Critics and supporters debate the success of fast-rising PublishAmerica.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Six years ago, Larry Clopper was a Web marketing consultant who had written two books he couldn't get published. One of his clients, Willem Meiners, owned a publishing company called Erica House, the kind of place frustrated authors often turn to. It was a vanity press -- a business that makes authors pay to be published.
The two men became friends and started a new venture, PublishAmerica. They would take on those people who yearned to be authors but struggled to find a publisher, offer the editing and promotional support not found at a vanity press and do it without a fee.
Founded in 1999, PublishAmerica is now one of the industry's fastest growing publishers, with more than 4,000 new books released last year, a figure at least comparable to Random House, Inc., and other large companies. PublishAmerica has nearly 11,000 writers under contract.
PublishAmerica says on its Web site that by signing with it, "You will have the very important distinction of having your next book ACCEPTED BY A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING COMPANY." Applicants are assured that manuscripts are carefully reviewed and edited, that books are available in stores and, best of all, that authors do not have to pay to be published.
"The publishing industry will never be the same," Clopper said. "Because of PublishAmerica, there are tens of thousands of authors who can be published, where before their works could never see the light of day."
But the rise of PublishAmerica has prompted both praise and criticism. While many authors thank the company for championing their books, its claim to be a traditional publisher -- not a vanity press -- has been challenged by writers' organizations such as The Authors Guild and debated on author Web sites such as WritersNet and Absolute Write.
Rebecca Easton didn't have an agent and couldn't get a publisher for her novel, "The Trophy Abyss." But an Internet search led her to PublishAmerica and her manuscript was quickly accepted and scheduled for release, last spring.
"I had been trying to write since I was 8 and I had been working on this book for seven years. Getting traditionally published, not with a vanity press, was huge," she said.
Her manuscript, however, was not edited and she got only minimal marketing assistance, she said. Bookstores and local retailers told her they don't stock PublishAmerica books because they didn't consider it a real publisher. The books that she did sell, she had to sell herself.
"I feel like I was ripped off," Easton said. "I can survive, but I don't want to see this happening to others."
Easton has organized a petition, signed by more than 100 former and current PublishAmerica authors, calling for "honest disclosure about the services" the publisher provides. Authors said that PublishAmerica is taking advantage of writers unaware of the industry by labeling itself a traditional company without offering the kind of editing, marketing and retail access expected from a mainstream publisher.
"We call them an author mill, a publisher that claims to be a traditional publisher and is not," said A.C. Crispin, chair of the watchdog group Writer Beware.
Clopper, though, said that PublishAmerica is a traditional company doing "a fantastic thing for the publishing industry" by giving so many new writers a chance.
Writers working with traditional publishers usually submit their manuscripts through an agent and receive advances against future earnings. The publisher pays for everything, from editing to production to promotion, although writers might sometimes pay for an outside editor or independent publicist.
Complaints about editing, promotion and availability of books are common even at major New York presses, but critics say such treatment is standard at PublishAmerica. The company's supporters call those critics a noisy, embittered minority.
"Some of the claims that I've seen were complete fabrications from an angry group that feed off each other until they actually believed what they were saying," said PublishAmerica author H.B. Marcus.
The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that more than 14 million Americans have engaged in some form of creative writing: The pool of aspiring authors far outweighs the industry's capacity, or desire, to publish them.
Tens of thousands of writers end up with companies that make them pay. For fees ranging from $200 to several thousand dollars, publishers such as Xlibris or iUniverse will accept virtually any manuscript and put it into book form. Unless they're willing to pay additional fees, authors are expected to handle their own editing, marketing and publicity.
Bookstores and libraries rarely stock such books, which often suffer from exceptionally poor writing; book critics rarely review them.
"We are not a traditional publisher and we don't pretend to be, but we are trying to give people a different way to get started," said iUniverse president and CEO Susan Driscoll, who acknowledged that many writers consider it a "stigma" to publish with vanity presses.
PublishAmerica has expanded rapidly, from releasing 750 books in 2000 to 4,800 books in 2004. In the past year, Clopper said, full-time staff has nearly doubled, from 36 to 70. Based in Frederick, Md., the company recently moved into new headquarters, with a capacity for 100 employees.
Despite its growth, PublishAmerica has yet to make a commercial impact. According to Clopper, gross revenues in 2004 totaled $4 million to $6 million, a negligible amount in a multibillion-dollar industry. The company's all-time best seller is Neo Franco Cantu's "A Destiny Foretold," a historical novel that's sold around 5,200 copies.
Some get advances
PublishAmerica authors get advances ranging from $1 to $1,000 and do not pay to be published; there is no charge for editing or production. But because PublishAmerica has little clout in the market, authors end up buying copies from the publisher, which periodically offers special discounts, and selling the books themselves.
While authors at some mainstream houses also at times buy copies of their books, critics believe that PublishAmerica gets a substantial amount of its sales this way.
"They're operating on a vanity press model," Writer Beware's Crispin said. "They get authors to pay."
Clopper will not say what percentage of PublishAmerica's sales come from author buys, but considers it less than 50 percent.
While even obscure books at Random House and other traditional publishers are virtually guaranteed nationwide placement in bookstores, Clopper cannot cite any PublishAmerica works that have received such exposure. PublishAmerica relies almost exclusively on "print-on-demand" technology, meaning that books are only printed as needed and shipped to stores -- usually local retailers the author persuades to carry his or her work -- on a nonreturnable basis.
Besides making it harder for bookstores to feature the titles, print-on-demand "relieves PublishAmerica of inventory pressure -- the kind of pressure that forces a publisher to promote a book in order to make a positive return on an investment," said Nancy Etchemendy, membership chairman of the Horror Writers Association, which has yet to accept a PublishAmerica author.
"What she's saying is essentially correct," said Clopper, who added that more than 1,000 PublishAmerica titles have not a sold a copy; PublishAmerica released those books at a loss.
Even authors happy with the company said there are problems. Billy Edd Wheeler, for example, took care of his own editing and promotion for his compilation of "bawdy" humor, "Sultry Magnolias." Wheeler said he was his own biggest customer. Still, he plans to release another book through PublishAmerica largely because he doesn't have to pay.
Review process questioned
Critics also question PublishAmerica's manuscript review process. Clopper said PublishAmerica is selective -- only 30 percent of submitted manuscripts make it to print. Some authors believe otherwise.
Dee Power, unhappy with how PublishAmerica had handled her novel, "Overtime," submitted a "new" book that consisted of the first 50 pages of "Overtime" and the last 10 pages, repeated over and over. The manuscript was accepted. (Power declined to have it published). PublishAmerica also accepted a novel by Kevin Yarbrough, even though the first 30 pages were repeated six times. (Yarbrough revealed his trick on an Internet site.)
Clopper said those "flaws" would have been discovered before publication, but acknowledged the works had initially been accepted. "People make mistakes," he said. "When somebody views a manuscript, they may not read the whole thing line by line."
Won't accept them
Some writers organizations will not accept PublishAmerica authors or offer only limited memberships. Those organizations include the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America and the Authors Guild, whose members include Stephen King and Scott Turow. The organization gets about 50 membership requests a year from PublishAmerica authors. All are rejected, said executive director Paul Aiken.
Clopper says such decisions reflect an endangered establishment: "A lot of these groups are geared to a very elite group of authors who fancy themselves members of a very elite club. And they don't like it when 10,000 other authors join and their club is no longer so elite."