Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 4

The story so far: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

In our eight years of running Writer Beware, Ann and I have seen a lot of scams. Hill’s (since we don’t know his real name, I’m going to continue to call him that) is one of the cruelest. All scammers promise the possibility of success, but Hill did more--he promised success itself.

Hill’s scam is also atypical, in a number of respects.

- It didn’t make a lot of money. £80 for six months/£129 for a year is chickenfeed. Even assuming that Hill had 300 clients (that’s as many as Martha Ivery/Kelly O’Donnell--who incidentally had a similar mania for aliases--scammed in her entire career), the total take wouldn’t have been more than £40,000-45,000. We know of other scams that charge a low starting fee, but they always involve more fees later on, or entrap truly enormous numbers of victims. I haven’t found any evidence that Hill charged additional fees--in fact, I’ve heard from clients who were allowed to re-up for free, or who were taken on with no fees at all. It’s also my belief that he couldn’t have had a large number of clients, because...

- The scam was extremely labor-intensive. Scammers typically try to save effort and maximize return by contacting clients as infrequently as possible, or by using canned documents that can be sent to everyone (The Literary Agency Group, for instance, employs such an extensive library of pre-written emails that it rarely has to make an individual response, even to casual questions). Hill did duplicate a lot of his material--but it was a LOT of material (the assessments are three pages long, and some of the fake publisher comments are close to a page), and documents were carefully customized, which often involved adding or switching around a good deal of text. Clients got weekly bulletins and monthly reports--and then there were the emails. Some clients report receiving more than a hundred emails from Hill. It’s hard to imagine how a lone individual could maintain such a level of effort for more than a few dozen clients at a time--and I am convinced that the scam was the work of one man, with occasional help from a wife or girlfriend. Of the agency’s claimed thirteen staff members, only Hill and Ashton were ever verified to exist, and all the agency’s writings bear the unmistakable imprint of a single hand.

- Hill made himself personally available. The face-to-face meetings, the phone calls, the prompt email responses--all are incredibly unusual for a scammer. Scammers sometimes try to provide the appearance of availability--for example, New York Literary Agency gives clients a number they can call, but all they get is an answering machine, and the reply (if it comes) arrives in the form of an email. But they shy away from actual contact. Many scammers are almost pathological in their efforts to avoid communicating with their victims.

So what was the purpose of this incredibly convoluted and intricate pretense? Was it an attempt to make easy money? If so, it was a lot of work for a lousy return. Was it a genuine effort by an amateur agent, at least to start? Conceivably, but it employed scam tactics from the beginning. Was it a money laundering scheme or a tax dodge? Perhaps, but it seems self-defeating to make it so complicated.

We’ll probably never know. I suspect, though, that some degree of mental illness was involved--at the very least, an obsessive desire for domination, psychological manipulation, and control. Hill got off on feeding fictions to his clients, on making them trust and depend on him, on creating an imaginary world in which he was the ruler of their dreams, able to lift them up with the promise of a publishing contract or dash them down with news of its rescission--all at his pleasure. This is suggested not just by the magnitude of his falsehoods, but by the extraordinary lengths to which he was willing to go in order to maintain them--in some cases, obtaining actual publishing contracts and altering them to make them look as if they came from a major British publisher*. Think Jim Jones, or Chuck Diederich. Think Unification Church.

What prompted the decision to terminate the agency? The stated reason, negative information on the Internet, is not convincing. Before the debacle, there was actually very little online information about Hill--the thread at Absolute Write contained only a few reports of fees, and Hill’s threats of litigation had removed discussion of the agency from other websites. Maybe Hill got bored. Maybe the scam became too elaborate and burdensome to maintain. Whatever the reason, Hill tore down his own house of cards--and by sending clients to Absolute Write, by assuming the “privateeye” identity, he did so in the same way he had built it: through deceit, misdirection, and manipulation.

And yes, I’m sure he’s reading this, and yes, I’ll bet he’s laughing. But here’s a final thought. Remember that convincing piece of documentation offered by the privateeye alias--the postcard from Sunshine Literary Agency encouraging members of a UK writers’ group to submit their manuscripts to Sunshine? Remember the similarity between Sunshine’s contract and Hill’s? Maybe Hill (whose bio, in a company profile document, wishfully describes him as a multi-published author) was an aspiring writer who got rooked by Sunshine. Maybe he decided to do the same thing to others, using Sunshine as a template. Maybe it’s the old story: the abused seeking revenge by becoming the abuser.

