Questions for Vanity Publisher Austin Macauley Yield Few Answers

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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?

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.

To try and solve this conundrum, Harry has formulated a list of questions that he has invited AM to answer.

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.”

I agree.

————

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, check out how the history of company officers links Austin Macauley with two other UK vanities, Ashwell Publishing (which does business as Olympia Publishers) and Pegasus Elliott Mackenzie
  • 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.

UPDATE 4/25/17: Harry Bingham has posted copies of and commentary on Austin Macauley’s contract (which is seriously substandard in a number of respects, notably its complately inadequate termination/reversion language) and its cut-and-paste acceptance letter (the several I’ve seen aren’t precisely identical to this one–there are minor variations–but follow the same structure and include whole swaths of identical text). His conclusion:

UPDATE 6/5/17: Oh dear. Austin Macauley has decided that it’s being bullied by that big meanie, SFWA.

First, it reached out to fellow victim The Write Agenda–an organization with impeccable credentials (not)–to ask for support (apparently not noticing that TWA hasn’t been active on Twitter for over a year):

@thewriteagenda1 Hi there, fellow bully victim of SFWA here! We’d love to chat with you if you have some time? 🙂

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) May 25, 2017

Next, it posted a long, long (long) screed accusing me, Writer Beware, and SFWA of “Bullying, Insults, and Lies”…and worse. With footnotes.

Racism, sexism, #bullying & abuse – THIS is the real #SFWA https://t.co/fIKG5n34Fd It makes for an uncomfortable read. You have been warned.

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

Then, to make absolutely sure the world (well, Twitter) got the point, it spammed a link to its screed to people who mentioned SFWA, including recent Nebula Award Weekend attendees:

Not sure it’s a group that you’ll want to promote is it B&N? https://t.co/IaicjaqHRp

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

The 3 words we wouldn’t describe them as https://t.co/IaicjaqHRp

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

And yet, that is not the most interesting thing you’ll hear about them this month https://t.co/IaicjaqHRp

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

Hardworking? https://t.co/IaicjaqHRp

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

Are they that great though? https://t.co/IaicjaqHRp

— Austin Macauley (@AustinMacauley) June 1, 2017

Eventually causing SFWA to take exasperated action:

Due to harassing behavior towards potential members, members, volunteers, & staff, we’re blocking the publisher, @austinmacauley.

— SFWA, Inc. (@sfwa) June 2, 2017

Finally, AM reached out once more to its good friend The Write Agenda, with a plaintive plea:

@thewriteagenda1 Please share https://t.co/O2hQXcW8ff #SFWA

— Austin Macauley USA (@AMPublishersUSA) June 1, 2017

So far, no RTs.

UPDATE 8/16/17: Austin Macauley is currently running a contest, for which the prize is a “traditional” book contract. The contest guidelines indicate that authors are subject to “behavioral guidelines” and must refrain from “abusive language toward AMP staff at any stage in the process”–provisions you don’t normally find in contests from reputable publishers (and why are they anticipating that authors might become abusive, anyway?)

The winner will receive AM’s “standard traditional contract,” which has serious defects, as outlined above. Also, as outlined above, pay-to-play publishers don’t have much reason to invest in quality editing, marketing, distribution, etc., so even if you don’t have to pay, publication may not be a prize worth winning.

UPDATE 8/24/17: AM is doubling down on its defamation of SFWA (among other things) in a new essay defending its business practices. If you have to devote an entire article to denying that you “trick and swindle authors”, claiming that you don’t work in a virtual office, and debunking negative employee comments on Glassdoor, you’ve already lost the PR war, in my opinion.

UPDATE 6/20/19: AM is using Google ads with highly deceptive headlines to recruit writers. Among other tactics, it is impersonating Penguin Random House. See my blog post for a full discussion.

UPDATE 7/12/19: I’m featuring Austin Macauley in a new blog post on the vanity publishers Writer Beware gets the most questions and complaints about. The post also traces the connections between AM and closely-related vanities Pegasus Publishing and Olympia Publishing.

UPDATE 4/29/22: Austin Macauley is one of the companies identified and analyzed in the UK Society of Authors’ new and hard-hitting report on the “hybrid”/pay to play publishing sector. Strong warnings for authors here.

206 Comments

  1. I received a contract from MA this morning wanting at least 2500 euros to publish a 200 page novel in paperback. My first reaction was to google ’are Austin Macauley charletans?' and that’s how I got here. I then sent a brief email refusing the offer and stating (truthfully) that I have made other arrangements.

    I knew form years on the now defunct Writer’s Workshop that a publisher who asks you for money is more than likely to be running a scam.

