Bound and Determined
It seemed like the perfect job opportunity for an over-educated slacker like myself. I was fed up with working in a punk rock shoe store, selling Doc Marten's boots to spoiled brats from the suburbs. I was waiting on pushy, demanding customers and running around like an idiot for five bucks an hour for a boss who didn't appreciate my efforts. I gave my two weeks' notice in the heat of an argument about vacuuming the floor, but then I started to worry about how I was going to pay the next month's rent.I turned for advice on the job hunt to my friend Kelly, who had gone to business school and had worked in nearly every office in Pittsburgh. When she learned that I knew how to type and had computer access, she told me to quit worrying. There was a Pittsburgh-based publisher, Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc, that hired housewives and students to work at home typing manuscripts. The money was good, and all you had to do was input an author's manuscript and make the editorial and proofreading changes which had been added in pencil.It sounded great. Set your own hours. Be your own boss. Work at home in your pajamas. I called the number and made an appointment for an interview. The thought of working in the publishing trade held a certain mystique and attraction.The interview was straightforward and I left there with my first assignment. It paid $568. I just had to type in this book about staying young and healthy through eating fruit and the money would be mine. I walked out of there with the manuscript under my arm, ready to take on the world. I would get started that weekend and then the money would be rolling in.Not the Work of a Best-Selling AuthorI began work on the manuscript that Saturday, but after only a few minutes of typing, I sensed that something was amiss. The book was awful -- it was complete and utter crap. I couldn't believe that THIS was being published. I recalled all of the book ideas that I had never sent off to publishers for fear that they wouldn't get past the mailroom, and yet somehow this manuscript was on its way to the printing press. Maybe I was just being too critical, I thought, but after a few more hours of typing, I couldn't do it anymore. Only a handful of pages into my new career, I had to stop.The book didn't make any sense at all. It was the single worst example of written English that I had ever seen. The premise was confused at best: Nature intended only pure, raw fruits for human consumption and all other foodstuffs and chemicals were poison (including vegetables). It was aimed at elderly people who were trying to find their lost youth and plainly stated that adopting such a diet might make one violently ill (the author admitted that she had been too weak to leave her home for over a year), but that shouldn't scare readers, because the diet was perfectly safe and could be started immediately without consulting a physician.There was just no way that this babbling, wandering narrative about fruit could have attracted the eye of an editor as a possible big seller. I called the production coordinator at home, and talked to her boyfriend. He was a friend of mine and also did input work for Dorrance."What is the deal with this?" I asked. "This book sucks -- how the hell do they plan on selling it?""Dude, they all SUCK," he boomed through the phone, laughing. "You should see some of the shit I've done." He went on, "Anybody with the money who wants to, can publish a book, it's a vanity press."Pow! The curtains were lifted. I wasn't working for Alfred A. Knopf: This was one of those places that run ads in the back of the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review soliciting authors with "Manuscripts Wanted" for "subsidy publishing."Once I understood that the authors were paying for their own printing, I began to enjoy the job. Knowing that these people were trying their hardest endeared them to me, even if their writing was sometimes questionable.Taking the RiskThe trick to getting published is finding someone willing to risk the initial cost to bring your work to market. Publishing books is an expensive process, and it can take years to find a backer. Most large publishing houses only put money into established authors or into areas that have a ready-made audience. Many universities have tightened their belts to the point that university presses have ceased to be a real force in publishing. Many first-time authors just get frustrated and decide to take the risk on their own. They seek out the help of a "subsidy publisher" (the term favored over "vanity press" by those in the industry) like Dorrance. In the relationship, the author subsidizes the cost of production and the publishing house turns their manuscript into a "real" book. The author lays out anywhere between $3,000 and $30,000, depending on the size of