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July 24, 2005

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Good Burn! : The Atlanta Nights Hoax

Back when I was initially shopping around for a publisher for my non-fiction book, The Franklin Conspiracy, I decided to take the advice I had heard from an author on TV.  He said that professional editors often insist that submissions be addressed to them by name.  None of this "To whom it may concern" stuff -- they want to know that you cared enough to find out to whom you're writing.  To do that (said this author), just phone up the publishing house and ask.  Simple as that.  After all, they want your submission. 

So that's what I did.  Called up a big prestigious New York publishing house.  A receptionist answered.  I asked for the name of whomever was in charge of non-fiction submissions.  A pause.  The receptionist asked what this was about.  I was a little surprised, but fair enough.  I explained I was hoping to submit my book and I just wanted to know to whom I should send it.  Another pause.  She asked what my book was about.  I told her it was a non-fiction investigation into the Lost Franklin Expedition.  To Arctic Canada? They met with unexplained disaster?  In the Nineteenth Century?  All the while, my spidey sense was tingling.  Something in the tone of her voice... something ominous... And sure enough...

After yet another pause, the receptionist, without the slightest hint of malice or rancor, asked: "Who are you?"

Taken aback, I blurted: "Sorry?" 

"Who are you?" she repeated.  "Are you someone important?"

After that, it all gets a little hazy.  I believe she continued talking.  Explaining how their company usually published books by the sort of people who, someone sees their name on a book, they say, "Oh look, someone important has written a book.  I have to read that."  I think that was what she said.  But all I kept hearing was "Are you someone important?... Are you someone important?... Are you someone important?..."

"No," I finally managed to croak.  "I'm not someone like that."

And she never did give me the name.

Now, I don't want you to think I'm bitter.  I was bitter.  For a while, at any rate.  But some wit once said "The best revenge is to live a good life".  I stopped feeling bitter about the time a relative phoned me from the opposite side of the country to ask how to get ahold of my newly published The Franklin Conspiracy and I told her to go into any local bookstore.  That's a nice feeling.  I won't pretend it isn't.

But that receptionist was my first hint that the advice given by published authors must be taken with a grain of salt.  They aren't lying, but they are painting a picture that is more an idealized version of the publishing landscape than a realistic one.  A world where authors receive their royalities on time and in the correct amount; where publishers see themselves as existing in a partnership with their authors and will do everything humanly possible to make your book sell; where everyone who can write, gets published eventuallly, so long as they keep on trying.  Alas, the real world just isn't that nice.   And where we look for clear lines of demarcation, instead we often find shades of grey.

In David Cronenberg's movie version of the Burrough's novel, The Naked Lunch, (William, not Edgar Rice) there is a scene where the protagonist played by Peter Weller is crossing the border into some other country and gets stopped by the border guard.  The guard swaggers up to the car and asks Weller for his profession.  Weller says, "I'm a writer."  The guard mulls this over a second or two, then hands Weller a pen and says: "Prove it.  Write something."

Never before in human history has the question of who is and who is not "a writer" been more illusive.  Obviously, there is no litmus test.  How nice it might be if we really could just hand someone a pen and ask him to "write something", and from a few lines on a scrap of paper determine whether or not he was "a writer".  Not only would that take the risk out of the very risky publishing business, but it might save many a broken heart, allowing us to know from the get-go whether or not there was any point in starting down that long rocky road in the first place.

Not so long ago, it seemed easy enough.  You were "a writer" if some publishing house decided to publish your book.  But even in those days, the water was muddied by the so-called "vanity publishing houses": companies which "publish" books but only if the author pays them to do so.  They rarely offer the services given by "traditional" publishers, such as editing and advertising, and lacking the business connections, they have no power to see that your books actually show up on shelves.  Because prospective authors buy a spot on the vanity roster, there is little effort to weed out "bad" books.  The result is a stigma.  Book reviewers generally refuse to review vanity publishings, stores refuse to stock them, and, to those in the business, being published by a vanity press doesn't make you "a writer" any more than buying a train ticket makes you a railway engineer. 

Then the Internet arrived along with  e-books and print-on-demand technologies, and trying to define who is and who is not "a writer" became more an exercise in reading ink blots than a rational categorization.  Generally, I find most people draw the line at their own level of accomplishment.  If you've written an e-book, writing an e-book makes you a real writer.  If you've been published by a small press publisher, being published by a small press turns the trick.  And, if you've been published by a prestigious New York publisher, nothing less is required to call yourself a real writer.

