Vanity Fare

A court ruling this month brings the shadowy world of vanity publishing into the open

Last April, Susan Charles, a Northern California yoga instructor, business consultant, and unpublished novelist, received a letter from the Silver Branch Literary Agency in Buffalo, New York, expressing interest in her latest book, A Very Private Yearning. Three years in the writing, Charles's fictional treatment of a woman's love affair with her father had previously been turned down by more than 20 agents and publishers.

There was one catch. Silver Branch president Kelley Culmer insisted that the manuscript needed professional editing before she could represent it, and referred the author to Edit Ink, a book-doctoring firm in Cheektowaga, New York--the same book doctors, it turned out, who had charged Charles $1300 to edit the novel a year and a half earlier at the behest of another literary agency, New Scribes, of West Point, Connecticut. When Charles sent the edited manuscript back to New Scribes, they never responded and stopped taking her phone calls.

Without realizing it, Culmer had tipped Charles off to one of the fastest-growing rackets in the publishing business. Like New Scribes, Silver Branch wasn't actually a literary agency, but a Mail Boxes Etc. mail drop. It served as a front for a lucrative kickback scheme run by Edit Ink anda network of bogus agents and publishers who advertised in The New York Times Book Review and over the Internet. The scam was surprisingly simple. After clearing five dollars a page for rudimentary copy-editing, Edit Ink paid the referral service a 15 per cent fee; when the writer resubmitted the manuscript, it was invariably rejected.

Earlier this month, a New York supreme court judge ordered Edit Ink to pay more than $5 million in restitution to Charles and an estimated 4000 other would-be writers who succumbed to the scheme. (No charges have been brought against New Scribes.) This case may prove the first of many. In November, Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco's office filed suit against the Woodside Literary Agency in Queens, New York, on charges of consumer fraud and harassment.

In the margins of mainstream book publishing--where a book contract means a publisher covers the costs of editing, production, distribution, and an advance against royalties--there has long existed a shadow economy of vanity presses, book doctors, and literary agents that charge the writer up-front for these costs. For outfits like Edit Ink, the dreams of unpublished writers make them easy marks.

Few men better capitalized on these dreams than the late Scott Meredith, whose New York literary agency has for decades shrewdly divided its dealings between ''professional'' clients (in the past, these included Norman Mailer and Carl Sagan) and ''fee'' clients--writers of unsolicited submissions willing to pay $200 or more to have their work evaluated for publication. Meredith, who is credited with inventing the book auction, was one of the most widely reviled men in the business until his death in 1993. One former Meredith employee who spoke on condition of anonymity called him ''a cross between Howard Hughes and George Steinbrenner.''

Among Meredith's unorthodox ideas was the paying of mail-room personnel throughout the publishing industry to clip the corners of envelopes containing the return addresses of slush submissions--a brazenly efficient means of expanding the mass mailings he sent to prospective fee clients. Rarely did a fee writer make the leap to publication, but their business proved so lucrative that they were encouraged to resubmit, creating a continuous revenue stream from a client base of unpublished writers. ''The Meredith Agency was a well-oiled machine for the exploitation of the lunatic fringe of the slush pile,'' said Henry Dunow, a literary agent who worked there in the early 1980s.

Whether these practices continue at the Meredith Agency today is difficult to ascertain. Arthur Klebanoff, who bought the agency after Meredith's death, has discontinued the ''corners'' policy, but refused to disclose what percentage of the company's revenue comes from the fee service, now called the Discovery Program for New Writers. What is clear, however, is that a new breed of literary huckster has taken the tricks that Meredith patented and transformed them into quicksilver con games. In the media and across the Internet, advertisements have proliferated for vanity presses of suspicious pedigree; ephemeral literary agents who charge steep reading fees; and anthologizers, like the editors of the National Library of Poetry, at the unlikely address of 1 Poetry Plaza, Owings Mills, Maryland, who've never met a submission they didn't like, provided the author is willing to buy the anthology. Aspiring writers might be better off, mentally and financially, if they simply printed the books in their own garages.

But few authors share the do-it-yourself spirit of Edit Ink's founders William S. Appel--a former swimming-pool salesman--and his wife, Denise Sterrs. Working at home, the couple employed 10 to 20 editors, who earned six dollars an hour amending manuscripts on ''an elementary level,'' according to Dennis Rosen, the consumer-fraud prosecutor who filed the case. Most distressing to Edit Ink's clients, however, was not the quality of the edit, but the realization that the referral was made in bad faith and their ''edited'' manuscript was no closer to publication. ''It was an emotionally devastating experience,'' said Susan Charles.

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