Recently an elderly relative received an alarming phone call from someone purporting to be from Microsoft. She had a terrible virus on her computer, this fellow told her, and for the low, low price of $250, he would take control of her computer remotely, fix the problem, and download a bunch of software onto her computer to make sure it never happened again!

She was incredibly grateful that this man alerted her to this horrible problem--she knew that her computer was old and buggy, but she had no idea things were that bad--so she promptly gave him her credit card number and let him download whatever he wanted!

Then she told the younger generation about it, and we made her unplug her Internet connection, get a new computer, and inform her credit-card company that she had been defrauded and needed a new card.

We're hoping that the credit-card company can sic the police on this guy so that he doesn't steal from any more seniors, but other than that, we're pretty much just focusing on the this-elderly-relative-needs-more-supervision end of things.

Imagine, though, that the guy running this scam actually worked for Microsoft. The Surface bombed, Windows 8 was a nonstarter, and Microsoft thought, "Screw it--the tech industry is just too hard! All that innovation is really expensive and doesn't always pay off. I know! Let's buy a company that specializes in ripping off addlepated and tech-adverse senior citizens!"

So, they did, and this guy who charges elderly people to install malware on their computers wasn't lying when he claimed he worked for Microsoft and went through the whole charade (which he did) of consulting with his boss in Seattle.

Well, in that case, we probably wouldn't just leave it in the hands of the credit-card company. In that case, we'd be looking at Microsoft's $227 billion market capitalization and its $72 billion in annual revenues and its $66 billion in cash, and we'd be discussing a lawyer seeing if we couldn't get a piece of that--not because we are especially greedy (although I certainly wouldn't turn down a piece of $66 billion), but because we'd be royally pissed that some allegedly reputable company had stooped to this kind of patently illegal fraud.

Which is why I think the whole strategy of traditional publishers allying themselves with Author Solutions is going to blow up in their faces. As Victoria Strauss (via PV) mentions, it's no secret that Author Solutions is a scam press. In the past, writers ripped off by the company might have just decided to lick their wounds and go home--after all, self-publishing has always been kind of a scammy business, right? And these scammers are often hard to locate and rarely have the assets to make a long legal fight worthwhile.

But when you're getting ripped by a company like Penguin (owned by Pearson PLC, with a market cap of $15 billion, annual revenues of $10 billion, and $1.6 billion in cash) or Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS Corp, with a market cap of $25 billion, annual revenues of $15 billion, and $1.5 billion in cash), that math starts to change. Suddenly, the guy who ripped you off is really easy to find, and he's got a freaking ton of money! Plus, business newspapers love a good scandal, and a public company has a lot to lose when its reputation gets tarnished--investors start to avoid it, which makes it much harder to raise money--so they are quite motivated to pay someone to shut up about their questionable business practices.

So, why would a "reputable" publisher set itself up for the kind of bad publicity and legal hassles you get when you start ripping off little old ladies? Ah, well, that I think is another case of large publishers having gotten so into the habit of crossing an ethical and legal line that they've forgotten it ever existed. I mean, I don't think it's a coincidence that Harlequin, the publishing house of "Authors shouldn't be able to make a living" fame, is the target of a really impressive class-action lawsuit. And if you read today's blog post by Kris Rusch, just as an aside she mentions:

I certainly wouldn’t be earning a living [writing for traditional publishers]—a reasonable, above-poverty rate living—any more. In the last few years, I earned about one-quarter of what I used to earn in my bad years. The advances have gone from survivable to insulting. And now publishers are fudging on royalties owed....

Recently a friend started contract negotiations with a medium-sized publisher that I’ve worked for. The contract the friend forwarded me was shockingly bad, worse than any I’d seen in the last year, grabbing every right, including rights to all of my friend’s future projects. The contract only paid for the first project. The rights to the other projects could have been tied up for decades without payment because this once-honorable publisher got greedy.

Greedy and lazy. Greedy and lazy.