Author Solutions Complaints: Interview with iUniverse Author Kathryn Maughan

Kathryn Maughan iuniverse

Kathryn Maughan at the Sirenland writers’ conference in Positano. (2011)

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Q: What was the deal you originally made with iUniverse to publish your book?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.

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Author Solutions Rep Plants Comment, Lies About Credentials

Author Solutions Penguin: Liar, LiarOver the weekend an Author Solutions representative, attempting to comment incognito, left a response to my post “Calling Bullshit.” Initially, my plan was to ignore the comment. After all, it’s not my style to pander to trolls or idiots. But after sitting on the information over the weekend, I concluded that letting this kind of deception slide does a disservice to the writers I’ve been trying to help the past couple of months.

So here’s one more item to add to the litany of iniquities committed by Author Solutions: its employees leave supposedly anonymous comments on blog posts and lie about their credentials in half-assed attempts to defend the company’s business model.

At first glance, you might think Julsbug2k is just some anonymous commenter with a soft-hearted view of the company and ludicrous notions about what “self-publishing” means. However, Julsbug2k is actually AN EMPLOYEE of Author Solutions. And not only does he not disclose this information, he also claims to be “a business journalist who follows, among other things, acquisitions.” There isn’t even the tiniest speck of truth in that statement. The author of the comment is an outright liar.

So, I’m asking everyone to read the comment again, this time with the knowledge that it was written by an ASI employee:

This is truly and interesting post. Corporations that manage a portfolio of brands is nothing new. For example, GM does this. Each brand is targeted to a specific demographic. As a business journalist who follows, among other things, acquisitions — will Author Solution’s roll its imprints into one over times. No. That wouldn’t make good business sense. I would bet each imprint, like GM’s brands, target a different group of people. Contrary to your assessment, this approach brings more choice to the market.

You also misunderstand self-publishing as an industry. I would argue that not even independent artists are truly independent because they rely on supplies from other manufacturing firms. Paint from the paint makers, canvas from the canvas makers, etc. Musicians are the same, they rely on audio equipment from audio manufacturing firms, etc.

So publishing independently is really assisted publishing. Companies like Author Solutions, LuLu and dozens of smaller publishing houses bring together services that authors can use to bring their work to print. Just like a mechanic brings together parts from other vendors to repair your car, or a builder brings together building materials from vendors to build a house. Or, how independent musicians use equipment not of their making to record, distribution and market their work to the public.

Following the announcement of the sale, I offered Penguin an opportunity to make an official comment, and they chose not to respond. I think it was a stupid call, but it was their stupid call to make. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll stand by while one of their newly purchased twits pretends to have credentials as a business journalist and tries to con my readers into believing that the Penguin and Author Solutions so-many-imprints-you-can’t-keep-track-of-which-ones-we-own business model “brings more choice to the market.”

If someone at Penguin or Author Solutions has the intestinal fortitude to answer my questions for real, you know where to find me.

 

 

Calling Bullshit: A Closer Look at the Author Solutions Press Release

Author Solutions Penguin poops on publishing worldWhile 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.

 

Penguin Books USA Briefly Acknowledges Blogger's Existence

penguin group usa[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter I initially reached out to the folks at Pearson and Penguin for comment on their recent acquisition of Author Solutions, I received a very short non-response from Erica Glass, the Media Relations Manager at Penguin Group USA.

“What questions are you looking to have answered?” she wrote.

It’s not the open and welcoming reply you hope to get from a company’s media relations department. Clearly, I am being screened. Otherwise it would have been, “Let me put you in touch with…” or “Sure, what can we tell you?” Even if they needed time to prepare statements, I’d expect something along the lines of, “We are working to get you answers to your questions and will be in touch.” However, so far it’s been total silence on their part.

Public reaction to the sale has been mixed. Some who watch the publishing industry closely are confused, wondering why any company with a decent reputation would willingly take on Author Solutions. Some are excited, hoping the purchase will give self-publishing* the legitimacy it lacks. Others are taking the news like they’ve just received word their grandmother willingly contracted an STD.

To me, the most disturbing part of this story isn’t that Pearson and Penguin would chance marring their reputations by taking on Author Solutions; it’s their insistence that nothing will change. It’s like they believe the world will find the same ol’, same ol’ reassuring rather than appalling. That somehow keeping Kevin Weiss as CEO and giving him a seat on Penguin Group’s board will make us all sigh in relief. “Neither company will be laying off employees or executives,” writes Jeremy Greenfield, reporting for Digital Book World.