the book, the quality of the paper and binding, and the number of illustrations.The publisher offers a full, professional production staff, including editors, proofreaders, and designers and gives the author some assistance in marketing the book. It is not unlike independent bands who produce their own records, hoping to achieve some measure of success so that one day someone else will be interested in taking the risk of paying for their releases.Many bands who pay to produce their first release and peddle it at their shows and in local shops do eventually attract record label attention. This experience doesn't seem to be the same for those in the book trade. Some authors do achieve success after self-publishing, but they seem to be the rare exception. Most self-financed books attain one printing of 500 or 1,000 copies, and never require subsequent printings. In the three years that I worked for Dorrance, inputting and designing over 70 books, I never had to re-design a book for its second printing.The Customer Is Always Right ... Subsidy publishing is much like retail. The customer (in this case, the author) is always right. "In this business, the author is in the driver's seat because he is taking the risk. We never make a judgment on literary quality or market potential," said Dorrance Managing Director Elizabeth House in a 1996 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The authors finance the whole process, so they have the last word on every detail including page design, jacket design and editorial changes.I found that the staff at Dorrance Publishing took their part of the bargain seriously. They produce several hundred titles each year for authors all across the United States and Great Britain. The production work is of high quality and each person I worked with strove to meet the author's wishes. Staff members perked up when a really good book came in, because they knew that the author might eventually be successful. In some ways, the staff had the same aspiration as the authors: making it in the publishing trade. Over the last three years, several members of the production staff moved on from their jobs at Dorrance to higher paying jobs in larger publishing houses in New York and San Francisco.Most of the titles that I worked on were written by elderly people who had always wanted to write a book, but had not had the time or the means when they were younger. Most common were autobiographical tales which recounted the authors' experiences of growing up during the Great Depression and were mostly intended to be read by friends and family. Books of rhyming poetry were popular, and in the my last year at Dorrance the number of Christian titles was growing considerably.Some authors were putting out really good work. There was a husband-and-wife team who did marriage counseling and created a textbook for their clients. Self-publishing was their best option because they would be able to sell the books without having to share the profits with a publisher. Other authors were repeat customers and continued to publish through Dorrance because they had the deep desire for self-expression.The 1998 Writer's Market notes that subsidy publishing is a growing field. The trend has been to ask writers to finance some of the production or distribution costs, and the lines between commercial and cooperative ventures have become a bit blurry.The Nitty Gritty ... As time wore on, the upside-down structure of the publishing house started to wear on me. The authors were the true bosses in the game and they often knew little about publishing standards and practices Late in production, they would demand changes to the overall book design, or they would want to add pages or re-write sections that they had already approved.Working at home meant dealing with plenty of distractions and often staying up all night to meet deadlines. I lacked the self-discipline to make it really work, but I had to continue because I had invested a great deal of money into computer equipment. Each time page proofs would re-appear in my mailbox with the fourth, fifth, or not unheard of sixth set of author's corrections, my dissatisfaction rose.After three years I had to call it quits. Working with the authors and catering to their whims was uncomfortably like being back in retail. I still felt like I was running around the shoe store, but instead of fetching six different sets of shoes for kids with spiky blue mohawks, I was designing and re-designing page proofs for blue-haired old ladies. While happy to be away from shoving overpriced shoes on the sometimes stinky feet of trendy suburban kids, shoving sometimes stinky manuscripts into the public domain really wasn't much better.Sidebar OneWords Worth: Some Subsidy House ExcerptsAuthor: Robert A.M. CoppenrathThe Book: The Leadership Luxation, Anointed Scorpions, Spiders, and