Austin Macauley – what a terrible vanity publishing contract looks like

Our Black Ops Department – a recent example of their work

It’s well known that the Writers’ Workshop boasts the most feared black ops department in the entire publishing universe . . . and there’s a long trail of corpses and smouldering corporate ruins to prove our potency.

What’s less well-known is that we’ve subverted a small number of international intelligence services, so that our skills in intercepts, decryption and data-gathering are now second only to those of GCHQ and (arguably) Mossad.

Our latest triumph? We have copies of letters and contracts sent out by Austin MacAwful to real clients of theirs.

Here is a copy of a real Austin MacDreadful sales letter.

Here is a copy of a real Austin MacTerrible contract.

My opinion on these documents:

The main thing is that they’re all crap. No letter from a genuine trade publisher – a Penguin Random House, a HarperCollins, a Macmillan or so forth – looks or smells anything like this. What you are looking at here is a fake. It’s what some not-terribly-bright people at Austin MacLoathsome think will look like a real publisher’s letter to people who have never had any dealings with publishers.

The bullshit starts with the very first line. “Your manuscript was brought to our attention at the latest board meeting when we discussed its potential and the possibility of it being published.”

Nonsense! Austin MacTerrible makes a business of vanity publishing. It doesn’t need a board meeting to decide these things. Making these offers is just part of its ordinary daily business. So yes, maybe it dresses up those ordinary routine meetings as board meetings so they’re not telling a bare-faced lie, but the purpose of referencing the board is to thrill the recipient of this letter. They took my manuscript to the board! Wow!

This is all just stagey horseshit concocted for the purposes of taking money from the unwise or gullible.

Black Ops – one of our regional headquarters (SW Division)

As it happens, my own career in real publishing has been long enough and prosperous enough that some of my book deals have had to be signed off and approved by the company CEO. But no one ever said to me, “Hey, Harry, we had a special meeting with the Chief Executive to determine whether we were able to proceed with . . .” Of course they didn’t. They just made an offer and my agent and I decided whether to accept it. That’s how things happen with real publishers. The whole Austin MacFrightful letter is just a ghastly pastiche of a mock-up of a shadow of how things really work.

But the letter is just a piece of unlovely marketing. The contract is where rubber hits road, and – as you’d expect – it’s where things get awful.

Just three terrible things to pick out from a much longer list:

1) The whole pay to play element

It just can’t be said too often that you should NOT pay a publisher to publish your work. There are two fine, honourable and wise approaches to publication. Those are:

A) you get a real offer from a real publisher which involves them, almost always, putting money in your pocket upfront. (Why only “almost always”? Well, for example, a poetry publisher and other micro-publishers won’t have the cash to give you an advance. But they will give you royalties, so the flow of money is always them-to-you. That’s how it should be.)

B) You self-publish. It’s free to upload your work to Amazon. They pay huge – 70% – royalties. Creating paperbacks and hardbacks is a tad more fiddly than creating ebooks, but the whole process gets easier all the time. If you pay someone else to do every part of the process (cover design, ebook formatting, etc) it’ll still come out far, far cheaper than that £2300 Austin MacRipoff offer. What’s more, Amazon won’t demand you sign your rights over to them. It will put your work in front of pretty much every reader in the entire world. And it will do so in a way that is trustworthy, reliable, honest and excellent.

[Oh, and just for the sake of absolute clarity, I should say that there actually is a place for (C) truthful old-fashioned print self-publishing. So if you’ve written a family memoir and want a few hundred copies printed and bound for local circulation – well, good for you. That too is an honourable pursuit. But in that case you should work with an honest, non-scammy firm like Matador. They won’t make you rich, but they won’t lie to you either, and they do a fine job for their clients.]

2) The sign-your-rights-away-for-ever element

When you sign a real book deal with a real publisher (a Penguin, or whomever), then yes, the author conventionally sells rights in the work for the term of copyright: life plus seventy years.

