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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.)

What an ass:

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it for publication to test whether PublishAmerica would accept anything; after the hoax was revealed, PublishAmerica rescinded its offer of publication.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:

Whispering voices.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
Whispering voices.
“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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Tripp | February 17, 2005 05:07 PM

In the olden days my Gramps wrote a family history that he got published by a vanity publisher. That was legit, though, because they didn't fool him into thinking he was an author. He knew what he wrote was interesting to family member only.

Nowadays people like that probably use Word and take the output to Kinkos.

John Scalzi | February 17, 2005 05:14 PM

Yup. Or Lulu.com.

John Edwards | February 17, 2005 05:21 PM

Tittles. Ha!

Guy Matthews | February 17, 2005 05:29 PM

Every time I read another page of Atlanta Nights my mind.... bends... a little.... bit..... more.... ow!

PiscusFiche | February 17, 2005 06:12 PM

I really need to get me a hard copy of Atlanta Nights.

I love how Larry tries to claim that PA rejected the novel before the hoax was made public. So it's just coincidence that three hours after the pseudonym was leaked on Absolute Write's forums, "Travis Tea" gets a little email from PA???

The thing that makes me sad is when so many of PA's writers defend PA because PA "took a chance on them". PA didn't take a chance on them. Taking a chance in publishing means assuming a financial risk and investing in editing, marketing, placement....Actually making it tenable to place returnable books in bookstores.

Bruce | February 17, 2005 06:15 PM

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.

And, likely, made a copy for use as "how not to" material when discussing the slush pile. I've known editors to do that, excepting bits and reading them without attribution. Atlanta Nights would be a terrific sample piece -- though as we know, intentionally so in this case.

JamesG | February 17, 2005 06:57 PM

I get a kick out of this every time I hear about it. I was actually solicited by these bozos. My wife calls me at work and says something to the effect of: "Honey, you just got a letter from a publisher, they say they ran across your website, loved your book and want to publish it."

Setting ego aside, I was instantly suspicious. I hadn’t been submitting that long when it happened, but I have read enough about the process to realize that it almost never happens that way (Ahem, present company excluded, of course).

It just sickens me to see people fleecing others that are going to have a hard enough time getting published without swimming past these sharks.

These guys and those A-holes that try to pass off vanity anthologies as a great way to expose your work (as long as you are willing to buy one copy of the book at the low-low price of $50) need to be rounded up to be the first recipients of the freshly reinstated (just for this purpose) public floggings. Of course, every writer that they conned would be allowed one (but no more than ten) swings of the lash.

Resa | February 17, 2005 06:59 PM

Even though I'm not a PA victim and am in no danger of becoming one, I must admit to a schadenfreudian delight in watching this story unfold on AbsoluteWrite and elsewhere. Hopefully the word will be spread far and wide and save some potential victims out there. Thanks for posting about it.

Paul | February 17, 2005 07:40 PM

In other news: I received an envelope from Poetry.com in the mail today. Details to follow at http://journals.aol.ca/plittle/journal4/
(not cowboy poetry)

Brett | February 17, 2005 08:56 PM

Speaking of poetry.com:

I especially like the invitations to spend even more money to attend an awards dinner.
(which means that, yes, I was taken in, and I bought a copy of the book my poem was published in, as a gift for my then-girlfriend (to excuse my stupidity; to be fair, I did write the poem for her, so I consider it a $40 gift to her)).

JamesG | February 17, 2005 09:34 PM

Did you get the invitation from poetry.com to be one of the keynote speakers at a poetry convention in Orlando. A silver plate was to be awarded for somereason or another. I would look it up so I could quote them verbatim, but I threw it away after reading it and showing it to a couple of friends at work.

JamesG | February 17, 2005 09:38 PM

Wow! and they are phsycic too. I just recieved this email. Their ears must have been burning.

The subject line was: Sorry you won't be with us.

Dear James,

I'm sorry you will be unable to join us at the upcoming 2005 International Society of Poets' Spring Convention and Symposium to be held February 25-27, 2005, at the Walt Disney World Resort--the largest and most prestigious poetry event ever held. As you know, you were selected to be honored at this event, and we were looking forward to your presenting your poetic artistry in front of the more than 2000 poets from over 49 countries who will be attending.

However, because we don't want you to miss out on this unique opportunity altogether, we have arranged a way for you and your poetic accomplishments to be a part of this event in a major way, without your actually being present. Although you will be unable to participate in the Convention contest (you must be present to win), you can receive all of the awards and benefits of ISP membership we have scheduled for you--including your custom engraved Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Silver Award Bowl (see it here), your bronze Commemorative Award Medallion, and your Full One Year Membership into the International Society of Poets for 2005--if you will allow us to present one of your poems at the convention in your place.