And you know what? At the end of it all, he’s still unpublished.

Believe it or not, the scam continues to unfold. As of this writing, several clients have received reimbursement checks from Hill (dated forward to October 5, so we don’t know yet if they will bounce). Hill has also promised a “letter of response to allegation and comment.” I can’t wait.

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* Hill’s alterations weren’t enough to hide the fact that the contract had originally been written for the US market. But in the kind of coincidence you could never write into a novel, I’d just received the very same contract for comment, so I was actually able to identify the publisher it belonged to. I contacted the publisher, who directed me to the forms-for-sale website from which the contract had been downloaded.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 3

The story begins: Part 1. And continues: Part 2.

The news about Hill & Hill’s closure broke on two fronts: in private email from Claire Ashton to Hill clients, and on Absolute Write, with this post from someone calling himself privateeye. The post contains damaging, if vague, allegations about the operation and a number of people said to be associated with it.

I was curious about privateeye's reference to a connection between Hill & Hill and US-based fee-charger Sunshine Literary Agency (Writer Beware has a file on Sunshine going back to 1999), so I contacted him privately. He assured me that Hill’s contract was practically identical to Sunshine’s; the connection, he claimed, was a Hill staff member, Jeff Miles, who’d previously worked with Sunshine. Later, he provided me with a convincing piece of documentation: a copy of a postmarked postcard addressed to a UK writers' group from Sunshine's owner, Pia Hoffman, endorsing her "colleague" Jeff Miles and inviting submissions to her agency. A trip to my Writer Beware file cabinet confirmed the similarity between the two contracts--which was intriguing, as Sunshine’s contract is distinctive, not something likely to have been downloaded off the Internet or copied from a book.

Meanwhile, at AW, the discussion had turned to a guy named Stuart Hades, who’d contacted several clients as part of Hill’s “buddy system,” whereby clients were linked by email to chat, share news, etc. No one was sure whether Hades was actually a client, or an agency staffer posing as one. Given the revelations of the previous days, clients felt it wouldn’t be surprising if he turned out to be Hill himself.

As it happens, a Stuart Hades had showed up at AW more than a year earlier, and left a rather positive message about Hill & Hill. Claiming to have been alerted to the discussion by friends, he abruptly reappeared, emphatically denying that he was the same Stuart Hades who was allied with Hill. This was not a smart move. One of the AW moderators noticed something that ordinary AW members can’t see: Hades’s IP address...which was the same as privateeye’s. It was a static IP address, too (assigned to a specific computer as its permanent address on the Internet), as opposed to a dynamic IP address (assigned on a temporary basis from a pool of addresses). All of which strongly suggested that posts from privateeye and Stuart Hades were originating from the same location.

Suddenly, privateeye was looking a lot less trustworthy. Before anyone could call him on it, though, he torpedoed himself. As the situation unfolded, he’d struck up a lively correspondence with a number of Hill clients--sharing experience, offering advice, asking questions. With so much on his mind, maybe it’s not surprising that he slipped up...by signing one of his emails “Regards, Christopher Hill.” It hardly seemed credible that the person who’d helped break the news of the agency’s demise, who’d shared documentation with me and others, could be Hill himself--but guess what I found when I compared privateeye’s/Hades’s IP address to the IP addresses in the headers of emails from Hill and Ashton? That’s right: they were identical.

Not, perhaps, irrefutable proof that Hades, privateeye, Hill, and Ashton are all the same person. But what are the odds that Hill and a disgruntled client would be sharing a computer?

It looked very much as if Hill, having scuttled his agency, was still playing head games with his former clients. And with me, because I did take him seriously for a while, largely because of that postcard. (Which, by the way, I still believe is genuine. More about that later.)

Outed on AW, privateeye vanished in a puff of smoke. However, he apparently didn’t realize that he’d also been outed as Claire Ashton, and couldn’t resist one more attempt at manipulation. The following day, clients received emails signed by Ashton (sent, again, from that telltale IP--which, incidentally, traces not to Spain but to the UK), promising refunds of their agency fees. “It is understandable,” Ashton wrote, “that some of you may think that this offer is not genuine...Although matters have become confused and inappropriate we will be issuing these refunds. If you are not happy with this there is little else we can do.”

