Until the pandemic started, I used to be a regular customer at Hooters. Most of the Hooters Girls in Toronto know that I write science fiction. One Friday night, as I had dinner at table 36 (yes, I know the table numbers), my favourite Hooters Girl said to me, "There's another science fiction writer here. Do you know him?"
I looked around the restaurant. I didn't see anyone I recognized. Who could it be?
The Hooters Girl left me and returned a few minutes later with the writer and a friend of his. I had never met either gentleman. The writer introduced himself. Let's call him Joe (Names have been changed to protect the embarrassed). Joe and his friend were celebrating the release of Joe's first novel.
Joe asked me, "Who is your publisher?"
"Who is your publisher?" is a question for which I have no easy answer. My stories get published by whoever wants to buy them from me. All my short stories and anthologies have been published by different publishers. My two novels were both originally published by the same company, but when it went out of business, the novels were republished by other companies. Like many writers, I don't sell exclusively to just one publisher or magazine. We'll take the work when and where we can get it.
I had co-edited an anthology, The Dragon and the Stars (with Eric Choi) recently, so I said, "DAW."
"DAW?" he said. "Never heard of them. Who are they?"
I was baffled. How could a science fiction writer not know about DAW Books? "It's a publishing company in New York. Who published your book?"
Joe's grin was so wide and the glint in his eyes so bright that his face was sickening to behold.
"PublishAmerica," he said.
I was horrified. PublishAmerica, also known as America Star Books, was one of the worst scam companies exploiting new authors. There's plenty written about it online, so I won't repeat all the gory details. In short, PublishAmerica promoted itself as a royalty-paying publisher, not a vanity press. Technically, it did pay royalties (advance on royalties) ranging from $1 to $1,000. However, the contracts came with terms that ensured that money flowed from the author to the company. For example, authors had to guarantee a certain number of sales, and PublishAmerica urged its authors to buy their own copies or get their friends and family to buy copies. Since PublishAmerica printed its books on demand, it printed only enough copies to sell to the authors and their friends and family.
PublishAmerica also had a reputation for publishing books without any editing, lying about placing books in bookstores, and defaulting even on its $1 royalties.
The internet had hundreds of articles and blog posts about PublishAmerica, the lawsuits against it, and warnings to writers. How could Joe have fallen into the trap?
"PublishAmerica?" I said. "I heard of them. Congratulations. When will the book be released?"
"Two weeks from now."
Joe's friend was going to be his public relations guy. Since Joe was going to be a famous celebrity soon, the friend wanted a piece of the action.
Joe asked me a lot of questions. He wanted to know if I had ever been on a book tour (Answer: yes, for a young adult anthology, and the other authors and I had to do all the work to set it up). He wanted to know if I had ever been interviewed on TV (Answer: yes, once, on Omni TV's Cantonese news. That did not impress him.). He wanted to know if "my P.R. people" had set up any meetings with celebrities for me (Answer: "What P.R. people? I do everything myself.").
He said, "DAW seems like a small company. Maybe you should get a bigger publisher, like PublishAmerica."
I said that I was lucky to get one book published at DAW and I would feel extremely lucky if DAW wanted anything else from me. Joe smiled in sympathy. I guess he felt sorry for me as I fervently defended a small, unknown publisher (sarcasm!).
Joe said that PublishAmerica had an extensive publicity department that would get him media interviews, put him on a national (U.S. and Canada) book tour, and give his novel to celebrities in Hollywood, who, of course, were going to buy the movie rights. PublishAmerica allegedly had an agency that sold movie rights for its authors. His friend would accompany him to meet important people like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.
I listened silently as Joe told me of all the wonderous things PublishAmerica would do. Joe didn't ask me anything about the art of writing or the publishing business. He was interested only in becoming a celebrity and meeting others of his new social strata. His one takeaway from our conversation was that DAW does not hook up its authors with either Steven Spielberg or James Cameron.
Joe asked for my contact info so we could keep in touch, now that he had entered the glamorous profession of science fiction writing. I gave him my card. I really didn't want to talk to him again, but I was sadistically curious about how Joe's experience with PublishAmerica would play out.
A few days later, Joe phoned me. He had looked at my website and seen that I would be appearing at the Ad Astra Science Fiction Convention, a literary-oriented convention in Toronto. He wanted to know how I had gotten invited to Ad Astra.
