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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER XXVIII Disreputable Publishers

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER XXVIII Disreputable Publishers

SCATTERED throughout the country are a number of publishing houses, or rather concerns which pretend to act as publishers, whose business is disreputable.

They own extensive printing establishments, or are connected with them. As a matter of fact, they do not really publish a book, except when they, by accident, get hold of one which will sell without pressure.

They are plain and simple swindlers, who prey upon the innocent, proud, and conceited writers who cannot possibly produce a readable book. They usually maintain handsomely appointed offices, and those in charge of them are excessively suave and polite. They never turn down a manuscript which is respectable and is not libellous. They will publish practically everything and any- thing, if the author is able to put up a guaranty fund.

They require an advance payment far in excess of the cost of printing and binding. In other words, they are printers only, and not publishers ; and they make their money as printers, except that they overcharge for the work they do.

Not only do they make a profit out of the printing and alleged publishing, but they will suggest revision and editing at the author's expense.

I think that most of them realize a profit of not less than a hundred per cent on every book they pretend to publish. They keep within the law, because they legally publish the book. They announce it, and claim to make effort to sell it.

It is very hard to reach these scoundrels by process of law, because they usually keep within legal requirements.

Their procedure is somewhat as follows: They keep in close touch with the so-called readers of reputable publishers. These readers come in contact with a large number of unavailable manuscripts, either of little or no value, or unsalable. Most of these readers are conscientious and honest, but as they are necessarily literary and professional men or women, few of them are familiar with the wiles of these false publishers. Innocently they will agree to furnish the names and addresses of the authors whose manuscripts they have rejected.

The disreputable publisher writes an enthusiastic letter to the author, telling him that he understands that he has written a book of unusual merit. He will ask the author, as a favor, to send him the manuscript. He will give it a superficial reading, or may not read it at all. He will then write a letter to the author, filled with the most complimentary expressions, suggesting that he call upon him or correspond with him. He will assure him that his manuscript possesses great merit, and is what the world needs. He will tell him that he is in a position to make the author's reputation, to force his name to become a household word all over the reading world.

As the majority of authors, and especially those who cannot possibly produce acceptable manuscripts, are proud of their work, and possess a self-respect heavily adulterated with self-conceit, it is obvious that exaggerated and extreme flattery will not fall upon unfertile ground, but will take root even deep enough to reach the pocket-book of the author.

The author has probably read his manuscript to friends, who are incompetent to weigh literary values, or who would flatter him anyway.

The fact that he has written something is an indication that he thinks he has done meritorious work. He is hungry for praise, and will accept it indiscriminately. He calls upon the publisher, and is received royally. He is taken to lunch, and the conversation is confined to his wondrous manuscript.

After the author has been placed in a responsive mood, the publisher informs him that he would gladly publish the book on the usual royalty basis, and without expense to the author, but unfortunately his list for the season is full. Consequently he cannot consistently take on any new books for a year or more. With a smile which would sell sawdust as a breakfast food, the publisher expresses his almost tearful regrets at the inevitable conditions, and intimates that if the author will allow him (the publisher) to act as his agent, he will give the book his personal attention, and so handle it that it will have exceptional opportunity to burn holes in the mental pockets of the expectant world. He cannot bear to allow so good a work to remain in a manuscript. It will make a hit, a tremendous hit. Its publication will give the author a reputation as wide and as broad as the great, big world of readers. Fame is knocking at the author's door. Will the author welcome it, or will he allow opportunity (spelled with a capital O) to pass beyond his reach? Quietly the publisher informs the author that the expense of publication will be very slight, not exceeding, say, a thousand dollars. If the author has the money, the publisher is likely to get it. If he has not, the publisher will suggest that the author borrow it, because it will be so easy to return it from the enormous income of the book. The poor deluded author, proud of what he has written, filled with the conceit of literature, falls an easy victim.

The publisher is not, however, through with him. There are other avenues of profit, and he leads the author gently to them and through them. With a smile which was practiced before his mirror, and in the atmosphere of a potted-plant office, he assures the author that the sale of the book will be materially increased by the addition of illustrations. He would like to send the manuscript to one of his artists, who would read it and suggest pictures, always, of course, with the assistance of the author. This is the climax of financial flattery. The author loses his head, and more of his money. The illustrations are made at a cost two or three times greater than the expense of producing the pictures and plates. The publisher may send copies for review to a list of newspapers with which he has an arrangement. The editors of these journals will, undoubtedly, review the work in extravagant terms, and the publisher will hand these reviews with much satisfaction to the smiling and much deceived author.

If the guaranty fund paid by the author is sufficient, the publisher may advertise the book in a few newspapers or magazines; but if he does so, he is likely to require an additional payment from the author. Here, again, he has an opportunity to make an additional profit at the author's expense.

The book is published, a few copies of the announcement, filled with superlative adjectives, are printed, and the circulation of them is pretty closely limited to what the author receives.

If the author has money, or can get it, the publisher suggests that the author purchase a number of the books and send autograph copies, not only to his friends, but to leading literary writers and to other prominent persons. This will advertise the book, says the publisher, and be of mutual benefit, especially to the author. It will add many cubits to the rapidly growing stature of his fame.

The publisher offers to bear a part of the expense, and to sell the books at an extremely low price; but this price, although it looks low on the face of it, pays the publisher a hundred per cent net profit.

Possibly a dozen copies are actually sold.

The publisher has the author's money, the author has the distinction of making a fool of himself, of putting on the market, at his own expense, a book which nobody will read or want to read, and the bottom of his fame falls out forever.

The author, in dismay, calls upon the publisher and weeps tears of disappointment. The publisher, without one whit less of a smile, expresses unbounded surprise and unlimited regret. He does not understand why so good a book has not been received with cheers of approbation. He assures the author, if the author has any more money at his disposal, that the reason cannot be located. The trouble was caused by one of those inexplicable situations, which occasionally occur. He advises the author to try again; and, if the author has any money, the chances are that he will do so. Once a fool, always a fool, until either money or folly gives out.

I do not feel called upon to give the reader the names of these disreputable publishers, because, while they are known to be charlatans, it would be very difficult to furnish proof which will stand in law. The author can avoid them by keeping away from any book publishers who do not have an established reputation. It may not be easy, however, for him to discover just what an established reputation is.

Unless he is acquainted with the character of publishers, he should ask the advice of the literary editor of a great publication, who makes a specialty of reviewing books. A letter addressed to the editor of any of the leading magazines will bring a courteous and satisfactory reply. I would suggest that he write to several magazine editors, and refuse to have anything to do with any publisher unless three reputable magazine editors recommend him.