Cue violins.

So there you have it: the where, when, how, and possibly the who. All that remains is the why. Some speculations, in my final post.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 2

For context, see Part 1.

Hill’s scam was an elaborate one, featuring personal contact with clients and voluminous written documents.

On intake, clients received a detailed assessment of their manuscripts, covering elements such as target audience, plot structure, and grammar. Some of the assessments I’ve seen were individual, but most were based on a template that was customized for each client. All were written in dense, convoluted prose marked by repeated errors and stylistic oddities--dropped prepositions, missing apostrophes, use of commas rather than conjunctions to link phrases--and featuring such inscrutable pronouncements as “As to the market this really is led by the genre and the opportunities we perceive we would have approaching publishers that either specialise in this genre or have openings.”

A submission package was then created, consisting of a fulsome introduction, also customized from a basic template (“Hill and Hill Literary Agency is proud to present the new face of fiction in [client]. Mr. [client] has a passion in his life, the passion for writing...”); a client-authored synopsis; and several writing samples plucked at random from the manuscript. Clients received monthly submission reports listing the publishers approached (more or less the same list for everyone--in other words, for any given manuscript, most of the publishers were not appropriate), with the manuscript’s current status noted in official-sounding language: “In-House Editor reviewing,” “Full manuscript with Sub-Editor, response promised by 9th July”, or simply “Submission package under review.”

As time went on, the reports acquired publishers’ comments--sometimes brief rejections, but more often, detailed critiques indicating interest and continued consideration. I’ve seen a lot of these over the past few days, and they’re obviously bogus--not just because different clients sometimes got the exact same comments, not just because comments are attributed to publishers that, because of the inappropriateness of the material, would have rejected without explanation--but because they’ve clearly all been written by the same person, in the same style and with the same errors as the assessments. The author also slips up by employing UK spelling and word usage for comments supposedly from American publishers. A few examples:

“The work is vaguely original, definitely in the published world. The work is well written (perhaps to [sic] well written for this genre), and gives clear definition on where we are going here. Characters, though lacking in depth are well constructed, the necessary ingredients for the genre are narrated well.”

“In expressing development of character and narrative, the author has allowed the reader an attraction that could envelope [sic] most post teen age groups. Careful deconstruction of the narrative is essential as the author sometimes fluctuates in his descriptive language.”

“The nature of the manuscripts [sic] appeal is the theme, the cast of characters that are interwoven with this particular genre. We found many manuscripts that were of immediate comparison as in the media and a fair few documented comparisons in novel form. There has [sic] been a fare [sic] few manuscripts submitted to us and our sister companies along such lines, few have made impact on any reader, certainly publication has never been considered, though the main theme has normally been more complex, written for a certain audience, that has little impact home or abroad.”


Very much unlike the typical literary scammer, Hill was willing to make himself personally available to his clients. They spoke with him on the phone, often at length. They received quick responses to emailed questions and concerns. Some even met him face to face, describing him as a good-looking, well-dressed man who answered their questions in a convincing manner and appeared to know a lot about the publishing industry. Those who had telephone contact with Hill’s associate, Claire Ashton, found her equally pleasant and helpful.

Hill didn’t stop at fabricating publishers’ comments. He also fabricated publication offers. In the fall of 2005, a number of clients were informed that Crown had made a “verbal offer” on their manuscripts. These offers later evaporated for reasons never fully explained. Then, in July and August of this year, Hill again began promising clients that offers were imminent, naming some of the biggest publishers and production companies in the business--Spyglass Entertainment, HarperCollins, Penguin, Orion, William Morrow, Kensington, and, once again, Crown. He gave specific dates for contract delivery: September 5, September 15, September 20. Certain clients were told that a woman named Karen Watson Sharpe, whom Hill described as “a contracted finder” for whichever publisher was allegedly contemplating an offer, had agreed to “support” the client’s work. A few even heard from Karen, who (in convoluted and error-ridden prose interestingly similar to Hill’s) claimed that she had “read your work and forwarded with praise” and that the manuscript had been “accepted provisionally.”

Clients have since phoned many of these publishers, only to be told that none had heard of Hill, much less received any material from him. I’m working to confirm this myself, via a contact at Crown.