RatsThe Plot: A detailed listing of the crimes and follies of the leaders of 16th century Europe. The final section suggests morals and behavioral ideals for modern political leaders.The Excerpt: "Ushered in next are heroism and pride, suffering and despair, glory and medals, greed and graft, graves and grave diggers, hunger and starvation, spoils of war and noveau riches, traitors and betrayed, calamities galore, lots of crucifixes, and dreams of peace, that aspiration which, like quicksilver, eludes a firm grasp."Glory, greed, graft, gall, gangsterism, gibbets, gladiators, glitz, gloom, gluttony, gold, godlings, gonorrhea, governance, gargoyles, grandees, grandiloquence, Gargantuas, graveyards, graffiti, Gregorian, grenades, grief, grotesque, grudges, guerrillas, guillotine, guttersnipes, guilt, nocturne in G, and godly gadflies. A mixed bag indeed, a gigantic garbage bag!"***Author: Albert L. BeurmanThe Book: Ride of a LifetimeThe Plot: Al's coast-to-coast motorcycle adventures. He has pictures of just about everything he saw on his trip but only drawings of the spaceships that he saw when he was in the time machine. The Excerpt: "'I'm watching as people hurry to gather wood, water, game animals and wild fruit when something catches my eye. I look, but I don't believe what I'm seeing. Big wooden ships, but not sailing ships. These are big wooden spaceships like our space shuttle only much bigger. The noses and what I can see of the underside are burnt really badly, just as if they had landed here from another world. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks -- I know what's going on here."***Author: Michael J. Ruyechan, Jr.Title: From The Pillow and Through a Dream The Plot: Collection of PoetryThe Excerpt:Alphabet Feelings"Words are made by lettersArranged in a certain styleWhen happiness escapes the heartIt turns into a smileEmotions come from feelingsFrom both good times and badAnd it's not until they're gone that we realize Just what it was we had"**Author: R. David GodwinTitle: The Coming of the CocqcigruesThe Plot: Science fiction story of a far-off futuristic imperial kingdom. Includes strong love interest sub-plot, electronic gizmos, and many hard-to-pronounce proper names.The Excerpt: "'Be quiet, woman!' exclaimed Gashani as one of the nurses screamed. 'Ronkis, get through to Defence. Fruish, get all the women out of here to their quarters.' And hardly were the words out of his mouth and hardly was Ronkis moving towards the communicator and hardly was Fruish moving towards the still weeping Princes Alexandrina when they all began to choke on the deadliness that was inexorably reaching them through the air that they were breathing and John felt suspended in horror by the slowness of the strangulations with Gashani dropping to his knees then lying quivering as he kicked and shuddered with his thin old legs then the two nurses almost together and Fruish keeling over coughing in the agony of his lung-nerves next to the retching princess her beauty surrendered and last of all Ronkis falling and squirming on the floor and ... "He was suddenly back in his room, back in his apartment, lights that were wavering in likely extinction, a strangely flashing videoceiver, darkness through the windows, sinister darkness, explosions in the distance, crumping sounds in the distance, fears in the distance, the smell of sweatiness: war, hate, the terror of dying, an enemy there to kill you: the enemy, mysterious and vengeful, unseen, noxious, threatening, cool, poised, advantaged, frightening, bearing down on one, bearing down on me: killing."***Author: Sharon Reynolds EdlerTitle: Loving Hearts, Gentle Voices, Treasured Loves, Embraces... The plot: A collection of romantic poems dedicated to the author's husband.The Excerpt:Love's Magic PassionListen toyour heartnever regrettingyesterdaysgone bysensationalfuture experienceswe'll besharing togetherrhythms ofour bodieslanguagethatonly wecan defineattracted toeach othersweetensthe passionwithin usfulfillsour love's magicas weintroduceour lovein faithtoeach otheralways keepingit near"***Author: Lester LivickTitle: Fluffy the Little White Rabbit with Pink Eyes The Plot: A children's tale about a rabbit who saves the lives of his owners when fire threatens their home. The Excerpt: "One night a fire broke out in the house. Fluffy was sleeping in the garage in his large resting box. Fluffy smelled the smoke and raised so much fuss that he woke up Sheila. Sheila began to bark aloud and scratch the door hard. The little white rabbit ran up to the bedroom window, which was low to the ground, and kicked back again and again with his hind feet on the window pane. Finally Deanna's parents woke up, grabbed Deanna, and ran out of the house. "The little white rabbit with the pink eyes saved the little girl, her mother and father, and Sheila the little brown dog."