Friday, August 03, 2012

Literary Agent Scams: Still Around, But On the Wane

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

As many of you know, Writer Beware maintains a Thumbs Down Agency List, which represents the agencies about which Writer Beware has received the largest number of complaints over the years, or which, based on documentation we’ve collected, we consider to pose the most significant hazard for writers.

The other day, on one of the online writers' discussion groups I frequent, someone asked a couple of questions about the list that I thought it would be instructive to answer here: why do we include agencies on the list if they're not currently active? And why don't we regularly add new agencies to the list?

We leave non-active agencies on the list because they often start up again, or start up under different names. Cris Robins of The Robins Agency, for instance, isn't operating just now as far as we know, but she has closed and re-started her business several times over the years, and we wouldn't be surprised to learn that she's back at it.

The numerous name changes and aliases of many of the agencies on the list also attest to their survival instinct. For instance, the agency currently calling itself Best Selling Book Rights Agency has been in continuous operation since 2001, but has had more than six name changes during that time.

We do occasionally take agencies off the list, if there's a really unequivocal reason for their demise--such as a grand jury indictment or jail time. That's why the list no longer includes George and Janet Titsworth, proprietors of Helping Hand Literary Services, or Martha Ivery, who ran literary agencies under several names and aliases. However, even jail time doesn't always deter the really determined scammers. American Literary Agents of Washington--a.k.a. Capital Literary Agency, a.k.a. Washington Literary Agency--vanished from the face of the earth when its owner went to prison on an unrelated charge. When he got out, he immediately began operating again as Clark, Mendelson, and Scott (a.k.a. Franklin-Madison Literary Agency.)

As to why new names don't regularly appear on the list--that's an interesting question, and the answer reflects the changes in publishing over the past decade.

When Writer Beware started up, before the turn of the century, literary agent scams were by far the most prevalent kind of fraud writers could expect to encounter. On average, we heard about a new scam agency every couple of weeks. But the advent of easy, inexpensive self-publishing services, as well as the rapid growth of the small press world, has given writers alternatives to the traditional literary-agent-brokered route to publication. As a result, many writers no longer see literary agents as the be-all and end-all of their publishing journey, and never bother with the agent search that used to be perceived as absolutely essential.

Which, as you can imagine, makes it much harder for a scam agent to make a living. Many formerly highly profitable agency scams have disappeared, or have dwindled to a shadow of their former selves (for instance, Arthur Fleming Associates, about which I used to get a question or complaint every few weeks, and now get only an occasional query). Others have shifted their operations to keep pace with change--such as Best Selling Book Rights Agency, which began as a fee-charging agency but has diversified into a variety of other predatory activities, or SterlingHouse Publisher (which recently changed its name to International Book Management Corporation), which axed its fee-charging Lee Shore Literary Agency in 2008 and currently focuses exclusively on vanity publishing and selling various services.

Now, in 2012, Writer Beware only rarely hears about brand-new agent scams; even inquiries about well-intentioned amateur agents--which once made up a large percentage of our correspondence--have dwindled to a trickle. By far the most frequent questions and complaints we receive involve small publishers, various flavors of vanity presses, self-publishing services, and marketing or other so-called services aimed at small press and self-published authors.

As a result, while the Thumbs Down Agency List is updated as we receive new information about name changes, spinoffs, etc., we haven't actually added an agency since we first put the list online.

So if you're feeling thankful for the wild new world of publishing options, here's another reason for gratitude: it has seriously reduced the prevalence of literary agent scams. However, scam agencies are still out there--plus, the reduction in their numbers has been more than offset by the proliferation of other scams aimed at writers. You still need to be careful out there.

29 comments:

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

As publishing evolves, so too do the scams.

Iola said...

So it is now "much harder for a scam agent to make a living". My heart bleeds.

Keep up the good work.

C. M. Albrecht said...

That Arthur Fleming actually called me long distance on a Sunday in about 1997, telling me my book was a nice clean copy. (So I'm a careful typist!). Then he wanted a $395 fee to "generate a contract" on his computer, after which he said, in effect, that he'd bombard every publisher in the country in a spammy effort to push my book.
Common sense prevailed and I said I'd have to think about it. He agreed that of course I should do that, and he hoped to hear from me soon. I certainly hope we've heard the last of him.

