Dorrance Publishing Scam… or Not?

I recently received an email from an outfit called Dorrance Publishing regarding my textbook A Semester of Photoshop. The subject line of the email was the rather alarming “Your Copyright Registration with the Library of Congress” and I first assumed it was the Copyright Office informing me of a problem with my registration. A quick glance (after opening the email in a web browser, since Dorrance is one of those clueless entities that sends email in HTML-only format) was enough to reveal that Dorrance is some kind of publishing company kindly alerting me to the fact that my book is a “candidate for publication” with them.

An unsolicited email with an alarmist subject line and evasively-worded opening paragraph set off a few alarm bells here, to put it mildly. So off to the search engines I did go… and I was not disappointed. Here are a few choice samples:

Here’s the first part of the letter I received:

Dear Mark Stewart,

One of our researchers has discovered your manuscript titled, A Semester of Photoshop, registered with the Library of Congress and has forwarded your name to me as a possible candidate for publication with our company.

As an author, you are probably aware of (and perhaps have experienced) some of the problems of trying to get your work published by a commercial publisher. Just having your manuscript read by most commercial publishers is difficult and usually involves long delays.

If you’re a writer or copy editor you might find it hard to believe that a mess like this came from anyone in the publishing industry. If you’re an amateur investigator of online scams, however, you’re probably nodding to yourself because you know the target audience for this letter is not someone familiar with the proper use of commas or the conventions for writing book titles (the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA specify italics for book titles while the AP – somewhat quaintly – suggests quotation marks, possibly as a holdover from the days of teletype machines that couldn’t print in italic). Quite the opposite, in fact. And a quick perusal of the links above would confirm your suspicion.

Let’s have a look at the triggers, shall we?

  • Deliberately alarm-inducing email subject line.
  • They got my name wrong. I’m not "Mark Stewart".
  • Unpublishable-quality grammar, punctuation and formatting. In a letter from a "publisher".
  • Document footer states "You are receiving this email because you agreed to receive information about Dorrance Publishing", which is an outright lie.
  • Finally, Unsolicited Commercial Email – commonly known as spam – is in itself suspicious*.

A little web research reveals that Dorrance Publishing is a vanity publisher, charging $7000 to $10,000 for small press runs. This is barely hinted at – to put it generously – in their letter (reproduced below).

Scam? It looks like a slam dunk case. But the interesting thing is that a web search finds a few people defending them, or at least saying they might not be a scam (which I grant may not be quite the same thing as defending them). The "Best Answer" at answers.yahoo.com coyly states that "A vanity press like Dorrance isn’t necessarily a scam…" (emphasis mine). Their reasoning seems to be that Dorrance does (eventually) tell you that it’s a vanity press where you pay for all costs and the "publisher" provides no marketing or sales assistance and doesn’t actually get your book into any book stores or online retailers. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with charging people to print books if that’s what they want to do. Fair enough.

My own view is that whether or not something is a scam depends on more than simple business mechanics – who pays whom, how much money is involved and what each party gets in return. The ethics of presentation and customer perception do matter. Selling homeopathic "medicine" and telling your customers that it contains nothing but water and will do nothing more than produce a placebo effect wouldn’t be a scam. But selling it while claiming it cures real disease processes would be. It can be completely legal and still be a scam, in my opinion**.

The spam email, misleading subject line, vague (in my opinion, deliberately opaque) wording and the bare-faced lie that I agreed to receive this information are enough to settle my verdict on Dorrance Publishing.

My letter from Dorrance Publishing

* I reported the Dorrance Publishing email as spam to the sending mail server’s host (gossamer-threads.com/nmsrv.com). I have not received any response and don’t really expect one: Businesses that send spam are usually wily enough to find a spam-tolerant provider to send it from. It’s worth noting that although Dorrance is in Pittsburgh and their web site, dorrancepublishing.com, is hosted by websitewelcome.com in the United States, the email originated from IP address 208.70.244.126, which is in Vancouver, Canada. Sending spam to addresses harvested from the Library of Congress copyright database would probably be illegal in the U.S. under the CAN-SPAM law; sending from Canada circumvents that difficulty. Clever? Devious? Indeed. A sign of a company whose ethics inspire confidence? Not so much.

** And in the opinion of the U.S. 1st Circuit’s ruling in McCabe vs Rattiner:
“Beginning with the statement itself, we observe that the word “scam” does not have a precise meaning.
As the district judge said in his bench ruling, “it means different things to different people …
and there is not a single usage in common phraseology.” While some connotations of the word may
encompass criminal behavior, others do not.
The lack of precision makes the assertion “X is a scam” incapable of being proven true or false.

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