An Essay by Travis Heermann (c) 2000
If you love to write, then for God’s sake write. If you think your writing is good, show it people. Get some feedback. If you have dreams of getting it published, be aggressive, be professional, polish it, get it out there. That’s what all the Writer’s Self-help books say. But be very, very cautious. My first novel was published, and I had the pleasure of seeing it in numerous bookstores, discussing it with readers, and providing copies to family and friends. The bittersweet truth is that this day, I haven’t been able to decide if that was a boon or a curse. My attempt at a writing career has been a case-study in frustration, broken promises, and fraud, thanks to a so-called literary agency and publisher both of whom turned out to be scam artists, both of whom managed to defraud hundreds of unfortunate writers like myself.
It’s a long story . . .
At the tender age of twelve, I discovered the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and I was hooked. I devoured everything I could find by these two authors, and Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars remain two of my favorite heroes to this day. I was so taken with the worlds these two authors created, that I started writing my own. My imagination ran wild, and I wrote a novel and several stories that were thinly veiled rip-offs of Conan and John Carter. But I taught myself to write.
When I was seventeen years old, I had a very vivid dream about a hero, a villain, and a sword. I took this dream and, through hundreds of hours of hard work, turned it into a fantasy adventure novel, which I proudly named The Ivory Star. After numerous rewrites and dozens of rejection letters from publishers and agents alike, I was ecstatic when I finally received a letter of acceptance from the Deering Literary Agency. Their reader had given The Ivory Star an A+! I knew it was just a matter of time until someone saw its potential. I was on my way! I managed to come up with the $500 they wanted in fees (even though I was dirt-poor and fresh out of college) and signed up with them. It was only a matter of time now, and I’d be a published author! My dreams were coming true! Oh, cruel, cruel world.
About a year of anxious waiting later, I get a phone call from them, saying, “You got a contract with Northwestern Publishing.” Joy! Rapture! (But a small voice in my head was saying, “Who the hell is Northwestern?”) “You only have to come up with $6000 for this joint-venture deal.” My hopes deflated like a whoopee-cushion. I told them, “That’s great, but there is no way on God’s green Earth that I can come up with $6000.” They said, “OK, sorry then. We’ll keep trying,” and hung up. (Now, I look back and think, “Yeah, right.”)
One year and another $500 later, I received a Priority Mail package with a publishing contract in it! “Hot damn! Finally! . . . Wait a minute, who the hell is Commonwealth Publications? Edmonton, Alberta? . . . Oh, well, it’s a contract! . . . But wait, what’s this? They want $3850 in joint-venture publishing costs. . . Sigh.”
<Oh, alas for writerly naivete, says the editor in retrospect.>
I was gripped by indecision. I didn’t have that kind of money to spend. I had never heard of Commonwealth before. The sample covers they sent were . . . OK. At best. A couple of them looked like they had been done in some junior-high art class. So I called my agent to get some information on Commonwealth outfit. Of course, I should be able to trust my agent right? I expressed my concerns to Mrs. Dorothy Deering, and she assured me that Commonwealth was strictly legitimate, an up-and-coming new publisher that was more than willing to work with authors during all facets of the publishing process to achieve an end-product both were happy with. She raved about how fantastic their new covers were, how they were working on distribution contracts with Ingram, Partners, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, etc., how the advantage of joint-venture publishing was that I received a much higher royalty percentage than the industry standard for “mainstream” publishers. I only had to sell about twenty-five hundred copies to make my money back. No problem! I should be able to trust my agent, right? They have my best interests at heart, right?
