Critics and supporters debate success of fast-rising PublishAmerica
Saturday, January 22, 2005By Hillel Italie, The Associated Press
NEW YORK -- Six years ago, Larry Clopper was a Web marketing consultant who had written two books he couldn't get published. One of his clients, Willem Meiners, owned a publishing company called Erica House, the kind of place frustrated authors often turn to. It was a vanity press -- a business that makes authors pay to be published.
Founded in 1999, PublishAmerica is now one of the industry's fastest growing publishers, with more than 4,000 new books released last year, a figure at least comparable to Random House, Inc., and other large companies. PublishAmerica has nearly 11,000 writers under contract.
PublishAmerica says on its Web site that by signing with it, "You will have the very important distinction of having your next book ACCEPTED BY A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING COMPANY." Applicants are assured that manuscripts are carefully reviewed and edited, that books are available in stores and, best of all, that authors do not have to pay to be published.
"The publishing industry will never be the same," Clopper said. "Because of PublishAmerica, there are tens of thousands of authors who can be published, where before their works could never see the light of day."
But the rise of PublishAmerica has prompted both praise and criticism. While many authors thank the company for championing their books, its claim to be a traditional publisher -- not a vanity press -- has been challenged by writers' organizations such as The Authors Guild and debated on author Web sites such as WritersNet and Absolute Write.
Writer Rebecca Easton didn't have an agent and couldn't get a publisher for her novel, "The Trophy Abyss." But an Internet search led her to PublishAmerica and her manuscript was quickly accepted and scheduled for release, last spring.
However, her manuscript was not edited and she got only minimal marketing assistance, she said. Bookstores and local retailers told her they don't stock PublishAmerica books because they didn't consider it a real publisher. The books that she did sell, she had to sell herself.
"I feel like I was ripped off," Easton said. "I can survive, but I don't want to see this happening to others."
Easton has organized a petition signed by more than 100 former and current PublishAmerica authors calling for "honest disclosure about the services" the publisher provides. Authors said that PublishAmerica is taking advantage of writers unaware of the industry by labeling itself a traditional company without offering the kind of editing, marketing and retail access expected from a mainstream publisher.
"We call them an author mill, a publisher that claims to be a traditional publisher and is not," said A.C. Crispin, chair of the watchdog group Writer Beware, a subcommittee of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Clopper, though, said that PublishAmerica is a traditional company doing "a fantastic thing for the publishing industry" by giving so many new writers a chance.
"We are so proud and so happy," he said.
Writers working with traditional publishers usually submit their manuscripts through an agent and receive advances against future royalties or earnings for the book. The publisher pays for everything, from editing to production to promotion, although writers might sometimes pay for an outside editor or independent publicist.
Complaints about editing, promotion and availability of books are common even at major New York presses, but critics say such treatment is standard at PublishAmerica. The company's supporters call those critics a noisy, embittered minority.
"Some of the claims that I've seen were complete fabrications from an angry group that feed off each other until they actually believed what they were saying," said PublishAmerica author H.B. Marcus, whose books include the novels "Crispy" and "Parasites."
The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that more than 14 million Americans have engaged in some form of creative writing. The pool of aspiring authors far outweighs the industry's capacity, or desire, to publish them.
Tens of thousands of writers end up with companies that make them pay. For fees ranging from $200 to several thousand dollars, publishers such as Xlibris or iUniverse will accept virtually any manuscript and put it into book form. Unless they're willing to pay additional fees, authors are expected to handle their own editing, marketing and publicity.
Although such books occasionally sell well enough to catch on with a mainstream publisher, the majority are known only to the author's friends and family. Bookstores and libraries rarely stock such books, which often suffer from exceptionally poor writing; book critics rarely review them.
"We are not a traditional publisher and we don't pretend to be, but we are trying to give people a different way to get started," said iUniverse president and CEO Susan Driscoll, who acknowledged that many writers consider it a "stigma" to publish with such companies.
PublishAmerica has expanded rapidly, from releasing 750 books in 2000 to 4,800 books in 2004. In the past year, Clopper said, full-time staff has nearly doubled, from 36 to 70. Based in Frederick, Md., the company recently moved into new headquarters, with a capacity for 100 employees.
Despite its growth, PublishAmerica has yet to make a commercial impact. According to Clopper, gross revenues in 2004 totaled $4 million to $6 million, a negligible amount in a multibillion-dollar industry. The company's all-time best seller is Neo Franco Cantu's "A Destiny Foretold," a historical novel that's sold around 5,200 copies. Dozens of other titles, Clopper said, have sold thousands of copies.
PublishAmerica authors get advances of $1 to $1,000 and do not pay to be published; there is no charge for editing or production.