Then, too, we have countless other online venues, none of which pay but which have the potential to reach audiences at least on a par with that reached by small press publications: Blogs, online journals, and, of course, the ever popular webzines.  Are you "a writer" if you get published but don't get paid?  If you can't hold your book in your hand because it has to be downloaded from a website?  Where do we draw the line?

You may have heard of PublishAmerica and the controversy which raged last year over the novel, Atlanta Nights.  But FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO CAME IN LATE...

Depending on who you ask, PublishAmerica is either the brave new future in book publishing, or the old vanity publishing dressed up in a real publisher's skin.  PublishAmerica insists it is NOT a vanity publisher because it doesn't require its authors to pay to be published.  True enough.  In fact, it pays each author an advance fee of at least $1 -- as proof of good faith.  And, so, technically, it isn't a vanity press.  But...

Its detractors insist the $1 advance is just smoke and mirrors.  They say PublishAmerica operates on a vanity publishing model, just a slightly underhanded one, that's all.  Once it has signed up a new author, allegedly PA targets sales to the author's friends and family, a small but captive market.  At the same time, it puts almost no effort into marketing the book to the wider public, forcing the author to buy up copies (at a discount) and sell them himself any way he can, through personal websites, at conventions, maybe even going door-to-door.  PublishAmerica doesn't make a lot from any single author, but by signing up just about everyone who submits a manuscript, they have quickly created a staggeringly huge roster of clients, each one adding a little more ka-ching to the pot.

The reason PA can operate this way is because of the development of "print-on-demand" (POD) technologies.  Normally, a publishing house decides in advance how many books they think they should be able to sell, they print up those books and sell them to book stories.  The book stores try to sell them to customers, but any which don't sell are returned to the publisher for a refund.  For the publisher it is a risky way of doing business, but it arose for a very good reason.  If book stores weren't able to return unsold books, unscrupulous publishers could phone in big bogus orders, then fail to show up to pick up the books, leaving the store holding a bunch of books it has paid for but can't sell.

Print-on-demand means when PA signs up an author and "publishes" a book, PA may not actually produce more than a few "author's copies".  The book remains stored on computer.  Only when PA actually receives an order for a book does that book get printed up and bound, and then only the precise number that were ordered.  And since PA has a strictly "no return" policy, there is no risk to itself.  Which would be fine, provided PA put money into marketing the book to a wider public.  But why bother?  With virtually no overhead invested, just about any book will produce a minor profit from sales to family and friends.  Add to that the money invested by the authors themselves, who buy up copies in the hopes of selling them at conventions, and it is easy to see how the whole thing turns a tidy profit for PA.

Even so, there are plenty of authors signed up by PA who remain loyal onto death, who are perfectly satisfied with the present arrangement, even if, ultimately, they really aren't getting more for their effort than they would from a regular vanity press.  Believe it or not, not everyone is in it for the money.  Some authors just enjoy hanging out with other PA authors, if only in the official PA message board.  They enjoy the support they get from other struggling authors and if, at the end of the day, they haven't sold books to anyone other than a few friends and family members, that's still several more sales than they made with the unpublished manuscript languishing in the back of their dresser drawer.  It's all a matter of perspective.

But some authors don't see it that way.  For them, PA is a very cruel con, cynically feeding on the dreams of desperate people.  It encourages its writers to believe they have "made it" with a mainstream press, when for all practical purposes they have simply joined up with a vanity press.  And while many of those detractors are disillusioned former PA clients, many other critics are themselves professional authors, published by indisputably legitimate mainstream publishers, whose sense of decency is offended by what they see as misleading representation.  For some reason, many of those critics write science fiction and fantasy.  Who knows why.

But, not surprisingly, PA began to fight back against those critics, especially training its guns on sci-fi  and fantasy writers.  PA established a website supposedly intended to give beginning authors helpful advice, where it wrote: "As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction. Therefore, beware of published authors who are self-crowned writing experts."  And on another page (ironically titled "Only Trust Your Own Eyes") PA went even further (or lower), advising:

But, alas, the SciFi and Fantasy genres have also attracted some of the lesser gods, writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters. [sic]  Obviously, and fortunately, there are not too many of them, but the ones who are indeed not ashamed to be seen as literary parasites and plagiarists, are usually the loudest, just like the proverbial wheel that needs the most grease.  [bold was in original text]

Needless to say, it wasn't long before the sci-fi and fantasy message boards were buzzing.  And it wasn't long after that before a published sci-fi author named James D. Macdonald hatched a scheme to get even.

