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Please publish this dud

To test a publisher's selectivity, a group of writers collaborated on a book. Their goal: Make it stink.

February 05, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

The moral of this story is: Never tick off a science fiction writer.

More than a year ago, a website run by PublishAmerica, a controversial Maryland book publisher, took a swipe at some of its vociferous detractors among sci-fi and fantasy authors as "literary parasites" who "looted, leeched or plagiarized their way to local stardom."

That caused what "Star Wars" aficionados might call a "disturbance in the force."

"There we were, being told we're a bunch of hacks who don't know what we're doing," writer Jim Macdonald fumed from his home in the northeast corner of New Hampshire, adding dryly: "This was discussed in the science fiction community for a while."

A plot was hatched. And Macdonald insists that to understand what ensued, to fully digest the sweet deliciousness of their revenge, one first has to understand PublishAmerica.

The firm began in 1999 as a "traditional advance and royalty paying book publisher" different from vanity presses because it doesn't charge authors to publish their books -- a practice scorned by mainstream publishing. "Like all serious book publishing companies we have to be picky as we can only accept the works that meet our requirements," reads PublishAmerica's website, which unabashedly trumpets its authors' Zelig-like brushes with celebrity.

"Dr. Laura [Schlessinger] has requested a review copy of Michelle Bailey Whiting's poetry book, 'As a Woman,' " the site boasts, with no further mention of whether Schlessinger reviewed the book or was just scoring a free read. And: "Fallon Lak sent a copy of 'Torn Apart' to Laura Bush and received a nice thank you note and an autographed picture in return."

Critics contend Publish America is nothing more than a vanity press in a different dress. They contend PublishAmerica rejects few, if any, manuscripts, and while it might publish your book, it does no editing for style or context -- a key step in the publishing process. They complain that it provides limited (some say no) copy editing, and leaves authors to do their own marketing. Books are distributed "on demand," which means a copy isn't printed until it is ordered. And since PublishAmerica won't take returns, relatively few of their 11,000 titles have made it to store shelves.

In November, the trade journal Publishers Weekly reported that more than 100 disenchanted PublishAmerica authors -- science fiction writers among them -- had begun a campaign to expose what they see as the firm's failings.

Last month, the Associated Press and the Washington Post explored some of the complaints, which the Frederick, Md., company dismissed as the grumblings of a handful of dissatisfied authors.

PublishAmerica officials did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.

"They are the biggest and most obnoxious ... author mills of them all -- and one of the most successful, I imagine," said Ann C. Crispin, chair of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Committee on Writing Scams.

But for the sci-fi and fantasy writers, the bigger outrage was PublishAmerica's insulting tone on its website, which the authors took as a playground taunt. The door to revenge, they concluded in discussions on an Absolute bulletin board, was to test exactly how "picky" PublishAmerica would be about a manuscript.

The muse struck like a stomach flu. Up came "Atlanta Nights," by Travis Tea, the author's name a phonetic giveaway.

"We decided to see how bad a book we can write and see if they'd accept it," Macdonald said. "Over Martin Luther King Day weekend a year ago I put out the call for volunteers, and about 30 writers said, 'Sure, I'd do that.' "

Macdonald outlined the premise: "Bruce Lucent makes hamburgers for Penelope Urbain as Isidore arrives. And I gave them little sketches of each of the characters. Bruce is a 20-something software developer. Isidore has red hair and a ponytail. Penelope Urbain is really stacked."

Each writer committed to a chapter, and some did two. The style was to be "modern," undefined further, set in Atlanta, and none of the authors knew what the others were writing or even where in the book a chapter would fall.

And they were to write as badly as they could muster.

"I thought, 'I can spare 20 minutes to ram out some God-awful piece of tripe,' " said young adult author Sherwood Smith, 53, a teacher at the private Carden Conservatory in Huntington Beach and ghost author of Chapter 1. "I just tried to think of every mistake new writers ever make.... Mine really does look like what a clueless newbie would do."

American literature might never recover.

"It's like the 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' of novels," Macdonald said. "Some of the chapters are hard-boiled detective [style], some are women's sexy shopping novels. There's a little bit of horror. It changes from chapter to chapter. Which characters were in which chapter was determined by rolling dice."

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