Feb 5 2005
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 Authorsmarket.net website, which the authors took as a playground taunt. The door to revenge, they concluded in discussions on an Absolute write.com 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."
To further test PublishAmerica's standards, Macdonald, who compiled the book, left Chapter 21 blank because one writer missed deadline. He included another chapter twice. And he took portions of two other chapters, ran them through a software program that randomly reordered the words, then accepted all the spell check and grammar fixes his software recommended.
The result is Chapter 34, nine pages of disconnected gibberish that begins: "Bruce walked around any more. Some people might ought to her practiced eye, at her. I am so silky and braid shoulders. At sixty-six, men with a few feet away from their languid gazes."
Macdonald found a friend unknown in the publishing business to submit the manuscript, and then waited. On Dec. 7, the acceptance letter came. "PublishAmerica has decided to give 'Atlanta Nights' the chance it deserves," it reads. A contract followed, which the hoaxsters decided not to sign after a lawyer advised it could lead to a fraud complaint. Instead, they confessed the hoax on a writers website. The next day, Macdonald's friend received an e-mail from PublishAmerica rescinding the contract, with a wink that they'd caught on.
"Upon further review, it appears that your work is not ready to be published," the e-mail reads, citing "nonsensical text in the manuscript that were caught by our editing staff as they previewed the text for editing time." It suggested the author of "Atlanta Nights" try a vanity publisher. "They will certainly publish your book at a fee."
So they did.
"Atlanta Nights" can be ordered over the print-on-demand website www.lulu.com, with proceeds going to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Medical Fund. And it can be downloaded free at www.sff.net/people/rothman/atlantanights.htp.
The good news: There are no plans for a sequel.
"I think," Smith said, "it's a one-shot stinkeroo."
So bad it's good? You be the judge
An excerpt from "Atlanta Nights" by Travis Tea:
Penelope Urbain let out the clutch as she sped around the curve. She felt a thrill — partly from the roaring engine, from the speed of the car (she was moving fast, too fast, on a suburban street, and she liked the speed too much). Partly, no, mostly — mostly it was the thrill of anticipation. She was going to meet Bruce Lucent, and she was eager to see him.
She could not have said why she wanted him so badly, but she did. Wanted to see him! That was all it was, she was curious, more than curious. Eager, but — not too eager.
There. That was his home. That was where she meant to be.
She hit the brakes hard, skidded to a stop in front of his house.
He was in the doorway, waiting for her.
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