Victoria Strauss said...

C.M. Albrecht, thanks for the Arthur Fleming story. I got sooooo many complaints, questions, and reports about that agency back in the day. He's still out there...every time I think "Well, he's really gone for good" I get another question.

Anonymous said...

The majority of of authors who go on Writer Beware are not accepted by legitimate agents mainly because they are too busy with the blog eating chips in front of the computer and not learning how to write properly.

Elise Shedd said...

With the possibilities of self-publishing and many writers offering marketing tips, why do you need a literary agent nowadays. Most writers like myself want to do it ourselves now in terms of getting our books out there and go through the process of marketing. Literary agents are to me paid marketers that writers can do themselves for free.

Elise Shedd said...

Response to the anonymous posting about writers on Writer's Beware eating chips and blogging instead of landing a literary agent: in the game of writing, there's so many gray areas in terms of who can get my book out to the masses and make be a bestseller. It can be the author, marketing, literary agents or anything that get the book to sell. Whatever works, work it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Everyone:
I'm new to this blog, and am looking over some of your interesting advice and articles. I recently finished a nonfiction work. It's first attempt at large-scale publishing in years, and all the bad memories of earlier attempts are coming back to me.

To be bluntly honest, I consider the mass media in America today roughly on the same level as organized crime syndicates. I don't believe that, an 'outsider' has any realistic chance of publication here.

My question is: what about foreign agencies and publishers? Has anyone had experience with them? Are British, Australian or Canadian firms any less like a mafia and more like legitimate businesses than their American counterparts?

Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Anonymous @ 8/06/2012 3:08 AM, you remind me of a story.

A couple has just moved, and they ask a lady, "What are the folks in this neighborhood like?"

The lady asks, "What were the folks like in your old neighborhood?"

"Oh," say the man and the woman, "they were terrible!"

"Well," says the lady, "I think you'll find folks here about the same."

In other words, Anonymous, I'm sure you'll find foreign agencies and publishers to be roughly on the level of organized crime. I haven't. But you will

Anonymous said...

AlaskaRavenclaw:
You're right, I guess only bitter, frustrated losers can't get published in the US.

Sorry for wasting everyone's time.

Christine Tripp said...

Elise, I don't agree. Literary and Illustration Agents are those that take your work and put in front of Editors and Art Directors that you, as a Writer or Illustrator, have no access to, that do not accept unagented/unsolicited submissions.
Agents also deal with contract negotiations, (often hard for a creator to do as we would likely jump at the first offer of 5 figures:) and Agents understand the full implications of everything IN the contract, can negotiate changes to such.
Agents are not paid marketers, they do not market the finished book "to the masses":) They do market your manuscript to those Publishers we can not reach otherwise.

Christine Tripp said...

>My question is: what about foreign agencies and publishers? Has anyone had experience with them? Are British, Australian or Canadian firms any less like a mafia and more like legitimate businesses than their American counterparts?<

Anon, though I have no idea what the maffia reference means, I can answer part of your question. Canadian Publishers are supported financially, in part, by a number of Government grants given out each year. In turn, they can only publish Canadian Authors. For PB's, at least 1 (Author or Illustrator) must be Canadian. Not sure (but suspecting) that it could be roughly the same in the UK and Australia?

Elise Shedd said...

Sounds like literary agents do the hustling of marketing, negotiating and making sure your book gets the best deals.Whats the true difference between agents and marketers and why aren't they not needed anymore.Most writers now become like a writer commented secret book agents who need to have the marketing prowess to get the book out to the publish.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 8/6/12,

I strongly disagree with your "mafia" comment. It absolutely is possible for new writers to find first-time publication in the USA (a survey of the new books section of your local library will show you how many first novels or nonfiction books are being published). But it is hard, and I can understand, if you've been submitting for a while and have experienced a lot of rejection, how it can seem to be a closed system.

