My Most Popular Blog Post of the Decade

*Originally published as a 3-part posting in 2008 titled The Commonwealth Publications Saga

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.

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.

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 every day 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.

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