February 17, 2005
PublishAmerica Douses Self in Kerosene, Lights Match
(Those of you not familiar with the recent PublishAmerica contrempts, about which I will now vent, go here for some background. If you are familiar with it, please continue.)
In an exclusive interview with SCI FI Wire, the president of PublishAmerica defended his company against charges by a group of SF and fantasy writers that his company is a "vanity press," despite falling for a hoax perpetrated by the writers. The writers, in response to PublishAmerica's criticism of SF&F writers, concocted a deliberately bad bogus novel, Atlanta Nights, and submitted it for publication to test whether PublishAmerica would accept anything; after the hoax was revealed, PublishAmerica rescinded its offer of publication.
Speaking for the first time about the hoax, Larry Clopper, president of PublishAmerica, based in Frederick, Md., said his company knew about the hoax before it became public knowledge and withdrew its offer of publication at that time... Clopper said many mainstream publishers similarly do not read the entire manuscript before making an offer of publication. "The hoax failed," Clopper said. "It was a very amateur gag."
In fact, of course, the hoax succeded brilliantly. Here's why:
1. Clopper's contention that publishers make offers on completely unknown first-time fiction authors before reading an entire manuscript is appallingly wrong; either Clopper knows this, and is lying through his teeth, or he doesn't know this, and he's a monumental incompetent. It is true that publishers of fiction will ask that initial submissions consist of, say, three chapters rather than an entire manuscript. But the point of that is that if they like the three chapters, they will ask for the rest of the manuscript. You know, to read. Then and only then will they take a chance on a completely unknown first-time fiction writer.
Why? Because -- to repeat -- you are a completely unknown first-time fiction writer. If you're Stephen King, they might be reasonably assured that you can carry off the whole manscript, since you have a track record of doing such things in a profitable manner. However, you can bet that whoever bought Carrie, King's first novel, read the whole damned thing before making the offer.
2. Even if we lived in an alternate world in which "mainstream" publishers did make utterly unknown first time fiction authors publication offers based on a partial manuscript, the fact of the matter is no reputable publisher would make an offer on Atlanta Nights, because no matter what part of it you read, it's all bad. Trust me: Writers who are regularly published know what it takes not to be published, for the same reason that, say, Eddie Van Halen knows what sounds like crap coming from a guitar. It is well within a competent professional writer's skill set to write so poorly that no reputable publisher would touch the work.
Speaking as a former acquiring editor, I'm here to tell you that Atlanta Nights is awful from the very first page. Indeed, I will now reprint for you the first page (or so) of Atlanta Nights to prove it:
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, sweet, so sweet and sexy.
“We will therefore just monitor his sign’s. Serious trauma like this patient suffered requires extra care, but the rich patsies controlling the hospital will make certain I cannot try any of my new treatments on him.”
“Yes, doctor.” That voice was soooo sexy!
Bruce didn’t care about treatments. He cared about pain, and he cared about that voice, because when he heard the voice, the pain went away, just for a few seconds, like.
“Report to me if there is any change,” the man’s voice said.
“Yes, Dr. Nance,” said the sexy voice.
A door closed, and Bruce heard breathing, and smelled the enticing smell of shampoo, and perfume. It was Chanel Number 5.
He opened his eyes.
All he saw was the roundest, firmest pair of tittles he’d ever seen in his life, all enclosed in a crisp white nurse’s uniform.
I’m in heaven, he said. No, he tried to say, but his voice wouldn’t work, his mouth was dry, and there was some terrible tube thing in his nose—and hey, what’s that thing in his dick? It hurts!
The tits bounced like Aunt Alice’s molded jello back at home, and then moved away.
I guarantee you by right about that sentence, any acquiring editor worth his or her paycheck would have thrown the manuscript in the trash, or at the very least stuffed it into a self-addressed, stamped envelope to send it back to the poor bastard who wrote it. It takes less than 300 words to know this thing is unpublishable; as they say in the industry, one does not have to eat an entire egg to know it is rotten.
What sort of editor reads those 300 words and says to him or herself: By God, this needs to be published? One of two people:
1. A monumental incompetent;
2. An editor whose acquisition criteria are based on something other than those of a "traditional" publisher -- which is to say, the need to sell the book en masse to people who have no relationship to the manuscript's author.
I'd be willing to buy into the idea that PublishAmerica's acquisition editors are incompetent, but let's be charitable beyond all reason and assume they are not. Call it a professional courtesy. That leaves non-traditional acquisition criteria, and that's pretty clearly PublishAmerica's scheme. Anyone who looks at PublishAmerica's practices gets the idea pretty clearly that the publisher is not in the business of selling to a mass market; it's in the business of selling to the writer and to the writer's immediate friends and anyone the writer can convince to carry the book. And of course there's a phrase that fits those kinds of publishers: Vanity publisher.
Assuming someone at PublishAmerica did actually read Atlanta Nights, what they thought to themselves was not "Damn, this is good," but "We're betting this guy has a lot of friends who will buy this out of pity." And so PublishAmerica made an offer. One can reasonably assume that PublishAmerica has done the same with many of its other authors. Not all, possibly. But many.
And naturally, this does all those poor authors a tremendous disservice. By implying that in the real publishing world, crap like Atlanta Nights is actually and genuinely publishable, Publish America gives these authors a heart-breakingly low benchmark of presumed competence for publishability. Authors who assume that being published by PublishAmerica means they've hit actual publication standards for competent writing will be confused when future work, written to the same level of competence, gets rejected in the real world over and over and over again.
And of course, that's possibly part of PublishAmerica's plan as well: To create a stratum of authors whose only publishing option is to go through PublishAmerica because they're not competent to be published anywhere else. The company doesn't see them as authors; it sees them purely as a revenue stream, and it's content to keep them hobbled as writers to do it. And if that's the case, PublishAmerica isn't simply a vanity press, it's also unspeakably cruel.
The hoax worked because it exposed one of two things: Either PublishAmerica is staffed by monumental incompetents, in which case you'd be daft to publish with them, or it's staffed by cynical, black-hearted bastards who purposely deceive and manipulate their authors, in which case you'd be daft to publish with them. The third option is that they're both monumentally incompetent and cynical, black-hearted bastards, in which case you'd be daft to publish with them and they should probably be taken out and beaten with the spines of their own books. For starters.
However you slice it, PublishAmerica is bad news. The only good news about the whole Atlanta Nights hoax is that no matter what PublishAmerica does, it makes itself look worse. To which the only thing to say is: Good.
Posted by john at February 17, 2005 02:05 PM
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