Click this link. Right now. It's an article by journalist Penni Crabtree of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and tells the sorry story of San Diego-based vanity publisher Ed Johnson (I'm quoted in the article).
In 1998, Johnson founded Simon & Northrop Publishing, which charged writers thousands of dollars to publish, reneged on promises, and racked up a number of lawsuits and judgments before its articles of incorporation were suspended in 2004. In 2005, Johnson opened Martell Publishing, which operated in pretty much the same way. Martell's phone has been disconnected, and its website, online as recently as July, is gone.
Johnson's story is classic Writer Beware material (for more stories like it, see the Case Studies page of Writer Beware). He advertised for authors in out-of-state newspapers and in the Yellow Pages. He ran his publishing operation out of one room in a converted motel; according to a former employee, he used pseudonyms and told lies to make authors think he ran large publishing houses. Authors say he took their money and didn't produce books, or produced books riddled with errors and formatting mistakes (one author got his "published" book in a spiral binder). When authors asked questions, or pressed for information ,or got angry, Johnson simply vanished--not returning phone calls, not answering emails or letters. He also didn't pay his bills. Authors and creditors sued, resulting in a number of court judgments.
Over the years Writer Beware received occasional questions about both Simon & Northrop and Martell. Based on what writers told us (especially the fact that they found the companies through ads), we were pretty certain they were vanity publishers. But believe it or not, we never got a single complaint about either publisher.
This may seem strange, given the apparent egregiousness of Johnson's behavior, but I can think of a couple of possible reasons. First, by running "writers wanted" ads, Johnson ensured that the writers who contacted him were among the most inexperienced and least knowledgeable--especially ripe, in other words, to be taken advantage of, and less likely to complain.
Second, as vanity publishers go, Johnson doesn't seem to have been especially prolific. Simon & Northrop registered copyright for just 27 books over its six years of existence; Martell didn't register any copyrights, but a former employee estimates that 40 or 50 authors were left in the lurch when the company vanished. Compare this with close to 300 victims for scam literary agent/vanity publisher Martha Ivery, several hundred for scam agent/vanity publishers Charles and Dorothy Deering, and thousands for fraudulent vanity publishers Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing. Since Writer Beware typically hears only from a tiny fraction of people who are hooked by any given scheme, the smaller and more stealthy schemes are much more likely to fly beneath our radar.
This illustrates how vital it is to make a complaint if a publisher--or an agent, or an editor--does you wrong. If any of the authors who won judgments against Johnson had contacted Writer Beware or Preditors & Editors, we'd have been able to list the publisher--with a "not recommended" on P&E, or an Alert on the Writer Beware website. Writers researching the publisher on the Internet might have found these listings, and thought twice about sending their money.
We've got a file on Johnson now. If he starts up again under a different name, we're hoping we'll hear about it.