Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Venerable Vanity Publisher Vantage Press Closes Its Doors

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

You may have heard that Vantage Press, one of the USA's oldest vanity publishers, closed its doors at the end of 2012. PW reported on this in December:
In a letter to creditors received by PW, law firm Hendel & Collins of Springfield, Mass. writes, “Vantage does not have sufficient revenue to sustain itself as a going concern. It has, therefore, ceased all business operations.” The Web site and phone for Vantage are down and all inquiries are being directed to Hendel & Collins partner Joseph B. Collins in Springfield. The letter cites “substantial” liabilities to general and unsecured creditors against which Vantage has few assets.
Vantage was found in 1949 as a classic vanity press operation, with authors paying a premium to the company to print and bind their books. Like so many vanity publishers, however, Vantage engaged in deceptive advertising. In 1958, the FTC issued an order prohibiting the company from claiming that it was selective and that it aggressively promoted its books. In 1977, a class action lawsuit was brought against Vantage for similar misleading claims. The courts eventually awarded 2,200 authors more than $3.5 million in punitive damages.

(For a fascinating and detailed discussion of the arguments and counter-arguments in the case, see this article by Jonathan L. Kirsch. The dispute about what a publisher is and isn't, and what should be defined as publishing--as opposed to printing--will seem very familiar to observers of newer vanities like PublishAmerica.)

In recent years, Vantage had attempted to adapt to the changing publishing landscape by re-branding itself as a self-publishing service, while still charging the same enormous fees. The company was purchased in late 2009 by investment banker David Lamb, who set out to upgrade Vantage's systems. Among other initiatives, he added trade publishing imprints Vantage Point Books and Andover Press, and arranged for Vantage books to be distributed by Ingram Publisher Services. (As of this writing the Vantage Point website is still live, though I've seen a report from one Vantage Point author who was told by Ingram that, per instructions from Vantage's lawyers, books from the imprint are no longer being shipped.)

Signs of trouble began to appear in 2012. Sometime in the summer, Vantage quietly re-located from Manhattan to Great Barrington, Mass., presumably in an effort to save money. According to self-publishing watchdog Mick Rooney of The Independent Publishing Magazine, a number of staffers left the company at around the same time. And in October, Mick started to receive complaints about communications problems, publishing delays, and payment delays.

Even so, the company's sudden collapse caught just about everyone by surprise--including its authors, many of whom hadn't even known about the move to Massachusetts. Some authors apparently were notified of the closure, but many, if not most, were not. As Rooney reported in December,
The authors I've heard from are clearly, deeply upset, angry and confused as to what is going on at Vantage Press, and understandably, following continued non-communication from the company by phone and email, have begun to record complaints with their legal authorities, online watchdogs and organisations like BBB, Ripoff Report and Work From Home Watchdog.
For Rooney, Vantage's demise is "a further sign that the heyday of self-publishing providers with a paper-centric model is dead and buried." I tend to agree. (Are you listening, Author Solutions?)

In the past couple of weeks, lawyers for David Lamb (representing Lamb personally--not the corporation) have begun sending out an update on the company's status, confirming that Vantage has ceased business operations, has no funds, and will not be making royalty or other payments (or, presumably, refunding authors who've paid for books that were in production at the time of closure). (Click here for a .pdf of the update.) Attached to the update is an Assignment and Release Agreement by which, in return for a release of rights, the author
irrevocably releases and discharges Vantage from all debts, claims, actions, demands, causes of action, suits, accounts, covenants, contracts, agreements, damages, and any and all claims, demands and liabilities whatsoever of every name and nature, both in law and in equity, that Author holds against Vantage, its affiliates, agents, attorneys, officers, directors, and employees, expressly including claims for royalties now owed, earned, or as may be earned in future sales, up to and including the date of this Agreement.
Vantage also promises to provide a full accounting of sales, and to return source and production materials for books that were in process at the time of the closure but haven't yet been published--but only if authors sign and return the Release. Clearly this is an effort to head off not just payment demands, but lawsuits (one possible reason that authors have a very small window for return of the Release: just until January 31).

Vantage's contract required an exclusive grant of rights, so getting a release is crucial for writers who want to re-publish their books--even if they plan to self-publish. However, although I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that a class action lawsuit is a real possibility in this case, and if you sign the release, you won't be able to participate. Nor will you be able to sue individually.

