In 2014 I was asked by my editor to sign up for Author Solutions so The Bookseller could independently verify some of the many claims made about the service - most importantly whether it used duplicitous means to secure a signature and how far it pushed prospective customers into deals.
The intention was to use the piece either as a separate article, or as part of a wider interview the newly appointed chief executive Andrew Phillips. Both were delayed, as result of the court cases Author Solutions faced in the US. Phillips had agreed to the interview, with no-preconditions, but not until the court cases were ended. While Author Solutions was owned by Penguin Random House it made sense to wait: the bigger story here is not that Author Solutions has a bad reputation (that is plain from sites such as WriterBeware and The Passive Voice), but what an internationally respected trade publishing group (owned by the equally high profile German mega-corp Bertelsmann) would do about it.
The court cases were confidentially settled in late 2015, and the published interview with Phillips ran in The Bookseller over three pages in our most recent issue, as well as online. The change, of course, is that Penguin Random House sold Author Solutions to US investor Najafi in January - meaning that any constraints PRH would have imposed on the business have lifted, but also that the onus is now on Andrew Phillips to define what kind of business Author Solutions can be.
Following the publication of the interview with Phillips, in which my experiences were referenced and used as part of the background research, here is a longer version of my conclusions.
The initial sales pitch from Author Solutions is no worse, and no better, than any other company trying to sell you something, and that’s where the problem perhaps lies. It felt like my book was simply a business transaction for Author Solutions, whereas for most authors it’s a part of their heart and soul – there was little probing about what my book was about before it was straight into a sales pitch for Author Solutions’ services.
I first got in touch with Author Solutions in March 2014, via a form on its website. I was contacted via email by a publishing consultant (Michelle, I won’t give her surname) from Author House UK, and then on the phone by the same consultant a few days later.
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).
Details aren’t particularly forthcoming. I wanted to know specifics about the editorial process – would I be able to pick an editor, would I see who editors had worked with before to ensure they were the best fit for me? Despite pushing for this information on the phone and in emails, I was told that “the details of our editors are kept confidential but you wouldn’t have to worry about this because by the time you submit your manuscript it will be assigned to an editor who specialises on the topic or genre that your book will be about”. After pushing again I was told (after a paragraph about another 50% discount period) that editors were located in Indiana, and that “there is not a need for you to worry because before they start polishing the book you would be asked which style is to be applied for your book”.
I eventually got hold of a PDF titled “About our editors and evaluators”, which started by emphasising how Author Solutions outsourced editing to freelancers, in the way that publishers “typically” did. The document went on to emphasise how the editors and evaluators were experienced book-publishing professionals, who were “well informed about what’s needed to be successful in a competitive marketplace”, hinting that Author Solutions is aware that there are authors who come to it for commercial success. The PDF was accompanied by a note from my “senior publishing consultant”, who had not seen my book, but who recommended “we do content editing wherein the editor would not only look into the spelling, grammar and syntax of your book but would also look into the consistency of your book to make sure that the idea of the book is smoothly relayed to your readers”.
I’ve been contacted by four different people since my initial phone call with a “consultant” – and it is only in the most recent email (dated after PRH sold Author Solutions) that I was told to get in touch with the company if I wanted to be removed from its mailing list.
Clearly, some authors have experienced worse than I did: the court cases claimed that Authors Solutions was seeking to make money from authors, rather than for authors, and detailed the many ways it goes about doing that. I never signed a contract with Author Solutions: I did not actually have a book to publish, and I was conscious about not pushing my anonymity too far.
If there were awards for persistency, Author Solutions would win, but I’m not convinced that their approach is the nurturing, constructive kind many authors – particularly those who want commercial success – want and need. Phillips’ view is that these kinds of authors don’t make up the rump of its customers, but it seems to me — and my experience underlined it — that much of its effort is directly focused on these kinds of writers.
Sarah Shaffi is The Bookseller's online editor and producer.