Self-publishing companies are in the business of selling dreams. But what if the dream becomes a nightmare?
By Paula Span
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW08
Like mainstream book publishers, self-publishing companies are in the business of selling dreams. But what if the dream becomes a nightmare?
It was a jubilant day when Kate St. Amour learned that her novel, featuring “a psychic witch who solves crimes,” had been accepted for publication. She’d been quietly writing fiction since high school, socking her efforts away in drawers, but last spring she took a deep breath and, for the first time, sent a manuscript to a publisher recommended by online friends. Bare Bones had “the three M’s: magic, mystery and murder,” says St. Amour, a Fredericksburg, Va., nurse with an unusually felicitous name for a writer of a book that is part mystery, part romance. This book, she thought, might finally be good enough.
In June, a publisher in Frederick, Md., agreed. “I’m happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give your Bare Bones the chance it deserves,” it announced via e-mail. “To say I was excited is an understatement. I’ve wanted to be published my entire life,” recalls St. Amour, who is 31. “I called everyone I could get on the phone; I e-mailed everyone I knew.”
Doubts first arose when she began receiving e-mailed exhortations offering special, limited-time discounts if she agreed to purchase many copies of her own book. Would Avon or Pocketbooks do that? she wondered. She grew suspicious, too, when the proofs of her novel arrived — riddled, St. Amour says, with spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
And when she visited her local Waldenbooks to schedule a book-signing, an assistant manager checked her computer, “looked at me and said, ‘That’s POD.’ ” In industry parlance that means “print on demand,” books that are most likely self-published. “We don’t do signings for POD authors,” the employee said.
Perhaps, St. Amour thought at first, the manager misunderstood. PublishAmerica does use POD technology — saving manufacturing and warehousing costs by not producing a book until a consumer actually places an order. But it calls itself “a traditional, advance- and royalty-paying book publisher.” Its trade paperbacks, its Web site says, “are available through most major bookstores,” though it adds this qualifier: “Availability is not necessarily the same as bookstore shelf display.”
St. Amour, who acknowledges being “very ignorant about the publishing industry” at the time, believed she was contracting with a press that was small but could launch her new career. Yet a major chain bookseller — and the nearby Borders concurred — was telling her it wouldn’t put her book on its shelves.
“The excitement,” she says now, “was short-lived.” PublishAmerica operates differently, she has learned.
To Larry Clopper, president and co-founder of PublishAmerica, the company, in relying on its authors to largely sell their own books, is “revolutionizing” an elitist industry. It has, he says, “always operated on the highest principles of honor and integrity.” PublishAmerica’s authors often knew “decades of failure, dozens of rejections and life-changing disappointment,” adds Clopper, who twice failed to find publishers for his own books. “Now they hold their books in their hands, and they are sneering down at the publishing industry that shunned them.”
Many of his authors have no complaints. Humor novelist H.B. Marcus of Burton, Ohio, for example, says that his royalties amount to “cigarette money twice a year” but believes that if he just keeps plugging he can build a readership. Yet others are sufficiently angry to launch a campaign against the 5-year-old publisher.
“I am beyond distraught,” says St. Amour. “To think my dreams were realized, and then to find out I made a horrible choice, was horribly misled — it’s crushing.”
The Self-Publishing Universe
Weren’t writers supposed to be bypassing publishing houses and dead-tree technology by now? Shouldn’t the industry have evolved to something other than the book as Gutenberg knew it? Somehow, though, writers’ most potent fantasies still involve pages between covers, not e-books and blogs.
“The immortality of the book, the permanence of the book draws people in,” says Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild.
Because there have always been more would-be authors than mainstream publishers are willing to sign up, writers can turn to a variety of do-it-yourself alternatives. The major difference is that, one way or another, those writers wind up paying, instead of being paid, to be published.
First came the old-fashioned vanity press, now more politely called “subsidized publishing” — Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing and Ivy House are examples. They charge writers directly, at prices that can run into thousands of dollars, but their cautions probably prevent misunderstandings. “Some prestige and popularity may come your way, but it is important to recognize that you may only regain a small part of the fee,” 50-year-old Vantage warns on its Web site.
Newer models like iUniverse and Xlibris use the digital print-on-demand technology. Certain industry sages — former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, for instance — have predicted that POD is the likely future for all publishers, that one day there will be ATM-like kiosks where readers who order books via the Web can pick up their nicely bound copies, eliminating warehouses, sales forces, shipping and returns. This has yet to materialize, but in the meantime, POD technology has considerably lowered the cost of subsidized publishing.
iUniverse, for instance, will print a trade paperback for $299 to $748, depending on how many “free” copies and how much “editorial review” a customer wants, with additional charges for line-editing, proofreading and press releases. POD companies like iUniverse and vanity presses in general don’t appear to generate much public rancor, however, because they make it quite clear that the author bears the expense. Besides, such publishers do serve a purpose. The Authors Guild, for example, has an arrangement with iUniverse to keep its members’ out-of-print books available. For a PTA planning to sell a cookbook, or a family elder passing her memoirs around to the grandchildren, a vanity or POD press makes sense.