So I borrowed the money and forked it over to Commonwealth. They said: the book would be published in a year, I would have the chance to review the cover before it was finalized, and I would have the author’s galleys to review in eight months. So I settled down to wait. One year later, I had received nothing from Commonwealth. Then, fifteen months after I signed the contract, I received the galleys for approval. They must have pulled a wino off the street to copyedit the galleys, because I made more than 430 corrections, over 400 of which would have been unnecessary if the copyeditor had had a grammar-school knowledge of punctuation — punctuation that was correct in the original manuscript. A month after that, I got a phone call from my Author Liaison (i.e. front-flunkey) saying the covers are done, printed. Hmm, wasn’t I supposed to have had some input here? In all fairness, I have to say the cover they produced was much better than some of theirs I had seen. The front artwork and design were impressive, but the back looked cheap and amateurish.
During this long wait, I looked in various bookstores for Commonwealth titles and found none. Needless to say this caused no small amount of worry. So, finally, nineteen months after I signed the contract, I received my complementary box of books. Even after all the headaches and stress and worry that I might be getting screwed, when I saw my work in print I felt a pride that only newly published writers can imagine. It was great! So I immediately hit the bricks, promoting my work to local newspapers, TV stations, and bookstores. I hit every bookstore in town, trying to set up book-signings and having some success. I have to tip my hat to the two local Barnes & Noble stores at this point for being so supportive. They were really great. Border’s, on the other hand, was quite the opposite. I couldn’t get the time of day in either of the local Border’s stores. I heard rumors that Border’s had some sort of dispute with Commonwealth, but never discovered the details. I went to local sci-fi and gaming conventions to promote my book to considerable success and positive response.
So about four months after publication, it was time to receive my first royalty check. My books were in stores all over the nation like Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton Books, Amazon.com, and numerous local bookstores. I was getting rolling. At least, so I thought. But then around that time, my Author Liaison at Commonwealth unplugged his telephone, and so did everyone else who worked there. I called and called, quickly wearying of voice mail and automated phone systems, and tried for months to get through to a living person, racking up hundreds of dollars in phone calls to Canada. I managed to talk to someone once, who assured me that my royalty check had been sent, because she did it herself. I received nothing. I wrote increasingly nasty letters. I called the Better Business Bureau. All for nothing. I never received a dime in royalties. In March of 1998, Commonwealth Publications officially ceased to exist.
Of course, my agent was very sympathetic. “Oh, yeah, those bastards, we’re going after them with everything we’ve got to get your money.” After all, they had gotten screwed, too, to the tune of more than $750,000, they estimated. Or had they? To this day, I don’t know if they received any of my royalties. It’s possible they simply pocketed any royalty money. Read on.
Hundreds of authors who had been taken in by Commonwealth sued in Canadian court in their version of a class action. The President/CEO/Big Muckalucka of Commonwealth, Don Phelan, quickly settled the case for $10,000,000, with the stipulation that he would not be named personally as a defendant. How convenient. His company milked literally hundreds of hopeful, struggling authors for millions of dollars in joint-venture fees, and paid nothing. Where did all the money go? I wonder. Don Phelan has reportedly retired to warmer climes.
Meanwhile, the victimized authors had this judgment for $10M against Commonwealth. Guess what? Commonwealth had nothing to charge the judgment against. They operated in a rented building, with rented equipment, with a stack of receivables that were worth little more than kindling. What happened to all the books? More on that later. The only positive thing about the lawsuit was that the rights of all the books reverted in full back to the authors.
So I contacted my agent. They said they had to change the name of their agency to distance themselves from the Commonwealth fiasco, so they became the Daniel-Craig Literary Group. Just before my book hit the store shelves, I decided to write the sequel to The Ivory Star. I finished it in about a year and a half, so now I had two books, and no publisher. Daniel Deering was now running the literary agency, and he told me we had a very good chance at getting two books published, since it showed that I’m not a “one-book wonder.” He just needed $200 to pick up where we left off. So I forked that over. Almost an entire year passed, and I heard nothing from the Daniel-Craig Literary Group, no submission reports or friendly updates. Nothing. Then when that year was almost up, I tried to contact them and find that their phone number is no longer in service. Immediately alarmed, I started checking around and discovered that the Deerings were in a passel of trouble. They had shut down their business and basically gone into hiding. Well, to make a long story not-quite-so-long, Dorothy Deering, her husband Charles, and their son Daniel were arrested in September, 1999, on federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges. In December, Dorothy and Charles Deering pled guilty to all charges. Daniel Deering’s trial was set to begin in early 2000. [Daniel Deering also ultimately did time in federal prison.]