We have arranged for professional poetry readers to read your poem at this largest gathering of poets in history. Our readers will present your poem with imaginative style, so that your artistry receives the worldwide exposure and recognition that it deserves. Your poem will also be featured in printed form, proudly displayed in a special room at the convention that will be accessible to more than 2000 attending poets and guests.

And let me tell you a little about the actual awards and membership benefits that you will receive by mail immediately after you confirm your participation in this prestigious event by submitting your poem:

-- Your Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Silver Award Bowl (a $200.00 value) is a magnificent work of art in itself that measures over 10 inches across and over 11 inches high. It is handcrafted in silver and has your name custom-engraved on a beautiful cherry-wood base. It is certain to enjoy a special place of pride in your home and will serve as a fitting symbol of your unique poetic artistry.

-- Your bronze Commemorative Award Medallion (a $40.00 value) is a deeply etched bronze medal brilliantly displayed on a 25 inch red, white and blue satin ribbon.

-- And your Full One Year Membership into the International Society of Poets for 2005 (a $60.00 value) entitles you to a personalized membership card, an ISP patch and decal, entry into special contests during the year, and a subscription to The Poet's Corner quarterly newsletter. Please note, if you are already an ISP member, your benefits will be extended an additional year.

James, all that's required for us to immediately send you all of these Awards is for you to submit a poem to be formally presented at the convention. Additionally, we must also ask you for the necessary funds ($169.00 plus p+h) to cover the costs of the time and effort required to present your poem before the convention attendees both aloud and in writing, as well as the costs incurred in insuring and shipping to you these extremely bulky and heavy awards via Federal Express.

James, we are, of course, ultimately most interested in meeting you and having you personally present your artistry in front of the thousands of other poets who attend these live events. Unfortunately, this is not to be the case at this time, so we're trying to do the next best thing. But we sincerely hope to personally present you with your most deserved awards in the future.

Steve Michaels
International Society of Poets
Convention Chairperson

P.S. Your Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Award, bronze Commemorative Award Medallion, and ISP membership kit will be shipped to you by Federal Express, and will be accompanied by an iron-clad promise that you will be thrilled with your awards. If for any reason you're not completely delighted, simply return them any time within 60 days of receipt for a full refund, no questions asked.

P.P.S. You'll also receive a $100.00 gift certificate off the registration of a future ISP convention so that we can formally recognize your poetic accomplishments in person at a date that's convenient to you.

Submit your poem here and receive your awards or go to

Please do not reply to this message. If you no longer wish us to notify you of poetic events that we believe may be of interest to you, please click here, or go to http://www.poetry.com/nl/stopemail.asp.

Nicole | February 17, 2005 10:15 PM

I pick Option Three and I'll gladly stand in the "Beating Clopper and Meiners with spines of PA books" line, though of course I'll let their victims go ahead of me.

Victoria Strauss | February 17, 2005 10:15 PM

The hoax was revealed on January 23, though the title of the ms. wasn't mentioned until the next day. "Travis Tea" wasn't the name used by the front man who submitted the manuscript to PA--it was the title that tipped them off. Even so, PA's rejection e-mail arrived several hours after the title was first mentioned in public.

John Scalzi | February 17, 2005 10:21 PM

"Even so, PA's rejection e-mail arrived several hours after the title was first mentioned in public."

Yup. Cloppers "we knew it all along" line is about as credible as anything else he's had to say on the matter.

James D. Macdonald | February 17, 2005 10:31 PM

Presented for educational value:

A PublishAmerica author's defense of the company:


And the same author's thoughts about PublishAmerica six months later:


Dave | February 17, 2005 10:35 PM

JamesG --

Professional Poetry Readers! That's fantastic! I need to meet one. It would make for a fantastic business card.

Sigh. Another career that Might Have Been.

Ed Williams | February 17, 2005 10:58 PM

Nicole, if PublishAmerica read manuscripts like they read the Absolute Write boards, this wouldn't have happened. We have the offer letter, that in and of itself should tell you all you need to know.

Justin Anderson | February 18, 2005 09:48 AM

Wow. Umm. Just...wow.

You know, I didn't think I'd find anything funnier related to this thread than this gem from the interview you linked to:

The publicity surrounding Atlanta Nights and PublishAmerica has not caused the publisher to change anything, Clopper said. "We have nothing to apologize for," he said. "There are people out there who say things about people who enjoy enormous success. We don't call people names. That's not just all of what we're about. We're about honesty and integrity." [Emphasis added]

But then I got to the "International Society of Poets"! I really want to believe that the email posted above is a hoax itself...please?

