The Commonwealth Publications Saga Part III: Implosion

We returned from Chicago with an air of confidence and success. C.P. had made some important business deals and, more importantly, soothed the nerves of some very skeptical authors (the company cash cows).

The afterglow didn’t last long, however. The proverbial ‘red flags’ soon began to appear. The volume of complaints from authors steadily grew; the production backlog became the elephant in the room, and uncertainty over company funds became fodder for water cooler chat.

Then on August 31, 1997, an event occurred that signaled the beginning of the end.

The morning after Princess Diana died on that fateful Paris night we were summoned for a general meeting. Phelan had decided that we couldn’t miss an opportunity to capitalize on our good fortune – we did, after all, have Diana’s very own step-grandmother, Dame Barbara Cartland, under contract – and announced that all C.P. titles in the production queue would be put on hold indefinitely. We were going to create the ultimate biography of the late Princess of Wales, using the connection between Cartland and the late Princess to our advantage.

Editors and other staff were pulled from their normal duties and put to work researching and piecing together the work. I and one other Author Liaison Officer were moved out of the Public Relations department and given jobs in the Marketing department, with one specific task: promote the biography.

Not an easy task, given the quick flood of Diana related books which suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The atmosphere in the office took on a feel of desperation. We were in a race to create, print, and launch a special product to compete with major publishing houses with authors the like of renowned celebrity gossiper Kitty Kelly.

Given the fact Commonwealth was already in a mess before the project, the pressure on Phelan to get the bio done was immense. More than anyone, he must have known that this was his last shot at keeping the company afloat. Those who experienced him everyday saw the change from simple, overbearing, hot tempered egomaniac to a person who felt the walls close in. Phelan bet everything on this. The Diana biography was going to be his way out.

Staff unrest (family squabbles?) soon caused some excitement. Phelan’s brother, Michael left the company and moved to Costa Rica. By this time, I had established many solid sales and marketing contacts for the project, and the end result was that I found myself at the helm of the department.

Job number one was to get the word out about the biography – with no funds and no budget at my disposal. I was the manager of a Marketing department with only one product.

The Marketing department became an island in a sea of disaster. We spent our days mostly isolated from the soap opera playing out in the upper offices. The implosion of Commonwealth Publications had begun.

Contracted authors became enraged when told of the publication delay of their books, which was natural given the money they had spent. More lawsuits were threatened. The entire Sales staff – suddenly claiming a problem with the ethics in their position when the flow of money coming in started to dry up – demanded more money and walked when they were refused. Don Phelan’s lunch hours began lasting all afternoon. The company, like Phelan, was spiraling out of control.

Almost by sheer luck, the biography was completed and was met with favorable reviews. Diana: A Commemorative Biography is still considered to be one of the better and more accurate accounts of the late Princess’s life. But problems occurred with the release of the book, from the photo insert pages falling out to covers being attached upside down.

The Cartland gambit also failed. Many of the radio and newspaper interviews with Dame Cartland were mostly unusable, as the elderly author often rambled off on topics completely unrelated to the Princess. Outside of the trade magazines and the usual avenues, the biography was produced but largely unnoticed.

Commonwealth found itself at the end of the Diana project with no massive sales, an impossibly-long production backlog, never-ending calls from authors and lawyers alike, and no money.

Soon, articles began appearing in the local newspapers regarding the ‘scam’ publishing house. An investigative segment on CBC television’s ‘Marketplace’ destroyed whatever positive image the company had left, and exposed numerous questionable and outright scandalous business dealings by Phelan and his top guns.

In February of 1998, I handed my resignation to Don Phelan. Not to him personally, of course, as he was at his usual spot spending more of the company (read: authors) money downing Irish Mist at the Earl’s lounge. About a month later, Commonwealth closed its doors for good.

It is estimated that more than two thousand writers had been taken for an astonishing amount, perhaps millions of dollars over the span of Don Phelan’s publishing venture. Even those who wrote off the money and just wanted their manuscripts back were shut out. Published books were seized and sold off for pennies on the dollar to pay Commonwealth’s creditors.

Since Don Phelan was never named in any legal action (the company was), the case ended when he locked the door and walked away. Even though a court ruled that the contracts were void and ordered that the authors were to get their manuscripts returned, most never did. In fact, most of the authors paid their money and never even had their work published.

But Don Phelan did.


Stephen G. Esrati said...

