5.19.2008

The Commonwealth Publications Saga Part I: A Scam Is Born

At one time or another, almost everyone dreams of becoming a published writer. Whether it is an essay for English class or a blog posting, the idea of our creation being read by the masses and thereby having our egos stroked has appealed to most of us.

For the majority, not achieving that goal doesn’t bother us to the point of distraction. We don’t become obsessed with getting our name in lights, and we certainly do not gauge our success in life by our writing. For us, it’s easy come, easy go. To quote the saying: A true writer writes for no one but himself.

But for some, especially those self-centered uber-creative types whose inflated self-worth has created a false value of writing expertise, repeated attempts and failures to have their life’s Master Work published creates something of a monster. Usually blaming the publishing houses for not recognizing true, undiscovered talent (if I had a dime for every ‘next Stephen King’ I spoke with…), they focus all of their narcissistic energies on their goal.

In the city of Edmonton, Alberta in the early 1990’s, there was one such man. His name was Donald Phelan, and what he built – and subsequently destroyed – left a long trail of broken promises and shattered dreams.

A self-professed author, Don Phelan wrote his masterpiece ‘The Tanaiste’. Repeatedly failing to get the interest of any major publishing house, Phelan hatched a plan. In 1993 or ’94, he created the Canadian Literary Agency and, with the help of some of his family and close friends began a series of mail outs and ad campaigns with the intent of signing as many authors as possible.

Legend has it that once Phelan signed an unsuspecting first-time author, he would move the writer on to a certain vanity publishing house for a cut of the profit. Vanity or ‘joint venture’ publishing are common terms used for an agreement whereby the author pays a portion of the publishing costs to the publisher. Read: scam.

While the intent was originally to create an avenue to publish his own book, the opportunity to make some serious cash appealed to Phelan, and soon he launched his own joint venture publishing house. CLA told its clients that they had found a publisher interested in their work. What the writers didn’t know was that CLA and Commonwealth Publications were essentially the same person: Don Phelan.

With a contract that typically called for $4500 to be paid by the author for what CP claimed to be a ‘portion’ of the publishing costs, authors – many of whom just weren’t quality writers at all – were given a chance to see their dreams become reality. After all, what’s a few thousand dollars to invest in yourself? Isn’t that a small price to pay for the vast marketing network Commonwealth says that it is part of?

Along with photocopies of rejection letters from legitimate houses, Commonwealth staff would mail out an offer sheet to prospective authors. The impression, of course, was that CP was the only publishing house willing to put your work into print.

Over a short amount of time, Commonwealth grew to a small yet impressive sized operation. A sales staff of six (that could only be described as slick) kept the contracts and the vital dollars flowing in. Since his family helped fund the company, Phelan made sure that nepotism was the rule. Many of the Phelan clan got a piece of the pie. Phelan’s brother Michael ran the marketing department, while his two sisters held vital yet otherwise meaningless positions for which they had little or no actual training or experience.

Things were good around the office. So good in fact, that the literary agency was all but forgotten in favor of the Commonwealth meal ticket. Hopeful and loose-pocketed writers were jumping on the CP bandwagon hook, line, and sinker. Mail delivery brought a new batch of checks, cash, and money orders. The company was growing, new distribution channels were opening up, and Commonwealth titles were available by some of the biggest wholesalers and distributors in the world. Some titles were even getting interest for being optioned out to Hollywood agents.

But like any scam, Commonwealth Publications was nothing but a house of cards. A few disgruntled authors who figured out that they had been had, along with the death of a princess, became the beginning of the end.

...to be continued in Part II: Black Clouds

1 comment:

Walter said...

You better keep writing now, I want to know the rest of the story. :)

His Name Was Steven