"Your poem will also be featured in printed form, proudly displayed in a special room at the convention that will be accessible to more than 2000 attending poets and guests."

...and for $59.95, you can name a star after somebody! And we'll even file the name with that internationally sanctioned astronomical authority...the United States Copyright Office.

It's really almost too hilarious, until I realize that some poor folks must be taken in by both these scams, otherwise they wouldn't be around, would they?

Nicole | February 18, 2005 10:07 AM

I think my second-favorite PA blunder (after "Atlanta Nights") has to be the time they breathlessly announced that they'd signed poet Robert Bly of "Iron John" fame and congratulated themselves on how awesome they were to lure such an incredibly famous and award-winning figure from the "traditional" publishing world.

Sounds good -- except that the Robert Bly they signed wasn't the poet. The Bob Bly they actually signed was a copywriter who wrote a book about hot dogs. D'oh! You'd think their attention to detail might have improved since then, but "Atlanta Nights" suggests otherwise.

JamesG | February 18, 2005 11:21 AM

"But then I got to the "International Society of Poets"! I really want to believe that the email posted above is a hoax itself...please?"

I wish it were a hoax too. I am just glad I didn't get taken in by the promise of greatness.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | February 18, 2005 07:57 PM

I have heard folks at AbsoluteWrite.com talking about emailing SciFi.com comments such as these. I wonder what the chances are of them putting out a third article correcting Clopper's neighing and braying. Maybe Ellen Datlow over at SciFiction might weigh in? How likely is that?

While I understand the "balanced journalism" tendency that seems to require having a follow-up interview with Clopper in response to the original Sci Fi Wire article about Atlanta Nights, it's a shame that Clopper's lies go unrefuted. Balanced journalism shouldn't mean that the lies get equal airtime to the truth--it ought to mean that there is an effort to get both sides of the story and do some fact-checking on both. It hurt, almost physically, to read Clopper's reference to Kevin Y. "apologizing" for his own Purple Pony hoax. Seems to me that real balanced journalism would follow up Clopper's mention of Kevin, and discover that his "apology" was coerced by a visit from a self-described policeman who wouldn't show his badged and intimated that dire things would happen to him if he didn't "set things right" with PA...

Zzedar | February 19, 2005 12:50 AM

I have to admit that I'm a little impressed with the amount of chutzpah required to try that line. In retrospect, though, this is what I should have expected. PA's whole MO is to claim that every publisher does the stuff it does, and to say that its critics are an incompetent lunatic fringe. This seems to have worked for them so far, so why bother changing their tactics now?

The depressing thing is that PA will survive this. Dave Barry wrote a column about the National Library of Poetry (as it was then), without much effect. A lot more people read Dave Barry than will read or hear of Atlanta Nights. If we're very lucky, the management of PA will have to come up with a new name for the same scam and pretend that it's a new company.

Dawn B. | February 19, 2005 11:59 PM

Having read some of the PA author's discussion of this, it is truly scary to me. They believe that the authors of Atlanta Nights were in the wrong and vehemently defend PA. Why? Because PA doesn't lie.

And to a certain extent, it doesn't. They tell you, up front, that they won't market for you. They tell you that your book can be put in all brick & motar stores, which it can. They tell you they will edit it, which means they do spelling/grammar check. So, they don't lie in those regards. They admit they are not a traditional publisher, so they aren't even going so far as to lie and say that they provide extensive editing services and marketing and promotion, which a company like Tor does.

What they do lie about is the ease in which it can and will happen. And it hurts to see authors who really believe in themselves taken in by this company and defending them. If PA was just honest about what it takes (like Lulu.com) I would have no problem with them.

Victoria Strauss | February 20, 2005 11:12 AM

The SciFi.com reporter is gathering followup information for a rebuttal to Clopper's rebuttal...so stay tuned, folks!

Kate Nepveu | February 21, 2005 11:19 AM

Dawn B., PA says over and over that it _is_ a traditional publisher.

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little | February 21, 2005 11:30 PM

More, PublishAmerica coined the term "traditional publisher" as a PR move. From the Washington Post article (see aforegoing link):

That claim lies at the crux of the dispute. The phrase "traditional publisher" has no particular definition; in fact, Clopper says, he and his partner came up with it to distinguish themselves from publishers that charge fees. But to some it suggests adherence to established publishing industry practices, even as PublishAmerica diverges from those practices in a number of ways.
Victoria - That is very good to know! Thanks for the "teaser"; I'm sure we're all eager to see what transpires.

