Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Worst Book Ever Written?

I'm gathering data for my book on crappiness. I'm out to find the worst songs, plays, films, poems, videos and books of all time. And while researching the books chapter, I came across the story of Atlanta Nights ...

Most of what we would call 'vanity publishing' these days is pretty up-front; you pay your money, they print your book and no judgements. Companies like Lulu and CafePress do not edit, alter or review your book – they simply provide a publishing service. However, there are some vanity publishers that promote themselves as traditional publishers ... which is all very well if they meet their promises.

PublishAmerica, a company based in Maryland USA, attracted a degree of criticism several years ago. It bills itself as the USA’s ‘number one book publisher’ but, being a vanity publisher, they will always publish more titles than traditional publishers. Consequently, their Guinness Book of Records entry for the world’s largest book signing is indisputable but also somewhat misleading. Traditional publishing companies selectively screen submissions and will assign an editor to work with the author to bring a book to publication. They will also market the book. No cost is incurred by the author. By comparison, companies like PublishAmerica expect the author to do all the marketing of their books (a fact that is recorded in the small print of their contracts at Para. 17).

But the big difference between PublishAmerica and traditional publishing houses lies with discounts. PublishAmerica sells them to stores at a discount of 5-10%. Traditional publishing houses sell theirs at around 40% discount. So if you were a book shop and you had the choice of allotting shelf space to (a) a £20 book from PublishAmerica on which you’ll make £2, or (b) a £20 book from a company like Penguin that will make you £6 profit per book … which would you choose?

It was these kinds of figures that started to generate bad press for the company, along with other complaints about missing royalties, poor production quality and poor editing. In December 2005 PublishAmerica author Philip Dolan, who had spent between US$7000 and $13000 promoting his book, took the company to court claiming that no book stores were able to get hold of his book. He also claimed financial irregularities. He was awarded an unspecified amount in compensation for PublishAmerica's breach of contract, and his contract was rescinded.

Just a few months earlier, the company had also been sued by the Encyclopædia Britannica for trademark violation, having started an imprint called PublishBritannica. That too was settled out of court, with PublishAmerica having to agree to stop using the Britannica name.

But PublishAmerica's most notable case followed a series of scathing criticisms and public remarks they made about science fiction and fantasy writers in the Autumn of 2004. The comments included criticism like this:

‘As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction... [science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home... [science fiction] writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters.’

The comments were sufficiently inflammatory for a group of such writers to decide to test PublishAmerica’s claims that they were a ‘traditional publisher’ that only accepted high-quality manuscripts. PublishAmerica’s own website at the time boasted that they received over 70 manuscripts a day, read every single one and rejected most of them.

The 30-odd authors, led by James D MacDonald collaborated to produce the worst novel possible and took just one weekend to write it. Highlights included two chapter 12s, two chapters (13 and 15) written by two different authors but telling the same story, two identical word-for-word chapters (4 and 17), a missing chapter (21), and a chapter (34) consisting of words randomly generated by a computer programme. The whole book was littered with spelling and grammatical mistakes. Characters changed sex and colour and died before reappearing later in the book without explanation. And the finale was appalling; firstly, it is revealed that the entire story was a dream (as in bad TV soap ‘cheat ending’) but the book then carried on for several more chapters. And, secondly, the initials of all the named characters in the book were deliberately chosen so that, if they were properly arranged, they made up the sentence:

‘PublishAmerica is a vanity press.’

The completed book, called Atlanta Nights and supposedly penned by one Travis Tea (ho ho!), was sent to PublishAmerica … who accepted it without reservation and offered the author a contract on the 7th of December 2004. At this point the hoax was revealed.

Here’s a quick sample from Chapter 25 of Atlanta Nights to give you some idea of its 'high quality':

‘Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday …’

On the 24th of January 2005, PublishAmerica retracted its acceptance, stating that the novel failed to meet their standards after ‘further editing’.

However, they later accepted another author's manuscript which featured the same 30 pages repeated ten times.

PublishAmerica are still trading (their website) and still claim to be 'the nation's number one book publisher'. It may be that the issues they had in the past are now resolved so all I can do is repeat the facts about their previous trading practices.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Nights can be bought in paperback or download form from Lulu.com. All proceeds from the book go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund charity.

But is Atlanta Nights the worst book ever written? Or do you know better? Leave me a comment with your suggestions or email me at mail@stevecolgan.com.

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