Even in trad publishing, that clause has looked ever less acceptable as time goes by. (Why not a fixed five year license term, renewable by mutual consent? That would give plenty of incentive for a publisher to work hard . . . and the author an easy escape option if things don’t work out.) But, fair dos, at least there IS a rationale. In the contracts I’ve signed in the past, a large amount of money passes from the publisher to me, and further large sums of money are spent on real editing, real marketing, and so forth. A trad publisher will argue that those investments are only made possible by the security of a basically infinite contract term.

But if you are paying a vanity publisher, those arguments make no sense at all. None.

The pay-to-play thing is basically toxic, but combine that with no exit route for the author and it becomes just unthinkable. It’s a no-brainer. No author should ever, ever sign this terrible contract.

So it can’t get worse, right?

Ha! Wrong! This is Austin MacScumball we’re talking about. The final no-no is, to my mind, probably the worst of the lot.

3) A gagging clause

This is for real. There’s a (badly drafted) clause in the MacBandit contract which runs as follows:

The drafting here is terrible. I genuinely find it hard to believe that an actual lawyer wrote and approved those words, but never mind that for now. What it kinda says in its MacIdiot way is that the author can’t do or say anything that might upset the MacMorons.

And that’s just beyond ridiculous. To be clear, I have in my life signed big book deals with Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury . . . not to mention any number of additional deals with overseas publishers, many of whom have belonged to the industry’s leading firms. And I have never ever, never ever, never ever been presented with a clause like this . . . and if I had done, I wouldn’t have signed the damn deal.

Of course, authors and publishers should work collaboratively together. Duh! We do, in theory, have highly compatible interests. Why would any author work to undermine his or her own book? In fact, why insert a clause like this at all?

An Austin Macauley board meeting – photo courtesy of WW Black Ops (London)

The answer, I have to conclude, is that Austin MacToxic knows that a significant proportion of its clients will come to be appalled by the gap between the firm’s talk and the firm’s delivery. Those clients would rather speak the truth and place at risk their (probably somewhat notional) book sales. And the purpose of this clause, as I understand it, is to gag those people.

This clause, on its own, should be a huge red warning lamp blazing the message:


Just say no.

If you are looking for publication yourself, then you probably want to follow these steps:

  1. Look for a literary agent (using this guide)
  2. If an agent takes you on, then great. Just follow their advice.
  3. If an agent doesn’t take you on, then either fix your manuscript (ideally using third party editorial help) and return to step 1 when you’re ready. Or you might perfectly well decide that you don’t want trad publishing at all, in which case . . .
  4. Self-publish your book for free on the Amazon Kindle platform, using this comprehensive guide as your template.

What shocks me and continues to shock me is that outfits like the London Book Fair provide a platform to Austin MacOdious and its ilk. What are they thinking? Are they truly willing to scrap for every last copper in exchange for giving up their ethics entirely? I don’t understand that at all.

Snakes will be snakes. The Book Fair should know better.

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  • I have learned the hard way; so much so that I am now engaged in litigation [against Austin Macauley] along with another author, but oh, we have learned SO much and the Truth, as we all know, ALWAYS comes out in the end..!

  • Liam

    In my teenage years I also was lured in by A&M. I was an easy target. I was young, eager to find some form of success and as a result was completely over the moon to receive an almost identical offer letter to the one on this page.

    The money was paid. A short and superficial ‘edit’ process took place and when the book went to print I found that the printed version was actually one of the earlier edits and not the final version. Then came the marketing. I was basically given a short document setting out how to do it all myself and I saw no marketing efforts from A&M after the first month or so.

    The book was discontinued not too long later and I was then left as a young, disappointed and defeated writer with no enthusiasm to write again and a considerable dent in the bank balance. Many years later, I am now rebuilding the enthusiasm to write and have to accept that my publishing record is now stained with this experience.

    I am now a lawyer, with some litigation experience, and I will be interested to hear more about Amanda’a case. Maybe it’s time to consider my own potential claim.