Publishing is increasingly international, and there's no reason why a writer can't seek an agent or a publisher overseas--as long as there's no language barrier (i.e., if you write in English, you need to stick to English-language markets), and as long as your work is appropriate for that market. Publishers publish for their own domestic markets; agents market first in their own domestic markets. So if your nonfiction book is on some subject of universal relevance, a UK or Australian publisher might pick it up; but if it's about something that's specific to your home country, it's much less likely that an overseas agent or publisher would be interested.

Keep in mind also that the US book market is the largest. The UK market is next, but it's quite a bit smaller. The Canadian and Australian markets are much smaller.

Please don't take this the wrong way--but if you start out with the conviction that they're all a bunch of crooks, or that publishing is all about nepotism and cronyism and an outsider has no chance, your expectations will likely be fulfilled. I think you need to see it more as a very, very difficult challenge where merit and persistence are often rewarded, but where there are no guarantees, even for writers of intelligence and talent. Additionally, it also often takes several efforts before success occurs--so even if whatever you're marketing now isn't publishable, you yourself may be...if you don't give up.

Finally, self-publishing is a far more viable fallback option, for writers whose first goal was traditional publication, than it used to be. There are multiple easy, inexpensive (or even free) options, and the plethora of online marketing methods make it feasible for authors to find ways to get the word out about their books. In self-publishing, as in traditional publishing, true success is the exception. But it's certainly a more viable choice than it was five or so years ago.

Victoria Strauss said...

Elise,

The job of literary agents is to do precisely what writers can't do for themselves--get manuscripts in front of editors at publishers that rely mainly or entirely on literary agents as gatekeepers. This includes most of the big-name publishers, and many of the larger independents.

Agents also market subsidiary rights--foreign publication, translations, film and dramatic rights--that are almost impossible for authors to market themselves. They also serve as career counselors and as their clients' advocates in the complicated and contentious publishing world. And, often, they help clients give their mss. the final polish before submission.

What they don't typically do: pre- and post-publication publicity. Though they do monitor the publisher's efforts, and consult with clients as necessary.

Obviously, if you want to self-publish, or to publish with one of the many small presses that don't typically deal with agents, you don't need an agent (and in fact should watch out for the growing underclass of agents who specialize in "representing" writers in those situations). But if your goal is publication with one of the larger publishing houses--especially if you write fiction--an agent is essential.

Elise Shedd said...

That's definitely why agents are not necessary unless an author is trying to get through some big publishing doors and don't have the time to do all the nuances that marketing sometimes can become. Marketing and promoting books is a entity in itself that can be overwhelming for self-publishers for myself but through sweat, tears and several times of saying,"I quit", the end result can be rewarding. In my view of literary agents, they get paid to do the dirty work in the publishing world but only if they like your work and believe in it enough to promote your book to the fullest. As for me, if I had plenty of extra cash, I would hire a literary agent but since Ms. Donald Trump is not my name, I got to peddle along like a good little self-publisher does until we speeding along in book sales.

Victoria Strauss said...

You don't need any cash to hire a literary agent (a reputable one, that is). They earn a commission on sales--i.e., they get paid only if you do.

Elise Shedd said...

Thanks for the tip. I still wouldn't want to use a literary agent even if it is free.

Anonymous said...

Victoria:

Thank you for your comment and suggestions. I am looking into self-publishing as option: that industry has changed a lot since my last forays into mainstream publication---it looks so far like a viable possibility.

I was reacting largely to AlaskaRavenclaw's condescending tone, which fairly typically expresses industry insiders' contempt for independent writers. I do disagree strongly that the industry is not a closed system. I've had work stolen outright before. But with new technologies available and more global outreach, the 'Smart Boys' don't have the same stranglehold on the industry as before.

Elise Shedd said...

There are so many avenues and options for selfpublishers that you don't need all those gobetweeners like literary agents and publishing houses to enjoy writing success.Just find your audience, your niche and develop a marketing plan that works for you.In time, the results you want will come and so will the revenues.

Anonymous said...

Elise:
There are some better options with self-publishing available now that didn't exist a few years ago. It used to be a logistical nightmare, but technology has really changed a lot of that.

