “tag” the primary brand names – Xlibris, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford – on each post.

      But the thing with Author Solutions is that they launch new brands all the time – which don’t have the same internet history.

      So when a writer in Spain googles Palibrio, they don’t see our warnings. Same for writers in India searching about Partridge. And this is why AS is expanding into Malaysia and South Africa and more and more international markets.

      It’s the same reason that PublishAmerica is switching focus to Brazil. At some point it becomes cheaper to open a regional office than to increase the SEO budget.

      And maybe they think we’ll stop caring if it’s Kenyan writers or Portuguese writers that are getting scammed instead. For Penguin Random House, it’s all money.

  3. I just shake my head and try to understand why or how someone could spend that kind of money for these “services.”

    • Yeah…that gets me, too. How on earth can anybody think it’s a reasonable investment to make?

      • Because you’re not desperate and you’re well-informed with the facts. People can be duped because they want to be published so much that they are vulnerable to the lies these companies tell. It happened to a friend of mine. I couldn’t talk her out of it.

        • Exactly. I think people sometimes forget how vulnerable they were when they started. I didn’t fall for one of these scams, but I could have been that person.

          And I think most of us could have been. Who is born with a knowledge of the publishing industry. It’s counter-intuitive at the best of times. And Author Solutions explicitly targets the most inexperienced writers.

          • I’m not so sure that just anyone can fall for these scams. How many of us *grew up* studying this industry? I can say that I’ve been researching the publishing industry since I was 12 (I’m 27 now). I started reading Writer Beware when I was in high school because I knew I’d have to do my homework about the industry if I had any desire to one day work in it. It wasn’t long before I started hearing about the many, many scams out there targeting writers.

            I’m not saying that none of us would *ever* fall for a scam, of course, but at what point do you start holding authors accountable for doing *some* research at least? I know a lot of authors are desperate to reach their dream, but some seem to do so very *little* research before diving in that I don’t think there’s much you can do to help those people, even with your great work on this subject matter.

      • I think they already go into publishing knowing it’s a tough industry but they keep hoping that investing more money will show they’re serious about it. That and I think it’s the “I have a dream and I’m going to pursue it no matter what” mentality.

  4. I think David makes excellent and chilling points in this piece ahout how much thought, effort, and money Author Solutions invests in trying to scam even aspiring writers who research and try to exercise due diligence.

    • Honestly, after knowing someone who fell for a scam like this, I’m really reluctant to think many of the people who get scammed are just poor victims. I don’t doubt that there are people like that, but I’d bet most people who fall for this really didn’t do enough research. I think that’s mostly true for anyone who has fallen for this scam within the last 5-7 years, when there are alternatives. I think they’re just so desperate and starry-eyed that they keep going despite the warning signs.

      • I do understand your point Liz and I’ve expressed similar thoughts myself in the past. But consider the following.

        Newbie 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?

        Some people are more starry-eyed than others. Some are more gullible than others. But isn’t that all the more reason to guard them from predators?

        • @David Gaughran

          I agree with you David. What you say makes alot of sense. Scam artists can be very subtle indeed by using “respectable” fronts. Hey its what the mob did where I grew up, all the time.

          That’s a bit how I view them too–mob like.

          As soon As Penguin bought Author Solutions I knew that I would never accept any contract from Penguin or ‘Penguin Random House’ now. No matter how reasonable. I can’t work with a company that has a ‘good side’ and one that does bad things on the other side. In the end they are the same company aren’t they?

  5. A lot of people think that if something costs a lot its worth something.

  6. I feel sorry for people who’ve been drawn into scams like these, but at some point you have to accept that if someone doesn’t want to spend an hour to search the Internet, then they’re going to get taken and wash your hands of it.

    Many, many people have written about these companies, over the course of decades — heck, I’ve done it myself — and still there are people lining up for these “services”.

    And to be honest, I feel the same way about writers who sign those awful contracts the big publishers are handing out. It’s no secret how badly writers can be treated.

    When does it become a choice, and not being the victim of a scam?

    • An hour? If anyone googles AS for more than 30 seconds before figuring out they’re a scam, they’re pretty much hopeless.

      • I googled them and got the Wikipedia article about them…which apparently Author Solutions has possibly been tempering with. That right there told me they’re probably a scam. Scam companies are usually extremely worried about how they’re perceived, probably more than companies that are legitimate. Like Gaughran said, if you have to keep casting a wide net and relying on about 1 percent of the people who respond to “fall for” your services, then you’ve got to keep the scam looking legitimate.

      • Hey Dan. The point is people don’t Google “Author Solutions” and that’s where most of the info appears.

        They Google WordClay or Palibrio or Partridge… or whatever the latest brand is that AS has launched.

        These guys know what they are doing.

  7. I appreciate all the time and effort Gaughran is spending by following Author Solutions’s scams and trying to warn authors about it. Kudos to him.

    But after they were bought by Penguin they are cashing on Penguin good reputation. The &%. There was this article a while back about self-publishing vs trade-publishing, and in the comment section, a woman bashed self-publishing and proudly announced that she was traditionally published by Penguin imprint Xlibris (I think it was Ylibris, but it could be iUniverse) and how helpful they were being. I think it was one of the TPG regulars who pointed out that Xlibris might be owned by Penguin, but that it is actually vanity press. The woman got quite upset, saying something in the line that that was an unimportant detail and that the commentator was jealous of her because she was traditionally published by Penguin. (I wish I had saved the link to that article.) I believe more and more naive authors will be and are caught on that orange lines logo. *shakes her head*

    • That’s hilarious. I’ve run into that a few times on Wattpad, unfortunately. Some writers like to say that self-publishing is just one option, and then I find out they’ve been “chosen” by a vanity press. As much as I like Wattpad, I find it really depressing that there are so many amateurs there, the kind that fall for scams like Author Solutions. That’s why I find it hard to believe that even most of these people actually do their homework. The ones I run into clearly haven’t researched very much.

      • The thing that gets me the most is that some authors trust Author Solutions so much they are ignoring all the warnings made by their peers/friends.

        • I know, right? I can only imagine that it’s because they think Author Solutions will be the answer to their prayers though. As much as they probably care for their friends, their friends aren’t going to get their book published and fulfill their dream of being a real author.

  8. The other problem I see with this is, people who’ve been duped probably don’t want to admit it so they cling to the ‘I’m published by Penguin’ idea and perpetuate the idea that by going this way they have a big 5 contract.

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