I am convinced that the Deerings were in bed with Commonwealth from the beginning, and the failed Northwestern before that. When Commonwealth failed, they tried to emulate Commonwealth’s scheme themselves by creating Sovereign Publications. Simply more of the same scam, with desperate authors as the mark. Donald Phelan, Dorothy Deering, Charles Deering, and Daniel Deering are criminals of the worst sort, because they didn’t just steal money; they crushed the dreams and aspirations of hundreds of struggling writers. Any of these individuals are welcome to sue me for libel or slander, because they would have to prove that I have lied, and I would welcome the opportunity to face them in court, and tell my story.
And now, adding insult to injury . . .
I accepted the fact that my book was out-of-print, even though friends and local fans were still asking me when my next book is coming out. I could only say, “Who knows?” Some of them occasionally asked me for copies, and I had very few remaining. So one day I checked Amazon.com, and my book was still listed. I ordered ten copies, thinking to take whatever they had left. They sent me five copies, and an e-mail saying that they would order the remainder from the publisher, Picasso Publications.
. . .
Who in the hell is PICASSO PUBLICATIONS!?
As if I hadn’t gone through enough grief, someone had stolen my book? In a seething rage, I immediately began to investigate.
Strangely enough, Picasso Publications was also located in Edmonton, Alberta, and even more strangely, the local Better Business Bureau became aware of them one month after Commonwealth died. You remember wondering about what happened to all those books Commonwealth supposedly had in stock? Well, Commonwealth owed something like $17,000 for rent on the warehouse where they were kept. To recoup his losses, the landlord sold everything on an auction (which also happened to be illegal since those books were not his property). Well, this mysterious organization named Picasso bought thousands of books for about two cents on the dollar, and decided to market them. They said they contacted all the authors to negotiate contracts, but I never heard from them. So I contacted them, and grilled them about their history (were they associated with Commonwealth, how long had they been in business, etc.) and did they have my book in stock, and how many copies. Of course, they denied any affiliation with Commonwealth Publications (who wouldn’t?). They said they had my book in their computer system, but their warehouse was a mess so they couldn’t verify any stock. Finally after a month of phone tag and wasted calls, they told me they had no copies of my book and never had. Sorry, case closed. My only question is this: if they never had any copies of my book, how did it get into their computer system?
All of this brings us to the present. I bought a Writer’s Market with the intention of getting back in the saddle. According to everything I have read, the majority of legitimate, established publishers now basically require a manuscript to be agented. Sigh. Back to the agents again. I did everything I was supposed to do. I sent out a boatload of query letters and proposals to dozens of different agencies. I polished my manuscripts to mirror brightness. I was courteous, upbeat, and professional. And I received nothing but form-rejections to my queries.
Now, one may ask me, “Why do you do it? Why, after getting shit upon so thoroughly and consistently, do you want to go back and do it all over again?” The answer is, I don’t. But, call me stupid, stubborn, or whatever, I can’t help it. There is one thing that keeps me going, that keeps me beating on the door of the publishing industry with both fists. You see, as a writer, I also read voraciously. Some of my favorite modern authors are Anne Rice, David Weber, Robert Jordan, and Arthur C. Clarke, but I also try to sample the works of newer writers. Occasionally, I will stumble upon a book by a new (or not so new!) writer, pristine and freshly minted, and discover the book is complete and total CRAP, with varying ratios of poorly written prose, ridiculous or woefully rehashed plots (dwarves and elves and dragons, oh my!), and characters so stupid they belong in a teen-slasher movie. That is what keeps me going. I know my books aren’t masterpieces, but maybe someday they will be. Right now, they aren’t Hemingway, Shakespeare, Asimov, or Bradbury, but in my humble opinion, they are good. So as I’m reading a real stinker, I think to myself, “How did this person get published?” Then I think, “If this person can get published, I can get published again!”
