Jan 2

 

Everywhere you look, dire warnings about the current state of the publishing industry abound.  "The publishing industry is in a state of change, shock, and reformation," the San Francisco Public Library Herb Caen Magazines and Newspapers Center proclaims (man, someone at the name bureau was asleep at the switch with that one).  "This industry is in a shambles," moans Simon Barrett (I think Writer, Rejected ought to take a look at this one for a real pick-me-up).   "Publishing is truly difficult.  It's about taking risks in a fundamentally broken business," Seth Godin asserts.  Yes, everywhere you look you can see the locusts and the dying fish; we are living in the last days, my friends, and you'd best settle up with your literary maker before the royalty check comes in.

The situation might not be quite this apocalyptic (although as you all know, I do love me an apocalypse), but it certainly seems as if the industry has gotten far more difficult to break into, and in some ways even harder to stay when you do break in.  And the rise of the blessed word processor has made things even worse, since now everyone who thinks they've got a sweet new idea about a vampire who's really sorry he has to kill people, see, and he's filled with angst and he likes goth music and he's bisexual and…is now submitting to the same people we are.  In other words, the ever-daunting slush pile has gotten filled with road dirt, and cleaning through it has become a holy horror for publishers and agents alike.  It's no wonder that rejection rates have hit 90% and are climbing, and that authors are looking for other avenues as a result.

And fortunately, a new avenue has opened, for in to fill the void left by traditional publishing, arriving to save the world of books from itself in the nick of time, is the non-traditional vanity press: a publisher where you pay so they don't have to.  Yes, for the low, low fee of whatever you're willing to pay to make sure your book is "successful," you too can hold a printed and bound copy of your hard work in your hands.  Then you can strut around at dinner parties and make oblique comments about obscure caviar brands, because hey, you're a published author, and membership hath its privileges.  Okay…that's really a little unfair, because as some have pointed out, a lot of these presses aren't about vanity at all.  They're just about changing the stodgy old cigar smoking publishing world, dragging it kicking and screaming into the new century:

"Some people are afraid of progress.  Any kind of progress.  Even when it comes to things like the creative arts, there are those who would rather eat sewage than to see something succeed by using new methods of doing business… [A WRITER'S NOTE: this is true.  I once watched an agent friend of mine immediately order a heaping helping of "Jenkem Surprise" at a restaurant after I mentioned hearing about something called a "website."  It wasn't a pretty picture.]  Many people out there are under the mistaken impression that PublishAmerica is either a vanity press or some form of self-publishing.  On the contrary, they are a regular publisher…Sometimes, you have to take the road less traveled to reach your destination.  We can't always follow the well-defined path…We are all intelligent enough to know good writing when we see it."

Amen, sister, amen.  And you ought to know what you're talking about, since PublishAmerica published you.  Who the hell do these conservative pantywaists think they are?  If they would only be willing to see the value of a new way, we could all be published authors, and the rusty, locked gates of this dinosaurs' world would be blown wide open.  Sign me up for PublishAmerica, the U.S.'s number one publisher, and progress!  Because, I mean, it is progress, right?  It is something different than the norm, right?  Places like PublishAmerica pay their authors…and so…they really care about us… 

Right?

Sadly, Virginia, no.  There is a Santa Claus, but he didn't bring you a legitimate publishing contract this Christmas.  Because when you start looking below the surface of these places, ones which throw things like "progress" and "change" and "the road less traveled" around like they're going out of style, you start to see some rather ugly truths.  PublishAmerica does indeed pay its authors: $1.00.  Yep.  That's it.  For whatever you write.  Send them a four hundred page historical epic with glossary and citations from Barbara Tuchman included: $1.  Send them a ten page "graphic novel" about your cat, using the underutilized Crayola medium: $1.  Send them your shopping list: $1.  (Don't laugh…it's non-traditional, you luddite!)  PA does exactly what all vanity presses do: it promises validation and delivers disappointment.  And whether you're the new Kurt Vonnegut or the old Louis L'Amour (was that dude ever below fifty?): you get $1.  Next in line.

Of course, PA advocates will say, it's not about the one size fits all one dollar advance: that's "symbolic," anyway.  It's about PA taking a risk on new and edgy material which other publishers (the cigar-smoking stodgy ones, remember) won't touch.  It's about getting books in the hands of eager readers.  It's about the goddamned road less traveled!  And of course that's a compelling argument; it really shouldn't be about the money, or at least not at first.  But the problem is that it's not doing those other things either.  First of all, the material isn't new, or edgy, or even copyedited, because PA accepts anything.  I mean it.  Unless you write a book entitled PublishAmerica Iz Deez Nutz (and that might work if you could get around the copyright problems of the last two words), you're in.  Don't believe me?  Then feast your eyes on this:

"Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . ."

