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Predatory Practices of Unscrupulous Agents
An Interview with Victoria Strauss

   
   

have two novels gathering dust, one in need of revision. I remember packaging my first manuscript and sending it off into the publishing world. I needed an agent to not only get my book onto a shelf, but on the end cap in every bookstore in the reading world. Yes, I dream big. I used a list of agents provided by a writer’s guild and researched them before submitting.

One day a letter arrived from a New York agent who complimented my cover letter. I sent the manuscript and she loved it. A few weeks later, a letter arrived saying she wasn’t sure she could market the book.

I was lucky. The agent could have charged me a reading fee or offered to refer me to another agent for a small fee. I could have been among the many writers who fall into the bank accounts of unscrupulous agents.

As I prepared to interview Victoria Strauss about the scams and tactics revealed on Writer Beware, I realized exactly how lucky I was to have my manuscript returned. My only loss was copy money and postage.



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Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels for young adults and adults, including the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, she's Vice-Chair of the Committee on Writing Scams, and created and maintains the Writer Beware website. Writer Beware also maintains a very active blog at www.accrispin.blogspot.com. Victoria welcomes visitors to her own website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com.



***

WOW:  Welcome to WOW! Victoria, we are honored that you have agreed to chat with us. WRITER BEWARE is a website devoted to raising awareness of the prevalence of literary fraud. What are some “red flags” a writer should beware of when choosing an agent?

Victoria:  Dishonest agents come in many flavors. Some levy upfront fees. Some make their living hawking their own editing services. Some are fronts for vanity publishing operations. What they have in common is that their main income comes from their clients, rather than from selling manuscripts to publishers. That’s why, when you’re researching an agent, you should always look for a track record of commercial book sales. A lack of sales is one of the primary signs of a dishonest agent.

WOW:  Those are some good tips for a starting point. Could you continue here with a quick list of things that indicate an agent should be avoided?

Victoria:  - No track record of book sales—or, if the agent is new, no publishing or agenting experience. A successful agent is the only kind worth having—and a successful agent will have a verifiable track record of selling books to commercial publishers. New agents can also be a good bet for writers, because they’re actively building their client lists—but only if they have the right job experience. This means that they should previously have worked in publishing, or for a reputable agency. Beware of brand-new agents who don’t have that kind of background: they probably don’t have the knowledge or skills required for success. People who come to agenting from non-publishing-related fields rarely manage to make a go of it.

Victoria's List of what to avoid:

  • No track record of book sales
  • If the agent is new, no publishing or agenting experience
  • Upfront fees of any kind
  • Offers of paid services, such as editing or publishing services
  • Regular referrals to paid services, such as critique services or vanity publishers

- Upfront fees of any kind. Reputable agents do expect writers to reimburse some of the expense of representation (photocopying costs, postage, long-distance phone calls—any expense, in other words, that the agent wouldn’t incur if he didn’t represent you). But they either let these accrue and deduct them from your advance, or, less desirably, bill them after they’re incurred. They don’t demand money upfront on contract signing, or ask you to pay a flat fee for submissions. No matter what such fees are called, they are markers for fraudulent or incompetent agents.

- Offers of paid services, such as editing or publishing services. These are conflicts of interest. If an agent can make money from editing your manuscript, how can you be sure that a recommendation to edit is in your best interest? (Many agents do work with clients to edit and polish their manuscripts for submission, but they don't charge for this—it's part of the service covered by their commissions). If an agent can profit from publishing your book himself, where's the incentive to offer your manuscript to advance-paying publishers?

- Regular referrals to paid services, such as critique services or vanity publishers. A kickback arrangement may be the incentive for such referrals. If an agent tells you your manuscript needs work and then recommends a specific editing service, the editing service may have promised to give the agent a percentage of whatever you wind up paying. The same goes for vanity publishers and fee-based print-on-demand self-publishing services, which often provide finder's fees to agents who persuade their clients to accept pay-to-publish contracts. An agent’s job is to find ways for you to make money, not to spend it.

WOW:  Well, you’re thorough! Following this same thought, what advice do you have for a writer who thinks an agent is questionable?

Victoria:  Run!

More seriously, if you think an agent is questionable, there are a number of things you can do. Write to me at Writer Beware (beware@sfwa.org) with the agent’s name, and I’ll search my files to see if we’ve gotten any complaints. Visit Preditors & Editors and see if the agent is listed there as “not recommended.” Check the Index in the Bewares forum at the Absolute Write writers' community; there may be a discussion of the agent there. Do a web search on the agent’s name to see if any complaints come up.

Very important: do these things before you submit, not after. Identifying the questionables ahead of time will save you huge amounts to time, grief, and postage.

