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Making Books

Though the amounts of money involved are generally modest, the emotions stirred are noticeably intense. One "heartbroken" novelist wept on the phone during an interview.

What the dissidents want, primarily, is release from their contracts (something the company occasionally grants, Clopper says, if an author presents a compelling reason). But, calling PublishAmerica a new variant on the old vanity-press model, they also want it exposed. "They mislead and they deceive," charges Rebecca Easton, the Colorado writer who organized the petition. "Tell people what it is. Don't say that because you don't charge authors, you're a traditional publisher."

_____Live Discussion_____
Tuesday, 3 ET: Paula Span on Self-Publishing
The Success Stories

The self-published books that go on to become bestsellers are few, but they never cease to inspire:

Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. The novel was self-published by the author in 1993 through Satori Publishers, which sold 100,000 copies. Redfield re-sold the rights to Warner in 1994. As of 2004, it has sold over 5 million copies in its Warner edition after well over 50 printings; worldwide, nearly 12 million copies in print in more than 40 languages.

Feed Me, I'm Yours, by Vicki Lansky. This cookbook was self-published in 1975 by Meadowbrook Press, an imprint the author founded and continues to manage. In all, it has sold 3 million copies worldwide.

Invisible Life, by E. Lynn Harris. This successful African-American novelist self-published his first book in 1991 and sold 10,000 copies. In 1994, Doubleday offered him a mass market contract and went on to sell more than 500,000.

The Christmas Box, by Richard Paul Evans. Evans orginally conceived of this story as a gift for his family in 1992. He printed 20 copies at a Kinkos, and ultimately published and sold 250,000 paperbacks himself. In 1995, Simon & Schuster bought the rights and sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.

-- Compiled by staff researcher Julie Tate

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.

Take the editing approach. PublishAmerica promises "an editor who goes through the text line by line" but won't "edit the author's voice, tone or delivery." Its 35 text editors mostly ride herd on spelling, grammar and punctuation, Clopper says. Though carefully worded, the contract doesn't promise anything more. But since editors zoom through an average of two books a week, they can't pay much attention to content, which leads one irate PublishAmerica writer to brand it an "author mill."

Mainstream publishers approach editing more broadly and take a more deliberate pace. And while PublishAmerica editors communicate with authors by e-mail -- some authors say they never even learned their editors' last names -- traditional editors not only pick up the phone, but frequently meet their authors in the flesh and have even been known to take them to lunch.

As for distribution, books are one of the few commodities retailers can return if they don't sell -- except for print-on-demand books, which aren't returnable and therefore don't get stocked by national chains. PublishAmerica's Web site says its books are "available in all bookstores nationwide." But what that usually means is that purchasers can place special orders at bookstores, not that they'll find the books there for sale. Some PublishAmerica authors have persuaded local booksellers, both chains and independents, to stock their books or hold signings, but it's an uphill fight.

"Self-publishers should be up front with their writers about that," says Riggio of Barnes & Noble, which discourages managers from stocking any non-returnable merchandise. "They need to tell them they are not likely to be in bookstores." But a book that's not on shelves faces a serious handicap. Despite the growth in online sales, more than 55 percent of books are still sold in stores, according to Ipsos BookTrends data. When it comes to promotion, PublishAmerica's Web site warns that "you're no John Grisham or Nora Roberts, not yet. So you must not only beat the drum, but be the drum major as well." The company asks authors for the names and addresses of up to 100 friends and family members, then sends them a direct-mail announcement/order form when books are ready. And every few months, it sends authors announcements of special, limited-time discounts on their own books. The approach fuels suspicions that PublishAmerica makes most of its money on sales to its authors and their circles, not the broader public.

To generate publicity, for instance, mainstream publishers send out hundreds of press releases and review copies. PublishAmerica sends a press release to two local media outlets and will mail up to 10 review copies if reviewers request them.

All of this has led to quite modest sales. PublishAmerica says it has sold nearly a million books. With its 7,500 titles in print, that amounts to sales in the tens or hundreds for most authors. Its top-selling authors sell "up into the thousands," Clopper reports, but just one has topped 5,000 -- low-end figures for a major publisher.

In addition, the cover prices of PublishAmerica's books usually run several dollars higher than the industry average for trade paperbacks -- $15.65, according to R.W. Bowker's Books in Print. The company Web site says royalties are "slightly above average industry standards," but they probably run lower in actuality because PublishAmerica bases them on net sales. Clopper says many other publishers do the same, but both the Authors' Guild and the Small Press Center say royalties based on cover price remain the norm.

Certainly, authors who are published by big houses do their share of griping, especially about promotion or lack thereof. Some PublishAmerica authors, conversely, sound quite content. Lynn Barry figures she's sold 500 to 1,000 copies of her two PublishAmerica novels, many through the diner she and her husband own in Fillmore, N.Y. "I'd never go with a vanity press," Barry declares. To her mind, although she has bought and given away a few hundred of her own novels, she hasn't.

"Sour grapes," says humorist H.B. Marcus of his fellow authors' complaints. "Their books didn't go anywhere . . . and they can't face it. It's easier to say, 'PublishAmerica ripped me off.' "

Clopper, proud of his company's growth, estimates annual sales at $4 million to $6 million and says that the protestors amount to a "minuscule" faction. But the fact remains that his authors can't join the Authors Guild. Having heard complaints about PublishAmerica for years, the guild doesn't recognize its titles as membership criteria. "There's a long history of vanity presses and others taking advantage of the hopes of would-be authors," says executive director Aiken. "This might fall in that noble tradition." True, too, many major book review sections (including Book World) won't review POD books. "Some of our proudest moments come when authors are not allowed into certain exclusive clubs," Clopper retorts.

Those who petitioned the Maryland attorney general seeking "an investigation into this massive scam" had a different understanding, however. They weren't interested in sneering at the exclusive club; they thought that, at last, they were being invited into it.

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