(Does this mean that Hill never made any submissions at all? Not quite. One client, whose submission package had supposedly been sent to nine publishers, discovered that three had actually received it. Since her work was not appropriate for their lists, all three had rejected without comment. According to the reports she got from Hill, however, those submissions--as well as the fictional ones--were still under consideration.)

Would Hill have concocted an explanation for the non-materialization of the promised contracts, as he did for the Crown contracts the previous autumn, and encouraged his disappointed clients to remain hopeful? Was this the opening move in a more nefarious scheme? We’ll never know, because on September 14 the agency ceased to exist. Claire Ashton (whose prose style is also remarkably similar to Hill’s), initially claimed that Hill was “no longer with the agency,” but in later emails declared that the man calling himself Christopher Hill was an imposter whose activities weren’t sanctioned by the agency.

An impostor? Maybe. What’s certain is that whoever Hill is, he has quite a taste for fake identities. In my next post, Hill unmasked...sort of.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale in Four Parts

Over the past week, a firestorm has erupted on popular writers’ forum Absolute Write over Edinburgh-based literary agency Hill & Hill.

On September 14th, Hill clients, many of whom had been told that publication offers with major publishers were imminent, were shocked to learn that the agency had shut down its website, terminated its UK email and phone accounts, and relocated to Spain, where it was in the process of reorganizing. All submissions, including pending publication offers, were “frozen.” The reason for this drastic action? According to a mass email from agency staffer Claire Ashton, attempts by “former clients and other nameless individuals” to “tarnish our name and reputation” on forums like Absolute Write had “generally made process of business extremely difficult. When...publishers contact us and withdraw submissions due to such contact we realise that this business has gone on for long enough."

Clients who wished to continue with the agency were asked to write to the new Spanish email address. Those who didn't respond could consider themselves free. Ashton's email concluded, ominously: "We would apologise for this, however the situation has been brought about by individuals who have sought this situation. We are not without memory and remember the message below [a confidentiality disclaimer] before reproduction."

Naturally, alarmed clients flocked to Absolute Write to see what was going on. They began posting questions...and comparing notes. What has emerged is a portrait of an elaborate, bizarre, and cruel scam orchestrated by an individual who, I believe, wanted his clients’ money much less than he wanted their trust, and was prepared to do, say, and fabricate anything in order to obtain it.

Everything that follows is based on documentation in my possession.

Writer Beware first began getting questions about the Hill & Hill Literary Agency, run by Christopher Hill, in March of 2005. Red flags at Hill’s website (which has been closed down, though a cached version is still available) suggested a questionable agency: spelling and grammar errors, no information on the background of the people involved (the website didn’t even list their names), and no apparent sales. And indeed, it wasn’t long before we established that Hill charged submission fees: £80 for a six-month contract, £129 for a year.

The website’s wording also implied the possibility of some kind of paid editing service. But while questions about the agency continued to arrive over the next year, no one came forward with a complaint. If Hill was extracting money from his clients by some means other than his rather modest submission fees, we weren’t hearing about it.

A sign of things to come arrived in May 2006. Hill was caught posting glowing recommendations for his agency under fake names at Firstwriter.com, and his listing was booted from the site. Then, in August, we logged our first complaint. Several Hill clients, who’d grown suspicious enough to contact each other, discovered that the monthly submission reports they’d been receiving were virtually identical--right down to publishers’ supposedly individual comments on their manuscripts.

Had Hill been fabricating the reports? If so, what else might he have lied about? Had their manuscripts ever even been submitted?

As it turns out--yes, plenty, and probably not. In my next post: the anatomy of the scam.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 61 - Martha Ivery Sentencing Delayed...AGAIN

This morning I sat down at my computer, credit card in hand, to book my train trip to Springfield, MA, where Victoria planned to pick me up on Thursday evening. Then both of us planned to attend the Martha Ivery/Kelly O'Donnell sentencing hearing in Albany on Friday morning.

Well, as I searched the timetables, a new email popped onto my screen. It wasn't even 9:00 A.M. Thank goodness, I clicked on it right away. Thank goodness I hadn't yet used my credit card!

Martha's sentencing has been delayed...AGAIN. The wheels of justice do grind exceedingly slow, my friends.

So, just in case you're a victim of Martha/Kelly's, reading this blog, I'll keep you updated when I hear the new sentencing date.

I don't know quite why the sentencing was delayed yet again. They told me, in very general terms, but "attorney-speak" is not one of my languages, so I won't attempt to reproduce the reason here.