“...look for a track record of commercial sales...”

WOW:  I guess that’s a lesson we should all learn—to trust our own instincts. Of course, there are many reputable agents in the literary world, can you give WOW readers some tips to find a reputable agent?

Victoria:  My article, The Safest Way to Search for an Agent, offers a research technique designed to help writers focus on agents who are appropriate for their manuscripts, and weed the questionable ones off their query list (there are some tips on querying, too, and links to many helpful online resources).

If I had to put it in a nutshell: look for a track record of commercial sales, or, if the agent is new, a job background in publishing or agenting.

WOW:  Well, we’ll have to read that, definitely. Let’s switch to another bigger question. Does a writer need an agent to make her first sale?

Victoria:  If your goal is to sell your book to an imprint of one of the large publishing houses, such as Random House or Penguin—then in my opinion, yes.

Many of these large houses are closed to unagented authors, and accept submissions only through agents. Those that do read unagented manuscripts give them very, very low priority, and can take forever to respond (a year or even more isn’t unusual)—plus, the person who reads your submission probably won't be an editor with the power to make an offer to buy your book, but an assistant or an intern. It can take a long time to find an agent, but once you do she can really cut down the response time—not to mention, get your manuscript directly onto the desk of an editor who will pay attention to it.

There are also many good smaller, independent publishers, which don't have the promotion and distribution clout of the large houses but nevertheless do an excellent job of publishing and selling books. If you want to try with these, you don't need an agent—most smaller publishers are used to dealing directly with authors. You need to be careful with independent publishers, though, and make sure they are capable of marketing and distributing their books. The hundreds of Internet-based micro-presses that have sprung up over the past few years often aren't able to do that, and provide a level of exposure and credibility that’s roughly equivalent to vanity publishing.

WOW:  Points well taken. As we move deeper into this issue, I noticed Writer Beware explains that there are no licensing requirements or competency standards for literary agents.  How can a writer spot an amateur, marginal or incompetent agent?

Victoria:  Amateur, marginal, and incompetent agents actually greatly outnumber dishonest agents. Unlike dishonest agents, they don’t mean to scam you, and often are very well-intentioned. But because they don’t have the skills that an agent’s job requires, the bottom line for writers is the same as with a scammer: no sale.

How to spot them? Watch out for fees. Incompetent agents often charge fees or offer paid editing services—not because they’re trying to cheat their clients, but because they don’t know any better, or because they’re not selling manuscripts to publishers and don’t have any other way to keep their businesses afloat.

Watch out for an agent who has been in business for more than a year and has no sales, or whose “track record” consists of book placements with no-advance publishers. Amateur agents don’t have the expertise to sell manuscripts to publishers, so they typically have no track records, or else claim “sales” to questionable publishers (such as PublishAmerica, which will accept anything) or to publishers that reputable agents wouldn’t go near because they don’t pay advances.

Watch out for agents with no relevant job qualifications. Amateur agents typically set up in business without any relevant work background. However, agenting is like any other job—you need training and experience in order to do it properly. To be successful, an agent needs to have previously worked in publishing, or for a reputable agency.

WOW:  More good information! Well, we want to know next, why did you decide to build a website devoted to exposing literary scams?

Victoria:  People often ask me if I created Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no—my publishing experiences have mostly been positive. Naively, I thought I was typical. When I first went online in the mid-1990’s and began checking out writers’ forums and chat rooms, I was amazed to see how many writers had gotten mixed up with disreputable agents, publishers, freelance editors, etc. Here was a whole slimy publishing underworld that I had no idea existed. I began to follow the scam stories, and to take note of the names of agents and publishers that popped up over and over again.

One day I was checking out the "help wanted" section of the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (I'm a member), and saw a call for a volunteer to create a section of the website to warn about literary scams. Given my interest in the subject, I jumped at the chance. Around the same time, Ann Crispin, another SFWA member, was working on establishing a SFWA Writing Scams Committee. Neither of us had any idea what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our activities seemed to dovetail perfectly, and we decided to join forces. That’s how Writer Beware was born.

In addition to maintaining the Writer Beware website (which is updated at least quarterly with new information and links), the Writing Scams Committee collects complaints and documentation on questionable agents, publishers and others. Right now we have files on nearly 400 agents, close to 200 publishers, and another 100 or so on assorted editors, contests, and writers’ services. It’s the largest and most complete database of its kind in the world, and we use it to provide information not just to writers who contact us with questions, but to law enforcement officials, with whom we’re currently at work on several ongoing scam investigations.

“It is ESSENTIAL to learn about the publishing industry before you try to enter it.”

