While going through the list of people who recently circled me on Google+ today, I came across a guy named Jared Silverstone from Bloomington, Indiana.
Bloomington rings bells for me, not just because it’s a couple of counties south, but because it has the rather distinct misfortune of being the home of Author Solutions (ASI) headquarters.
Sure enough, when I clicked through I discovered that “Awesome Publishing Consultant” Jared Silverstone is an ASI employee.
Huge eye roll. Being followed by these scum bags is nothing new. They’ve followed me (and dozens of friends) on Twitter too. I once thought this was dubious on their part, but it happened with such frequency that I’m now of the opinion they auto-follow accounts. Someone mentions a certain user or keyword and BAM!
By the way, in case any of you are wondering, that’s NOT in the best practices manual for social media relations. It’s the cheap, lazy, show-me-the-numbers way to use social media.
So back to Jared. Aside from the fact that he’s posted only a handful of ASI-centric posts since March 2012, Jared looks just a little too hipster to be hipster, doesn’t he?
That’s because—surprise!—Jared Silverstone isn’t real. Click through a few pages of istockphoto.com search results for “mustache,” and you’ll find our precious Jared, sans the green filter makeover and the slightly off center crop job. Before Author Solutions paid for his likeness, Jared looked a little something like (okay, maybe EXACTLY like) the watermarked guy on the right.
This is shitty, hack PR. And not only does this kind of sideways promotion not sit right with real consumers who demand honesty and transparency in business and in social media, but it makes all Author Solutions employees look bad (again). It also makes the company’s new parents, Pearson and Penguin, look bad (again).
And I have to point something else out: because Indianapolis’ Bohslen PR is the firm of record for Author Solutions, Bohlsen Group looks bad too.
Did ASI really just give their PR firm bad PR? Or was this a group effort?
If anyone from Author Solutions, Pearson, Penguin or Bohlsen wants to comment for the record, you know where to find me.
UPDATE 11:32: Apparently Jared’s on Facebook too. Why don’t you friend him up?
UPDATE 11:39: And Twitter @JaredSilverston (although, that one seems to have fizzled early)
UPDATE 8/31/12: GalleyCat picked up the news and reported on the story yesterday. Author Solutions later issued a statement to GalleyCat.
Kevin Weiss is line dancing on a beach in the Philippines with his cheap Cebu City laborers when his cell phone rings. He looks at the caller ID and sees it’s his new boss. “Hey, Johnny!” he answers. “You should totes be here, man.”
Uninterested, Penguin CEO John Makinson immediately changes the subject. “You need to solve this problem.” He removes his glasses and spits into the receiver, “I want this Suess girl to stop writing about Author Solutions. My picture hasn’t been Photoshopped yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.” Makinson pauses, and then the white-haired executive adds, “Make it go away.”
It’s too late. Makinson has already hung up. Weiss takes a swig of his San Miguel and turns to his employees, “Any of you guys know how to hack a website?” The music stops and the partygoers go silent. Weiss pulls a dollar bill from a condom-filled wallet and waves George Washington’s face at the crowd.
A 12-year-old boy wearing a Level 1 Hackx0r T-shirt steps forward.
“Hellzyeah!” Weiss puts his arm around the kid. “Let’s shut this bitch down!”
On Saturday morning, July 28, I turned on my laptop and checked my email. Waiting in my inbox were thousands of messages. The first one was from Twitter, informing me that they received a request to reset the password for my account. The next email was from my own WordPress blog. It said, “Someone requested that the password be reset for your account.”
The remaining 15,455 emails all came from someone named rtertdfg;lrtprot using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. The messages, submitted automatically via my Contact Form, contained nothing but random keystrokes.
Could it be? I wondered.
I loaded my traffic stats and laughed heartily. The first thing I noticed was that someone from Cebu City, Philippines (home of more than 1,200 Author Solutions employees) had attempted to access the login URL for my blog. The hacker didn’t guess the URL right the first time, so my stat software logged a 404-error for the misses. When he did eventually figure out the correct URL, he was probably irritated to find I had Login Lockdown installed.
So my cutsey-wootsey Hackx0r-wackx0r decided to scare me by clicking the “Lost your password?” link. And let me tell you, folks. Nothing says internet bully like a fucking password reset notification in your inbox. I mean, I couldn’t get to sleep until, like, 9:30 p.m. that night.