But it’s very unlikely to lead to a career. Once in a great while, a highly entrepreneurial author gets lucky: His self-published book comes to the attention of a bigger fish. A recent example: Suzanne Hansen set up a company to print and distribute her You’ll Never Nanny in This Town Again! When she and her sister had managed to peddle 4,000 copies — a big hit in these circles — they sent mass e-mails to publishers and agents. Crown acquired the book last month for what Hansen’s agent calls “a good six figures.”
Hansen couldn’t enjoy the same resale triumph if she’d teamed up with PublishAmerica; its authors sign over publishing rights for seven years. Instead, the company would have negotiated the purchase and kept half the proceeds. In any case, a success story such as Hansen’s is rare. (It helps that her Hollywood nanny saga drops celebrity names like Streisand and Ovitz).
Otherwise, in subsidized or self-publishing, “the overwhelming majority of sales are to the friends and family of the authors,” says Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio. He’s a print-on-demand believer (his company owns 22 percent of iUniverse) but cautions, “if authors want their books in stores, they need to go the traditional publishing route.”
Enter PublishAmerica, a hybrid that uses POD technology but identifies itself as a “traditional” publisher. PublishAmerica doesn’t charge authors to produce their books, so authors wary of vanity presses feel reassured. “I was more than willing to give a small press a shot,” St. Amour explains.
PublishAmerica is hardly a small press: It released 4,800 titles last year, far outstripping Random House, the nation’s largest trade publisher, which released about 3,500 titles in all formats through its many divisions. And it signed 5,000 new contracts, says Clopper, bringing its total to “almost 11,000 very, very happy authors.”
Here’s how a contract from PublishAmerica works: An author gives PublishAmerica the exclusive right to publish his book for seven years. In return, the company pays the author a $1 advance and agrees to print and distribute the book at its expense. PublishAmerica will edit the manuscript if it thinks it requires “substantial editing.” It agrees to pay royalties ranging from 8 percent to 12.5 percent on book sales. Marketing is left completely to PublishAmerica’s discretion, though the author pledges “to actively participate” in promoting sales. PublishAmerica also gets the exclusive right to sell the book elsewhere. Those proceeds are split 50-50 with the author.
What happens if the author wants out of the contract? Some authors have been asked to sign a confidential release, agreeing to say only that the relationship “dissolved amicably” and not to disparage PublishAmerica.
Indeed, amicable testimonials from PublishAmerica’s authors fill its Web site. But not all are so delighted.
The Campaign Against PublishAmerica
Feeling betrayed, a number of disillusioned PublishAmerica authors have taken to the phones, the mail and the Internet. They’ve filled hundreds of Web pages on writers’ sites with their bitter sagas; they’ve complained to the Better Business Bureau of Maryland, the Federal Trade Commission and other law enforcement agencies. In November, they sent the Maryland attorney general’s office a petition bearing more than 130 signatures. And they’ve contacted news organizations, including The Washington Post.
Though the amounts of money involved are generally modest, the emotions stirred are noticeably intense. One “heartbroken” novelist wept on the phone during an interview.
What the dissidents want, primarily, is release from their contracts (something the company occasionally grants, Clopper says, if an author presents a compelling reason). But, calling PublishAmerica a new variant on the old vanity-press model, they also want it exposed. “They mislead and they deceive,” charges Rebecca Easton, the Colorado writer who organized the petition. “Tell people what it is. Don’t say that because you don’t charge authors, you’re a traditional publisher.”
That claim lies at the crux of the dispute. The phrase “traditional publisher” has no particular definition; in fact, Clopper says, he and his partner came up with it to distinguish themselves from publishers that charge fees. But to some it suggests adherence to established publishing industry practices, even as PublishAmerica diverges from those practices in a number of ways.
Take the editing approach. PublishAmerica promises “an editor who goes through the text line by line” but won’t “edit the author’s voice, tone or delivery.” Its 35 text editors mostly ride herd on spelling, grammar and punctuation, Clopper says. Though carefully worded, the contract doesn’t promise anything more. But since editors zoom through an average of two books a week, they can’t pay much attention to content, which leads one irate PublishAmerica writer to brand it an “author mill.”
Mainstream publishers approach editing more broadly and take a more deliberate pace. And while PublishAmerica editors communicate with authors by e-mail — some authors say they never even learned their editors’ last names — traditional editors not only pick up the phone, but frequently meet their authors in the flesh and have even been known to take them to lunch.
As for distribution, books are one of the few commodities retailers can return if they don’t sell — except for print-on-demand books, which aren’t returnable and therefore don’t get stocked by national chains. PublishAmerica’s Web site says its books are “available in all bookstores nationwide.” But what that usually means is that purchasers can place special orders at bookstores, not that they’ll find the books there for sale. Some PublishAmerica authors have persuaded local booksellers, both chains and independents, to stock their books or hold signings, but it’s an uphill fight.