WOW:  That’s fascinating, and we’re very comforted that you got involved in the whole process. How did you choose the Name? (Is there any interesting story or experience behind it?)

Victoria:  I wish there were! Actually, the name was chosen by SFWA. If Ann and I had realized how well-known we’d become, we might have insisted on something snappier!

WOW:  The name says it all, anyway. So, what traits make writers vulnerable to scams?

Victoria:  I wouldn’t say that there are any particular character traits that predispose writers to be scammed. I’ve heard from all kinds of people who’ve fallen victim to scams or to incompetent agents or publishers—from teenagers and senior citizens sucked into vanity poetry anthology schemes, to inexperienced writers who mistook an amateur agent for a real one, to Christian authors willing to grant their trust to anyone who identifies themselves as Christian (there are an extraordinary number of scams in the Christian writing world), to successful journalists trying to market their first novels, to doctors and lawyers and CEO’s who assume (wrongly) that their high level of professional achievement will protect them from making mistakes in the writing world.

What puts writers most at risk, in my opinion, is ignorance. It is ESSENTIAL to learn about the publishing industry before you try to enter it. Publishing is a hugely complicated field, with customs and processes that don’t exist anywhere else, and a thousand schemes and scams just waiting to prey on the uneducated and the unwary. You can’t just plunge in and expect to learn on the fly--you need to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible ahead of time.

Here’s my advice to anyone looking to venture into the world of publishing for the first time. Put the submission process on hold until you do some reading--and not on the Internet, where misinformation abounds. Go to a bookstore and spend some time in the section where the books on writing are shelved. Both the Dummies and Idiots lines have good basic introductions to the publishing process, and there are many others. Please don't skip this step—it's tedious at the outset but will save you time (and grief) in the long run.

For much more detailed advice, have a look at my blog post, "Learning the Ropes:"

WOW:  You’re quite resourceful, and you provide a lot of information for which we’re all thankful! Let’s get into your connections with the SFWA. Can you share a little about your involvement?

Victoria:  I joined SFWA in 1997, just before the publication of my first novel for adults (I’d previously published three novels for young adults). I valued the professional information provided by SFWA, and enjoyed the networking, but I wanted to get more involved--which is why I started looking to volunteer, and wound up working on Writer Beware.

WOW:  We’re certainly pleased you did get more involved. By the way, is there a Must See page on the website?

Victoria:  Depending on what you need information on, any page is a Must See! Writer Beware includes pages on literary agents, book doctors (a.k.a. independent editors), vanity publishers, print on demand, contests, copyright, e-publishing, and more. We hope that it will answer just about any question a writer may have--but if it doesn’t, writers can always contact us directly at beware@sfwa.org.

“...a scam literary agent who used many aliases, faked her own death to get away from angry clients...”

WOW:  I think we could all spend more time on that site. Of course, I have to ask: What is the most incredible scam you can tell us about?

Victoria:  Wow, that’s a tough one. But I’d have to say it’d be either Melanie Mills, a scam literary agent who used many aliases, faked her own death to get away from angry clients, and turned out to be wanted in Arkansas for assault and attempted murder; or Christopher Hill, another scam agent who went to unbelievable lengths—including faking publishers’ contracts—to convince his clients he was working for them. The Hill scam is still unfolding, believe it or not—I recently posted an update on the Writer Beware blog.

For an account of the Melanie Mills scam, see this Case Study at Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html#Mills

For an account of the Christopher Hill scam, see my blog entries, starting here: http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2006/09/victoria-strauss-hill-hill-literary.html

Other bizarre scam tales appear on the Case Studies page of Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html

WOW:  Those scams sound like the stuff of fiction! Thank you, Victoria, for your time and wisdom. Writer Beware is an excellent site for any writer considering an agent. The site empowers writers with dreams by helping them into the publishing world armed with information. It is a wonderful tool and, when I am ready to send my creations out into the world again, you can be sure my first stop will be at Writer Beware.

Victoria:  Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.



***

BIO: Sally Franklin Christie

I have written two novels and a third novel is in progress as a part of the Long Ridge Writer's Group Course entitled “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel” and the expert instruction of Mary Rosenblum. This November I am going participate in the National Novel Writers Month competition.

I live in Montana where I homeschool, paint landscapes, take digital photos and write.

I have a son who will be thirteen this month, a daughter and son in law that I had the honor of marrying a six year old granddaughter and a grandson due any day.  Most important is my darling husband who works long and hard to pay the bills allowing me to indulge in writing.

(The baby is coming no later than the 19th and will be a boy.)

Some of my articles have been published by The Blessed Bee, Creations Magazine and PanGia.

Sally Franklin Christie is also an intern at WOW! Women On Writing.


 

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