A lot of you will probably already have heard of AuthorHouse's recent troubles. According to yesterday's Publishers Weekly, a Kansas jury has found the POD publisher guilty of publishing a book that libeled bestselling author Rebecca Brandewyne (Paperback Poison: the Romance Writer and the Hit Man by Brandewyne's ex-husband Gary D. Brock and his current wife, Debbie Brock). Despite the fact that AuthorHouse’s contracts contain a provision absolving the company of any liability for "loss, damage, injury, or claim to any kind or character to any person or property" resulting from the books it publishes, the jury held it liable, and ordered the company to pay $230,000 in actual damages. Punitive damages have yet to be awarded.
What does this tell us that we don't already know? Not much. It's not exactly a news flash that AuthorHouse doesn't read the books it publishes (not even when, as is apparently the case here, the author actually informs the company that the content may be libellous). Why should it? Whether you call it a vanity publisher or a self-publishing service, its services are provided to whomever is willing to pay--and apart from certain technical considerations, quality and content are irrelevant in a pay-to-publish model. Plus, AuthorHouse apparently believes it's protected not just by the waiver in its contract, but by the First Amendment. On that basis, the company is considering an appeal.
The implications, though, could be significant. If the verdict stands, will POD services feel the need to vet incoming manuscripts for libellous material--not to mention other lawsuit-inspiring problems such as plagiarism? What would happen if the PODs were forced to actually READ the manuscripts submitted to them? Imagine the additional staff they'd have to hire. Imagine the legal fees they'd incur for examining suspect works. Imagine the potential dent in profits. Imagine the fee hikes that might result! Imagine the companies that might shut their doors, feeling it wasn't worthwhile to continue under such a burden.
AuthorHouse isn't the only POD on the spot right now for not exercising adequate care with its product. Booksurge, a POD dogged by persistent reliability issues (which apparently have not been much improved by its recent purchase by Amazon), is also feeling some heat. The company and its parent are being sued by one of its clients for producing a book riddled with errors, typos, and out-of-sequence pages. The client, who happens to be a well-known local lawyer, is seeking $11 million in damages. Not only is Booksurge not reading the manuscripts it publishes, it evidently isn't proofreading them, either.
Writer Beware's favorite POD, PublishAmerica, is also on the hot seat (again. PA's previous brushes with the legal system include a successful arbitration action by one of its authors, and a trademark infringement suit by Encyclopedia Britannica over PA's use of the PublishBritannica name for its UK branch). According to documents filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the multitudinous relatives of Jacqueline Shumacher are suing her and PA for libel in connection with her book, White Trash Tales of the Paranormal. Yet another problem that might have been avoided by pre-reading, for yet another publisher that we know doesn't scrutinize the manuscripts it publishes.
Not that I expect that the arrogant people over at PA will be chastened. Despite proof to the contrary, they seem to believe themselves above the law. Don't look for them to start reading manuscripts any time soon, no matter what happens to AuthorHouse.
Edited to add: Over at Scrivener's Error, intellectual property attorney Charlie Petit has an entry about the AuthorHouse verdict.