Agony Column Exclusive Commentary


Atlanta Nights
"Think Of What They'll Do To You"
The Agony Column for February 10, 2005
Commentary by Rick Kleffel
"I stayed upright reading it." -- Jane Yolen.
"Here's a quick rule of thumb," John Scalzi ('Old Man's War') tells us in his AOL blog. "Don't annoy science fiction writers. These are people who destroy entire planets before lunch. Think of what they'll do to you."

As a reader, in general, I prefer to talk about good books rather than talk about bad ones. Though the latter outnumber the former significantly, I think that I speak for most of the readers of this column when I say that I have a surfeit of highly desirable reading sitting about my room waiting to be read. But the process whereby books come into being is of no little interest. Writing is not a high-paying business. Even the best, the most outstanding writers, are likely to need employment outside the field of writing to be able to support a family. Witness for example Ramsey Campbell's stint working at a Borders. Of course, Campbell mined that experience for his excellent novel 'The Overnight'. But for every Ramsey Campbell, there are literally hundreds, no thousands of would-be writers out there, working at other jobs and praying for publication, not for a big break, but any break whatsoever.

Enter While they claim to be a "a well-established fiction publisher," they follow that up with, "ready to offer its publishing services to you, the first-time author."

Wait a second -- that sounds like they consider the author a customer.

And that should send out the alerts.

Unfortunately, for many novice authors, it doesn't. Authors who have been in the biz for years -- and in particular, genre fiction authors -- easily recognize a scam when they see it and don’t hesitate to call attention to it. There are threads right now in numerous discussion boards and on Usenet about scam operations that prey on novice authors. The old "Come on -- tell us how you really feel" comes to mind as one reads the acid-tinged rants directed at these unscrupulous scammers.

One might imagine that such discussions do not engender a warm feeling for genre fiction authors on the part of such publishers. PublishAmerica, under the guise of, made its feelings known.

"As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction. Therefore, beware of published authors who are self-crowned writing experts. When they tell you what to do and not to do in getting your book published, always first ask them what genre they write. If it's sci-fi or fantasy, run. They have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home. Unless you are a sci-fi or fantasy author yourself."

Publishing this little admonition to would-be writers on proved to be a Very Bad Idea. See John Scalzi's comment above.

Unhappy with this slam on published genre fiction authors, in December of 2003, James D. Macdonald put out a call for submissions to genre fiction authors. He cited PublishAmerica's claims that it "rejects 80% of the submissions it receives." Macdonald's idea was to create a deliberately bad mainstream novel and submit it to PublishAmerica to see if they would publish it. David Kuzminski was there from the beginning as well. This is a sort of reversal of those hoaxers who have submitted literary classics to mainstream, New York publishers, only to have them sent back from the slush pile not because they are plagiarized word-for-word, but because, the sub-sub-sub-assistant-editor tells the rejectee, "The manuscript doesn't meet our needs."

Red, white, black & blue.

So, Macdonald, author of 'The Apocalypse Door', Kuzminski, and a bunch of other SF writers cooked up a bad, bad, very bad book they called 'Atlanta Nights'. You can read an excerpt at, PublishAmerica's online fiction venue. But then you’d have to join, and though you can wash your hands afterwards and you can clean out your browser's cache, you still can't make the memory go away, no matter how much Philip K. Dick you read.

If you must read some, Scalzi has a couple of paragraphs over at his AOL blog. If you dare. Trust me, it's bad. The entire book includes a chapter that is repeated, two chapters with the same number and prose written so deliberately bad that it will make your toes curl.

They submitted it and on December 7, 2004, it was accepted by The writers revealed the hoax on January 23, shortly before the book went to press, and PublishAmerica retracted the acceptance. You can now look the whole sordid affair up in the WikiPedia, and read more about it on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's website.

For me, it's a bitter pill. I imagine that 'Atlanta Nights' was quite fun to write, even though it may be equally painful to read. PublishAmerica -- and -- are exposed for the fraudulent operations they are. But that makes it no less poignantly sad for me to receive emails from budding writers who have published there, hoping to find someone who will read and enjoy their book. I wish I had the time to do so, because I would hope to find some undiscovered gem.

But the fact of the matter is that discovered gems go unsold. You need only look at the remainder pile at any bookstore to see a year or so of an author's life waiting to be moved like a can of past-their-date beans. I'm talking about fantastic, wonderful, literary works and genre fiction works, the kind of stuff you expect to eventually be foisted on English students as examples of fine literature -- Thomas Pynchon and Jonathan Lethem, for example. Every time I buy a new book, I cast forward in my mind to the time when it is remaindered. My queue is long enough that I've purchased books new only to see them show up on the remainder pile before I get a chance to read them.

We've already arrived at what Stanislaw Lem called 'Pericalypsis', that is, an apocalypse that has come to pass without anyone noticing. In Lem's article, he reviews a non-existant book that proposes a subsidy program to pay writers not to write, to ensure that only the most driven, the most talented would pursue a career in writing. Of course, since they’re trying to kill off farm subsidies, you've got to imagine that they're not going to spring for non-writing subsidies. And there's no guarantee that the most driven an d the most talented are all one in the same. But we can, we should dream. Shouldn't we?

The same discussion boards that host alerts about scam operations like PublishAmerica also host discussions of "Funny Slush" -- the epically bad submissions to magazine slush piles. But I know for a fact that in my life, I've sent in submissions that demonstrated a breathtaking lack of clues to one of the editors commenting in the "Funny Slush" thread. Much of the discussion revolves around the appropriateness of the thread itself. If I participate, am I talking about myself?

As my very smart wife is fond of telling me, paper has yet to refuse ink. The screen you read this upon has yet to refuse pixels. And sad but true, what you are reading is one hundred percent home-brew self-published at a significant loss to the author. PublishAmerica? 'Atlanta Nights'? Big press, small press? Thomas Pynchon and Jonathan Lethem? Pot? Kettle? Black? One must wonder at the world of literature where every word, every page is rendered in black and white, describing a world where the only black-and-white one encounters is on the printed page. "Think of what they'll do to you," indeed.