Kristy | February 22, 2005 10:04 PM

Good Lord....someone please buy T.A. von reinman some commas! no wonder she was published by PA.

Tracina | February 23, 2005 08:29 AM

I admire T.A. Von Reinman's courage in facing up to the truth about her former "publisher" and telling others. These statements, though, made me want to cry:

"So get some estimates on what it will cost to have your book edited and get this done before you send it to Publish America. There will be no time to get it edited after they send the proofs to you and believe me it will be very little better than when you sent in the rough draft."

1) For heaven's sake, don't pay for editing. Learn how to edit your own work. That's part of being a writer.

2) For heaven's sake, don't send in a rough draft. The manuscript you send out to potential publishers should be revised and revised until it's the very best you can make it.

Also: "In the article “How I Chose My Publisher”, I said that I would up-date everyone as I learned more about the company that published my books, Publish America."

3) For the love of Pete, do that research before you send out your manuscript! At the very least, research before you sign the contract! Arrghhhhhhh!!!!!!! *beats forehead on desk*

Wendy | March 13, 2005 05:39 PM

I'm glad this was exposed, too. I am a PA author, but would not be if I had done a little more research. I'd gotten two rejections ("we're not interested in this type of book"), and was still feeling optimistic when I ran across their website. That Jamie Farr of M*A*S*H was among their authors gave them credibility. Now I'm stuck for a 7-year contract, and will make the best of it until my indenture is over.

Wendy Whipple

r | October 24, 2005 11:00 PM

I'm so sick of all these sites that are downing this publisher. I don't really care so much about the publisher as I do about the writers that have published books with them.

If you are a writer and you have a company that will publish your work for free, do it. A book in your hand makes you a writer, and an ms in your drawer makes you a file clerk. People are shoveling crap about this publisher all over the web and they don't know what they are talking about.

This is a war between traditional publishers/established writers and PODs. This argument has always been around. Traditional publishers and established writers have always looked down their noses at PODs, but some of the best writers ever have published their own books. John Grisham self published A Time to Kill for crying out loud!

If you have published a book through Publish America be proud of that book and know that you got a deal that many small presses can't beat.

If you don't believe me in what I've said take a look at this article from an industry outside of the influence of traditional writers and publishing houses: http://abbookman.com/ABBookman_E100104.html

I've never seen so many writers down other writers and shovel so much crap at the same time. Anyone that downs a book for where it comes from is a Nazi and that is all.

These sites do not give helpful info to young writers they silence their voice and a few authors that are mad about getting their books published FOR FREE are pissed because they fooled themselves into thinking they would be popular overnight and it didn't happen.

John Scalzi | October 25, 2005 09:43 AM

"If you have published a book through Publish America be proud of that book and know that you got a deal that many small presses can't beat."

Try not to be this ignorant on my site, R. It's embarrassing.

PublishAmerica is rotten for aspiring authors, for reasons amply noted above. If you say otherwise, you're either ignorant or a PublishAmerica shill. The good news is that being ignorant is correctable, so let's hope that this is your condition.

If one decides to publish on one's own, one should do it through Lulu.com or Cafepress, which do not charge to set up a publish-on-demand situation, and do not oblige one to such ridiculous contractual obligations as does PublishAmerica. It's a far better option.

Eileen | October 12, 2006 09:03 AM

I just had a bood released by publish america.
You have made me feel like I am a complete idiot.
Not only am I a horrible author but a loser.
Thanks for that.
I was very excited about my book and have been told by many including a college english professor that my book is wonderful. It is extremely difficult for a first time author to get published and I'm thrilled and excited that Publish America thought my work was worthwhile.
They were up front about me getting involved in getting the word out and selling my books.
Thanks for making me feel terrible!

John Scalzi | October 12, 2006 09:15 AM

You're welcome!

Eileen | October 12, 2006 09:37 AM

My original comment did not start off with
I just had a bood released by Publish America
Please delete my comment. I would really appreciate that.
Thank you

Eileen | October 12, 2006 12:55 PM

Just out of college, I had my book published by
Publish America. It's been out for over a year and continues to do well.
I did not experience any of your negative comments about the company and I'm still thrilled that they thought my work was worthwhile. I don't understand why you trash them. They only give writters a chance.

P.S. I really don't feel like an idiot, horrible author or loser. I'm quite proud of my work and will continue to write and thank you Publish America

Martin Wagner | December 6, 2006 11:05 PM

I guess we see what kind of "writter" PA attracts, eh?

Liz | January 15, 2007 04:08 PM

Not all Publish America authors are terrible.

There is some great authors there, although sadly they are few and far in between.

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