To quote Dennis Miller, “I don’t wanna get off on a rant here, but . . .”
The publishing industry needs an overhaul! Aspiring writers are either relegated to the bottomless abyss of the “slush pile,” or forced to find literary agents who may or may not be trustworthy. You must have an agent to get published, but agents don’t want you unless you’re published! You find the logic in that. Writers beware! Thousands of writers, maybe millions, struggle and hope and pray and strive to get published every day, to pour their hearts and souls onto the page in attempts to create things that others might enjoy reading, while Monica Lewinsky’s first lover or the bailiff at the O.J. Simpson trial can hire a ghostwriter to write a memoir and cash in. The literary market today is glutted with memoirs and autobiographies by everyone who’s had their fifteen minutes of fame and thinks they can make a buck by telling someone about it. I don’t care what color Monica’s dress was, or what drove Dennis Rodman to pierce his penis, or how hard it is to live the life of a supermodel. I really don’t give a shit!
The publishing industry would have us believe that only the best writing makes it into print, but you know as well as I that it just ain’t true! How many talented, worthy writers are mucking about in unpublished limbo because every editor or agent they have contacted is unable to see the merit (read, $$$$) in their work? I have spent literally thousands of hours writing, editing, rewriting, lost in a creative frenzy that leaves one feeling like a wrung-out washcloth. Even with the millions of books currently in print in this country alone, it is unlikely that I’ll ever be paid for those hours. To make it in the publishing industry, you have to know someone, or maybe know someone who knows someone, etc. I am not a greedy person, or an unreasonable one; in fact I’m one of the most easy-going fellows you could ever meet, but there are just a few things I want. Only three actually. You’ve stayed with me this long; I’ll tell you what I want!
I’VE PAID MY DUES!!! I’VE BEEN THROUGH THE HELL OF CRUSHED AND EVISCERATED DREAMS!!! I WANT AN AGENT OR EDITOR TO GIVE ME THE FUCKING TIME OF DAY!!!
IF YOU’RE AN AGENT OR AND EDITOR WHO HAS JUST REJECTED THE PROJECT I’VE POURED MY HEART AND SOUL INTO, AS WELL AS THE LAST SEVERAL MONTHS OF MY LIFE, I WANT TO KNOW IN WHAT SMALL WAY MY WORK WAS LACKING!!!
I WANT TO KNOW HOW SO MUCH COMPLETE GARBAGE GETS PUBLISHED! AND WHO DID THE PERSON WHO WROTE THAT GARBAGE KNOW THAT GOT THEM PUBLISHED???
Well, that’s it. If there’s any advice I can give a fellow writer, it’s this. Don’t pay an agent a single dime for representation except in royalty percentage. Not for “fees,” or “postage,” or “copies,” or “phone calls.” Not one cent. And if you ever hear the phrase “joint venture,” run like a scalded cat.
Do I sound bitter? Well, that’s because I am. You would be too, if everyone in the publishing industry you had ever dealt with had screwed you. Maybe someday I won’t be, maybe when I’m taking that first royalty check to the bank. Maybe someday I’ll get lucky. Maybe I’ll hit that one editor at just the right time. Maybe someday I’ll get to shake hands with an editor or agent in an agreement of mutual good faith and trust. Maybe someday soon I’ll be setting up book-signings again. Maybe when family and friends ask, “When is your next book coming out?” I’ll be able to give an answer.
Maybe if I rewrite this part . . .
For more information about this career-shattering debacle, go the Science Fiction Writers of America web site. All of what I described above is well-documented there and elsewhere.