That same person, from the same IP, hit my Contact Page repeatedly that morning. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Author Solutions was involved in trying to take down my site, bury me in spam, and hijack my Twitter account.
Still, I decided to verify a few facts with my host, Name.com, just for fun. The great people at customer service wrote:
Thank you for your email today. I’ve done some pouring through logs and it looks like the first IP you advised, 184.108.40.206, was indeed hitting your contact form very hard. I see 19,835 entries for that IP address in the logs from this month. [emphasis mine]
Like a good little site owner, I changed my contact form, added a Captcha, and waited. As I had hoped, this little hack of a hacker was apparently so angered by my Author Solutions and iUniverse reporting that he came back today! Guess he thought I deserved another dozen manually submitted spam messages about Mitt Romney. My favorite one merely says “Mitt for president…..” a couple dozen times.
Oh, you guys!
It wasn’t long before the password reset notifications came pouring in again, both for WordPress and Twitter.
Seriously? Who made this call, and why does he still have a job? Who at Penguin or Author Solutions thought that harassing me was in the best interest of the company’s customers and stockholders?
Sometimes it doesn’t bother me at all that iUniverse and Author Solutions (and now Penguin Books) have one-sided conversations with the world about how great they are, because there are plenty of customers willing to step up and talk about what it’s really like to work with companies that habitually overcharge, under-deliver and make harassing sales calls.
Today, I’m glad to welcome Kathryn Maughan, author of Did I Expect Angels? to talk about her experiences working with iUniverse.
Maughan’s story is interesting because she started working iUniverse just before the company was sold to Author Solutions. This ties in nicely with what we’ve heard from other writers who talk about the “good” and “bad” iUniverse, referring to their feelings about the company before and after it was purchased by Author Solutions. (Or, as I usually think of it — “before Kevin Weiss” and “during Kevin Weiss.”)
Maughan doesn’t really hold too much against iUniverse until she talks about a pushy marketing salesperson named Gracie. At that point in the story, we see the iUniverse many of us have come to know and hate.
Q: Please tell us about your initial search for a publisher and what led you to contact iUniverse.
I wrote a book in 2002 and began an agent search, getting about 40 rejections. I thought I had the tolerance to see it through, but then I began grad school in 2003 (dramatic writing, NYU), and that took pretty much everything out of me. After I graduated, in 2006, my dad suggested I self-publish the book I had written years earlier. I had always thought of self-publishing as the kiss of death, but at that point, I thought, “Well, it’s dead already. Why not?” And yes, that’s about as much thought as I gave it. So I did an internet search. I liked the idea of publish-on-demand because I had visions of a thousand copies of my book mouldering in my parents’ basement. (I live in NY, so they wouldn’t be mouldering in my apartment…no room.) I also liked the fact that they had an affiliation with Barnes & Noble. My book did in fact get into a B&N for a while.
Q: What was the deal you originally made with iUniverse to publish your book? Did you buy a specific publishing package?
I bought the bells-and-whistles package. I knew it included an editorial review, cover art (which I didn’t use), possibility for Editors’ Choice etc. I believe it included more than that, but it’s been years….
Q: What problems did you have with iUniverse, and how did they attempt to resolve your complaints? Were you happy with the result?
This is the thing…I published with them in 2006. Well, I started the process in 2006, and then I hired an editor (yes, through iUniverse) and after that I did an *extensive* rewrite that lasted nearly a full year, so it was published in 2007. iUniverse was not part of Author Solutions at this point. I was actually happy with the results and the responsiveness of those with whom I worked.
I sent in my own cover art (commissioned by a professional book cover artist), so I can’t comment on that. But their development edit was very thorough and it genuinely helped me make the book better. It cost more than some other professionals with whom I’ve since consulted (I’m on my 2nd book now…and no, I don’t plan to self-publish this one), but then I’ve heard other friends talk about freelance editors who charge double what iUniverse did.
Honestly, iUniverse did what they said they would do. I went into it with my eyes open. I was given Editors’ Choice, Publishers’ Choice and Star status, but they never marketed it…nor did they say they would (unless I purchased marketing). They did one copy edit after I turned in the final manuscript. (I have a frenemy who is very, very nit-picky about this kind of thing, who informed me that she had found ONE copy error in the final product. Hey, at least she bought it.) After an initial evaluation, they did say that in order to be considered for EC I’d have to do a rewrite. However…many years later, I know that the book in its initial state wasn’t great. I wrote it initially in 2001/2002, and I rewrote it in 2006/2007 after going to grad school (in writing, no less). I never tried to get an agent with the rewritten book, because I was already under contract with iUniverse when I rewrote it. I view the whole thing as a learning experience.