I think that especially for non-fiction works, any viable way of circumventing the self-appointed 'gatekeepers' (i.e. unofficial censorship by the media cartels)is really the best alternative. The costs aren't as prohibitive as they once were, and the potential retail outreach is higher than in the past.

Anonymous said...

As a person of Italian descent, I am reporting this blog to the Sons of Italy. I find it highly offensive that you would use the word "mafia" to describe the people who run the publishing industry, and this does include the officers of SFWA and the people who run this blog! As per the usual, the bias, prejudice and downright racism and hate is once again apparent on this ugly SFWA site. By the way, Strauss and Crispin's publisher is Harper Collins and Rupert Murdock is their German owner with an oriental wife. So if he and his wife are "criminals" their background is not Italian , so stop taking people from other backgrounds and races, and then defaming people of Italian descent by using the word "mafia." THis blog is a disgrace to the literary world!! To put it mildly, a course in sensitivity training and diplomacy would benefit the obtuse untalented writers who misuse words and damage others because of their stupidity. THe next time they query an agent, just mention "Writer Beware" in the query letter and see how fast the rejection comes back!

Christine Tripp said...

Dear anon of Italian descent.
The term Mafia pertains to any brotherhood engaged in organized crime. While the terms roots may well have originated in Sicily it is used in reference to the Chinese Mafia, the Russian Mafia, the Irish Mafia, etc.
It is you that leapt to the conclusion that the mention of mafia equaled the Italian race:)

Victoria Strauss said...

Christine--I've left up one of your responses and deleted the other (as well as the response from Anonymous). Anonymous isn't a proud (though confused) individual of Italian descent; she's a troll who regularly visits this blog and posts anti-Writer Beware comments. I generally leave her comments up because they're funny, but I don't want them to hijack the discussion.

J. Conrad Guest said...

Frankly, I'd rather write than market or promote my work. My strength is creating novels, not creating ad campaigns.

The trouble with the digital age is that now anyone with a valid credit card can see their work in print. Which means they no longer have to learn the craft of writing. The rejection letter exists for a reason. But today, someone gets three rejection letters, gets offended that their not recognized as the next Hemingway, and immediately sets about self-publishing.

With more books in print today than readers, it's more difficult for the cream to rise to the top, in part, because everyone thinks they can write the American novel without having to learn how to write.

Christine Tripp said...

Victoria, I knew it was one of your usual trolls and really should of just ignored "it", walked away:) Thanks for deleting and keeping the blog on track! And, to that end...

J. Conrad Guest, I do agree. I think many writers (and Illustrators) would rather leave much of the non creative work to a professional (with the editor contacts we could never have) and get on with the next manuscript or Illustration. It's a good idea to LEARN everything one can about how the publishing industry works, about contract wording etc, I'm not saying stay ignorant of it all. You need to know at least the basics in order to side step the literary scammers in the first place. It's not an easy task to attract a good agency's interest though, so for a while at least many of us will have to survive on our wits.
It's also a very good idea to learn what an agent actually does and does not do even if you never wish to have one. It's all part and parcel of our career.
It is so much easier to print a book but I don't think self publishing, thus more titles on Amazon say, will stop great commercially published books from rising to the top of a readers list. Readers still tend to look to know publishers and trusted reviewers for their next book purchase. Books are not that cheap, readers are careful with their dollars.
There are some amazing self published books out there, and some great review blogs that readers are going to and trusting. I think there is room for both types of publishing but there is, as always, only room for quality work to become a success.

Bouskila said...

The scam agents in the past accepting everything are swindlers agencies. So be careful when you send you book for stude of representation. I will suggest you to ask different experiences and take opinions of agencies.

Anonymous said...

I am from South Africa and would like to know if SBPRA can be trusted they offered me a contract.

I receive weekly e-mails from Tom Wallace saying my work has potential is it a scam?

Anonymous said...

It's a crying-in-the-rain-barrel-shame when a hard working scammer can't even make a decent dishonest living these days! (Pulling my tongue out of my cheek, now.)