While I was earning my English degree in 2006, I started working part-time for The Saturday Evening Post. One of my jobs as an editorial assistant was to wade through the stacks and stacks of media kits and press releases sent to us by public relations firms and in-house departments. Next to researching copyright inquiries, it was my least favorite part of the job. That’s because 98% of every press release just reeked of bullshit.
If a press release was a person, it would be a husband leaving a voicemail just before his wife gets off work. He knows she won’t be able to answer, but that’s perfect. Because he wants to be able to feed her a few lines without having to answer any follow-up questions.
“Going to be home late tonight,” the husband explains. “Tutoring someone from my comm class. Don’t wait up!”
This involuntary revulsion for the press release made it hard for me to enjoy the press release vetting part of my job. I was charged with finding one or two that were newsworthy and getting the rest out of sight. My confession here? I wanted to toss them all. No, I wanted to burn them all, and then dance around the blazing trashcan wearing war paint.
But an activist’s critique of journalism isn’t complete without also taking a stab at a journalist or two. If the press release is a slimy husband, the lazy journalist is the wife who ignores all the signs. When the message ends, she doesn’t immediately try to call her husband to get more information. The next morning, she doesn’t look at the receipt he left on the nightstand after emptying his pockets the night before. She doesn’t ask if he meant to keep that old bank account open after two years.
The wife just goes on folding the laundry.
The journalist just retypes a lede.
And, with a few exceptions, that’s pretty much what happened on the internet yesterday with the Pearson-Penguin announcement. Author Solutions and Penguin put out a press release, and then a lot of reporters decided thinking critically was just too much work. Or maybe they had too much on their plate already. Or maybe they figured no one really cared.
Whatever the case, by and large mainstreamers considered a 500-word press release and a press conference call with Penguin CEO John Makinson the whole story. (By the way, still can’t believe I didn’t get an invite to the press conference call yesterday!)
There were some notable exceptions to the thoughtless regurgitation of information, some brilliant critiques; however, they didn’t come from mainstream sources. They came from concerned publishing bloggers, online watchdog communities, and haters like me.
Speaking of me… Last night I wrote a little bit about the spin in the official press release announcing Pearson’s acquiring of Author Solutions, lamenting how they want us all to think that most of Author Solutions’ employees work in the U.S. I also voiced my disapproval of the non-response response I got from Erica Glass. But I didn’t say much about any of the rest of the Penguin turds rising to the water’s surface after the release of that document.
Well, that’s what today is for.
Let’s start by taking this beaut from the official press release attributed to Penguin CEO Makinson:
“No-one has captured this opportunity as successfully as Author Solutions, which has rapidly built a position of world leadership on a platform of outstanding customer support and tailor-made publishing services.”
Oh yes he did just use “Author Solutions” and “outstanding customer support” in the same sentence. I’ve already collected an encyclopedia of complaints against this company and it’s imprints in just the last couple of months. The short list of recurring issues includes: making formerly out-of-print works available for sale without the author’s consent, improperly reporting royalty information, non-payment of royalties, breech of contract, predatory and harassing sales calls, excessive markups on review and advertising services, failure to deliver marketing services as promised, telling customers their add-ons will only cost hundreds of dollars and then charging their credit cards thousands of dollars, ignoring customer complaints, shaming and banning customers who go public with their stories, and calling at least one customer a “fucking asshole.”
Oh, if only I were talking about one bad experience. I am not. Author Solutions is not an isolated blemish on an otherwise clear-skinned face. This vanity press and its numerous imprints are the full-blown cystic acne of the publishing world. CEO Kevin Weiss is a painful boil. Marketing VP Keith Ogorek is the sticky pus. And the executives at Pearson and Penguin are on course to establish themselves as the oozing pustules of the book industry unless they turn things around.
Sound mean? Good. My issue with these guys isn’t that they have unhappy customers, it’s that they ignore them. My problem isn’t that the Author Solutions royalty system is a joke, it’s that they refuse to fix or even acknowledge that it’s a problem. It’s not the amount of money the execs take home, it’s how they get it. It’s not that they have no respect for writers, it’s…no, wait. It’s definitely that they have no respect for writers.
Next there’s that laughable bit where Author Solutions and Penguin people refer to themselves as self-publishers. Yet mainstream reports not only don’t call them out on it, they don’t even question it.
“Formed in 2007, ASI is now the world’s leading provider of professional self-publishing services.”
We’ve talked about this already. The model that Author Solutions uses is a vanity press model where books are published entirely at the author’s expense and only a small portion of the royalties go back to the author following a sale.
People! For the love of God! Self-publishers—individuals who piecemeal parts of the process like cover design and editing to individual professionals—don’t give up 80% of their royalties in addition to paying thousands of dollars for a multi-million dollar corporation to do the legwork. (Don’t even get me started on what Author Solutions does or, more likely, doesn’t do for those exorbitant fees.)
Self-publishers are independent writers and artists. Say it with me: in-de-pen-dent. Sure, they pay for someone to print their book or they pay a web service to make their title available, but they don’t share their profits. They keep them. Not 20% of them, not 50% of them—all of them.
In a WSJ article, Kevin Weiss is quoted as saying, “We have seen a rapid change. When I got here four and a half years ago, we were still labelled as vanity publishing and we were somewhat the scourge of the industry.”
Oh, Kevvy. Aren’t you precious.
Once you’ve had enough of what the press release does say, it’s time to address what it doesn’t say. Around 2007, just when most people were starting to think you couldn’t find anything in the publishing world worse than a typical vanity press, Author Solutions proved us all wrong.
The company started buying up once independent presses, building “informational” websites as a ruse to funnel traffic to their companies, and launching new marketing service brands just about every other week. The press release doesn’t mention all of these subsidiaries: Author House, iUniverse, XLibris, Trafford, Palibrio, Publish in the USA, FuseFrame, Pitchfest, Author Learning Center, WordClay, BookTango and AuthorHive. Because that would destroy the illusion of choice Penguin so graciously offers writers.
For the record, the following are questions I sent Erica Glass of Penguin, followed by the response I received:
Author Solutions has a number of imprints that critics believe are kept in place to limit choice in the market and deceive consumers who “shop around.” Does Penguin take a position on this?
Penguin offered no comment.
Are there plans to consolidate iUniverse, Trafford, WordClay, AuthorHouse, Palibrio, Publish in the USA, et al. to a single brand?
Penguin offered no comment.
Sources inside Author Solutions explain that the royalty system is a shambles. Reports and payments are habitually late, which breaches the publishing contract. Does Penguin have a plan in place to address this issue, either by upgrading the system that tracks this information or through some other means?
Penguin offered no comment.
Author Solutions has been accused by Indiana residents and its own employees of “cramming cubicles” to receive tax cuts from the state on the basis of job creation, only to fire those hires a short time later and rehire in the Philippines. Does Penguin plan to continue with Author Solutions’ outsourcing model?
Penguin offered no comment.