Attack of the Living Slush Pile

Vanity Presses Prove Anyone Can Write a Book. Usually a Bad One.

iUniverse's profile was raised by its association with B&N, but the iUniverse authors were left out in the cold. Harry Youtt, the chief grievance officer for the Los Angeles local of the National Writers Union, started following up on complaints made by iUniverse authors and found that many clients felt abandoned by the company. Books were frequently printed and delivered late, and iUniverse officials offered little in the way of explanation. An informal survey of B&N stores by Youtt found "most stores indicated that they only stock iUniverse titles if they are part of a 'special promotion.' Several stores stated that they thought they carried some iUniverse titles but had no way of identifying any. Several indicated they had never heard of iUniverse."

There were other problems as well, including the accidental elimination of 400 iUniverse titles from its online bookstore and database. There was even talk of a class-action suit against the company last year.

In October, iUniverse received another influx of cash, this one from Warburg Pincus Inc., an investment bank. iUniverse immediately laid off many of its columnists and community leaders, and de-emphasized its vanity operation to concentrate on business-to-business projects. iUniverse is using its technology to get into e-books, having made deals with IDG Books Worldwide (of the "Fill in the Blank for Dummies" series) and the distributor Publishers Group West. The happy faces of iUniverse authors are long gone from the Web site's lead page, and the iUniverse bookstore is now buried under a couple of layers of links.

Prodded by groups like the Authors Guild and the Harlem Writers Guild, iUniverse is bringing some important books back into print. Mike Levine, the former DEA agent turned government critic, brought his New York Timesbestseller, Deep Cover, back thanks to iUniverse and the Authors Guild's program, BackinPrint.com. Unlike the vanity customers, Levine didn't have to pay a cent to get iUniverse to reissue his book. BackinPrint.com has also negotiated with the Shakespeare & Co. bookstores to carry these particular iUniverse titles. Bringing works back is inherently less risky than accepting work from people whose only skill may be filling out a check for $99, and these works have built-in audiences, whereas most wannabes have only their elderly relatives and anti-ratmen activists.

Random House Ventures, LLC, the investment subsidiary of Random House, Inc., has invested heavily in Xlibris, but not for the rights to the vanity firm's massive list of titles. "Random House is not interested in much in the short term," Feldcamp says, but the investors do "think hard about the future." And in the future, it is unlikely that the vanity press will be any more profitable than it is right now.

Print-on-demand and e-books will change the publishing industry, but the importance of an editorial filtering system to spare customers from bad writing is clear. Book editors and their fiefdoms, institutional paralysis and all, will survive even a takeover by pagan-feminists and homeless fetuses driving Russian tanks ahead of an army of ratmen. They've already faced worse, in the mountains of unreadable slush filling their offices.

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