This post has been updated.
Over at The Writers Workshop, Harry Bingham is taking a look at UK-based vanity publisher Austin Macauley.
Are they legit? Or are they scammers?To try and solve this conundrum, Harry has formulated a list of questions that he has invited AM to answer.
I don’t know. I honestly have no idea. But I’ve heard some concerns raised about the firm and I think the fairest thing to do is ask the question.
If it turns out that the firm is an honourable one, seeking to do the very best for its authors, then fair play to them. I will take this post down and offer the WW as a platform for the firm to market itself. I will make it absolutely clear that we have no bad word to say about them, in public or in private.
And if they’re scammers – well, then, I hope they perish. I hope they perish soon. And I hope that those responsible for the company are deeply injured, financially and reputationally, by that collapse.
Now, not to steal AM's thunder, but Writer Beware has gotten a lot of reports, complaints, and questions about AM over the years, and we've gathered a good deal of information and documentation. I thought it might be illuminating to share some of that, using a few of Harry's questions as a template. (Note that I'm not attempting to speak for AM, nor am I accusing them of doing anything illegal; I'm just sharing data that I've collected.)
Question 1: What proportion of AM’s titles are ‘traditional mainstream’ and what proportion are via ‘partnership agreement’?
This is an important question. AM does reveal on its website that it offers "contributory" contracts (using the newly trendy euphemism, "hybrid," to describe its publishing model), but it also presents itself as an "innovative independent trade publisher" and states that "we look at every new manuscript with a view to offering a traditional mainstream publishing deal." This certainly encourages authors to believe that they have a good chance of a traditional offer.
But do they? Writer Beware has heard from just four authors who were offered contracts they didn't have to pay for. By contrast, we've gotten 60+ reports from authors who received fee-based offers (along with lots and lots of inquiries about AM's reputation and business practices; it's one of the publishers we receive the most questions about). Now, I'm sure that the writers who've contacted me represent only a fraction of those who've submitted to AM. Even so, the proportion of fee offers to no-fee offers does suggest--to me, at least--that the bulk of AM's business is pay-to-play.
You can see many many many many many many other author reports of Austin Macauley's fees online.
Question 3: What is the median cost to the author of these partnership agreements?
Fees in contracts Writer Beware has seen range from £1,275 to £7,700 (the heading of fee disclosure section is "Advances," except that this is an "advance" the author has to pay the publisher). Some authors are offered a choice of fees depending on which book formats they pick.
Speaking of AM's contracts, I've seen a number, both "contributory" and not. In my (non-legal; I'm not a lawyer) opinion, they are substandard. There's no stated term for the grant of rights, and discontinuance of publication is "entirely at the discretion of the publisher." In effect, this is a life-of-copyright grant, with completely inadequate provisions for rights reversion. (I've written before about the vital importance of having a good rights reversion clause in a life-of-copyright contract.)
I've also seen a number of AM's acceptance letters. There are differences depending on the rationale for offering "contributory" contracts (new author, can't take the risk; previously published author, not successful enough) but other than that it's clearly cut-and-paste, with whole passages used verbatim in multiple letters.
Question 4: Partnership implies some joint sharing of risks and rewards. So, do you contribute a sum broadly equivalent to that contributed by your authors? If, for example, your launch costs for a book are expected to be £6,000, do you ask the author for £3,000 and contribute the other support yourselves? And if not, then, please, how does it work?
Obviously, I can't answer for Austin Macauley, nor would I attempt to do so. Speaking generally, however, many pay-to-play publishers promise or imply that they are contributing part or most of the expense, and the author fee is just a portion--but in fact, what authors pay is far more likely to cover not just the whole cost of publication, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well.
Also, since fee-based publishers' profit typically comes primarily from author fees and book purchases, rather than from book sales to the public, most have little reason to invest in professional-quality editing, marketing, and distribution. In fact, they have substantial incentive to skimp on these things, since they reduce profit.
AM has responded to Harry (sort of) in an email that can be seen at the bottom of Harry's post, and also in a post on its own blog. Neither response comes close to addressing Harry's questions. Here's AM explaining why. (UPDATE: AM has objected to Harry reproducing its email verbatim, so what appears now is a paraphrased version.)
We would like to be as transparent as possible in answering your questions. However, as I am sure you understand, many of the details you ask for could potentially require us to break confidentiality, in terms of both our business and of our authors. We plan to discuss these issues fully with Austin Macauley’s lawyers, who will tell us precisely how much information we are able to divulge to you.Color me unimpressed. I can kinda sorta maybe understand that AM might not want to spotlight particular authors (though if their books are bestsellers, I doubt they'd mind)--but there's no confidentiality attached to most of the information Harry is asking for. Other publishers have no problem providing public information about sales and revenue.
Harry isn't impressed, either. He sums up his opinion in a followup blog post, concluding: "I think [Austin Macauley] is a vanity publisher that trades on the legitimate hopes and excusable ignorance of its clients...if you’re considering entering into a partnership agreement with Austin Macauley, then don’t. Just don’t."
A few more observations:
- AM's listing with Companies House is here. You can see AM's latest unaudited abbreviated financial statement here (have a look at the final page). Also, just for fun, compare AM's history of officers with that of Ashwell Publishing. Ashwell Publishing does business as Olympia Publishers, another pay-to-play outfit.
- Coming to America! AM is UK-based, but it is expanding into the USA. It has a glitzy new US website, and a brand new office in New York City--a virtual office, that is, on the 28th floor of 40 Wall Street. Basically, a PO box. (Am I alone in finding it hilarious that this is a Trump-owned building?) Just 73 AM books are listed on Amazon US for 2015; for 2016, the number is 474.
- The morning after I did the research for this blog post, I clicked into a couple of news sources I like, and discovered, yet again, the power of tracking cookies.
UPDATE 12/22/16: Harry Bingham's two posts have resulted in a demand by Austin Macauley's solicitors that he remove all mention of them from his website. He is not backing down. "In our view, the instant resort to threat is a classic telltale sign of firms whose business practices fall on the wrong side of the ethical tracks."
Author and writing teacher Jurgen Wolff also received threats of legal action as a consequence of posting information about Austin Macauley.