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Last April, Susan Charles, a Northern California yoga instructor, business consultant, and unpublished novelist, received a letter from the Silver Branch Literary Agency in Buffalo, New York, expressing interest in her latest book, A Very Private Yearning.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.

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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