July 24, 2005
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
author on TV. He said that professional editors often insist that
submissions be addressed to them by
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
named James D. Macdonald hatched a scheme to get even.
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
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
other contributers were writing; one chapter was literally
gibberish, another chapter missing altogether; and all the chapters
in random order... still PublishAmerica accepted Atlanta Nights.
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.]
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
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...
Got a response? Email
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine
Got a response? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org