Sunday, May 25, 2008

Author : the Role-Playing Game

How PublishAmerica fosters the illusion of publication

Last month I blogged about an author’s realization that being printed by PublishAmerica (PA) wouldn’t sell her books. This month I’m going to give a more general overview of why PublishAmerica is a bad, bad choice for anyone wanting a serious career in writing.

For those who don’t, PA is fine. If writers don’t pay PA for copies of their own books to peddle, and if they’re honest with other aspiring writers about PA, then I applaud them and wish them only the best.

Unfortunately, once people are sucked into scams, it’s human nature to hang in there and try to make the best of it (i.e. buy more copies of book 1 from PA so that book 2 will receive an acceptance letter, or spend more on promotional material). It’s also normal to justify one’s decision, which means praising PA and refusing to consider any negatives about what has to be one of the most deceptive vanity presses in the industry.

This enthusiasm leads newer writers in, and the cycle perpetuates itself. The heavily censored PublishAmerica Message Board (PAMB) is a good example of this.

Exposure for books

What’s interesting about the PAMB is how it attempts to mimic actual publication for PA authors – usually by providing imitations of whatever commercially published writers get. For instance, if you’re published by Baen Books, your books will be available on the shelves of bookstores nationwide.

If you’re printed by PA, this will not be the case. Bookstores expect a significant discount from publishers – PA does not give such a discount. Bookstores also expect to be able to return unsold copies to the publisher or to be compensated for these. PA-printed books are nonreturnable. Recently, PA attempted damage control by making some books returnable… as long as the author emails PA to request it and as long as the bookstore pays a restocking fee. Enough said.

What can PA authors do? Many of them try to get around this problem by buying their own books (which is exactly what PA wants them to do) and selling them to stores on consignment, or persuading the stores to order them, which some stores will do for local authors. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get the books on shelves nationwide, or even in other cities.

So the most popular substitute for this, on the PAMB, is having a book cover or a blurb or a link to one’s webpage on someone else’s webpage. The books are already advertised on PA’s online bookstore, but PA authors frequently host pictures of each others’ books or add links to each other’s websites. Some set up display sites for this purpose.

This is fine when it’s done to network. It’s not so good when it’s mistaken for book sales or for the publisher-driven publicity that puts books in stores and libraries.


Reviews are another area where PA needs a substitute. Reviewers like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly don’t review books printed by a vanity press. Even if they did, they require copies well in advance of the release date. PA rushes books into print so fast that sometimes the author doesn’t get copies before the release date. PA’s contract also states that PA will send out review copies “at our discretion”. I have not yet read of this discretion extending so far.

Nature abhors a vacuum, though – even on the PAMB. So to fill the gap where legitimate, honest reviewers would be (if PA was a legitimate, honest venture), there are several websites which offer free reviews but also charge for “fast track service”.

Some authors might even pay for this. PA accustoms them to a fast-food level of speed that’s unheard of in commercial publishing (and couldn’t be done in commercial publishing, where books are actually read and edited). Some sites cut to the chase and simply charge. All of them provide uncritical praise or have other ways to soothe egos – as a PA author admits,

Some bad reviews are removed at the author's request.

There are online review sites I frequent, like All About Romance, but I trust them because they’re specific about what works and what doesn’t work for a book. They also don’t remove negative reviews.

Reviews that are flattery, book covers on friends’ websites and a one-dollar advance – all these contribute (cheaply for PA, in the case of the $1 advance) to the illusion of publication. Just as gamers might have a sword or cloak to wear when they roll the d20s, PA and its message board offer writers the trappings of publication when they indulge in Author : the Role-Playing Game.

Ultimately, getting printed by PA if you’re hoping to have an actual career in writing is like trying to build a future in real estate by playing Monopoly. Sure, it’s quick and easy and cheap to buy the game, and you can have fun with your friends. But it’s not and never will be the real thing. Just like PublishAmerica.


December/Stacia said...

Great post!

I'm updating my links this week, btw. :-)

Loren said...

There are honest publish-on-demand companies, but they tend to charge a lot up front, usually at least $600 for a standard sort of book. Companies like

AuthorHouse -

iUniverse -

You would get something like $2 in royalties per book, meaning that you'd have to sell 300 copies to break even.

And Publish America claims that you can avoid that.

Its notoriety has even reached Wikipedia. Its article there has a sizable "Criticism" section that mentioned its lack of editorial oversight, including publishing a book that featured 30 pages repeated 10 times.

Kim said...

That's a great analogy - I just wish more of the PA-ers who want a serious career would read it and take it to heart...

Marian said...

Thanks for the comments!

kim : The sad thing is that people taken in by PA are given a lot of misinformation, both by PA and by its loyalists. They are told that all authors except for the really big names like J. K. Rowling have to do their own promotion, or that the high prices of PA books are due to their superior quality. They are told that bookstores are not as important as the Internet or word-of-mouth when it comes to sales. So they often don't realize that something's wrong until they get their first royalty check, by which time they've probably bought enough of their own books that PA's made a profit off them.

I've never fallen for PA, but it burns me that so many people who dream of their own books on shelves and who want an actual career in writing will be cheated.

Marian said...

december : Thanks! Appreciate it. :)

loren : Many people know now that a vanity press charges authors for publication, so they know that AuthorHouse and iUniverse are vanity presses. PA's taken advantage of that by shifting fees to the back. PA charges for the books rather than for the acceptance letter and makes sure there's no feasible avenues for most authors to sell books short of buying them from PA.

As a result, most authors never realize that PA is a vanity press, and that allows them to maintain the illusion that they have a "traditional publisher" (a term PA coined). You can certainly avoid an upfront fee with PA, but you'll probably end up out of pocket regardless. With vanity presses, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

I've coined a new slogan for PA : PUBLISH NOW, PAY LATER.

Tina Trivett said...

Great article. Don't forget to mention that PA will publish your work under other authors names. They do not check to see if it is really 'your' work.