Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Agent from Hell and the Top Six Scams Targeting Writers

Pity the poor writers who chose the Deering Literary Agency of Nicholasville, Kentucky, to represent them. According to The Seattle Times, the founder of the agency, Dorothy Deering, was:
an out-of-work bookkeeper saddled with a felony embezzlement conviction. By 1987, she had written a science-fiction novel and been swindled by three "fee agents" who promised to find her a publisher. Rather than react bitterly, though, she was inspired to start a new career: Taking advantage of aspiring writers just like her. 
Deering persuaded her clients to pay her thousands of dollars to edit, print, publish, and promote their books.  Most ended up, in the words of The Washington Post, with "no book, no life savings, no nothing." 

Thirteen years after she launched her agency, Deering achieved the distinction of becoming the first U.S. literary agent to be convicted of mail fraud.  She was sentenced to 46 months in prison, and she and her confederates were ordered to repay more than $2 million in restitution to the hundreds of authors they had bilked.

Criminal law professor and ex-FBI agent, James Fisher, recounted the tale of Deering's literary grifterism in Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell The title refers to the ten percent royalties that the authors were promised on sales of theirs books. According to The Christian Scientist Monitor, only about six of the 200 books that the Deering Agency contracted to publish ever made it into print.  

But Deering and her accomplices are by no means the only practitioners of this "genteel racket."  Fisher estimated that, in1999, more than 10,000 gullible writers forked over more than $50 million to dishonest literary agents.  The Post called it "one of the dark, ugly secrets of the American publishing industry."

The Top Six Literary Scams

Many writers would give their eye teeth to be published, and there are plenty of scammers ready to take them. Here are six classic literary scams.

Scam 1:  The pay-to-publish companies that (a) charge vastly excessive fees to print your work, (b) produce a shoddy product or no product at all, and/or (c) make misleading claims about their capabilities to market your book, distribute it to bookstores, and have it reviewed. Particularly in these days of do-it-yourself ebooks, the economics and advisability self-publishing are a complex subject.  A very few authors make decent money by publishing their own books, but the vast majority never come close to earning back their investment.  Most authors are probably well-advised to focus their efforts on honing their craft, finding an honorable agent, and moving heaven and earth to place their work with a conventional publisher that reliably pays royalties and (one hopes) an advance.  If you can't find a conventional publisher and crave an audience for your work, the Internet can often provide a community of readers virtually for free.  (But see this earlier post on the implications of Internet publication.) Suffice it to say that if you're planning to pay to have your work published, do a lot of comparison shopping and carefully investigate the track records of companies you are considering. And if you're paying to publish, you should retain all rights (except the strictly limited non-exclusive right to print copies pursuant to your specific authorization).

Scam 2:  Agents Who Charge Up-Front Fees.  The  fees are variously styled as "reading fees," "representation fees," "evaluation fees," "retainers," or "marketing fees."  But whatever they are called, they are a bad deal for writers.  Agents should make their money by selling your work, not by charging you to read your work. Indeed, the Code of Ethics of the Association of Authors Representatives ("AAR") expressly states that "literary agents should not charge clients and potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works in the ordinary course of business."  Here is a list of AAR member agents.  And here is an older Neil Gaiman post on literary agents.

Scam 3.  "Book Doctors" Who Are Quacks.  Using ghost writers, book doctors, and freelance editors is, of course, a longstanding tradition in publishing.  (See this quite wonderful profile of Sarah Palin's ghost.)  There is nothing wrong with it, provided your doctor is talented, reliable, reasonably priced, and willing to enter into a written agreement specifying exactly what she will do, when she will do it, how much she will be paid, how the relationship can be terminated if it doesn't work out, and that she has no rights whatsoever in the finished work.  See this earlier post on the importance of collaboration agreements.  Regrettably, many writers saddle themselves with expensive quacks who are unable to produce a work worthy of publication and, worse still, place a cloud over the ownership rights in the manuscript. 

The genius of the Deering Literary Agency was that it managed to combine the perverse elements of items 1 through 3 above.