  • Harry

    Interesting story . . . and just so you know, no one will hold that teenage experience against you, so your record isn’t stained in any way. It’s actually not even something that needs mentioning with an agent, or not on any first encounter anyway. Good luck with the lawyering! There’s probably a lucrative sub-speciality in litigating against vanity publishers.

  • I don’t know you from Adam, Liam, but one thing I do know for sure is that when something seems too good to be true, it often is 🙂 So thank you for your ‘offer’ but I will be declining…

  • Marjorie Davidson-Smith

    Informative page! Many thanks. I hope many aspiring authors read it.
    You will probably not be too surprised to learn this little con. trick is not new. Decades ago, when I was young an innocent I fell for the vanity publishing scam. The house in question has now ceased trading, by the way. They relieved me of something like three times what it would have cost me to self publish; they did virtually no publicity; at the end of the year they had the chutzpah to write and ask me for a further two hundred pounds or they would pulp the remainder. I put the letter in the bin. .
    ( The book couldn’t have been all that bad as it is still being traded on Amazon and similar)

  • Harry

    Ah, yes, some things never change, sadly. But to be clear the “con trick” in question here is perfectly legal. Neither Marjorie now the WW are alleging anything illegal has taken place.

  • Anon

    At the end of June last year Austin Macauley said they would email me in 6 weeks, depending on which route they wanted to take regarding the publishing my book, (traditional, or hybrid) however, they only took half that time to reply, as they sent me 2 contracts, the first, by email, the second, a hard copy in the post, where they wanted fees ranging from £1900, £2900, £4400. Needless to say, I ignored them, as I had already found out that they were vanity publishers, even before receiving both contracts. Their website states that they offer the ‘hybrid’ publishing contract, which is another term for vanity publishing, in order to fool hopeful authors. I looked at their reviews and they have been given 4/5 stars, someone on the AWERS (Absolute Writers’) forum mentioned that those writers who gave them positive reviews were ones who had been rejected by other publishers, and no doubt considered themselves lucky to be taken on. Fair enough, but what would be interesting to know is after those writers had paid such exorbitant fees, what percentage of profit did they make, e.g. if they paid, say, £2000 in fees, did they earn double the return in royalties? Slightly off topic, but after reading a Glassdoor review of AM on the third page of Google, former employees have been very scathing about them, saying that most people leave after just one year and that employees suffer guilt and low self-esteem, due to pressure from management to cheat writers out of their money. Also, two of the reviews on the Glassdoor site state that AM will not last long, due to such practices.

  • Anon

    Another point I had not mentioned is that in the ‘About Us’ section on AM’s web page, it says, ‘many agents are publishers are closing their doors to authors, even those with a proven track record.’ This is obviously another vanity publishing tactic, done to persuade writers to hand over money to them instead of submitting their work to a legitimate agent or publisher. However, do literary agents and publishers still invite unknown first-time authors to send in manuscripts for consideration? As there have been discouraging reports in the media that publishers aren’t interested in looking at books from unknown authors, as opposed to celebrities. Thank you in advance for any advice comments on that subject.

  • Harry

    Of couse agents & publishers welcome work from debut writers. They always have. They always will. Yes, there’s a market for celeb stuff (that too is eternal), but most smash hit new writers come out of nowhere (JK Rowling, EL James, Stieg Larsson, Clare Mackintosh, Stephenie Meyer, Paula Hawkins, etc, etc, etc.) All agents & publishers know that and they are always on the look out for the next big, unknown author.

  • Oh my God, that is so bad! Love the way they call it “Advances” when the author pays them money 🙂 As a former IP lawyer, I also enjoyed the Copyright Act section. Thanks for highlighting what a bunch of scumbags this lot are.

  • Julia Atkinson

    In December last year AM moved to what sounds like a fancy new office at 25 Canada Square, Canary Wharf. For the benefit of newbies who might be impressed by this prestigious address, AM is not a direct tenant – their address is identical to that of at least four other companies. It’s just a virtual office.