5.21.2008

The Commonwealth Publications Saga Part II: Black Clouds

The ad in the Edmonton Journal read: ‘North America's fastest growing mass market publisher requires Public Relations professionals.’ Having just moved to town, I was looking for a fresh start and a new direction. Like many of the authors I would come to know, I took a fateful chance on the small Edmonton publisher.

In March, 1997, I interviewed with Faye Hillman at the offices of Commonwealth Publications, Inc. Impressed with the atmosphere, I took an instant liking to the surroundings. Staff was buzzing from one office to another, phones were ringing, the walls were covered with impressive book-promoting posters, and the back warehouse held racks containing original manuscripts as well as row upon row of pallets full of already-printed novels.

The interview itself, however, was quite bizarre. A pleasant if not docile woman, Ms. Hillman seemed not to know how to conduct an interview. She seemed unprepared and unsure of what to do from one moment to the next. In short order, I became the one keeping the conversation afloat, even offering suggestions as to what questions should be asked. Indeed, an interesting first impression.

The next day I received a call back from Faye. It took me a moment to realize who she was on voicemail when she referred to herself as ‘Lorraine Phelan’ – Don’s wife. Odd, I thought, but stranger things.....

Upon arrival at the Commonwealth offices I was greeted by Lorraine and escorted upstairs to meet publisher and top C.P. poobah Don Phelan and his right hand man, a friendly, rotund, chain-smoking Australian expatriate named Ken Malloy. I thought the first interview was bizarre, but that was nothing compared to this adventure. While I recounted my experience in P.R. and marketing, Phelan seemed more interested in the fact that I am of Irish descent. As I quickly found out, if you wanted a job at CP it helped to be Irish (even if ‘only a Protestant’).

I was told that there had been three new jobs created in the P.R. department and was offered one as something called an ‘Author Liaison Officer’. It should have been called ‘Author Complaint Department’. Unknown to me at the time, the position was borne out of necessity. Someone had to hold the wolves at bay.

There were three of us hired as A.L.O.’s. On the very first day, we were given brand new desks and computers, all new stationary, email and voicemail set-up by noon. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that myself and my two new A.L.O. partners were given the same slick treatment used so many times (and so effectively) on numerous authors. The top brass had their presentation skills down pat.

We chose our own territories of responsibility. I was to look after the needs of writers from Canada, the central United States, and some areas overseas. As was the case with most of the staff, we had very little previous experience in the publishing field and had no knowledge of what was usual and what wasn’t.

At first, contact with the writers was mostly pleasant. The fact that there was a direct line of communication with Commonwealth put most at ease, and the three of us adapted to our roles quickly. As with all jobs that deal with the public, not everything was peaches and cream. There was grumblings of a few writers who had heated disagreements with Phelan, and some whispers of lawsuits. Expected, we were told, and not at all unusual for a publishing house.

As the days became weeks, some things became apparent. The lack of coordinated marketing and advertising plans became glaring, and quickly explained as just part of being a small business. So low key was the marketing effort on the part of CP, our chief duty quickly became scheduling book signings for our authors in their local areas. We were even given a $10 per event bonus on top of our average pay. Only a few titles gained any kind of notoriety, and did so mostly via the hard work of the author.

Under the breath questions started traveling between staff members. With all of the new contracts, where was the money going? Sure, Phelan had continued to expand his company. The one, slow-producing Docutech machine was badly outdated and poorly maintained, so C.P. went ahead and bought its own expensive Heidelberg printing press.

This was a dual-purpose solution: it gave the P.R. department ammunition they could use to try to instill a positive ‘big-boy’ image for C.P. within the industry, and it gave the Liaison officers a short-term tool to keep the authors appeased. We could tell them in all confidence that the notorious backlog in the production schedule will be cleared up in no time with the new monster press. The spin was passed on.

*(What actually happened turned out quite different. In the fall of 1997, Phelan ended up forming yet another sister company to Commonwealth; a printing company built around the Heidelberg called Bardes Press. It also failed.)

In June Commonwealth took a shot at the big time. Massive capital was poured into a huge display at the BookExpo ’97 trade show in Chicago. The largest industry trade show in North America, Phelan intended on making a splash. A group of us were chosen to represent the ‘fastest growing mass market publisher’ on the continent. Ironically, previous legal entanglements prevented Don Phelan from making the trip himself, leaving his brother Michael to run the show in the Windy City.

We were making contacts, signing contracts, and creating a small buzz in Chicago. We met with authors and distribution reps over dinner and late night scotch. We discussed second and third novels. We made grandiose plans for movie options. To those in attendance, Commonwealth Publications was the new, upstart player in the publishing game.

Unknown to the blissfully unaware representatives in Chicago, while we were busy schmoozing with industry professionals in McCormick Place, regaling them with tales of ‘the small publishing house that could’, the first wave of lawsuits were underway back home.

The storm had begun.

…to be continued in the final chapter: Implosion

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His Name Was Steven