“Self-publishers should be up front with their writers about that,” says Riggio of Barnes & Noble, which discourages managers from stocking any non-returnable merchandise. “They need to tell them they are not likely to be in bookstores.” But a book that’s not on shelves faces a serious handicap. Despite the growth in online sales, more than 55 percent of books are still sold in stores, according to Ipsos BookTrends data. When it comes to promotion, PublishAmerica’s Web site warns that “you’re no John Grisham or Nora Roberts, not yet. So you must not only beat the drum, but be the drum major as well.” The company asks authors for the names and addresses of up to 100 friends and family members, then sends them a direct-mail announcement/order form when books are ready. And every few months, it sends authors announcements of special, limited-time discounts on their own books. The approach fuels suspicions that PublishAmerica makes most of its money on sales to its authors and their circles, not the broader public.
To generate publicity, for instance, mainstream publishers send out hundreds of press releases and review copies. PublishAmerica sends a press release to two local media outlets and will mail up to 10 review copies if reviewers request them.
All of this has led to quite modest sales. PublishAmerica says it has sold nearly a million books. With its 7,500 titles in print, that amounts to sales in the tens or hundreds for most authors. Its top-selling authors sell “up into the thousands,” Clopper reports, but just one has topped 5,000 — low-end figures for a major publisher.
In addition, the cover prices of PublishAmerica’s books usually run several dollars higher than the industry average for trade paperbacks — $15.65, according to R.W. Bowker’s Books in Print. The company Web site says royalties are “slightly above average industry standards,” but they probably run lower in actuality because PublishAmerica bases them on net sales. Clopper says many other publishers do the same, but both the Authors’ Guild and the Small Press Center say royalties based on cover price remain the norm.
Certainly, authors who are published by big houses do their share of griping, especially about promotion or lack thereof. Some PublishAmerica authors, conversely, sound quite content. Lynn Barry figures she’s sold 500 to 1,000 copies of her two PublishAmerica novels, many through the diner she and her husband own in Fillmore, N.Y. “I’d never go with a vanity press,” Barry declares. To her mind, although she has bought and given away a few hundred of her own novels, she hasn’t.
“Sour grapes,” says humorist H.B. Marcus of his fellow authors’ complaints. “Their books didn’t go anywhere . . . and they can’t face it. It’s easier to say, ‘PublishAmerica ripped me off.’ ”
Clopper, proud of his company’s growth, estimates annual sales at $4 million to $6 million and says that the protestors amount to a “minuscule” faction. But the fact remains that his authors can’t join the Authors Guild. Having heard complaints about PublishAmerica for years, the guild doesn’t recognize its titles as membership criteria. “There’s a long history of vanity presses and others taking advantage of the hopes of would-be authors,” says executive director Aiken. “This might fall in that noble tradition.” True, too, many major book review sections (including Book World) won’t review POD books. “Some of our proudest moments come when authors are not allowed into certain exclusive clubs,” Clopper retorts.
Those who petitioned the Maryland attorney general seeking “an investigation into this massive scam” had a different understanding, however. They weren’t interested in sneering at the exclusive club; they thought that, at last, they were being invited into it.
“People who just want a book to hold in their hands, who don’t care about having a career as an author, do okay with PublishAmerica,” says A.C. Crispin, who chairs the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams. But for many, “after a while, they realize that what they really wanted was to be read.”
What recourse the protesters may have is uncertain, however. The Maryland attorney general’s office sympathizes but says its Consumer Protection Division doesn’t cover disputes between businesses. The Better Business Bureau is “conducting further research” on the 25 complaints it’s received; the FTC won’t comment on its response to consumer complaints.
Illinois attorney C.E. Petit, who represents more than a dozen PublishAmerica authors, says that what his clients most want is “to get out of a deal that was misrepresented in the first place. . . and get on with their publishing lives.”
Easier said, though. Tim Johnson, who lives in Wauchula, Fla., toiled for seven years over “a supernatural, psychological mystery/thriller.” He admits, after the fact, to naiveté: “I didn’t know how a true publishing company worked. I didn’t know anything about agents, or where to begin to find one.” Why would he? Johnson works in a fertilizer company’s shipping department. So when PublishAmerica accepted his novel, “I thought after all the hard work I’d put into it, this was the real thing.”
He bought 150 copies, printed up promotional posters, persuaded a local book and gift shop to hold a signing and bought newspaper ads to lure customers. He spent about $2,000 and recouped about $700, he estimates, before he realized that, without being able to penetrate more bookstores, his novel was “not going anywhere, no matter how hard I work.”
If PublishAmerica went under, “I’d be glad, because no one else could be hurt.” But what he’s seeking in signing the petition is release from his contract. PublishAmerica has turned down his repeated requests. Clopper says this is because the company has assumed “enormous” financial risks and wants to have time to recoup that investment. This befuddles and discourages Johnson — but not so thoroughly that he’s stopped writing. He hopes some day to submit Twisted Oak and its sequel to another publisher. What he wants, what so many writers want, is the imprimatur that, so far, only mainstream publishing houses, large or small, can really grant.
“What PublishAmerica is really doing is stealing dreams,” Petit says. “And courts don’t put a monetary value on that.” •
Paula Span, a former Washington Post reporter, teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She will be answering questions about this story on Book World Live at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
warn your friends.