It largely ignored the several lawsuits filed against the vanity press, neglected to mention ASI’s negative reputation when it was acquired by Penguin in 2012, whitewashed ASI when Penguin Random House sold ASI late last year.
While one might assume that The Bookseller was soft on Author Solutions because it was owned by a major publisher, that hope was shattered on Friday when The Bookseller’s Philip Jones published a puff piece on the vanity press.
Titled “Author Solutions: behind the headlines“, the piece was ostensibly an in-depth interview of the company’s CEO, Andrew Phillips. But in reality Jones only makes a token gesture at critical analysis and in-depth reporting while repeating ASI’s marketing spiel unquestioningly.
This piece has any number of shortcomings, but before I dissect what it says let me give you one example of what was left out.
While Jones does mention that 200,000 authors have published a book with ASI, he neglects to ask how much they’ve earned. (The answer is damned little, Data Guy reports. He crunched the latest Author Earnings report and found that the ASI-published titles that made it on to the best-seller list in the Kindle Store accounted for around 600 sales per day – total.)
And that’s just one example of what this piece could have done rather than serve as a mouthpiece for ASI in between vague references to its critics.
After devoting 221 words to the several lawsuits filed against Author Solutions and its fifteen-year history of author complaints, Jones goes on to unquestioningly repeat Phillips’ denial and obfuscations.
Phillips says that much of what is written about AS online is incorrect: “You shouldn’t believe everything you read, particularly on social media. There are stories that circulate that, when you look at them, are not true.” When asked to give an example, he highlights two online commentators— Japet Villamro and Karen Turner— both of whom claim to have worked for AS and who have left critical comments about the company on author blogs. Phillips says the business has no record of these individuals. He adds “just because someone is posting a comment on social media or claims to be an employee, that is not always the case, and when we can actually make contact with a real author, any concerns they have are usually addressed to their satisfaction”.
The problem with this paragraph is that Jones failed to follow up on either of the names or challenge ASI’s assertions.
Neither Japet Villamro or Karen Turner are the more vocal or public critics of ASI, and in fact until I read this piece I have never heard of them. So I spent a few minutes Googling, and I found that Japet had left a single comment on a single post on Writer’s Beware in January, while “Karen Turner” had written five posts about ASI way back in 2011 (that blog has been abandoned since 5 January 2011).
It is my opinion that both of the names are pseudonyms, a sensible move for anyone who wants to get the truth out while protecting themselves from relatiation.
That’s a conclusion that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would have reached within a minute of googling the names, but instead Jones lets the Phillips assertion that ASI “has no record of these individuals” slide by without question.
In doing so Jones lets Phillips give the impression that ASI’s critics on social media are liars. That’s either sloppy journalism, or deliberately letting ASI get away with it, and given what came next I think it is the latter.
After quoting two tepid criticisms of ASI, Jones them proceeds to quote author David Gaughran out of context.
Gaughran adds: “I don’t believe that Author Solutions or Andrew Phillips have any genuine interest in reform…but I would be delighted if they proved me wrong.”
The entire statement is considerably longer (252 words), more detailed and much more critical of ASI:
Author Solutions has had plenty of opportunities over the years to respond to its critics or address the ever-present issues with its service, but it has always refused to acknowledge any problems. Andrew Phillips himself was given the chance, at his own request, to engage with the Alliance of Independent Authors back in 2014. Instead, he repeated blandishments from press releases and, indeed, has taken no action since then on all the issues raised: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/penguins-author-solutions-a-poor-choice/
I don’t believe that Author Solutions or Andrew Phillips have any genuine interest in reform but I’d be delighted if they proved me wrong by immediately taking steps to remedy some of the worst behaviour – such as the relentless high-pressure flogging of over-priced and ineffective marketing packages, or the dishonest methods it uses to ensnare writers. An example: Author Solutions runs a number of faux-comparison sites like FindYourPublisher.co.uk – which purport to give authors independent advice but merely act as funnels to Author Solutions.
There are problems with all aspects of Author Solutions operations but practices surrounded marketing packages are the most egregious. The products are of questionable efficacy to begin with and are then sold at insane mark-ups. Author Solutions charges $859 for a “Hollywood Review” of a book’s potential for film/screen adaptation, and then farms it out to Craigslist freelancers for just $110. The same crazy mark-ups can be seen in the selling of “web optimized” press releases which cost $1,299, book signings for $3,999, or podcast interviews for $10,669. These practices are simply indefensible and could be stopped tomorrow.
Jones effectively neutered this quote by only using part of a single sentence while leaving out the two-thirds of that sentence which had actual bite.