One problem I had: the book is written with two narrators. One is an educated woman, the other a Costa Rican immigrant. Their voices couldn’t be more different. iUniverse, however, insisted that I put Henry’s story into italics. I thought that was a strange idea, because if you get one sentence in, you know who’s speaking. But Editor’s Choice was on the line (the keys to the kingdom, it seemed), so I did it. And a lot of reviewers said that the italics were hard to read.
The biggest issue I have with them now is their attempt at marketing. I’ll address that next.
Q: How was your book publicized? Did you do it all yourself? Pay for them to help you market the finished product?
I never even looked at iUniverse marketing. I don’t remember if they didn’t offer it then, or I already had other plans. I hired a marketing firm, and they turned out to be a big dud, even though they came highly recommended. The marketing that turned out well was what I did myself, contacting lots and lots of book bloggers. I got some really good reviews, actually…and not from my mother. 🙂
A few years later, after iUniverse was purchased by Author Solutions, they began calling me every so often to try to get me to buy more packages, marketing packages. The first time, Gracie asked me if I would like to get the book into bookstores, for $750. (keep in mind, it’s not guaranteed, it’s just taking a step to the POSSIBILITY of getting it in bookstores.) I said no. Or maybe she didn’t say anything about the $750, and I asked? I don’t remember. I said no. The next time she phoned, she said, “I’m calling to talk about getting your book into bookstores.” I said, “For $750?” She paused and then tried to talk around it, and I said, “For $750?” Finally she said, yes, that’s what it cost.
I explained that I had spent all the money I was going to spend on this book, and they tried really hard to put on the pressure. I’m a midwestern, polite-to-the-point-of-death person (you could be stabbing me and I would ask you to please stop), and I ended up shouting over this woman, “Gracie! Gracie! Gracie! I am not buying any more services!” She was going on about how iUniverse was the number one self-publishing company. I said, yes, I have already published my book with them, and I’m not doing any more for it. In a very accusatory manner, she said, “So what do you expect me to do with your book?” I said, “Nothing. Let it go.” “You want me to ignore your book?” She seemed very angry. It was truly strange. Later I kept getting messages on my machine, about one every three months: this is iUniverse and we want to talk to you about a marketing plan for your book. I wouldn’t call them back. After a while I f igured out a trick: go to your profile and change your phone number to 000-0000. They haven’t called since.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
I honestly wonder if their practices have changed since they were purchased by AuthorSolutions. I felt that I got what I asked for when I self-published. It was the marketing that felt shady to me.
To read more about Author Solutions and iUniverse, browse the complete index.
“LONDON–Pearson PLC , a provider of education and consumer publishing services, said Thursday it acquired Author Solutions Inc from Bertram Capital for 116 million dollars in cash, adding that it expects the acquisition to enhance adjusted earnings per share in its first full year.”
So I’m getting asked on a number of fronts what I think about Bertram Capital selling Author Solutions to Pearson, another publisher with ties to Indianapolis. I think the people of Bertram Capital are probably relieved to have that monkey off their back.
I think Pearson has a lot of housecleaning to do, but it’s like an employee says, “Everyone thinks it will be better. Unless they change the leadership, I don’t see how.”
More in the works. Stay tuned.
UPDATE 1:14 PM EDT: After reaching out to Pearson, my inquiry was forwarded to a media relations representative for Penguin Books. (If you’re confused, Penguin is owned by Pearson. Or Penguin is to Pearson as iUniverse is to Author Solutions. Sort of.) Whether or not my questions will be addressed by the company remains to be seen.
Remember author Joan Moran? She’s been fighting for months to get a $150 refund from vanity publisher iUniverse. She called, she emailed, she Tweeted. But the self-publishing imprint’s parent company, Author Solutions, wouldn’t even bother to respond to her. While they tracked down Lawrence Fisher on his blog to give him a refund, they simply ignored Joan. For months.