You might have mentioned another minor event: my lawsuit in Edmonton charging Phelan, his wife, and numerous employees with fraud. The suit was also directed at Commonwealth, but its main targets were Phelan and his wife.
Early discovery revealed that Phelan also owned Canadian Literary Associates.
I'll be glad to e-mail you my full story.

Leigh Patrick Sullivan said...

In the context of a blog article, space for all of the details from a 10+ year ordeal is hard to come by.

This was from the point of view of a former employee, watching a promising company spiral into the ground. Individual experiences from others involved are, unfortunately, many - yours included. A general search on the topic inevitably brings up your name and story.

You were but one of many effected by Don Phelan and is scheme. Sadly, there were many others.

Leigh Patrick Sullivan said...

In addition, I did mention that Canadian Literary Associates and Commonwealth Publications were both headed by Phelan and his wife in Part I.

David said...

While the mention of scam or scandal certainly draws more interest to your readers, the content of your article however suggests otherwise. You see I am an author and before there demise. I was considering commonwealth publications as a publisher and yes I am glad that I didn’t spend the 4,500.00 to see my work in print just to have the company go bell up. Maybe that is why I can look at this scenario a little more objectively.

I had the pleasure of taking a grand tour of Commonwealth, several in fact as I like to do my research before jumping into a transaction and I must say it was a hub of activity. The things that I had especially taken notice of were the number of books being produced and even the shipping department seemed to be flooded with work. I was impressed and a looking forward to seeing my “masterpiece” alongside those being shipped. Now as excited as I was even I understood that the likelihood of becoming a best selling author were slim to none. In fact look at the author John Grisham as he made him self a best selling author through ordering and purchasing his own book from stores across North America. You even mentioned several Commonwealth titles had movie options.

Ok again maybe I am being the devils advocate here but this did not have the workings of a scam, fraud or slick workings of a criminal mastermind as the intent to produce and market peoples work. You may be quit correct in suggesting that an effective business structure was not followed or perhaps even in place, along with pore decision making and legal battles draining operating capital, Commonwealth as any other company would be was doomed.

While never meeting Mr Phelan himself I could not tell you whether he was greasy or slimy but what I can tell you is that after seeing what I had seen the man had a dream of being able to help aspiring authors to get a foot in the door. As I recall the 4500.00 was a joined venture between author and publisher to assist in the production and marketing costs of 5000-10,000 books. I am wondering what it cost to produce 5,000 books. Can it be done for 1.00 per book or less?

In close I hate to see anybody’s dreams go up in flames but what I hate to see more is when people need to vilify an entrepreneur for pore business decisions. Is this the views of all ex-commonwealth staff? I would be interesting to see what some of them have to say about yourself especially after belittling the collective efforts of the company as you glorify your own.

Leigh Patrick Sullivan said...

I'm guessing that you are, in fact, a FICTION writer, since that little diatribe was pure non-sense. You took one tour of the office and that gives you better knowledge of the inner workings of the company that someone who worked there? In middle management? How strong your perceptive abilities must be. Spidey himself must be envious.

No offence intended, but you sound exactly like the authors I described in the article - easily fooled and led astray. Phelan, to be sure, was no lightweight - it was his cunning and charm that made his scam so successful for so long.

Mostly off the backs, bank accounts, and naivity of self-described 'writers' such as yourself.

As far as questioning my POV or, at the very least, my claims I make in the article, do a simple Google search on Commonwealth Publications, or Don Phelan - Edmonton.

There is certainly no shortage of evidence to solidify my story.
I stand by it, and resent any allegations of alterior motives.

Prove me wrong.

- Leigh.

David Ashely said...

Prove you wrong you say. A simply look at the definition of fraud is to deceive or use deception to for ones own gain. What I can see in this particular case there is no intent to deceive. The intent was to co-operatively produce books. The intent was obvious as there was both production staff and marketing staff along with a product being produced. Perhaps Mr. Phelan had some gain from this ordeal at the time but is that not why most Americans dream of developing their own business, to be there own boss and to enjoy the fruits of ones own labour? As criminal mastermind it would prove to be much more sensible to not use the capital form ones “scam” to purchase and staff a large printing press along with the multitude of other machines involved in the printing and distortion of mass market fiction and non-fiction alike.

As a business man I applaud Mr. Phelans attempts to keep the business running through creative solutions such as branching out and using existing equipment and supplies to supplement the income of the publishing company. Not to mention the drive and creativity to produce as you said yourself, one of the better of the Dianna books to be published.