If he didn’t get paid by ASI for going soft on them with that quote, he should have because he has demonstrated a bias in their favor.
The same is true for his unquestioning acceptance of ASI’s claim that customer service was ASI’s new focus and the nonsensical point about its BBB rating.
The focus, says Phillips is on customer service, highlighting, as he has done in other interviews, its A+ rating with the self-regulatory Better Business Bureau in the US, as well as the retention of its author clients. “We always did take it seriously, now we take it even more seriously. Our mission in the world is to service authors and help them achieve their publishing goals. We have a meeting every Thursday at 2 p.m. and what we look at are our contacts with authors, and what we can learn from that. We monitor customer service—when you are inside you see a lot of incredibly passionate people, and that is not so visible, perhaps, when you read about Author Solutions.”
I think I strained something rolling my eyes when I read this for the first time, but I won’t know for sure until my doctor’s appointment on Friday.
ASI has a reputation for high-pressure sales tactics, so any claim to customer service is just laughable.
But more importantly, the mention of a positive BBB rating should have been questioned because we’ve long known that a company can buy a positive rating from the BBB. It has been widely reported that way back in 2010 someone registered the terrorist group Hamas, paid a $425 fee, and got an A- rating. In comparison, Starbucks (a company many of us like and trust) currently has a D- rating from the BBB.
The BBB has been likened to a protection racket, and by not mentioning that detail Jones is once again accepting ASI’s claims without question.
And that’s not even the egregious example of Jones falling asleep at the switch.
In the immediate next paragraph, Jones makes a reference to an investigation that The Bookseller conducted into ASI a couple years ago, and manages to put a positive spin on ASI’s high pressure sales tactics:
AS is incredibly attentive to its customers: The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi, who investigated the business two years ago, says that “if there were awards for persistency, Author Solutions would win”. She adds: “The company does like to sell, sell, sell. My first conversation with them lasted an hour, and consisted of a quick trip through the various packages on offer, with each one getting gradually cheaper as I said no. There was a push to get me to sign up during a discount period in that initial phone call, and during subsequent emails (one of which urged me to take advantage of a ‘50% offer for the first two weeks’ of a particular month).” She is still being contacted two years later.
And to make matters worse, The Bookseller sat on that investigation until this morning, three days after Jones was widely criticized for whitewashing Author Solutions.
You can find the piece here. To be honest I would not call it an investigation so much as it is a blog post someone might write on a slow Saturday afternoon when they don’t want to go out into the rain.
There’s no real investigation of the process of publishing a book with Author Solutions; instead there’s a simple report of what it was like to be pitched by the company.
Considering that numerous authors have complained about ASI selling them expensive marketing packages and never following through, providing execrable book editing, and not paying royalties due, one would think that a proper investigation would involve confirming or denying the allegations.
You can’t do that without going through the entire process, and from what I’m told authors only encounter the worst of the high-pressure sales tactics after they’ve made that initial payment.
According to what I have read online on the Writers Beware blog, David Gaughran’s blog, the Absolute Write forum, and other places where authors congregate, the squeeze starts happening during the production process, after the customer has made the first payment so they have them on the hook. Then the marketing guys finish them off right before publication when they are most desperate.
The only way to confirm those reports is to actually put your money down and publish a book with Author Solutions – or I don’t know, talk to people who have used ASI. It’s not like there is a shortage of complaints out there.
But no, that would require being critical of ASI, something which The Bookseller is too pansy-assed to even consider.
Okay, that may have been insulting, but given that the last thousand or so words of the piece is a straight up advertisement for ASI, it is clear that Jones knows which side his bread is buttered on. His loyalty is to potential future advertisers like Author Solutions, and not to journalism ethics or his readers.
This was blindlingly obvious when Jones quoted ASI CEO Andrew Philips in the last two paragraphs:
A further opportunity is to use the firm’s core competencies in other areas, and Phillips highlights its recent deal with the Bertelsmann-owned university Alliant. “There are a lot of colleges that have a mission to spread knowledge, but a lot of them don’t have presses. There is an element of curation there, as the faculty will want to select what they want to publish, with the faculty paying, but then we come on board as the partner.”
And as for the naysayers? “If our story is known and understood, I don’t think there is anything Author Solutions does that is at odds with the goals of authors. I think it comes down to giving authors a choice. I don’t think anyone should be saying authors can’t buy some services if that is what they want.”
Yes, ASI literally has the final word on an article about them.
This is disappointing, but as Nik Venture explained over at The Passive Voice, that was to be expected. The Bookseller will literally sell you its cover for 5,500 pounds, so it should not surprise us that advertisers have control of the articles as well.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it, either.