The iUniverse Rants: Coming Clean

This is a difficult post for me to write. Partly because I have to reveal to you that I’ve been duped, and partly because I prefer to ignore any and all things related to my ex-husband.

It’s also difficult to write because the story is not linear, and explaining to you what’s happened to me since I wrote my first book review on Suess’s Pieces last July won’t be simple. Please bear with me.

For several months now, I’ve suspected that my ex-husband was behind the drama leading to my open tirades against iUniverse here on my blog. Some of the communication I had with the authors requesting book reviews just didn’t sit right with me. And, although I couldn’t really prove it, I knew deep down I was being played. Used.

Without much in the way of evidence to call out my ex on his backhanded badgering, I pretty much just went off on iUniverse and the individual authors in order to vent my frustrations and try to discourage any further interaction with them.

Not that it worked.

Some of you probably thought I was taking it all a little too seriously, but in reality I wasn’t prepared to go public with my conspiracy theory. I offered little in the way of explanation for my outbursts. I figured it would have made me look like an insane ex-wife with a grudge to blame my ex for what was going on with all these authors. General venting on my blog was all I had.

Then by chance (or perhaps not by chance at all) a man I once knew left this comment on my April 18, 2012 blog post. A light bulb went off, and that was all it took for the rest of the pieces to begin to fall into place.

As I kept digging deeper for confirmation of my suspicions, I became more enraged with every telling morsel I found.

This is my story. This is my attempt to explain to you why a woman who has never even written a book would waste her time trying to encourage writers to become skeptics of the self-publishing world in general, but these companies in particular: iUniverse, AuthorHouse and AuthorSolutions. (AuthorSolutions is the company that owns iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Trafford and xLibris, and it is connected to Hay House’s imprint, Balboa Press—the corporate incest is relevant. I think you’ll see why as you read on.)

How I Got Started Writing Book Reviews

A self-published author named Georgia Brock contacted me on Twitter in June 2011, asking if I did book reviews on my blog. It seemed a little odd to me—since I wasn’t a known reviewer—that a complete stranger would reach out to me for an evaluation of her book. But I figured self-published authors probably struggled a lot trying to get attention for their books, and my blog was relatively well-established.

I agreed to review Brock’s It Started on a Garden Tour if she provided a review copy, and I announced on my blog and on Twitter that I was planning to accept more titles. A couple of authors who were already online connections asked if I’d take on their works. Of course, I agreed. Those two or three authors are not in any way related to this tale.

Between July 3, 2011 and September 3, 2011, I wrote a total of five book reviews on Suess’s Pieces where the books were directly connected to AuthorSolutions and iUniverse.

  • It Started on a Garden Tour (AuthorHouse)
  • Just Another Eylsian Sidetrip (AuthorHouse)
  • The Velvet Thorn (iUniverse)
  • Maximum Speed: Pushing the Limit (iUniverse)
  • What on Earth Are We Doing Here? Exploring the Case for Human Suffering (Balboa)

In August of 2011, I received an email from a social media publicist at AuthorSolutions. She explained to me that I had agreed to review one of her author’s titles, and asked me if I would be willing to look at another. I agreed and let her know that from then on she could just send me additional titles. No point in wasting time on formalities.

What Triggered My First Meltdown

About a week after I made this agreement with the social media publicist, I wrote “When Book Reviews Attack!” This veritable snarkfest of a post resulted from requests coming to me through various authors’ Twitter accounts and blog comments. They were getting out of line, in my opinion. So I spelled it all out for them, lest any other authors think about asking me for similar ridiculous favors.

That meant sending a retraction to the social media publicist I mentioned earlier. I needed to let her know I’d axed the free reviews on my blog. I thought I’d send her a quick message on Twitter.

Looking at her Twitter profile, I discovered a tweet she sent to my ex-husband in her timeline, and I stopped cold. I wasn’t in the habit of following him on Twitter, so it came as a surprise to me that they knew each other. I chalked it up to coincidence because the company hails from nearby Bloomington where he went to school. I did not care to look into it any further. My wont is to avoid my ex and any people I know to be connected to him. I unfollowed her, and things were relatively quiet for the next few months.

Divorce is Ugly

I suppose now is as good a time as any to fill you in on how I came to be happily divorced. I filed with the court on July 10, 2008 because I could no longer stand being in his company. But for several months prior to that, I’d been trying to work it out with him.

“Trying to work it out” included a few sessions with a counselor at the pretty, white, suburban church we’d been attending. Those sessions were all very much the same: me crying with a box of tissues by my side, the counselor asking soothing and non-accusing questions, and my ex-husband flapping on while his pants idiomatically ignited into white-hot flames.

