Atlanta Nights: The Bad Book That Did Good
It can be difficult to make a living as an author. Even if you have the talent and persistence to write a great book, you still have to navigate the dangerous world of publishing. Vanity presses are a common danger for new authors. These presses require authors to pay up front to have their work published, and then do almost nothing to help sell the book. Many inexperienced authors have paid tens of thousands of dollars to vanity presses only to end up with a poorly-made book that can’t be distributed to bookstores. Veterans of the publishing industry have been warning new authors about vanity presses for a long time. And, in 2004, a group of science fiction writers led by James D. MacDonald got revenge on a vanity press by doing something they never would have done otherwise: intentionally writing a terrible book.
Their target was PublishAmerica, a small publisher that claimed to only accept high-quality work and to take care of their writers. In reality, PublishAmerica made almost all of its money from author’s fees. What really annoyed the writers, though, were some comments from the publisher’s blog that seemed to insult science fiction and fantasy. In one post, PublishAmerica wrote that “the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction.” Those were fighting words for MacDonald and the other writers, and they decided to test PublishAmerica’s supposedly high standards by writing a bad book and submitting it for publication. The result was Atlanta Nights.
As a hoax, Atlanta Nights was delightful. As a book, however, it is unreadable. Here’s a typical sentence, a description of one of the main characters: “She looked as calm and smooth as an unused jar of peanut butter before someone’s stuck the knife in (the creamy kind, not the crunchy, because her skin’s not lumpy like the lumps you get in crunchy peanut butter).” Besides being poorly written, the book is filled with grammatical and logical errors. For example, chapters 4 and 17 are exactly the same.
Nevertheless, the prank was a success: Atlanta Nights was accepted for publication on December 7, 2004. Having made their point, the writers decided not to have it published, and, after the hoax was revealed, PublishAmerica withdrew the offer of publication. Amusingly, the publisher declared that a more thorough review had determined that the novel did not actually meet their lofty standards. Atlanta Nights was later published elsewhere, with all of the proceeds going to an emergency medical fund for science fiction writers. In 2014, PublishAmerica changed its name. It no longer accepts manuscripts from new authors.