Many of us have dreams of becoming a world-famous author - writing The Great American Novel, seeing our name in bookstores next to Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, and autographing hardbacks by the dozen. Of course, the reality is that most would-be authors aren't able to find a publisher willing to take a chance on them.

Presenting itself as a solution is PublishAmerica. It bills itself as an alternative to major publishers and print houses by encouraging first-time authors to sign up and let the company bear all the costs of printing, shipping, and publicizing their books.

PublishAmerica co-founder Larry Clopper claims his company is designed to support "first-time authors without a track record." The company's Web site is flush with testimonials.

However, other authors say PublishAmerica has taken their money and left them with little to show for it.

Paying to Play for Prose

Faced with the difficulty of finding a publisher, many frustrated writers turn to "vanity presses" or "author's mills." The authors pay to get their book printed and to market and promote it.

While a vanity press can be a boon to an author wanting to reach a small, specific audience, the mainstream publishing world looks down on vanity publishers as disreputable outlets for frustrated hacks who couldn't make it in the big leagues.

Philip Dolan, an aspiring author from Lee's Summit, Missouri, didn't see himself as a hack -- he just wanted to get his book published.

He contacted PublishAmerica in November 2004, and was encouraged by their claims that he'd see his book in "every brick and mortar bookstore" in the country, and the contract stated that PublishAmerica would "make the book available at all times."

He agreed to a contract, signing the rights to his manuscript over to PublishAmerica.

Although the company claims that it will do all the work when it comes to advertising and marketing its published works, Dolan spent $7,000 of his own money to promote his novel while waiting for confirmation that the book had hit the printers, he said.

He waited for months through repeated claims from the publisher that the book was available, only to find that it wasn't, because of apparent printing problems. He found this odd, given that PublishAmerica uses digital printing technology to ensure books do not go out of print.

"PublishAmerica will not reimburse me for my advertising expenses nor terminate the contract," said Dolan. His book, when he finally received a copy, was "riddled with errors," he said.

"I'm out $13,000 for advertising a book that could not be purchased because of their breach of the contract. I'm unable to seek a new publisher to print and sell my book," he said.

Many vanity presses use a publishing system called "print-on-demand" (POD). This means the publisher prints only as many copies as are ordered, as opposed to ordering a full print run and pushing the books out to be sold in bookstores.

This renders the book "incompatible" with bookstore sales, says science fiction author and PublishAmerica critic James D. McDonald.

"A book on a bookstore shelf is printed in the hope that a reader may see it and want it. A POD book is only printed after a customer orders it."

Despite its claims of legitimacy, PublishAmerica uses many of the same sales tactics as vanity presses, like encouraging the author to buy extra copies of the book to sell to their family and friends.

Author Eddie Bruce recently described the process in an online posting: "PublishAmerica solicits a list of up to 100 of the author's friends and family whom they bombard with pre-publication flyers offering discounted copies. The sting is in the book's cover price - anything from 25-50% above the going rate for a similar book - ensuring that the friends-and-family discount does not affect the publisher's profit."

Authors, meanwhile, get a "symbolic" $1 advance fee.

The print-on-demand model takes the burden of success off the publisher, since they don't have to push a book to see a return on their investment. It's up to the author to make sure their book gets out there, forcing them to spend money and time doing the job their publishing company is supposed to do.

War of Words

PublishAmerica's business model has ignited tremendous controversy in writing and publishing circles. On one side are those who think the company represents a chance for untested writers to break in to what Clopper terms an "elite circle" of famous authors and novelists.

In an article for Booktech Magazine, PublishAmerica's Clopper opines that the print-on-demand model represents the future of publishing.

"The book industry is simply following in the footsteps of the music and movie industries, and undergoing its own 'on demand' revolution. On-demand technologies will cause many industries to evolve their competitive advantages. Current book-printing methods are going the way of stone tablets and cave painting," he wrote.

Clopper's claims are supported by authors such as the interestingly named "Argile Stox." "In retrospect, PublishAmerica has given me a 'Masters Degree' of real world experience in the field of publishing regarding editing, proofing, book cover design, and marketing," Stox said.

Another PublishAmerica proponent is H.B. Marcus, the author of "Crispy" and "Parasites," who calls the complaints of other PublishAmerica authors "sour grapes."

Marcus is one of PublishAmerica's most ardent defenders on the Web and in print. In one post on PublishAmerica's message board, he boasted that "I've made the internet an uncomfortable setting for people to bash PA. It won't go unanswered."

On the other side, in addition to James McDonald, there is Lisa Maliga, whose encounter with PublishAmerica includes her shock at being told she'd have to buy back her own books in order to boost her sales figures:

"It leads me to wonder how the PublishAmerica authors are handling these urgings to purchase copies of their own work? Many will laugh it off, but even if a small percentage falls prey to the siren song of the equation 'More copies = more sales,' isn't it possible that bills will go unpaid, children's college funds depleted, bankruptcies filed, second and third mortgages taken, cars sold, credit cards maxed outall to support not the author, but the ... company?"

Linda Roberts was so enraged by her experiences with PublishAmerica that she founded a Web site, PublishAmericaSucks.

"I have had many authors come to me with their stories of how PublishAmerica has taken not only their dreams, but their confidence as well," Roberts said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com.

Roberts is one of many authors to file complaints with the Maryland Attorney General's office and the Better Business Bureau regarding PublishAmerica's conduct, but the Maryland AG declined to get involved, citing the conflict as a "dispute between businesses."

A "Travesty" of Revenge

A creative form of revenge against PublishAmerica was undertaken by famous author "Travis Tea." No, that's not a misprint. "Travis Tea" was a pseudonym cooked up by several science-fiction and fantasy authors who were incensed by this statement made on one of PublishAmerica's subsidiary sites, Author's Market:

"A second caveat is that science-fiction and fantasy writers have it easier. It's unfair, but such is life. As a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction."

The group of writers put together an intentionally bad novel called "Atlanta Nights," full of clichs, editing errors, and generally bad writing, and submitted it for publication to PublishAmerica.

The company promptly snapped it up and published it in December of 2004. The authors - including mastermind McDonald - revealed the scam in January of 2005, and PublishAmerica promptly revoked its acceptance the next day.

Dropping Dimes on a Dream Deferred

Although the Internet has opened PublishAmerica's business tactics to intense scrutiny and criticism, many writers still decide to take the chance that their book will be the one that "makes it." Many more who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in advertising become disillusioned with the lack of effective support from companies like PublishAmerica.

Editor's Note: This is hardly unique to vanity publishing. "Legitimate" publishers are also infamous for publishing a limited run of a title, doing nothing to support it and then promptly consigning it to the black hole of backlisting.

Further, aspiring writers need to be looking not for a publisher but for an agent. It is agents who know which editors to speak with at which publishing houses.