The whole experience left me disillusioned with the idea of church and rather offended by that church in particular. Promises to “protect me” (whatever that meant) amounted to nothing more than the coddling of an unremorseful man.

At one point after I’d filed for divorce but before the 90-day waiting period was up, I remember telling my ex-husband that he couldn’t go to that pretty, white, suburban church anymore. Essentially I was saying that I was getting the church in the divorce. You know, the way some couples fight over who gets to keep the condo or the SUV.

I had no intention of ever going back to that church; I just couldn’t bear the thought of him using it as a social club for getting jobs and networking on Sunday mornings. I had my suspicions he was lying to me when he agreed, because the church was comprised of moneyed families and sucessful businessmen and women. And my ex-husband? Well, he was a public relations professional without a job.

Putting the Pieces Together

After a few months of pleasant blogging without the annoying pokes of iUniverse authors, two new authors started blipping on my radar. That’s how “OMFG, iUniverse Authors!” came to be published on April 18, 2012.

The first author merely commented on an old post. I bristled at his unfounded comment, but didn’t become truly angry until a second iUniverse author engaged me on Twitter. People who self-promote the way she did—by baiting me with talk of something I’ve expressed interest in only to lead me to irrelevant, self-promotional crap—are what’s wrong with social media marketing, in my opinion. I took screen shots. I posted them. I swore.

At least five different people said to  me, “I knew you were passionate about this iUniverse thing, but I had no idea.”

In hindsight, I was terribly hard on the authors, even though part of me suspected they weren’t actually the ones leaving the comments and hitting me up on Twitter. It seemed more like the work of a hack publicist, not someone truly vested in sharing their life’s work with the world.

But I didn’t care, because if these authors weren’t directly responsible for the communications, they were indirectly responsible for not monitoring how their online reputation was being managed.

Five days passed before the fateful comment I mentioned at the beginning of this post was submitted on “OMFG, iUniverse Authors!” When I saw it and saw the commenter’s unmistakable name, it only took a second for me to start connecting the dots. Four years ago, the commenter spoke in front of the congregation at that pretty, white, suburban church.

I have no idea what he spoke about anymore. Maybe it was an upcoming event or program. But it doesn’t matter now anyway. Seeing his comment on my blog, I no longer doubted that my ex-husband had been using me and my goodwill to get free book reviews for his clients. And the absurd requests—like the one asking me to take my picture with a book at the race track?—I think that was all him too.

What I Know vs. What I Think to Be True

There are some things I will never be able to prove. For instance, I don’t know that my ex was the one composing those comments and tweets*. I do know, however, that someone at AuthorSolutions left a comment for me under the name of Georgia Brock. Georgia Brock, you’ll recall, was the author of the first book ever reviewed on Suess’s Pieces.

I have Gmail. That means I have tons of space, killer search functions, and no reason to ever delete any of the emails I receive. That’s why I still have access to Disqus comment system notifications from 9 months ago.

disqus comment

You see, Disqus records the IP addresses of those leaving comments on my blog. That IP address can then be looked up easily online. This is what ip-lookup.net tells me about 206.53.252.80, the author of the comment in question:

ip lookup screenshot

If they’re writing comments for clients, might they also be Tweeting for their clients?

Also, do you remember the social media publicist who I discovered had tweeted to my ex-husband? That connection wasn’t a coincidence. I’ve since checked out the ex’s Twitter profile and confirmed that he works with her at AuthorSolutions.

AuthorSolutions’ Global Marketing Director? Well, looks like the pretty, white, suburban church has a rather effective Good Ol’ Boys club at work among the congregants. Based on his job title, I’m assuming he’s my ex’s current boss.

Considering that I went back to my maiden name after the divorce and considering that I had no meaningful  contact with the Global Marketing Director of AuthorSolutions while I attended the pretty, white, suburban church, I doubt he had any idea whose blog he was commenting on. If he did know who I was…well, I hope someone steals his favorite cufflinks or something.

My Self-Publishing Convictions

I still stand by all of my incessant rambling about the pitfalls of self-publishing and iUniverse in particular. Because even when you remove my ex-husband from the equation, I’ve read an overwhelming number of self-pubs that are lackluster, typo-ridden atrocities.

The one or two good self-published works I’ve read don’t convince me that self-publishing  companies are improving the industry; they just convince me that exceptionally capable authors occasionally succeed against all odds.

And remember: I say all of this not as someone with a dog in the traditional publishing vs. self-publishing fight, but as a reader. As one of the people everyone in the publishing industry is supposedly trying to win over.

