Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part I

Even though I am a contributor to writer magazines, I am not entirely trusting of their contents. The articles are often too one-size-fits-all to be of any use whatsover to the individual writer. With this thought in mind, I decided that a blow-by-blow account of my publishing history might be of use. I've had extremely varied, sometimes bizarre experiences with publishing. Take from it what you will.

Frozen Music
Dodging the Scam

My first novel, based on my experiences in a college choir, was accepted by Northwest Publishing in Salt Lake City in 1994. There was a catch, naturally: a $3,000 price tag for "subsidy publishing," in exchange for a guaranteed printing of 5,000 copies.

My first editor, gifted with the uber-literary name Gwen Bloomsburg, was a doll. She made few changes - changes that inevitably improved the text - and she became a personal in-house cheerleader for my novel and its humorous, rambling narrative. ("Half the fun is getting there," she was fond of saying.) Our mutual proofing was so immaculate that it took two years before someone discovered a typo. I had described Jesus on his way to "Cavalry," which to this day inspires a mental image of the Messiah on horseback, dressed in a Union uniform.

Northwest allowed me some say-so on the cover, and I had just the right image, a photo by my friend Susan Merrill. The pigeons in Susan's photo were "frozen" in flight, portrayed in gray tones against a sepia background, produced through the decidedly low-tech process of covering them with rubber cement before dipping the photo in a sepia bath. The Northwest designer wrapped the photo around the spine, applied some tasteful typography, and I couldn't believe that my very first cover could look quite so good.

These were the days when Barnes & Noble was still the new kid on the block, and anxious to fill its calendars with author appearances. I managed to arrange a 25-bookstore tour, from Las Vegas to Brunswick, Maine, and was accompanied by two friends in a VW Vanagon (the particulars of that tour made an interesting chapter in my subsequent novel, The Legendary Barons).

Soon after the tour, I began to hear rumors about my publisher. The company was making use of a new technology called print-on-demand, in which entire books were stored digitally and then printed on high-tech copying machines whenever orders were placed. The resultant books were actually rather remarkable in their quality - only an expert could tell the difference between these and standard-print books. The scam, apparently, was that they were printing the 5,000 copies designated by author contracts only if those copies were actually needed.

Even considering this possible scam, I couldn't see how NWP could make enough money to continue operations unless they actually did market their books effectively. And I had certainly damaged their little operation by placing some 1,000 copies on shelves across the country. But I, like all NWP authors, was about to be screwed royally; I had no idea till recently how deep the scam went. The following is a report I recently found online, from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (

"Northwest was a fraud right from the start. The idea was to use a small portion of the author's investment to print a few hundred of the several thousand books promised by contract, and convince the author that the rest of the books were being warehoused. Meanwhile, the balance of the money, converted to cash, went directly to [company founder James] Van Treese, who--according to charges later brought against him--took most of it to Las Vegas and gambled it away.

"Inevitably, income from author contracts ceased to be sufficient to replace the funds being taken out of the company, and the scheme toppled of its own weight. Northwest began ducking creditors and bouncing checks. Royalties were sent out against insufficient funds; later, they weren't sent out at all. Toward the end the company abandoned even the pretense of publication, stonewalling authors with excuses and delayed publication dates.

"In 1997, Van Treese and his son Jason were charged with 22 second-degree felony counts of communications fraud, securities fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. In 1999, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Van Treeses were personally liable for the company's debt, freeing bankruptcy trustees to go after their personal assets. In February 2001, James Van Treese was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The sentence is the result of a plea agreement: Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to four counts of communications fraud, two counts of securities fraud, and one count of failing to pay income taxes. Jason Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to two third-degree felony counts of failure to pay taxes, and entered guilty pleas to four class A misdemeanor counts of attempted communications fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

"Despite the resolution of the Van Treeses' criminal case, questions remain about the number of Northwest's victims and the actual amount of money stolen. It's estimated that as many as 500 writers may have been defrauded, for as much as $10.5 million. It's unclear at this point as to what (or even whether) future action will be taken to clarify these issues. And as usual in such cases, restitution has not been forthcoming."

Despite everything, I managed to get some valuable things out of my NWP experience: a good-looking, well-edited first book, the experience of setting up and conducting a national tour (an experience I have yet to repeat), and the invaluable advice of the NWP marketing guru I spoke to during a visit to Salt Lake City: "Watch what's on the best-seller list," quoth The Man, "and then write something similar." Genius!
Find Frozen Music at

Next: Courting the Seventh Sister and the joys of ebook limbo.


Gonzo DNA said...

Thank you for this. Don't know if you'll get this five years later. But I, too, was deflowered by James and Jason Van Treese. You were lucky. My book never came out. An overly sensitive new young writer, I was derailed by their by their graft. Still picking up the pieces. Your story helps. Thanks again. - Rick McKinney

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Man! Sorry to hear they did that to you. There's very little consideration on the behalf of many publishers (even the non-criminal ones) for the effect they might be having on passionate young writers.

Lynne Miller said...

Yep, they got me too. I never even received a mock up of my book, let alone copies. It stopped me from even TRYING to write for a long time. I was especially outraged when I learned how many other people they hoodwinked. But I have since had some things published and life DOES go on, but MAN, I'd love to go at least SEMI-Medieval on those guys.
---Lynne Miller

Michael J. Vaughn said...

I feel bad about my editor, who did a great job of pushing my book to the weasel marketing dept. and didn't seem to know she was working for criminals. Alas, I have not found her anywhere.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to seeing James van Treese in hell--along with Hitler & Stalin!

Anonymous said...

Too bad for Jason--having such an S.O.B. for a father!

Anonymous said...

Van Treese is an individual who completely lacks a conscience !No wonder he'll end up in hell!