Austin Macauley: some questions

If the Writers’ Workshop has a defining philosophy, then it’s this: We are always on the side of the book. We are always on the side of the writer.

With books, we want them to be as good as they can be. Well-conceived, well-written, well-edited. Our standards are relentlessly high. We press our clients to be as good as they can possibly be. We make pests of ourselves at times, and we know it – but see above. We are always on the side of the book.

We are, however, equally committed to writers. Trad or self-pub. New or bestselling. Genre or literary. We honestly don’t care. But if you have the guts and determination to pick up a pen and write a book, we’re on your side, always, everywhere, forever.

And we’re happy to make pests of ourselves. If we think that agents are insufficiently transparent, insufficiently welcoming to new writers, we’ll say so. (And we got shouted at by the Association of Authors Agents for our bluntness.) If we think that Amazon risks turning its search results into the world’s biggest pile of spam, we’ll say so. (And took care that people at Amazon heard us saying so.) If we think the trad industry is failing a proportion of its authors with its ebook pricing, then we’ll say so. (And we’ve had some fairly sharp messages from the industry as a result.) If we notice that authors are grumbling about publishers, we will put together the largest survey of trad authors ever conducted and publish the results as visibly as we know how to do.

If you’re a writer, we’re on your side. Always.

But all those people we’ve tangled with in the past – agents, publishers, Amazon –  are good and honourable people, working damn hard for authors (and yes, occasionally, making a mistake or two along the way.) We’ll challenge the mistakes, but we have never questioned the basic ethics or intentions of those entities.

There is, in fact, only one corner of the industry that we look upon with total loathing and disgust – and that is the whole repellent area of the vanity publisher. These people take huge sums of money for a service that is basically fraudulent. Whether some narrow legal test of fraud is or is not triggered is not quite my point here. What I have in mind is that the legitimate hopes and aspirations of writers uninformed or naive about the industry are being preyed upon by people who know, damn well, that those hopes and aspirations are highly unlikely to be met, even remotely.

The trouble is, these scammers – that’s what they are – take pains to disguise themselves as legitimate publishers. And don’t get me wrong: they operate wholly within the law. It’s just the service they offer is repulsive, deceitful and wrong.

So how do you tell the difference? And the answer is that it’s not easy. They look somewhat like legitimate publishers . . . until they ask you for a “co-publishing contribution” (or some term of that sort.) That contribution is HUGE – thousands of pounds. And it buys you almost nothing. You can publish an ebook for free. If you can put together a cover and a text-PDF, you can get hard copies of your book from CreateSpace for less than twenty bucks. You can have that book sold all over the world, from Japan to California, and sold by a firm that is totally honest and generous with its royalty payments. It’s a terrific, fair and easy-to-access service. One of the wonders of the modern world.

So. 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.

Oh, and you, dear reader, you can play your part RIGHT NOW in teasing out these issues by tweeting your desire to know the answers. The more publicity we generate in asking the questions, the more pressure there will be on the firm to answer them.

Tweet: Are they legit? Or are they scammers? Questions for @AustinMacauley

Do please also note that the firm had a few days sight of this post before it went live. I have copied their communications to me at the bottom of the post. This isn’t an ambush. It’s a genuine attempt to discover the truth.

Preamble over. Now the questions.

A. Split between traditional and paid-for publishing

Austin Macauley state on their website: “From the very beginning we have worked with the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing contracts, which has become increasingly popular in recent years. This means that while we look at every new manuscript with a view to offering a traditional mainstream publishing deal, we also have the option of offering a partnership agreement instead, where the author may be asked to cover part of the cost of publishing the book.”

Question 1: What proportion of AM’s titles are ‘traditional mainstream’ and what proportion are via ‘partnership agreement’?

We need to know this, because if the large majority of the titles published by the firm are via ‘partnership agreement’ then one might be tempted to infer that the firm’s business model is essentially that of an old-fashioned vanity publisher. If, on the other hand, the firm predominantly supports itself via proper, traditional publishing, then one would be forced to conclude that the statement quoted above can be taken at something like face value.

Indeed, it would also be helpful for the firm to establish its traditional bona-fides by listing some of its successful, traditionally published titles. So:

Question 2: What are some of your traditionally published titles? Have any of these appeared on bestseller lists, notched up notable publicity successes, won foreign deals, been longlisted or shortlisted for significant prizes, etc?

Basically: we’re inviting AusMac to boast here. They can tell us how great they are, and we’ll happily trumpet their answer.