So it's back to work now on two books -- Winds of Vegeance, and a YA collaboration I'm working on with my friend Doranna Durgin.

Hope all of you are enjoying the nicer weather.

-Ann C. Crispin

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Sobol Award

Over the past few months there's been quite a bit of discussion about the brand-new Sobol Award, most recently publicized in this AP article. Some people are thrilled at the enormous payout (prizes ranging from $100,000 for the winner to $1,000 for several runners-up, plus literary representation for the top 10 manuscripts). Others feel that the contest is a very bad idea, if not an outright scam.

Let's investigate.

At first glance, the Sobol project seems to be yet another attempt by a frustrated writer to make an end-run around the system. According to his bio, Sobol's President and CEO, Gur Shomron, wrote a science fiction novel, which he shopped around without success. (The novel, NETfold, is available for sale, but I'm guessing it's self-published, or the next thing to it.) From this experience, he seems to have drawn a conclusion common among writers who--rightly or wrongly--are unwilling to admit that the problem might be the quality of their manuscripts: "...his experiences in the world of publishing brought home to him the enormous difficulties young writers have getting their work published. Even some of most successful writers, he learned, were discovered almost by chance."

His response? An award "designed to be a unique nation-wide talent screener to discover and introduce new writers to the publishing industry." (Sobol's motto: "We Discover New Writers.") The contest is open to unpublished, agentless writers with a manuscript in English that is more than 50,000 and less than 300,000 (!) words. The entry fee is $85. The contest will be capped at 50,000 entries, and entries will be judged in several rounds. Winners and runners-up will receive the abovementioned prizes, and in addition, will be required to commit to a one-year contract with the apparently as-yet nonexistent Sobol Literary Agency (the representation agreement, which looks pretty standard to me, is here).

Here are the official contest rules.

The $85 entry fee--extremely steep for a book manuscript contest--has led many people to conclude that the contest is a moneymaking scheme. Certainly, $85 multiplied by 50,000 entries adds up to a very tidy sum: $4.25 million, to be exact. Even supposing that the contest gets a quarter of that number of entrants, the total is still over a million dollars. Not bad, just for hanging out a shingle on the Web.

However, Mr. Shomron, who founded a computer company, doesn't really look to be hard up for cash. And while $85 seems way out of line for a book manuscript contest, such entry fees are common for screenplay contests--and according to the bio page of the Sobol website, the Executive Vice President of Contest Management, Sue Pollack, does have a film/TV background. Often in such contests, a sizeable portion of the entry fee goes to compensate the reader who does the initial screening and provides a reader's report. Additionally, Brigitte Weeks, the Editorial Director, and Laurie Rippin, the Marketing Director, both have substantial publishing industry experience. Ditto for the panel of judges. It's hard to imagine a dishonest operation going to the trouble of assembling such a group of industry insiders.

So is the Sobol Award a scam? Nothing is impossible, and though I think the size of the entry fee can be adequately explained, I still find it troubling--not least because, since the contest is being run by an organization that apparently will eventually transform itself into a literary agency, it is, in effect, a reading fee (according to the contest rules, literary representation isn't limited to the 10 winners--offers can be extended to semi-finalists). Also, I'd never advise a writer to pay $85 even for a contest of proven, unimpeachable reputation. In my opinion, contests are usually a waste of time, anyway; most writers would do better simply submitting their work for publication.

However, at this point I'm guessing that Sobol is a sincerely-intended vanity project initiated by a frustrated writer with a dream and the time and resources to implement it (entry fees or no, one presumes that Sobol's staff are being paid a salary). I suspect that some of the reasoning behind it is misguided, and I very much dislike the fact that the final round contestants are required to sign a contract with a literary agency that currently does not exist. This is tantamount to signing with a literary agent whose background you haven't checked or aren't able to research, and, in my view, is the main argument for avoiding the contest. Still, given the pedigrees of the people involved, and the publicity that Sobol is currently generating for itself, I don't think it can simply be dismissed. It seems possible that a win might actually mean something--though of course, what that "something" is can't be known at this point, and may not get the winners any closer to publication.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 60 - Some Writing Problems to Avoid

Hi folks. I'm finally home after vacation, my dad's surgery, and Dragoncon. I taught my two workshops there, and attended several panels in the Writer's Track.

