Vanity Fare

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

The allegations of false advertising, deceptive business practices, and harassment pending against the Woodside Literary Agency are even more ominous. Solicitingaspiring writers with encouraging readers' reports, Woodside charged clients an escalating schedule of reading fees, contract fees, and marketing fees without making any effort to actually agent their books, said assistant attorney general Eric Wenger. While no hearing has been set, he alleges that writers who sought to expose the racket were subject to intimidation tactics: Woodside even posted one disaffected client's home address and phone number to hardcore sex sites on an Internet newsgroup, ''saying she was open to bondage and any sexually explicit act,'' said Wenger.

What makes such schemes difficult to prosecute, Wenger pointed out, is that many writers are simply ''embarrassed to admit that they were taken''--their shame often compounded by years of rejection letters from mainstream publishers. Enter Jonathan Clifford, the founder of an English charity that publishes poetry at no cost to the authors. Partially paralyzed after being struck by a drunk driver in 1966, Clifford is waging a one-man war against all forms of vanity publishing from his home in Hampshire, England, inundating the British Advertising Standards Authority, members of parliament, and virtually anyone who will listen with demands for tougher publishing standards. ''I have people calling me from all over the world who are hysterical or suicidal because they've been conned out of their life savings,'' said Clifford. ''All I ask is that those people who have proven themselves to be criminal are charged as such.''

Clifford recently helped organize a group to bring an action against an English vanity house that allegedly promised its clients the return of their initial investment through royalty payments that never materialized. In a practice widespread among vanity publishers, according to solicitor Mark Lewis, that publisher took elaborate measures to disguise the fact that it was a vanity press, fostering the assumption that its authors had been chosen on the basis of merit, not money. Its letterhead, said Lewis, ''changed from time to time. It said things like Kiev, London, Paris at the top.'' This press claims that it's being misrepresented as a vanity publisher, when in factit says it sells hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of books.

Not all vanity presses traffic in such blatant sleights of hand--many writers who pay to see their work between covers are satisfied with what they get. But all too many rely on half-truths and dubious incentives to attract customers. In 1990, a jury ordered America's largest vanity publishing company, the Vantage Press, to pay $3.5 million in damages to more than 2000 writers for promising services it never delivered. But today the Vantage Press is still in business, churning out 400 to 500 books a year. ''We have no unhappy customers,'' said vice president Martin Littlefield, a soft-spoken man with a mortician's demeanor, who sucked a piece of hard candy as he talked. After nearly 50 years in the business, Vantage has published such writers as Jack Kevorkian and L. Ron Hubbard, and can afford to be choosy about what it brings out, he said. ''We turn down a lot of stuff,'' he said. ''If we can't make heads or tails of it, we won't publish it. Which is not to say we're looking for Robert Frost.''

Even if Littlefield were to find the next Robert Frost, however, he wouldn't be able to get his work into Barnes & Noble, which doesn't stock Vantage books on principle. Indeed, a tour of Vantage's West 34th Street office, whose mismatched file cabinets and furnishings seem preserved from an age before faxes and computers, puts one less in mind of a polished literary racket than the scene in the Martin Amis novel The Information, in which Richard Tull, special director of a vanity house called the Tantalus Press, peruses the ''illiterate novels'' and ''total-recall biographies'' piled on his desk. ''As in a ward for the half-born,'' Amis writes, ''Richard heard these creatures' cries and felt their unviewable spasms.''

In the age of confessional TV and the million-dollar memoir, such cries and spasms have multiplied at an alarming rate. With the rise of a full-blown writing industry--whose small presses, writing conferences, magazines, and graduate programs are sprouting like dandelions across the country--legions of untutored writers are encouraged to believe that putting a book together is the quickest avenue to self-esteem. Even the shelves of superstores have begun to sag under the weight of how-to titles like Is There a Book Inside You? by skydiver and self-publishing guru Dan Poynter. Suddenly, everyone seems to be answering that question in the affirmative.

Had they only known more about the precarious underworld of subsidy publishing, many writers might never have been taken in by Edit Ink. But in addition to the more than 60,000 books published by legitimate houses every year, there will always be thousands more that even the most marginal press will refuse to publish. For those writers, one thing is certain: somewhere avanity publisher is waiting to sidle up to you, dispense some flattering words about your manuscript, and print your book--for a price.

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