Ah, the sweet, sweet prose of Atlanta Nights.  This book, expertly written by the well-known author Travis Tea, was immediately accepted by PublishAmerica upon submission.  The only problem, of course, was that Travis Tea was actually a bunch of well-respected published science fiction writers who had decided to test how selective PA actually was by writing the worst book they could…and quickly found out the answer.  Of course PA immediately withdrew acceptance after it found out about the hoax, but, well, someone had to tell PA about it…apparently the QA department wasn't fully awake that day.  But even the stuff which isn't intended to be bad usually is–in fact the vast majority of PA material is absolute trash, largely because it hasn't been through the process of (sorry, Writer, Rejected) rejection and subsequent revision.  In other words, instead of being told to go back to the drawing board–with those who don't have the work ethic or inclination to do so leaving the rest of us blessedly alone–these writers have been told that they're great…so great, in some cases, that they don't even need editing services.  Nope, they're just flat out geniuses from the word go.  And it's only because of kindly PublishAmerica that anyone found out.

Except, of course, for the second problem: no one will find out.  PA claims to have published more than 20,000 people (PA actually claims a whole lot, but this one might actually be true), and proudly trumpets that over 800 PA books are bought per day.  But as James MacDonald points out, a quick analysis of these numbers shows that this means that about 13 copies per title are actually bought per year by all the bookstores in America combined.  In other words, PA authors will sell one book a month to someone other than themselves and their understanding but overtaxed families.

Road less traveled…must remember the road less traveled…

But look.  If the books aren't being sold to bookstores (who can't order them at a standard bookstore discount, by the way, and can't return them if (when) they don't sell, and thus won't buy them), and Amazon never has any in stock (for the same reason), then who the hell is buying them?

Why, the ones to whom PA is most beholden.  The ones who are most grateful for PA's help.  The authors.

Yep, the authors themselves, as it turns out, are the ones to whom PA really markets.  They get a 40% discount on the title…so if they just buy a few copies, they can sell them to people themselves.  And who better to market a book than the person who wrote it, right?  Just pick up a few copies…well, ten…hmm, not selling anywhere, better make it fifty…er…

In fact, if you check through the threads at PublishAmerica's site, or even better at Absolute Write (where the overtly critical PA posts won't be instantaneously deleted), you'll discover that many of these writers are so desperate to see their work in print, and so horrified when they discover their mistake with PA, that they'll sink hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars into buying, marketing, and selling their own books just to keep from feeling the pain of their massive, massive error.  (Y'all know that whole "sunk cost theory," right?)  But the amount of money lost by these poor writers doesn't even matter–because the truth is that even if they do somehow figure out a way to do nothing but market and spend every last dime buying and selling this worthless merchandise, at the end of the day they will still have a book published by the laughing stock of the industry.  A PA published book is a negative for future sales.  Better start warming up that name machine again, because your current moniker will be permanently ruined as that of a legitimate writer worthy of respect, attention, or the "risk" of being published by a mainstream publisher…one which, for all its stodginess and cigar smoking, makes its money by selling your books to readers, not to you.  

But look, you say, this is old news.  There is no shortcut to becoming a better and then published writer; you have to learn, to edit, to take criticism, to make your work better, to get through the rejections before getting published.  Everyone knows that this is a scam.  But that's just it: they don't know.  Thousands more authors every year fall into this trap, and hundreds of more posts and websites pop up warning people to watch out, and yet the sucker line keeps growing.  PublishAmerica is probably the worst offender, but there are many, many more of these places which promise the moon and deliver, well, sewage–and in the process not only clutter up the industry, making it more difficult for legitimate authors to get through, but drain the bank accounts and break the hearts of countless writers who thought they had what it took to get published and noticed, and did: a bank account.  Yet vanity publishers like PA continue to skirt the law, whistling merrily along past their astonishingly unethical business practices, absurd threats of legal action against those who would fight back and outright lies to their customers while cashing check after check after check.  They traffic in dreams, and buy and sell egos, and all the while have the unmitigated gall to claim that they're doing it in the name of progress and the road less traveled.  And writers, hopeful, dreaming, desperate, whip out their credit cards and follow the Pied Piper right down to the bank.

And there's your apocalyptic lesson for today, boys and girls.  Virginia, your little friends might have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age, but I think they were on to something.  Take a good look at your Santa Clauses, everyone; not everyone with a beard and a little round belly is the genuine article…and not everyone who claims to be a publisher really is one.  Even if they are doing it all, of course, in the name of progress.