A couple of common mistakes caught my attention, either from Q&A in the Writing Track, or during the workshops. Here are some of the common problems writers seemed to have that you might not hear about every day:

1. Too much worldbuilding: this usually happens to writers of science fiction and fantasy, I fear. They get so involved with creating a world, cultures, geography, social structures, art, legends and lore, etc., etc., that somehow they forget to include a PLOT in their story.

Your reader doesn't need page upon page of world-building setting and description. He/she only needs enough to be able to visualize what's happening, care about the characters, and follow the storyline.

I realize there's a huge temptation among writers to put on the page everything they spend so much time creating, but try to resist.

(This problem can also happen to writers who write "period" fiction Instead of creating the world themselves, they research the period so intensively that the reader can get mired in all the details, while the plot is absent or moving at a glacial pace.)

2. Having characters declaim instead of speak. This especially applies to villains. If you can read the dialogue aloud and "hear" mustache twirling from the villain, it's time to rewrite. Reading aloud is always a good way to check how your characters "sound" to the reader.

3. Writing a book in first person because the protagonist is basically YOU. This happens a lot to first-time writers, and it's rarely a good thing. When you make yourself the protagonist in a story, it's hard to remain objective about your story. And being too subjective about what's happening in your story may blind you to faults such as slow pacing, lack of narrative hooks, unbelievable character motivation, over the top dialogue, etc.

4. Biting off more than you're ready to chew. I wish I had a buck for every aspiring writer whose first project is an epic fantasy trilogy -- or even a series. I'm not saying you CAN'T write a trilogy if that's what is burning in your heart and soul to write, but be aware of the fact that trilogies require a lot of subplots and characters, and the pacing can be very tricky. The first book you submit should be more or less self-contained, rather than a cliffhanger. So if you're writing a trilogy, keep this in mind and end the book in a satisfactory manner so it can be submitted as a first novel, okay?

Also...writers can get so immured in a world they've created that they keep on writing book after book without ever submitting any of them. They think for some reason they have to have the entire 7 book series complete before they can submit anything. This thinking is flawed. No publishing house is going to buy a 7 book series from a brand-new writer. What they'll want to do is buy one, or possibly two books, then publish them and see how they sell.

So...don't put off submitting your completed and polished book while you write the next four, eh?

(wink)

Hope this has been helpful.

Best,

-Ann C. Crispin

Friday, September 08, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- There's No Such Thing as a Bargain Agent

This week, I've gotten two inquiries from writers about agencies with low commission rates (7% in one case, 10% in another). Both writers felt that the low commission was a positive sign--not just because the agents would get a smaller cut of the writers' eventual income, but because it suggested to them that the agents were less greedy and more author-friendly than agents who charge 15%.

Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a bargain agent.

When I first started dreaming of publication, way back in the prehistoric 1970's, most literary agents charged 10%. This began to change in the 1980's, at first slowly, then in a rush, as agents increased their commission rates to 15% (my agent made the switch in 1989). Nowadays, a 15% commission is the norm. There are some exceptions--a few agents still have older clients grandfathered in at 10%, and a handful of agents charge 20% (often in a two-tiered system that reserves the higher rate for new authors). Apart from this, 15% is the prevailing standard among reputable literary agents.*

Disreputable agents, on the other hand, often set their commissions at 12%, 10%, or even 5%. Sometimes this is because they have no actual publishing industry background and don't know any better, or, in their inexperience, sincerely believe they're giving their clients a better deal. (For why it's really, really not a good idea to choose an inexperienced agent, see this post.) More often, it's to offer the appearance of a bargain in order to sweeten a demand for upfront fees. A low commission is no bargain if the agent never makes a sale--and if the agent is a scammer, as opposed to someone who simply doesn't know what she's doing, a low commission is a safe promise, since the agent expects to make his income from writers', not publishers', payments.

So if you encounter an agent who offers a "bargain" commission--especially if the agent portrays it as such--be wary, and check the agent's background and track record. It may be that you've found one of the only successful agents around who still charges 10%, but it's far more likely that you've run into an amateur or a fraudster.

As for the agencies mentioned in the first paragraph, both are in Writer Beware's database. The first charges an upfront fee of £80 or £120, depending on how many publishers you want it to contact. The second charges an upfront fee of $250. Neither, as far as we can discover, has any track record of commercial sales.