Scam 4. (Some But Not All) Pay-To-Play Writing Contests.  There are all too many writing contests where the sponsor is simply trying to make a profit on entry fees; there is no honor, no glory in winning (assuming that a winner is even selected).  Here again the line is not entirely bright.  Some quite respectable contests and awards do require modest entry fees.  But you should be very leery of paying to enter a contest that you've never heard of.  And be especially skeptical of contests that require you to assign to the contest operator any publishing rights in your work (much less exclusive publishing rights), particularly if your work is not even the winner.  The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America ("SFWA") offers some good guidelines for assessing contests here.  And here is a post from on spotting a bad poetry contest.

Scam 5.  Pay-To-Publish Anthologies.  These are similar to profit-making contests.  You submit a poem or short story; you are notified that your work has been selected for inclusion; and you pressured to buy several copies of the (expensive) book in which your piece is presumably going to appear.  The anthology, if it is published at all, crams in hundreds of poems or stories of no consistent distinction.  Here's what the SFWA says about what are, in effect, vanity anthologies.

Scam 6:  The Classic Deadbeat.  But the ultimate scourge of freelancers is the person or company that hires you to write and never pays (or cynically bargains you down to a sum far lower than was originally promised).  There is no way to completely protect yourself against the deadbeat other than demanding full payment up-front -- an arrangement to which few writing clients will ever agree.  Beyond that, key defensive strategies are to get your financial agreement in writing, try to arrange for interim installment payments and kill fees, and provide in your agreement that rights in your work not transferred unless and until you are paid in full.  The American Society of Journalists and Authors "Getting Paid" webpage offers good advice on strategies for dealing with late payers and non-payers.

"Writer Beware"

The SFWA and Mystery Writers of America maintain the excellent Writer Beware webpages (some of which I've linked to above) that promise to "shine a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls."  Writer Beware offers detailed discussions of unethical agency practices, fly-by-night publishers, contest scams, vanity press abuses, rip-off services for writers, and Twenty-First Century swindles such as overpriced ebook self-publishing and print-on-demand services. The site includes lists of "two thumbs down" agents and publishers.  And there is a Writers Beware Blog that "provides up-to-the-minute information on specific scams and schemes."  The information is accessible to all -- not just to SFWA members.

"Contract Watch"

The American Society of Journalists and Authors offers an excellent "Contract Watch" feature on its website that focuses on scammy (or otherwise unfair) provisions in book, periodical, and online publishing agreements. 

"The Street Smart Writer"

Writer Jenna Glatzer and Maryland-based lawyer Daniel Steven co-authored a feisty book entitled The Street Smart Writer: Self Defense Against Sharks and Scams in the Writing World Glatzer and Steven cover in detail many of the subjects briefly touched on in this post: pay-to-publish vanity press deals; deceptive writing contests; pay-to-read agents. They also have chapters on  "After Publication Rip-Offs for Book Authors," "Special Screw-Overs for Screenwriters," "Dealing with Deadbeats," and "What To Do If You've Been Screwed."  This is not a book for the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan, who already have access to great agents and lawyers.  But if you're a novelist or poet struggling to break into print or or scrappy non-fiction freelancer continually searching for paying markets for your work, this is a practical self-defense guide with a surprisingly upbeat tone.  Well worth a couple of hours of your time.

Other Anti-Scam Resources on the Web

A few years back, Chicago-based thriller writer Joe Konrath wrote this blog entry on writing scams; it remains one of the better short summaries of the subject, and it has attracted scads of interesting comments from readers. His basic message: "don't pay anyone any money for anything"; but, "if you do, do so knowing the risks involved."  Literary agent Barbara Doyen has also posted a series of articles on scams targeting writers.

Jim Fisher, who chronicled the exploits of the Deering Literary Agency in Ten Percent of Nothing maintains a website with a section on publishing scams.  His "20 Tips on How To Assess a Literary Agent" contains especially pragmatic advice.  Here, by the way, is a Bookslut interview with Fisher.

The amusingly named Preditors & Editors site identifies publishers, contests, and agents that have been the subject of writers' complaints.  Of course, writers who complain are not always in the right; there may be another side to some of the stories.  But it is certainly worth checking online evaluation sites for comments when you are dealing with a new and unfamiliar outlet for your work.


  1. That was great! Of course I knew about not paying any up-front fees but some of the others were new to me... especially in regard to getting paid! Thanks for this information :)

  2. Many writers would give their eye teeth to be published, and there are plenty of scammers ready to take them. Here are six classic literary scams.

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