I think too many authors who self-publish aren’t skeptical enough when it comes to shelling out their money. So in days to come I’ll be posting interviews with people who have used iUniverse and wanted to share their experiences.

Why am I singling out iUniverse if I think all self-pubs need to try harder? Well, not to sound like I’m eight years old…

But they started it.

iUniverse is owned by Author Solutions, Inc., a Bertram Capital-owned holding company.

*9/5/12 I do, however, know now that the Author Solutions publicity team did create Twitter accounts and post updates on behalf of their clients. This was verified by an anonymous employee.

About Emily Suess

Emily Suess is a technical marketing writer by day and a freelance copywriter by night. And, no, she's not related to Dr. Seuss.
  • http://withjustabitofmagic.com Jackie

    Wow… It’s great that you were able to figure it all out but I can’t believe that they would do that. 

    I know all to well how that good ol’ boys club works… thats how it is where I work. They’re all related or are close friends.

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Yeah, I understand that people try to help each other out, but if you tag-team to pick on people? That’s where I start to get cranky. :)

  • http://makingitawkward.blogspot.com/ Rachael

    Ugh, how disheartening. Thanks for spelling it out for us – you end up with even more credibility in my opinion, because we know that you weren’t just targeting authors for fun. (Not that I thought that anyway, but dang, I’m pretty sure I never would have suspected any nefarious schemes behind it!)

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Thanks, Rachael. My ex is just one of those people who will never be satisfied unless he’s being a pain in the ass to someone else. It runs in his family.

  • http://www.mycyberhouserules.com/ Marie Nicole

    Oh my god. Writer and editor by day. Private investigator by night. Holy batcrap! Thank god he’s an ex. Imagine a life of him and the manipulations, the games, the the the stuff! Yuck. This is like a movie!

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      This is mild compared to the stuff I was writing about in 2008 and 2009, girl! :)

  • http://terrificwords.wordpress.com/ Terri

    Emily, I feel for you. I can’t believe people can be so underhanded. But then again, it’s not too much of a surprise since so many people know that about the good ole’ boys clubs. But at least it taught you a valuable lesson. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer…

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      It is underhanded, but I can’t say it’s a surprise for me. At least, not considering the source.

  • http://www.kidtogrownup.com/ Bobbi Janay

    Wow, I am sorry that you have to deal with this.

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Thanks, Bobbi. 

  • Lawrence

    I cannot say I am surprised. I paid out a lout of money, simply because I had not done my own homework. It is possible other companies are as dishonest as the iUniverse / Author Solutions people, I do not know. I did not get what I paid for and I know that they are not fully reporting sales. Are you going to start suing for a difference of 5 copies? Have I really only sold 12 copies? I know of more.

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Thanks for dropping by, Lawrence and for taking the time to comment. I am hoping that your interview (which will be live on Wednesday!) is enlightening for people considering using this company. And I hope they eventually give you what you’re owed, though at this point I’m too skeptical to think they’ll actually change their ways.

  • Stephen Edwards

    Wowie (as my 6 year old grandson is fond of saying) this is some amazing sh*t. I am in the process of writing a book and have been in contact with iUniverse, but after reading this I’m starting to have a few questions…obviously. 

    Emily this post raises all kind of questions for me…I was asked to leave a suburban church in your area and the description sounded eerily similar…but maybe they all do. Also you mention Lawrence is doing a live interview about iUniverse on Wednesday…when and where?

    You have done a great job piecing this mess together. Keep writing…we need more voices like yours.

    Be encouraged!

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      If you’re having second thoughts about using iUniverse (and hopefully the other Author Solutions companies for self-publishing) then I feel like I’m doing my job.

      I think the people at Author Solutions are shady, plain and simple.

      Also, it won’t be a live interview, but the interview will be live (meaning published) right here on the blog. It’ll go up bright and early tomorrow morning.

  • angry at asi

    You folks have no idea how deep the deceit runs at Author Solutions. I work there, and every day, I get smacked in the face with what seems like fraud happening. That’s my legally-neutral phrasing. I’ve never seen such a demotivated, miserable office, probably because a lot of us feel terrible about what we’re doing. Sue, I know who your husband is, and though he may be behind requesting you as a book review target, he’s not the real problem there.

    The royalties system has always been a mess, but now it’s in meltdown. They know they’re not tracking them well.

    That’s pennies compared to the big scam at Author Solutions: Marketing Services. Sales people brag about pushing customers to overextend themselves, promising them the world, laughing about how they’ll probably only sell a dozen copies. Then customer service ignores them and tries to squeeze them for even more. Sometimes people pay $80,000 or more and barely sell a thing. Authors are regularly ridiculed for how bad the covers/content can be, and Keith Ogorek has a shelf of the “worst” books in his office that he laughs about. Very respectful. The biggest irony is that this is supposedly such a Christian organization, with partnership imprints with Thomas Nelson, Hayhouse & Guideposts.