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* Book agents, that is. For various reasons that I won't go into here, script agents still charge 10%.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Barbara Bauer Redux, Redux

In a post from November 16 of last year, I discussed a legal threat against Writer Beware by "Agent B" (since revealed as Barbara Bauer of the Barbara Bauer Literary Agency), and mentioned one of Agent B's clients, as follows:

One writer, who was with Agent B for eight years, paid over $3,000 in annual fees during that time, plus additional fees for office and phone expense (apparently if you wanted an “in-depth” phone call, you had to pay for it in advance). This writer had several manuscripts with Agent B--I’m sure it will surprise no one that none of them were ever sold.

As is Writer Beware's policy, I didn't identify the writer. However, he has identified himself in the comments section of my August 29 post by signing his name, Greg Ludwig, and by providing a URL at which a document detailing his correspondence with me and his defense of Bauer can be downloaded.

I'm not going to respond in detail to this document, whose points Mr. Ludwig and I have already debated in private correspondence, and which is, in any case, largely self-refuting. I believe the source of his pique with me is not so much my characterization of Ms. Bauer as a questionable agent, but my refusal to agree with him on a number of issues on which he has passionate opinions--including his extremely negative assessment of literary agents in general (quoting from one of his emails: "Who are these people, agents, who do not do creative work (most of them) and try to profit off someone else's creative work? As someone who has always been something of a craftsman, this seems like a disgusting parasitism that only a certain kind of cowardly nonentity would want to do for a living."), his view that upfront fees are (quoting again) "often a necessary part of the equation of using an agent today, hence the issue is to determine for yourself how much of a fee is justified;" or, in a later development of our correspondence, his belief that there is benefit to registering copyright for unpublished work.

There are a couple of points, however, on which I'd like to comment--the first because it goes to the heart of Writer Beware's credibility, the second because I believe it's an attempt to intimidate us (though not by Mr. Ludwig).

In one section of his document, Mr. Ludwig describes my journey to first-time publication (which is no secret; I've discussed it in a number of interviews, including this one at Absolute Write), identifying me as a fantasy writer who got her start in the 1980's. He then asks: "Now my question is—-how does she have qualifications to know what the right way is to agent for books that are written for a more mainstream audience that may be a hard sell, today, not in the 1970s or 1980s when agents were less crucial to the process of publishing trade books?"

Writing in a particular genre doesn't necessarily mean that one's knowledge is confined to that genre, any more than getting one's start in the 1980's means that one's understanding of publishing has failed to advance since that time. By this argument, no one could be an expert in anything beyond the end of his or her own nose, and research would count for nothing. Moreover, while agenting styles differ, and different markets require different contacts and approaches, there are generally accepted standards of business practice that are adhered to by most established agents, regardless of their specialty. These are expressed in, among other things, the ubiquity of the 15% domestic commission; the focus of author-agent agreements, which vary greatly in their details but address the same basic set of issues; and the Canons of Ethics and Codes of Practice adopted by the various agents' trade groups: the Association of Authors' Representatives in the USA, the Association of Authors' Agents in the UK, and the Australian Literary Agents' Association in Australia.

As to Writer Beware staff's personal credibility, both Ann Crispin and I have published regularly over the years since we sold our first novels; my most recent book came out in March of this year, and Ann's next book, second in a trilogy, will be out in 2007. We make it our business to keep current with the state of publishing by attending conferences, following industry publications such as Publishers Weekly, maintaining membership in professional writers' organizations such as SFWA, NINC, and the Authors Guild, keeping in regular touch with reputable literary agents and in-house editors, and interacting with a wide variety of commercially published authors, both personally and by means of listservs and newsgroups. We're advised by an experienced intellectual property and consumer protection attorney, and we've assisted the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and various local police departments (none of whom had any problem with our qualifications) in their investigations of fraudulent literary agents and publishers. Between us, we possess a substantial amount of knowledge--and where we don't know something, we aren't afraid to admit it, or to ask someone who is more qualified.

For more detail about us and what we do, as well as a description of what we consider to be documentable questionable practice, see the About Writer Beware section of the Writer Beware website.