Mr. Sullivan your unwarranted arrogance astounds me. There is no doubt in my mind that this business structure failed and failed again at the expense of many people and from the sounds of Mr. Esratis above comments including Commonwealth staff. However to suggest criminal activity is a whole other ballgame. So I pose the following questions to you. Again what is the cost per book to produce 5000-10000 mass market novels? Were there any writers at Commonwealth that were exempt from this Co-op fee? Did infact any of Commonwealths titles make it to the retailers’ shelves. What is the industry standard regarding retailers dated product? Did any of Commonwealth authors receive a royalty cheque? As a writer yourself you will like this one. What is the guarantee that as an unknown, un established author will sell more then a mere hand full of books outside there own sphere, let alone become a best selling writer? I know that is a hard one to swallow for all of us with our heads in the clouds but if all you write for is for fame and fortune then honestly that is all you deserve.

As you can clearly see form my list of questions yes I have read up on Commonwealth and the publishing industries many practices. The other item that I am sure you are well aware of is that yes the mention of scandal has a lot more weight with the media then pore decisions and demise of a legitimate business in a flawed industry.

I resent your distain toward myself and your fellow writers to suggest that they are easily duped into fraudulent schemes. If this in fact was the workings of criminal intent dare I ask why you worked there for as long as you did?

While it is quite unfortunate that people lost money and dreams were postponed but look at any number of failed business’ but it happens everyday. Ooh here is a trio of final questions that may help in this debate. Was there ever a criminal case in this matter there? If so what was the out come? Where is Mr Phelan today, Cayman Islands? And finally has Mr Phelan ever pursued legal matter of his own for slander. In short I am not making any judgments only observations and challenging those to see a story from all angles. There is not always an evil villain in every story but it sure helps sell it.


Leigh Patrick Sullivan said...

Good Lord man, at least have the good taste to know the facts before embarassing yourself. Phelan isn't American, neither was Commonwealth, so holding up your idea of the 'American dream' is irrelevant. And you speak of MY arrogance...?

I will try to address some of your points, starting with your repeated insistance to get an answer to the cost of a print run. Simply put, the point is moot. Out of the hundreds upon hundreds (thousands) of contracts signed and manuscripts received, only 3 or 4 titles achieved the full print run. 3 or 4! The vast majority never even made it to print, but those checks were cashed well enough.

As a matter of fact, Phelan stayed in the Edmonton area, but lost his marriage and his freedom due to death threats. Such is life when karma takes effect.

There were charges laid, but since Phelan was protected (the company could be sued, but not Phelan directly) he was sheltered. That is another major difference between Canadian and U.S. law. The only monies recovered went to the backlog of creditors.

Don Phelan ran a scam, took cash from the fooled, and got away with it. Given that you were fortunate enough to avoid that bullet, one has to wonder why you would be so eager to defend such a lowlife.

If you are truly that gullible, I'll make you the same offer that made Phelan rich: send me $4500 and I promise to print 10,000 copies of whatever manuscript you send me. When I don't follow through on the agreement and it become apparent that you have been taken, will you defend me then as you defend Phelan now?

- Leigh.

Leigh Patrick Sullivan said...

I will give you this- you are informed on some things regarding publishing and CP specifically. As far as your counter-offer, that brings us to the original point: Don Phelan never intended to pring 10,000 copies of ANY title, with the exception of a) the Diana biography, and b) the titles he had been ordered/sued to produce.

About the American/Canadian thing, rest assured (as per the title of my web site) I have far more admiration for the American spirit of 'go get'em' then the Canadian way of sitting back and expecting handouts at every turn. I guess that's what makes Albertans different. Kind of like a little bit of Americanism in the heart of Canuckland.

Perhaps pooling our resources would be more effective? Of course, I have my condition (which is on a completely different topic): check out the link for the Geert Wilders petition on my site and tell all of your Canadian friends to sign if they agree.

- Leigh.

bunnie_81 said...

Hello Leigh - I had never heard of the Commonwealth Publications fiasco before. I was searching for information on an author - Lynne Pembroke and her book "The Caterpillian Chronicles" - and noticed her publisher. Now that I think on it, the book itself does not have that eye-catching of a cover, so I wonder how Lynne Pembroke was affected by all this. She got published around '95/'95, and I hope she got money out of it. I'm an avid reader, and I know some local authors - they have to sweat and struggle to get their books out there. It's a damned shame that stuff like Commonwealth Publications happens, and the loss of the manuscripts, etc., afterwards. I hope people went away from your blog learning something, especially in regards to being alert to scam artists. Thanks for the great blog!


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