On the other hand, even if there is a suit, the chances of getting your money back are slim--so you may feel that getting a quick rights reversion is the best outcome for you. If Vantage goes into bankruptcy, it's likely that your rights will be tied up until the court decides to release them, as Vantage's contracts will be considered potential assets that could be sold to satisfy creditors (US courts don't typically honor bankruptcy and liquidation clauses in publishing contracts). For more information on publisher bankruptcies, see here and here.

Another question, to which I don't know the answer (any attorneys who are reading, please chime in in the comments): if Vantage does go into bankruptcy, will the Release be honored by the courts, given that it was (presumably) sent out in order to reduce the company's liabilities after it closed its doors?

Whatever their situation, I urge Vantage authors to get legal advice from an attorney who has experience in publishing law, before deciding what to do. On the Legal Recourse page of Writer Beware, there are some suggestions about how to go about this, including links to lawyer referral services.

Rooney has established Vantage Press Authors Together, a Facebook group for Vantage authors to share their experiences. I'll be updating this story as information comes in.

10 comments:

Michael N. Marcus said...

While many VP authors were surprised by the move from NY to MA, it was not a secret.

VP folks told me about it at Self-Publishing Book Expo on October 27 and promotional literature distributed at the Expo showed the new address.

Jack Eason said...

Yes, there is a god after all! The sooner all vanity press closes, the sooner we 'indies' will be happy.

Mick Rooney said...

Thanks for covering this, Victoria. I think it is a case of the devil and the deep blue sea. I can't see any of the authors regaining fees paid to VP, and, crucially, there is no guarantee any ruling by a judge will seek to uphold the Assignment & Release Lamb is granting VP authors.

If we were talking a few hundred dollars, my advice would have been to cut their losses and get their books back in circulation during 2013. However, we are talking losses into the thousands for almost all the authors, and I see little likelihood that another company will move for VP with nothing to offer in the way of real assets.

While I take Michael's point on board about VP's location move since late summer, the company was still signing authors and processing fees during the autumn when it had shed much of its staff and had neither the resources nor ability to deliver on terms of the contract. It was only when I and Jim Milliot of PW went public with the information we had that David Lamb was forced to start contacting all authors. I am in possession of an email where Lamb admits to one VP author in early December that he was only contacting "straight shooters" about the closure of VP. That of course was before he pushed the matter out to his legal representative.

The VP Facebook group is still hearing from authors unaware of what was going on until the past 10 days. In my book, whatever about large publishing houses publishing authors with varying levels of sales and success - when you sign a contract and pay a fee - there should be no hierachy of authors when it comes to knowing the critical position of your business.

Doug Brunell said...

I agree with Mick on that one.

Shawn James said...

It was only a matter of time who needs expensive vanity publishing in a world where there's Lulu and Createspace? And who needs to spend thousands when you can self-publish on Kindle for Free?

Vantage was obsolete back in 2008. Most people who were smart enough realized they could save a ton of money by doing a little reseaarch.

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Deb said...

Every time I read about one of these vanity presses, or for that matter, a royalty-paying press, going under, I wonder about this: why is the reversion/bankruptcy clause the only one the courts seem to feel free to ignore? It doesn't make sense to me that they would enforce to the letter every last clause in a contract and ignore this one. Any attorneys, feel free to instruct me, 'cause I just don't get it.

Anonymous said...

With so many authors making it on their own through Kindle, without leeches like agents sponging their way to riches in an industry that they have rigged to suit their own ends, I foresee the whole publishing industry being reshaped, and for the better, very, very soon. I'm going the Kindle way. It's free, it's fair and it's not discriminatory. TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING RIP, YEH!

Robert said...

I agree with Shawn Jones's comment. While the intellectuals and insiders are scratching their heads and pretending to wonder how this could happen, it has been obvious for years that expensive vanity publishing would not longer be a viable business concern in a world where everyone has access to blogs, Kindle and a load of other ways of getting their writing out there. With instant and free online publishing, who is going to pay a fortune and wait a year or more to see their book in print? Why are people so surprised at this obvious development?

Mary Purpari said...

When I signed up, Lulu was not a given, Kindle didn't exist and VP had an A+ rating with BBB. I found out about the move to MA in November, after I did extensive publicity on my own (I should have sued for breach of contract before). I did request a termination, since the terms of the contract had long since expired, but I have heard nothing in regards. I did give them a 30 day period, but it has almost expired. We shall see...