Zombie Authors or Zombie Publishers?

The term "Zombie Banks" was coined (I believe) in the 1990's by western analysts who accused the Japanese of prolonging their financial crisis by keeping dead banks going with government support. Funny how the same analysts have so little to say now that it's their own life savings at risk. I'm using the term "Zombie Publishers" in this context, no offense intended to fans of zombie novels or real dead zombies. A zombie publisher is a publisher whose acquisitions editors all gave up the ghost (or their principles) years ago and nevertheless continues to publish new titles. The real question is whether these titles are being written by zombie authors.

A couple weeks ago I received a charming e-mail, which I'll gently parody below to give you the flavor:

My name is Mark Twain and I am a writer for Sardine Publishing in
New York, NY. I'm currently putting together a book and I require your help! There is no charge to assist us with this book, which I'm sure will be mutually beneficial to both parties. The planned title is "The Guide To Publishing Your Own Book With Print on Demand: A Recipe For Success That Will Turn Any Author Into A Major Trade Publisher". Here's the deal:

I'll send you a list of questions, and then I'll rewrite your answers as a case study. The resulting case study will be reproduced in the book along with your brief bio, company and contact information. Plus, you'll receive a one free copy of the book for participating (further copies can be purchased at a discount).

When the book is ready for press, you'll get a further chance at fame if you contribute a foreword and testimonials. It goes without saying that by promoting this book you'll be promoting yourself. Please get back to me if you are on-board so I can rush you the questions.

So what's wrong with this business model? I don't begrudge anybody trying to make a living, but when a publisher sets out to create inferior content on a deadline, it screams "Zombie" at me. I know enough about the subject in question to be very certain that a journalistic approach by a zombie author without any knowledge or experience will result in a frightening book that causes more damage to the buyer than the mere purchase cost. In some cases, the aspiring writer may in fact be transformed into a zombie author by following the book's brain dead tactics. I'd prefer if publishers who are set on making money from gullible dreamers would stick to something less harmful, like "How To Buy Your Own Tropical Island." As long as the book explains that the first step is saving a lot of money, it isn't going to destroy the life of the average reader.

It wouldn't have occurred to me to publish a rant about zombie publishing techniques if I hadn't read a short Frank R. Stockton novel "Rudder Grange" over the weekend, which included the following passage:

Eupemia and I once wrote a book, this was just before we were married, - in which we told young married people how to go to housekeeping and how much it would cost them. We knew all about it for we had asked several people. Now, the prices demanded for a yearly rental for a furnished house, by the owners and agents to whom I've been speaking, were in some cases, more than we had stated a house could be bought and furnished for!

That Stockton would include such a humorous description of how-to authorship in a collection of stories he wrote in the late 1800's goes to show that this zombie publishing is hardly a recent phenomena.

Zombified trade publishers crank out many more harmful how-to books than even the weakest self publishers by following this basic publishing formula:

Step #1 - Find a zombie writer who can meet deadlines
Step #2 - Refer the zombie to successful titles on the subject for "reference"
Step #3 - Flesh out the bones with inapplicable pages full of fat
Step #4 - Add graphic elements and factoids to taste
Step #5 - Print, rinse and repeat

I've frequently seen this basic model promoted as a way to get rich quick publishing eBooks, but I also encountered it presented as a system for generating passive income at a local entrepreneurial event a couple months ago. The basic formula was:

Step #1 - Write to a bunch of Internet "gurus" and ask them to contribute articles
Step #2 - As soon as one bites, write to more gurus saying that guru #1 is your slave so they should drink the Kool Aid as well
Step #3 - Combine the contributions with a sexy title and a high price
Step #4 - Get the gurus to promote the launch for you on their blogs
Step #5 - Publish as eBook (or podcast or audio book), rinse and repeat

Books slapped together from solicited contributions tend to read like commercials for the products and services of the contributors, which goes to show that the contributors aren't stupid, and may not be zombies themselves. Another constant of such books is that they are unfailingly inspirational, unlike you-know-who. And books that proclaim "Anybody can do it" are far more popular than books that caution "If you do everything right, you'll have a fighting chance." If you don't believe me, just check a bestseller list.

I recommend Harlan Ellison's turnip truck rant embedded below for anybody who isn't offended by salty language:


Gary Roberts said...

Perhaps we can add to the ranks of Zombie publishers those people who rip Google Books, do a short re-processing dance under the full moon and sell them as digital reproductions on Ebay?

I think the idea of a publisher who is not really publishing anything of their own ranks somewhere in the realm of the Zombies. At best.

Some profess to actually have done the work themselves... having just offered my first digital facsimile PDF, I say Piffle on them!

Morris Rosenthal said...


Back in the early days of the Internet, when I used to contact people who ripped off my site as if they were normal human beings, I was surprised by their sense of entitlement and achievment. Their reactions amounted to:

"I worked all afternoon copying your site and adding ads, and I think it came out better than yours."

Clearly, they believed writing grows on trees somewhere. And in some case, I'm sure they felt it was the first "honest" work they did in their lives:-)


Bernie Malonson said...

Morris, nice post (enjoyed your book to by the way). I think in many ways it all comes down to how you arrived at the idea of self publishing in the first place.

For writers it is getting their work into print. For publishers it is about cost effectiveness and making money.

The money flows to the writer seems to be the mantra, and while agreeing with the idea, it is the publisher who is taking on the risk and putting the money on the table.

In a purely Darwinian model, all writers should self publish and let the marketplace sort things out.


Bernie Malonson