    What hurts me is that I got quite excited that someone (apart from my family and friends) liked my book, and then, only minutes later, I'm turning them down.

    An art gallery that solicits paintings and then asks the artist to pay for the exhibition, an orchestra that solicits music from a composer and then asks him to pay the hall rental and the musicians wages; these are unthinkable in the professional circles in which I move. Unfortunately, fist time novelists are easy prey for vanity publishers not only because they hope to get published but because they don't know that

    NO ONE SHOULD PAY TO GET PUBLISHED ON THE MERIT OF THEIR WORK

    The last clause is important since, if you want to get published at all costs, then so be it. Pay to get published.

    Which brings me to the main problem with MA. They claim that your work is worth published ON ITS OWN MERIT, and then ask you to pay. Subtle but quite clear.

  2. has anyone who has actually published through them been paid? I am newly published. fair plat they got the job done after a hell of a lot of stress on my part, but they did. Now Im worried about being shafted on royalties

  3. One of the biggest concerns I have with this company is the lack of communication. I unfortunately did make the decision to go with this company, however since everything is all said and done as far as paying them, I know I'm screwed. This company it's absolutely horrible when communicating with its author. They prefer communication through email only and if you have any questions regarding your book, more often than not you don't hear a response in a timely manner if at all. With my experience using AM to date, I will make dang sure I self-publish the remainder of my books and placing them on Amazon in the future. My experience with this company so far is this. Through numerous proofreadings between myself and AM, I am by no means impressed. They're editing team, of whom supposedly meticulously edit your book I believe consists of a computer algorithm. I honestly don't believe any human has gone over I single page of my book with their own eyes. Even toward the end and the final proof read I discovered multitude of mistakes that will no doubt make my book seem like a child wrote it. Currently my second and third novels in the series I am editing myself now that I understand more and as I also said above, I will never use this company again.

  4. Dear Victoria,
    The review below by John Brown in the United States appeared at Trustpilot. It is you. If you think it is legally too risky to place on your website, just don't do it.

    Class Action Lawsuit
    It is not going to be enough to vent anger and frustration in a blog or bang your head against the wall for the bloody mistake we made about engaging with AMP. It is becoming clearer that a bunch of scoundrels, I dare suggest sociopathic criminals, are exploiting us not only for the money we pay to them BUT ALSO for the days and months and even years of hard work. Every author has spent thousands of hours, if not tens of thousands; and with so much work we do these brood of vipers are abusing the gullibility of authors who are temporarily blinded by the self-flattery of having a name on a book. In an unsuccessful attempt these criminals made on a well-famed man, who happened to contact me about it, I began to review all the postings and believe there is a strong possibility to file a class-action lawsuit. I believe you will not recover only what you have paid these scoundrels but also recover payment for the hours of work you put in to write the books. It will be in thousands and tens of thousands of Pound Sterling, depending on individual merits. I am assisting my friend with my expertise and connecting him with law firms in several countries where the class-action lawsuit will be filed. Please keep the contract you made handy if you decide to join in the class-action lawsuit. The nuts and bolts of the process will be posted here for further pursuit.

  5. I had the deep misfortune of being sent a notice of "acceptance" – after my book's submission to a number of publishers who seemed to be in the mood to accept unsolicited work by unpublished authors – and that AM would be very pleased to work with me on the publication of my book; a straight-out fantasy story (both the genre of the book, and, as it turns out, what they were offering). I was so damned over-the-top about FINALLY achieving some sort of recognition that I didn't bother doing due diligence research, which I push myself to engage in consistently in these sort of situations. I can only thank God that one of my brothers took it upon himself to engage in research…and what he found could only be termed gut-wrenching and spine-chilling. I had been stupid enough to actually sign the contract and submit it before the aggregate of the research became clear, but after having the load of information dumped on me (and you can apply whatever extension of the image you like to that description), the next morning I wrote the agent who had contacted me and informed them that I was not going to be forwarding the whole of the work, nor the money requested, and that I would expect none of their wholly fifth-rate editing to be undertaken. It has been almost a week and there has been no further notice from them.

    I have had the opportunity to teach a number of high school courses, including Accounting, and one thing that has become clear from these courses is a general aphorism: If you came out at zero, you won. That's the final score here, essentially: Austin Macauley took time and attention (and a boatload of hope) from me, but at the same time, ended up with absolutely nothing in terms of substantive intellectual property or cash. I have undertaken alerting the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail about this situation, and am hoping that a public inquiry into this predatory s***-show can have Austin Macauley doing the perp walk through the literary public square. All thanks to Writer Beware for having made the space for these sort of discussions and revelations possible, and hopes that we can send Austin Macauley to the same hell that they have sent so many writers to in exchange for cash.

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