The second point on which I'd like to comment is Mr. Ludwig's statement that Barbara Bauer has "filed a petition or the like with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition." Another source (which I won't reveal in order to protect the person who gave me the information) alleges that the petition has been filed to support a class action lawsuit initiated by Bauer. Apparently the lawsuit is based on the theory that there is a "conspiracy" in which agents' "good names [have been] tarnished, and their business revenues irrevocably lost and/or diminished by attacks from white collar criminals dealing in unfair business practices against literary agents." It's claimed that the petition has been signed by 50 "publishing executives." Another reference to a Bauer-initiated class action suit comes from a staff member of the fee-charging, track recordless Robins Agency, via Miss Snark's blog.

Leaving aside the confusion of terms (is it a petition? A lawsuit? A petition and a lawsuit?) and questions of whether Bauer has any standing to put together a class action, I'm skeptical. As readers of this blog know, Writer Beware is no stranger to threats of legal action (not one of which has ever advanced as far as a court filing), and unless I have documents in my hand, I give these threats, or rumors of them, no credence whatsoever. Also, this supposed lawsuit is suspiciously similar to an action threatened in the late 1990's by fee-charging literary agent/vanity publisher Cynthia Sterling. Cindy's lawsuit, which also claimed the participation of powerful publishing people, was a figment--it was intended to intimidate Jim Fisher, former FBI agent and author of Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent From Hell--and I'm betting this one is too.

I like to be thorough, though. So, following Mr. Ludwig's instructions, I made my way to the Bureau of Competition section of the FTC website. Per his suggestion, I entered "Barbara Bauer Literary Agency" into the search box. This produced 19,964 results--too many to go through--so I repeated the search using the "Advanced" search function. This time, there were no results. I then searched on my name, Barbara Bauer's name, and various combinations of our names together. None of these searches yielded any document filed by or mentioning Barbara Bauer.

Until I see some actual documentary evidence, I'm going to continue to assume that this lawsuit, or petition, or whatever it is, is as apocryphal as the track records of the agencies that claim it exists.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- A Little-Known Resource for Agent-Hunters

One of the most frequent requests that I receive via Writer Beware is to recommend appropriate, reputable agents. It really is best, however, for a writer him- or herself to choose whom to query. The right agent for one person can be the wrong agent for another, and I have no way of knowing which is which. Also, agents' tastes and specialties differ so much, even when they sell within the same genre, that it's difficult to make a useful recommendation if you haven't actually read the writer's work.

Rather than making recommendations, therefore, I suggest that people check out the Agents page of Writer Beware, in order to learn the warning signs of a disreputable agent, and that they read my article The Safest Way to Search for an Agent, which outlines a research technique intended to help them identify reputable agents and avoid questionable ones.

There are a number of reliable ways to identify reputable agents who might be appropriate for you. The easiest is to invest in a couple of good, informative market guides, such as Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. A more laborious method is to find books that you think resemble yours in genre, tone, subject matter, or style, and try to discover who agents them. You can read industry publications such as Publishers Weekly to find out about recent book deals. Or if you write genre fiction, there may be a magazine that reports on your genre, including recent book sales--such as Locus Magazine for the science fiction, fantasy, and horror fields.

(There are also some very bad ways of trying to identify appropriate agents--including starting your research on the Internet. The Internet is an invaluable secondary research resource, and you'll probably use it extensively to check into the agents you find through the procedures above; but it's not where you should begin. Sure, there are some great online resources, such as AgentQuery.com--but unless you already know about them, you are far more likely to run across agent "resources" that have been compiled by people who don't know much about the publishing industry, or who haven't bothered or aren't able to screen the reputability of the agents they list. And do I need to mention Google ads? New York Literary Agency. Whitmore Publishing. PublishAmerica. 'Nuff said.)

The above suggestions for agent-finding are standard, oft-repeated advice. But here's another resource that I'll bet a lot of people don't know about: publishers' catalogs and rights listings. These identify the rights that are held by the publisher and/or its licensees--and, more important for the agent-hunter, the rights that are still available through agents. Sometimes there's just a list of agencies, but often the agency (and sometimes the actual agent) for each book is named. For genre authors, this can be a bonanza--if you write mysteries or thrillers, check out the St. Martin's Press listing below. For mainstream or nonfiction authors, it's a great way of identifying successful agents, whom you can then research further to discover whether they may be right for you.

Publishers often bury their rights listings or catalogs in obscure parts of their websites that you probably won't stumble on unless you know they're there. Below are links to some of the listings that I've located in my Internet travels. Hope you find them helpful.