But critics say that authors do indeed pay, albeit in an indirect and voluntary fashion. Because PublishAmerica has little clout in the market, authors end up buying copies from the publisher, which periodically offers special discounts, and selling the books themselves.
While authors at some mainstream houses also at times purchase their own books, critics believe that PublishAmerica gets a substantial amount of its sales this way.
"They're operating on a vanity press model," Writer Beware's Crispin said. "They get authors to pay. ... You'd be surprised how many writers believe that it's normal to pay to be published."
Clopper will not say what percentage of PublishAmerica's sales come from author buys, but considers it less than 50 percent.
There are ways in which the company acknowledges that it differs from traditional publishers. For example, when a mainstream press releases a book, a first printing is commissioned based on anticipated demand and sent to bookstores and other outlets with the understanding that unsold copies can be returned.
While even obscure books at Random House and other traditional publishers are virtually guaranteed nationwide placement in bookstores, Clopper cannot cite any PublishAmerica works that have received such exposure. PublishAmerica relies almost exclusively on "print-on-demand" technology, meaning that books are only printed as needed and shipped to stores -- usually local retailers the author persuades to carry his or her work -- on a nonreturnable basis.
Besides making it harder for bookstores to feature the titles, print-on-demand "relieves PublishAmerica of inventory pressure -- the kind of pressure that forces a publisher to promote a book in order to make a positive return on an investment," said Nancy Etchemendy, membership chairman of the Horror Writers Association, which has yet to accept a PublishAmerica author.
"What she's saying is essentially correct," said Clopper, who joked that "environmentalists love us" because PublishAmerica doesn't waste paper. "That's why we are able to publish 10,000 books." He said more than 1,000 PublishAmerica titles have not a sold a copy; PublishAmerica released those books at a loss.
Even authors happy with the company said there are problems. Billy Edd Wheeler, for example, took care of his own editing and promotion for his compilation of "bawdy" humor, "Sultry Magnolias." Wheeler, a songwriter known for such hits as the Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash duet "Jackson," and the Kingston Trio's "The Reverend Mr. Black," said he was his own biggest customer. Still, he plans to release another book through PublishAmerica largely because he doesn't have to pay.
Clopper said that PublishAmerica gives each author a free Web site and sends informational flyers to media and personal contacts provided by authors. He said that writers are encouraged to promote their own books and that PublishAmerica plans to start a full-time marketing department.
"They're definitely a young company," said the best-selling Cantu. "But I also know that you have to work very hard when you have a book out. You can't just rely on the publisher to do everything."
Critics also question PublishAmerica's manuscript review process. Clopper said PublishAmerica is selective -- only 30 percent of submitted manuscripts make it to print. Some authors believe otherwise.
Dee Power, unhappy with how PublishAmerica had handled her novel, "Overtime," submitted a "new" book that consisted of the first 50 pages of "Overtime" and the last 10 pages, repeated over and over. The manuscript was accepted. (Power declined to have it published). PublishAmerica also accepted a novel by Kevin Yarbrough, even though the first 30 pages were repeated six times. (Yarbrough revealed his trick on an Internet site.)
Clopper said those "flaws" would have been discovered before publication, but acknowledged the works had initially been accepted. "People make mistakes," he said. "When somebody views a manuscript, they may not read the whole thing line by line."
PublishAmerica has 35 full-time editors and published 4,800 books last year, which means that each editor worked on more than 100 books. Editors typically spend just two days on a book, Clopper said, primarily checking for grammar and spelling.
"After I turned in my manuscript, they sent it back to me, and told me I had 48 hours to go over the proofs," said Nancy Mehl, whose novel, "Graven Images," came out in 2003.
"When I looked at it, I saw they had done some odd things, like changing 'its' to 'it's,' when the original was the correct spelling. I asked them what was going on. They contacted me and apologized and said they would fix it. And they sent back the original manuscript, reformatted."
Some writers organizations will not accept PublishAmerica authors or offer only limited memberships. Those organizations include the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America and the Authors Guild, whose members include Stephen King and Scott Turow. The organization gets about 50 membership requests a year from PublishAmerica authors. All are rejected.
"There's no screening process," said Guild executive director Paul Aiken, whose organization provides legal, health care and Internet services, but requires that members work with an "established" publisher.
"Their vetting process for prospective manuscripts is a great deal more lenient than that of any traditional publisher known to us," Etchemendy of the Horror Writers Association said. "I have never heard of an author whose work was rejected by PublishAmerica. ... Traditional publishers reject the lion's share of manuscripts they receive, usually because of poor quality."
Clopper said such comments reflect the attitudes of an endangered establishment.
"A lot of these groups are geared to a very elite group of authors who fancy themselves members of a very elite club," he said. "And they don't like it when 10,000 other authors join and their club is no longer so elite."
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