Canadian Vanity Publisher Disappears After Author Threats
Charles Mandle -- 5/18/98
Authors around the world are without royalties or even the rights to their own manuscripts after a notorious "subsidy" publisher in Edmonton, Alberta, went into hiding last week. Don Phelan, the controversial owner of Commonwealth Publications, refuses to disclose his whereabouts after allegedly being subjected to threats from disgruntled writers.
Phelan, however, may have a tougher time avoiding a class-action suit that is currently being prepared against him. Robert MacDonald, a copyright lawyer in Edmonton, says that over the last year, some 100 authors, mostly Americans, have approached him about the possibility of launching a suit against Commonwealth in an effort to recover the rights to their own manuscripts.
In the last year, Commonwealth has become the subject of complaints from authors worldwide who say that they have received no benefits. Most of Commonwealth's contracts were so-called joint ventures, in which authors paid the publisher $3000 to $5000 (U.S.) in return for 10,000 copies of their books, along with marketing, publicity and distribution services. Many authors actually received 100 or fewer copies of their books and little or no marketing.
Between 1994 and 1997, Commonwealth signed at least 537 authors from the United States, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand to its subsidy contracts. In the process, the company collected revenues of close to $2.5 million, according to a database obtained by this journalist. Phelan could not be reached for comment.
Stephen Capone of Scottsdale, Ariz., tells a typical story. In 1997, he paid Commonwealth $8000, expecting the publication of three books in return. To date, he's seen nothing. Nor has Perry Hassell of Poncos City, Okla., ever seen his two books after he sent the publisher $3800, which Commonwealth deposited on Dec. 1, 1997.
Phelan boasted of an annual budget of $6 million and a staff of 60. Commonwealth's website trumpeted sales of film rights, and asserted interest from such actors as Harrison Ford and Helena Bonham Carter, among others.
In late March, Phelan's publishing empire ground to a halt. The company suddenly shut its doors, leading 18 former staff to file suits in Alberta courts for back wages, vacation and termination pay. A local bailiff seized the printing press and other assets from the locked Commonwealth offices.Document searches turned up 51 lawsuits against Commonwealth or Phelan at various stages in the Alberta courts. Commonwealth also owes money to a variety of companies, including a printer, a paper supplier and a graphics house.
Marjorie Benson, a constable in the RCMP's commercial crimes division, said the matter is civil, not criminal. In the past year, Commonwealth has also been the subject of repeated complaints to the Better Business Bureau, The Writers Guild of Alberta, The Writers Union of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, among others.
To date, 17 Commonwealth authors have joined the class-action suit lawyer Robert MacDonald is preparing. He hopes to obtain manuscripts, authors' rights to their works and royalties from the publisher.
John Bilsland, Phelan's lawyer, said Phelan has started returning manuscripts. However, a letter from Phelan has come to light that shows the publisher is offering the return of manuscripts in exchange for protection against any legal actions. But Bilsland suggested many authors are interested in the arrangement Phelan has proposed, particularly since "they don't see the availability of money for damages."
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