Until today, that is. They finally broke their silence on the issue after Joan Moran emailed CEO Kevin Weiss last week. He, of course, passed her complaint off to someone else. There were some apologies and “we can’t help yous” followed by a, “let me check with my boss and get back to you” when it became apparent that Joan wasn’t going to relent. Earlier today, Joan received this:
Hello Ms. Moran,
I have discussed the situation with my supervisor and we are unable to offer you a full refund at this time for the proofs that you purchased. We fulfilled the service you requested in purchasing your files and as outlined in your publishing agreement. If I can assist you further, then please do let me know.
It’s polite, I’ll grant that. But don’t you just love how the representative cites the publishing agreement as a reason why they can’t give Joan her money back? From a consumer standpoint, it’s reprehensible. This is precisely why authors keep working to organize a class action lawsuit.
iUniverse and Author Solutions willfully breach the contract’s royalty provisions every quarter for every customer. In fact, they still haven’t posted items that should have been reported April 30. And yet, somehow, they just can’t issue a refund for misleading a customer into purchasing a document twice because it’s not in the contract.
Joan paid them to create this text file of her book when she bought the original package, but they charged her another $150 to email the PDF to her when she wanted to leave. The customer service rep led her to believe that she would be able to edit the document once she had it. Then later told her that everyone knows you can’t really edit a PDF.
So no, Author Solutions says. You can’t have your $150! Our hands are tied, can’t you see?
Funny they don’t have a problem ignoring their contract when the company stands to profit from it.
I guess that’s one way to keep the books looking good for a financial suitor.
I’m not going to lie, when I heard that people in HR at Author Solutions were asking employees to go to Glassdoor.com and submit favorable reviews, I laughed so long and so hard that the muscles in my belly literally ached. I mean, someone get Scott Adams on the phone, because this is the stuff Dilbert is made of.
Because they’re only now begging employees to talk nice about them, I have concluded three things:
HR wasn’t at all concerned with the scathing reviews until I called attention to them here and here,
Things are getting really tense around Author Solutions, what with that sale looming and all, and…
I’m a badass in the tenacity department.
Now, several people have asked me if it’s against Glassdoor.com’s Terms of Service for HR to be “asking” current employees to submit favorable reviews. It’s a really, really good question. Sadly, the answer appears to be no.
You’d think that coerced reviews would be frowned upon by the website, considering it needs to be taken seriously by employees and job seekers to maintain any sort of authority in its niche. Here’s the thing: anonymous reviews are awesome because they protect employees from vindictive bosses, but anonymous reviews are also bad because Kevin Weiss himself could sign up for an account (or two or seven) and leave a glowing review of the company if he wanted. How does Glassdoor police something like that and still provide anonymity to users?
So far, HR’s suggestion that employees leave favorable reviews hasn’t led to any systemic review tampering on the site anyway. Even the writer of recent four-star review “It’s a good job, but not a career” spends more time discussing the cons and frustrations of working for the company than talking about how great it is. And while that same employee approves of Kevin Weiss, he or she still only awards two stars to Author Solutions under “Culture & Values.” To me, that says a great deal.
Sources reveal to me that morale inside the company, specifically at Indiana offices, is terribly low anyway. Those that fear their jobs might be outsourced to the Philippines probably don’t see much point in posting happy reviews just to appease the execs. And anyway, who could be happy dealing with angry customers, shoddy office equipment, and an apathetic executive management team all day, every day?
But reviews do matter to job seekers, so I just want to take a second to address Bloomington and Indy employees directly:
I know you work with some good-hearted, knowledgeable professionals, and I’m not asking you to leave bad reviews or even leave reviews at all, but if you do? Don’t sugarcoat it because you fear HR or fear your boss. Just tell the truth—whether its good, bad or anticlimactic.
And cheer up! Because you and the rest of the internet get to watch this hilarious video of Kevin Weiss (CEO), Joe Steinbach (General Manager, Cebu) and Bruce Bunner (VP, Global Sales & Marketing) line dancing on the beach. (At least until someone starts giggling and it gets yanked from YouTube. If that happens, don’t worry. I have another present for you guys.)
Because at Author Solutions you can either earn a living wage
or have a beach party…but you can’t have both.
