By Pete Vere
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
"I cannot imagine a market for this book other than the guys in your bowling league," Macdonald said.
So mortifying was the manuscript, that I had submitted it under the pseudonym of Giovanni "Hummertime" Verri, a fictional ultra-Libertarian ideologue I'd concocted for the amusement of readers of SooToday.com's editorial forums.
PublishAmerica nonetheless offered me a book contract.
"Dear Giovanni Pietro Verri," stated the letter from Tim Ratliff on behalf of PublishAmerica's acquisitions department. "Enclosed you will find two copies of our publishing contract."
"Welcome onboard, and congratulations on what must be a dream coming true!" the letter stated.
PublishAmerica is a controversial Maryland-based company that claims to be "a traditional advance and royalty-paying book publisher," launching authors "in the best tradition of old-fashioned quality publishing."
"We receive more queries from new authors than any other book publisher in the nation," the firm claims.
"Its founders decided that a well-written book is worth publication if the author can convince a publishing company that there are at least the seeds of a market out there, and that the author's talent holds a promise for the future,” the company states on its webpage.
How hard was it to convince PublishAmerica that Hummertime’s Painful Poetry by Alphabet, a potpourri of putrid poems, was a well-written work by an author who showed promise?
Well Sault Ste. Marie is a union town, so let's get started with Hummertime's thoughts on the working class:
My favorite Christmas stories
Involves the termination of employees
Right before Christmas Day
Just in time for the holiday!
They seem to get all annoyed
When I send them home unemployed ...
As heartless as Hummertime happens to be - and unlike Scrooge, he looks forward to visits from Marley's ghost each Christmas - I at least held him to standard English grammar.
This is not the case with the following piece of sexist knuckle-dragging doggerel designed to offend both Spellchecker (a frequent contributor to SooToday.com's editorial forums) and our female readership:
O woman bigger than the sea
With hips like cottage cheese
And cellulite across her tummy
You bring me such sensual misery
With your legs all hairy
Not to mention curly
And a scents of humor that is scary
No reader should mistake Hummertime for one of the great writers of romantic verse.
Nevertheless, Macdonald is not surprised that PublishAmerica would find Hummertime's poetry publishable.
He first became interested in exposing questionable publishers during the mid-1990s after an encounter with another New Hampshire author.
The fellow hailed from a nearby town with long unemployment lines after its only major industry, a paper mill, shut down.
"He had mortgaged his house to pay for the publication and marketing of his book with a publishing scam," said Macdonald, who felt compelled by the incident to help aspiring authors avoid questionable publishers.
That particular publishing scam would later be forced out of business.
In 2004, after complaints from many aspiring authors, Macdonald organized Atlanta Nights with 30 science fiction and fantasy authors who intentionally wrote their worst.
"On Thursday I sent each writer a short description of the chapter they should write and the names of a couple of characters, and gave them until Monday as the deadline," Macdonald said.
Chapter 34 was computer-generated and run through a spell-checker a couple of times.
"The writers didn't know what the others were writing, or where the chapter would appear in the book," Macdonald said.
"This is because I assembled the chapters in the order the writers got them back to me," he said.
"Characters die in one chapter and reappear in the next with no explanation; they change age, race and even gender."
"Spelling and grammar were optional."
Macdonald had a friend with no link to the publishing industry submit Atlanta Nights under the pseudonym "Travis Tea" (repeat it quickly three times).
PublishAmerica offered him a publishing contract that was withdrawn shortly after the hoax became public.
Macdonald lists several problems new authors encounter with PublishAmerica.
"First, few will read your book," he says.
"Mom and Dad will read it, but they would have read it anyway if you had handed it to them from your computer printer."
Another problem is that the book is under contract for seven years, meaning no other publisher can run it.
"Even then, when you go to publish it again, it's considered a reprint," Macdonald says.
This makes the book more difficult to sell.
"The publisher figures either everyone who would buy it has, so there's no market left, or the book is a flop, so there's no market," Macdonald says.
A third problem is that the book may not be ready for publication.
"You always think your first book is the best book that has ever been written," Macdonald says, "because it's the best book you could write at the time."
"But often it isn't ready for publication."
As a result, some PublishAmerica authors are publicly ridiculed for poor spelling and grammar.
"It would have been better and less embarrassing to get a quiet rejection," Madonald says.
This is why, after suffering initial rejection, I re-submitted Painful Poetry by Alphabet under the Hummertime byline.
I was concerned for fellow Canadian authors seeing their hopes dashed, especially those living here in the Sault.
So with so much controversy coupled with so few book sales per author, how does PublishAmerica turn a profit?
"Books that normally retail for $14.95 in a U.S. bookstore are sold for $19.95 with PublishAmerica," says Macdonald.
"People generally won’t spend 20 bucks on a novel unless it's cousin Bob, their best friend from high school, or someone they know personally," he says.
This is why PublishAmerica books are rarely found in commercial bookstores, Macdonald says.
"Of the three largest book chains in America, one will not stock PublishAmerica in its stores, and another won’t even order PA books unless it’s pre-paid and the author agrees to have it shipped to their house," he says.
"They won’t allow it to be picked up at their store."
The quality of the writing does not matter as much, says Macdonald, because "PublishAmerica is making money off of the author’s family and friends, and the author who is encouraged to buy copies of the book for resale."
PublishAmerica CEO Willem Meiners admitted as much in a 2005 arbitration hearing that the company lost to author Philip Dolan; Meiners reportedly stated that the company's authors were the main target of PublishAmerica's sales and marketing efforts.
"This is precisely the vanity press model where the book is purchased by the author to be resold," says Macdonald.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is illustrated with a detail from The Poor Poet, an 1839 painting by Carl Spitzweg, the German romanticist painter, poet and pharmacist. If we were him, we'd have stuck with pharmacy.)