B. Costs of ‘partnership agreement’ titles

Question 3: What is the median cost to the author of these partnership agreements?

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?

I hope it’s obvious why these questions are important. In a very fast-changing and fast-diversifying publishing world, I guess I could in theory be persuaded that partnership-style agreements could sometimes make sense. But they need to be real partnerships. I chip in. You chip in. We share the proceeds. That’s a partnership. So question 4 above basically invites the firm to explain how these partnerships work financially. We’ll be happy to publish the answers.

C. Sales outcomes of ‘partnership agreement’ titles

Question 5: What are the median sales of your partnership titles? Note that ordinary averages (means) can be distorted by one or two high-selling titles, so a median figure would be helpful here, please.

Question 6: What, approximately, is the median financial outcome for your partnership authors? So if they contribute (say) £2500 to a project, do they end up recovering their £2500 via royalties? Or do they generally make a profit? And if so, how much? And if they make a loss, what is the average magnitude of that loss?

Again, it should be obvious why this matters. If an author contributes, say, £2500 to a project and makes £50 back in royalties, that is a bum deal. If an author invests the same sum, but earns £10,000 in royalties, then your firm has done a fantastic job for the writer, and I salute you for it.

Again: please feel free to boast. If you do a great job, let us know and we’ll be genuinely delighted to spread the word.

D. Your ethos

Since we published this post and the one that follows, we have been contacted by AM’s solictors telling us to withdraw all mention of them from this website. 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. So two more questions:

Question 7: Have you ever threatened journalists, bloggers or other online writers with legal action because they had the audacity to query the way you go about your business?

Question 8: Is it the case that you require all or some of your authors to sign contracts which oblige them to stay quiet about their interactions with you?

I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, hence my interest in having them answered, but I have been a professional author for more than 18 years; I have published at the rate of almost one title a year; and I have signed numerous foreign deals in addition to my host of UK deals. And, for what it’s worth, no publisher has ever asked me to sign a contract which prohibits me from talking about my dealings with them. And if they did? I’d know they were a publisher I’d never, ever want to do business with.

That’s it for the questions, but again – beloved reader – we want YOU to help out. The more people we have asking the questions, the more the firm will feel compelled to answer. So here, once more, is that tweetable tweet. It says Click to Tweet, cos that’s what you gotta do:

Tweet: Are they legit? Or are they scammers? Questions for @AustinMacauley

We sent the full text of this post to Austin McCauley on the Friday preceding our prior to Tuesday publication date. The communications we have received from the firm are copied below:


From Jade Robertson (no job title given, email 12 December, 3.40pm)

Dear Harry,

[Oops. The firm sent a solicitor’s letter prohibiting my reproduction of this email. So here’s the same thing, but transposed into my words not theirs.]

Thank you your post and your interest in our firm. We delighted to talk about our approach to publishing and we know that authors are the key to success in this industry.

We would love to be transparent but we’re not sure how far we can go, legally speaking – so we’re consulting our law firm now.

We are expanding as a firm, both on the traditional side annd the partnership side.

[This para IS direct from AM’s email, because we want to let them talk direct about their successes. I’ll remove it if they insist – but why would you insist? I dunno.] We continue to gain nominations and awards for our titles; more details can be found on the news section of our website. Finally, an impressive number of authors choose to come back to us – which suggests that we must be doing something right!

I’m sorry we cannot provide better answers at the moment.

Jade Robertson

My comment: Good, they’re talking – kinda. I don’t see that client confidentiality is affected by any of my questions above. If I ask, ‘How many books did Joe Schmoe sell?’ that’s a question which is personal to the good Mr Schmoe and the firm should rightly tell me to shut up. If I ask, ‘What was the median number of books sold by clients of your firm?’ that’s not personal to anyone. And if the firm is doing well and has a lot of repeat business, then why not tell me about it? I don’t understand. (And why get lawyers involved? If the issue is commercial confidentiality, then what do lawyers add to that discussion? I don’t know.)

But let’s not over-interpret things. At most, this is a holding response – and a perfectly legitimate one. I hope to get more shortly.

Just one last thing. Their note above says, “We continue to get nominations and awards for our titles,” and refers us to this page of their website.  The current content of that page did not quite strike me as a list of nominations and awards, but you should make up your own mind on that score.


Update 18 December

Austin Macauley have still not addressed the questions in this post. You can see our conclusions here.

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