    I often think about testifying against them in lawsuits, and I think I have to. I might not pound my fist against the table like Mr. Christian / Keith Ogorek, but I know the difference between right and wrong. Beyond the spineless Keith Ogorek is the CEO, Kevin Weiss, who has an online reputation showing that he does not have a firm grasp on moral guidelines, in a number of arenas.

    For your enjoyment, here is a full list of the brands ASI/ Bertram Capital owns and runs out of a giant plant in the Philippines and two small offices in Indiana:

    BOOKS:
    Author House  Sales people sit three feet from iUniverse sales people
    iUniverse  Sales people sit three feet from Author House sales people
    XLibris
    Trafford
    Palibrio   Spanish-speaking
    Abbott Press  Writer’s Digest-branded line
    Balboa  Hay House-branded line
    WestBow  Thomas Nelson-branded line
    Inspiring Voices  Guideposts Magazine-branded line
    Legacy Keepers  private books, not selling

    MODERN MEDIA:
    FuseFrame   Previously Author Solutions Films
    Pitchfest   Authors pay to come pitch their stories for film adaptations
    Author Learning Center – online learning tool hoping you’ll forget to cancel your credit card after the free trial ends
    WordClay  Abandoned ebook imprint
    BookTango  New ebook imprint that’s a mess

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      I assume by “Sue” you mean me, and by “husband” you mean EX-husband. But yes, I realize he’s just a symptom. 

      He’s relevant to the story of how I, personally, became involved in writing about Author Solutions and iUniverse. And I don’t think his complicity should be overlooked. His deceitful methodology proves that he is willing to risk the online reputations of his authors to make it look like he’s actually doing something to get them publicity. 

      That said, consumers shouldn’t overlook the complicity of any of the employees at Author Solutions, Inc. and its imprints who continue to take advantage of aspiring writers–from Weiss right down to the customer service representatives.

      I appreciate your willingness to spell this out for readers. 

      I’m not anywhere near finished with this tale, so if you’d like to come back and add your thoughts to future posts…by all means. We’re just getting warmed up here.

      • Lawrence

        And neither am I finished with them. They still phone me to purchase my own book just that the discounts they are offering are changed. Last year it was 25 to 30 books I would get a 35% discount and three extra books and now it is 30-40 with no extra books.

        I agree that I am gullible

    • http://www.facebook.com/charles.ranier Charles Ranier

      A little late to the party, but thank you for letting me who Booktango is in bed with.

      I have a friend who was looking at using it who read through their packages and caught the fact that if you do their “free” package you don’t even get a copy of your own book to download (unlike, say, Smashwords, where you can download your own book in any version at any time, no charge). But if you upgrade to their $40 package you can get one, ONE, copy of your own book to download. And they were SHOCKED that anyone would have a problem with this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/George-Kelley/563006207 George Kelley

    I have to say this has been a fun read, so you should let me know which white suburban church it was, I probably know people there.  :)  

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      I don’t know, George. I’m thinking I shouldn’t say which once it is for the same reason you mention! lol 

      I’m sure there are decent people left in the congregation, and I don’t want to turn the whole blog world against them just because of their unfortunate association with the building.

  • Danita Clark Able

    I’m so thankful to to find this blog and these comments. I’ve been speaking with iUniverser for weeks now, I am supposed to call them tomorrow to finalize an agreement…which I won’t be doing!

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      If you’d like to share your story with the readers here, Danita, let me know. I’m working very hard to publish customer’s accounts and experiences with the company. I’d be happy to give you a few questions to answer by email. There are several other author interviews on the site if you’d like to see the kinds of questions I ask. Let me know. I can be reached at emily at emilysuess dot com.

  • ska Smith

    Ms. Suess, I am very pleased to have found your blog through the SFWA’s Writer Beware blog. The internet and ‘Digital Age’ are definitely providing new life to old scams. I am sorry about what happened at the church you once attended; it is very sadly true that most American Christians, aren’t of very much account as either.
    Are you familiar with the Freelancer’s Union? Or worker self-directed enterprises (WSDE)? These are examples of what I think may be the future of publishing, with writer’s acting as editors, artists supplying illustrations through a common factor, and the marketing contracted to outside firms. There is still a role for agents, in my opinion, and I believe that as the publishing industry contracts, many editors will create a new style of agent/mentor. What do you think?