Macdonald recruited about thirty established authors (most of them working in science fiction and fantasy) and asked them to help write a truly unpublishable book.  The result was Atlanta Nights,  and the purpose of the hoax was to prove that PA is NOT a real publishing house because, unlike a real publisher, it will accept just about anything, no matter how badly written.  PA had faced down that charge before and insisted it did reject books, just like a traditional publisher.  Yet, when Atlanta Nights was submitted, PA promptly sent back an acceptance letter. Yes, in spite of the fact that it was riddled with countless spelling, grammatical and typographical errors; featured chapters written by authors totally unaware of what the other contributers were writing; one chapter was literally gibberish, another chapter missing altogether; and all the chapters were arranged in random order... still PublishAmerica  accepted Atlanta Nights

Once Macdonald and cronies revealed the success of their hoax, PA promptly wrote a second letter rescinding its initial acceptance on the grounds that "Upon further review, it appears that your work is not ready to be published" due to "nonsensical text in the manuscript that were caught by our editing staff as they previewed the text for editing time."  PA pointedly suggested sending the manuscript to a vanity publisher who "will certainly publish your book at a fee".

Sure, it was a pretty underhanded trick for Macdonald and his friends to play -- albeit, not going anywhere that Danny Partridge hadn't gone before.  (And, if you recognize that pop cultural reference, give yourself a whopping "no-prize"!)  But the hoaxers certainly seem to have proven their case.  If PA does reject submissions, it is difficult to imagine what standards you need to fall below in order to get the boot.

But here's the thing.  I'm not sure I can entirely find fault with PA for its methods of doing business.  On the one hand, I feel kind of queasy reading about the authors who were suckered in by its ads, who, having been convinced they had finally "made it" with a publisher, told their friends and family, only to find themselves humiliated as the true situation became clear.  Worse, since PA specifically targets family and friends, the authors can't even hope their loved ones won't find out.  And so, I find myself applauding the Atlanta Nights hoaxers.

But then I start thinking about the other side.  It is all very fine for established authors like Jim Macdonald to trash PA, claiming that would-be writers who are any good will eventually find a legitimate publisher if they keep on looking -- but the truth is, they probably won't.  In fact, PA's detractors seem to present contradictory arguments.  On the one hand, they imply that any author worth his salt will eventually get published, he just has to keep trying.  On the other hand, they say that a "real" publisher should reject the vast majority of submissions -- otherwise, how is there any pride in being accepted?  And, since the number of "traditional" publishers are pretty thin on the ground, wouldn't that seem to imply that many worthy would-be authors may never "make it" simply because there just aren't enough slots for everyone?   Maybe, by giving the would-be authors a little ego boost, by offering the support of other struggling writers, PA does fulfil a need after all. 

In the end, I think I agree with the point made by some more moderate PA detractors -- that they aren't objecting to vanity presses, but rather simply feel PA should be up front about what it is and how it works.  By taking the route it has taken, PA finds itself forced to defend an increasingly indefensible position, with the result that it functions in ways disturbingly similar to a religious cult.  As with such cults, PA seeks to convince its authors that any negative advice given by detractors arises out of jealousy and a desire to see them fail.  It seeks to isolate its authors from all other sources of influence, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and persecution.  All that is missing is the sleep deprivation and we'd be entering "Ticket to Heaven" territory.

When PA offers advice to would-be authors like the following, surely we should be a little concerned:

What's wrong with them (published scifi authors) is that they claim a mantle of expertise about writing or being a writer in general that they don't possess. Many unpublished authors wrote a much better, and much more original, book than they did, and they know it.

But what's even more wrong is that they love their elite status, of being published, too much. Once they start calling themselves author advocates, beware. Often they only advocate themselves and their status. They have found a spotlight, and the last thing they want is to share it with others. [Bold in original text.]

And that is the real problem with PublishAmerica.  However laudable may be its goals, by concealing its true nature, it is forced to employ negative tactics, attacking, even smearing, anyone who disagrees with PublishAmerica, instilling in its authors a self-defeating sense of persecution and paranoia, which ultimately does far more harm than good not least to the authors themselves.

But there is really nothing wrong with vanity publishing -- with "self-publishing" -- so long as the author understands that that is what it is.  In the comic book industry, self-publishing is not only respected, it is frequently more respected than "selling out" to the major comic publishers like DC and Marvel.  Even if the self-published comics don't make their authors rich, it is understood that there is more to life than making money and that a "real" comic book artist is defined not by who publishes him but by what he feels in his heart.

Corny, I know, but I also believe it is true.  So, why can't the same be said for authors?  The same should be said for authors.

No, I'm not someone important.  But I am a writer.

Just give me a pen and I'll show you...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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