If you’re an iUniverse customer, you should know that a few people on the inside care. You should also know you’re not the only ones that parent company Author Solutions has taken advantage of. I’ve received word from sources inside Author Solutions that there’s more you and the tax paying citizens of Indiana should be pissed off about…
Take the Money…
One of my biggest concerns with the company as a resident of Indiana is that shortly after Gov. Mitch Daniels toured the Bloomington Offices and praised Author Solutions for “insourcing” jobs from China, Author Solutions started laying off employees and sending jobs to the Philippines. This disgusts me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Author Solutions was awarded an Economic Development Tax Credit for creating those Indiana jobs in the first place. Here’s an excerpt from an undated press release on the AuthorHouse website:
“The Indiana Economic Development Corporation offered Author Solutions up to $575,000 in performance-based tax credits and up to $100,000 in training grants based on the company’s job creation plans. The Monroe County Commissioners and the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation have supported property tax abatement to assist the company with new job creation in Monroe County.
The company, which employs 230 associates in Bloomington and 50 in Indianapolis, is currently identifying candidates for creative, customer service and technology positions.”
But things changed. In April 2011, Terry Lee Simpson wrote this letter. In it she complains, “It has come to my attention that Author Solutions, a local self-publishing company owned by Bertram Capital, has recently laid-off more than fifty employees since the beginning of this year.” She urges officials to look into the problem saying that as an Indiana and Monroe County taxpayer, she feels “extremely ripped-off.”
It seems pretty clear that Author Solutions was playing the tax loophole game with the residents of Indiana. Whether or not the company conformed to the letter of the law, Indiana residents got the short end of the stick. An employee recalls:
“I don’t know the exact numbers but I can tell you that two years ago … there were not enough desks or chairs for everyone. Parking was horrible, and people would park along the curbs to get a space. They were moving filing cabinets to hallways to make room for more desks. The Indianapolis office was the same way. In fact, some people had to start working from home because the landlord said we were using too many parking spaces.”
Contrast that to today, after numerous layoffs and a transitioning of the workforce to the Philippines, and this is the picture of Author Solutions one employees sees: “Now in Bloomington there is a whole section of about 25 desks that are empty. There are 3 or 4 vacant offices. In Indy, almost one entire half of the office is vacant and is being disassembled.”
An anonymous employee tells me:
“More and more jobs keep ending up in the Philippines… There are now 1200 employees there. 1200!!! That means over 2/3 of services, sales, customer service and marketing are being done out of the Philippines! And the rest of the US staff? Most of them don’t work on the core imprints. There are a handful of people who work on iUniverse and AuthorHouse in the US. The rest of the staff — they only work on the partnerships (Abbott Press, Westbow, Balboa, Inspiring Voices, Crossbooks, Dellarte). Why? Because those partners are smarter than to allow untrained Filipinos to work on their books! There is not a single Trafford or Xlibris employee in the US!”
And the picture in the Philippines isn’t pretty either. The employee likens it to a sweatshop and says the people there are “packed like sardines for pennies a day. No training, no publishing expertise, just shove those books through the assembly line and sell, sell, sell!”
Customers See No Benefits From Cheap Labor
I’m assured that in addition to the number of authors who I’ve interviewed here already, there are still hundreds more who have been ripped off by the company.
The refund process was even changed to take greater advantage of customers. So the longer a customer waits to ask for a refund, the less they get. This works to the company’s advantage because most of the authors wait to ask for their money back, always thinking the company deserves a second chance to make things right.
Refunds work like this: if you have just purchased a package you can get a 100% refund, but as soon as you submit your manuscript it drops to 75%. After you start design, it drops to 50% and so on until eventually you actually have to PAY Author Solutions $150 or $750 to get a worthless PDF of the file you already paid them to create (Schedule A, Section 9 of the publishing contract).
If labor costs less, they don’t have to pay state and county taxes, and no one’s getting a refund where is all the money going? No doubt it’s being used to make the company appear more profitable to buyers. Rumor has it that an announcement on Bertram Capital’s sale of Author Solutions is just around the corner.
It’s Time for Authors & Hoosiers to Act
As a sale becomes more likely, one employee has a message for iUniverse and other Author Solutions customers: “I can completely sympathize with authors… I wish they would all speak up.” Another employee says, “If you want to get revenge, better alert Publisher’s Weekly about everything you’ve dug up, and get organized with the Attorney General NOW.”
Get in Touch Now:
Office of the Indiana Attorney General
Consumer Protection Invoice
302 West Washington Street, 5th Floor
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204
Indiana residents should vocalize their objections to local and state representatives as well as let Author Solutions execs know their abuse of tax code provisions for employers who are actually committed to job growth in Indiana is unacceptable.