There are other things that bother me. In the official press release, the company states: “[Author Solutions] has approximately 1,600 employees, located primarily in Bloomington, Indiana and Cebu City, the Philippines.” Most people will read that and conclude that the majority of Author Solutions employees work in Bloomington, Indiana because it’s given first billing and comes immediately after the word “primarily.” Not so.

PR people are good at penning fuzzy sentences that are technically true when a linguist parses them, but ultimately deceptive when the public reads them. As an employee has already explained, there are now approximately 1,200 employees in the Philippines, comprising as much as two-thirds of Author Solutions’ entire workforce. Call Author Solutions or Penguin out on this fact, and they’re likely to show you their palms and shrug. But we said the majority were in Bloomington AND Cebu, you know—collectively.

So then the media cut and paste a line or two from the press release and—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—perpetuate the deception of Author Solutions as this American, nee Hoosier, company with a smattering of employees overseas. (For the record, Author Solutions has been registered as a For-Profit Foreign Corporation** with the Indiana Secretary of State since February 2, 2007, incorporating in Delaware and taking tax cuts from Indiana.)

So, yeah, there are definitely some questions I want Penguin to answer.


*You can put lipstick on a penguin… Author Solutions (and now Penguin) have established themselves as being the leader in “self-publishing.” As media reports of the sale have made their way around the internet, it’s clear to see reporters are buying this too. Author Solutions imprints are vanity presses.
**Not at all unusual for a corporation, but let’s not pretend they’ve been devoted to creating Hoosier jobs. It’s always about the money they don’t have to pay.

Pearson buys Vanity Press Conglomerate Author Solutions for $116M

In case you haven’t heard, it’s official:

“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.

5 Places to Look for Freelance Writing Opportunities

By Katie Sluiter

So you’ve decided you want your writing to earn you some money. But where do you start?  How do you find something that will pay? A good rule of thumb is to start with what you already read and branch out from there.

dollar sign

Local Publications

Poke around your local paper’s website for the name of the submission editor.  Years ago I submitted a piece on celebrity baby names to my local paper and was unexpectedly hired as a freelancer for their print paper.  But local publications aren’t limited to newspapers.  There are probably many local publications—newletters, magazines, blogs, etc.—that you don’t know about yet because you haven’t looked.  You may have the edge over another writer, because you are familiar with the local beat.

Online Magazines

These are generally bigger and get many submissions, but they are worth a shot. Babble, Curvy Girl Guide, AllParenting.com, etc. are some that usually offer open submissions.  Places like BlogHer takes submissions for syndication (which pays) and will often highlight work (which sends your site pageviews) Somewhere on the site you want to work with will be a “careers” or “submissions” link/button.  There you will find guidelines and pay information.  Watch social media as well, Babble, for instance, will tweet when they are looking for new writers for a specific section or column on their site.

Print Magazines

Some Large scale print magazines will run essay contests and hold open submissions for articles.  Watch for reputable, well-advertised contests, not the hidden ones in the backs of the magazines.   Real Simple holds an annual essay contest that is legitimate, for instance, and gets the writer published in the magazine and a cash prize.  Trade and scholarly journals will also have a section in the front of the magazine for calls for articles.  The English Journal, for instance, has a space devoted to what themes and subjects it is looking for to publish in future editions.

The Google

It probably sounds obvious, but searching Google for writing opportunities will bring up various communities/groups you can join.  Some come with a membership fee, some are private and you need to apply, but some are open to anyone.  For example, Linkedin has a group you can apply to be in that posts paid writing opportunities and lists companies looking for freelance writers.

Company Websites

Corporations like Best Buy have programs where they hire bloggers to do their product reviews FOR them.  You join their network and receive the latest products and gadgets to use and review.  The catch is that you need to have your own blog to work with some companies as they do not have a review site.

It is undoubtedly overwhelming for the beginning freelancer to know where to look, but remember: The opportunities are out there.  You just have to go find them.

[box style=”rounded” border=”full”]katie sluiter
Katie Sluiter
is a freelance writer and teacher who should probably be grading papers or changing diapers but is more likely blogging, tweeting, or just overusing social media in general. She chronicles all this on her blog, Sluiter Nation.

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Image credit: ba1969

Author Solutions Denies Refund, Cites Contract They Breached

joan moran

Joan Moran, author of Sixty, Sex & Tango

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.

I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

Regards,

Desirée Acosta
Production Manager
iUniverse

1663 Liberty Drive
Bloomington, IN 47403
desiree.acosta@iuniverse.com

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.

Jerk.

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.