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Making Books

"People who just want a book to hold in their hands, who don't care about having a career as an author, do okay with PublishAmerica," says A.C. Crispin, who chairs the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Committee on Writing Scams. But for many, "after a while, they realize that what they really wanted was to be read."

Getting Back

_____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

What recourse the protesters may have is uncertain, however. The Maryland attorney general's office sympathizes but says its Consumer Protection Division doesn't cover disputes between businesses. The Better Business Bureau is "conducting further research" on the 25 complaints it's received; the FTC won't comment on its response to consumer complaints.

Illinois attorney C.E. Petit, who represents more than a dozen PublishAmerica authors, says that what his clients most want is "to get out of a deal that was misrepresented in the first place. . . and get on with their publishing lives."

Easier said, though. Tim Johnson, who lives in Wauchula, Fla., toiled for seven years over "a supernatural, psychological mystery/thriller." He admits, after the fact, to naiveté: "I didn't know how a true publishing company worked. I didn't know anything about agents, or where to begin to find one." Why would he? Johnson works in a fertilizer company's shipping department. So when PublishAmerica accepted his novel, "I thought after all the hard work I'd put into it, this was the real thing."

He bought 150 copies, printed up promotional posters, persuaded a local book and gift shop to hold a signing and bought newspaper ads to lure customers. He spent about $2,000 and recouped about $700, he estimates, before he realized that, without being able to penetrate more bookstores, his novel was "not going anywhere, no matter how hard I work."

If PublishAmerica went under, "I'd be glad, because no one else could be hurt." But what he's seeking in signing the petition is release from his contract. PublishAmerica has turned down his repeated requests. Clopper says this is because the company has assumed "enormous" financial risks and wants to have time to recoup that investment. This befuddles and discourages Johnson -- but not so thoroughly that he's stopped writing. He hopes some day to submit Twisted Oak and its sequel to another publisher. What he wants, what so many writers want, is the imprimatur that, so far, only mainstream publishing houses, large or small, can really grant.

"What PublishAmerica is really doing is stealing dreams," Petit says. "And courts don't put a monetary value on that." •

Paula Span, a former Washington Post reporter, teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She will be answering questions about this story on Book World Live at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25 at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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