"I've known them for years, and I asked if I could be a panelist," I said.
Joe said he would tell his P.R. guy to get him into Ad Astra.
Joe had never heard of science fiction conventions before, so he asked me about them. He asked if there were any besides Ad Astra in Toronto. I mentioned Fan Expo, saying it was a big media-oriented convention revolving around movie and TV celebrities and not much literary content.
"I would rather go to that one," said Joe. "How do you get invited to Fan Expo?"
"I don't know. I've never been a guest at Fan Expo. I think you contact them and ask."
"I'll get my guy to do that," he said. "You go to Ad Astra. Fan Expo is mine, though."
"Joe, we're science fiction writers," I said. "We don't split up conventions like territories as if we were the Mafia families in The Godfather."
"But it makes sense, though, doesn't it?" he said. "We don't want to compete against each other. You be the star at one of them, and I'll be the star at the other."
"Now that you put it that way, sure, have fun at Fan Expo," I said.
He thanked me for telling him about Fan Expo, and we ended the call.
Joe called me again six months later. He wanted to know how he could get his novel republished by DAW.
"Joe, what's going on?" I said. "You're with PublishAmerica."
"It's awful," he said. "The novel came out."
"What's it like?" I asked, knowing PublishAmerica's reputation for zero editing.
"They didn't fix any of my grammar and spelling errors! It's a mess!"
"What? You knew you had errors and you submitted it anyway? You didn't correct your manuscript before you submitted it?"
"That's not my job. I'm the author. I write the novel. The editor is supposed to correct for grammar and spelling."
Joe's tale of misery got worse. PublishAmerica had put no copies of his novel in bookstores. PublishAmerica's contract forced him to buy copies for himself and his friends and family. PublishAmerica wanted him to pay money to send his book to Hollywood celebrities. PublishAmerica did not put him on a cross-continent book tour. PublishAmerica ran no advertising campaign for him. PublishAmerica didn't get him on any TV or radio interviews.
"What about your friend, the P.R. guy?" I said. "Get him to set up the TV and radio interviews."
"He quit!" Joe said. "He said he needed a job with a salary, so he quit on me!"
"Aw, that sucks," I said. "I guess you'll have to do it yourself."
"Can you connect me to another publisher?" he asked.
"No, and that's for your own good," I said. "You signed a publishing contract with PublishAmerica. PublishAmerica has the rights to publish your novel. You can't sell those rights to anyone else unless PublishAmerica agrees to it. If you do, you're breaking the contract, PublishAmerica will sue you, and you'll wind up owing more money to them."
Joe went silent. I think he finally realized that all the money would flow from him to PublishAmerica. He had also lost control over his magnum opus. At that moment, his dream of fame and fortune crashed and burned like the Hindenburg, a bag of gas engulfed in flames.
"See you at Fan Expo," I said as I ended the call.
Joe's book appeared for a while on Amazon. It got one review, which said it awful.
Joe did not appear at Ad Astra, Fan Expo, or any other science fiction convention. He never went on a book tour or gave an interview on TV or radio. He disappeared completely from the science fiction community, of which he was never a part.
Joe's writing career died before it started for several reasons. First, he was too lazy to do the work of a writer. For example, writers should fix their own grammar and spelling errors before submitting their stories. The less work you make for the editors, the higher your chances of getting your story accepted, and the better your reputation as a talented writer. He also thought he was not responsible for promoting his novel and expected his friend and his publisher to do that. As most of us know, all that work falls on the author.
Second, Joe was obsessed with celebrity status, which made him vulnerable to PublishAmerica's lies of fame and fortune.
Third, despite all the online warnings about PublishAmerica, Joe still signed with the most notorious scam publisher in the world. What was he thinking?
PublishAmerica changed its name to America Star Books, also known as ASB Promotions, after one of its founders sued the other founder. In 2017, America Star Books announced that it would stop accepting new submissions, although the submissions page on the PublishAmerica website (still using the old name) is still active. The rest of the website hasn't been updated for years or goes to dead links. American Star Books still exists as a corporation. It might still hold all the contracts, thus holding the rights to its authors' books forever.
Although PublishAmerica is mostly inactive, others like it have sprung up. Be sure to check out Writer Beware on the SFWA website ( https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/ )