Stealing Heaven From The Lips Of God
Writer & Artist, Dee Rimbaud reflects upon politics, religion, art, poetry, the meaning of life,
the nature of God and why toast always lands butter side down on carpets.
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(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)
Monday, April 11, 2005 Agent scams I've taken myself seriously as a writer for forty years. 37 years ago my short fiction began appearing in literary magazines, the first of my writing to hit the marketplace. So I've seen a lot come down in the ol' "lit biz." I say this because never have I seen so many scams aimed at parting beginning writers from their money as today.
A book that touches upon several facets of this is Jim Fisher's Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell, which is must reading for any beginning writer ready to enter the marketplace. Detailing the fraudulent career of The Dorothy Deering Literary Agency and her subsequent publishing ventures, this book looks at a huge literary fraud perpetrated only a decade ago. And today the waters are no safer -- in fact, the scams have become more subtle and refined.
Let me begin with some excerpts from this revealing book.
[Deering] wasn't in the literary business because she liked books. She was in it because she liked money. ... Dorothy was not in the business of selling manuscripts; she was in the business of selling clients on the idea she was selling manuscripts. She had a problem because she was so good at the latter and so bad at the former. Eventually, clients had to catch on, and when they did, they became liabilities. Dorothy had to find some way to kiss off clients she could no longer milk.
Deering charged marketing fees. This was the source of her income.
Who would have believed it was easier getting money out of people this way than by selling cars? You sent them a letter, and they sent you money. Thank God for writers.
Then a creative crook in Canada came up with the concept of "joint publishing," a camouflage for vanity publishing. Dorothy first partnered with the firm, sending them her clients.
The deal was this: Jim Van Treese would become a silent partner in the Deering Literary Agency. NPI would be pitched to every Deering client -- past, present, and future. As a clandestine representative of Northwest Publishing, Dorothy would receive from Van Treese an annual salary of ninety thousand, her office rent paid, new computers, and money to hire more personnel to handle the additional paperwork. Dorothy nearly fell out ofher chair at that offer, but there was more: Van Treese would pay Dorothy a 10-percent finder's fee on every Joint venre deal that came through her agency. And for every ten deals she brokered, he would allow her to give one of her clients a standard, nonvanity contract. This would allow her to claim that not all of her published clients had signed joint venture deals. From his experience with his other agent partners, Van Treese expected Dorothy to take this offer for books she and her friends had written, which is exactly what she would do.
The deal was so sweet, Dorothy got greedy and decided to found her own joint-venture company. Her agency could send her own clients to herself.
The Deering Literary Agency and Sovereign Publications, a pair of companies that produced nothing in the way of services or products, firms supported entirely by Dorothy's client base, provided good-paying jobs for Dorothy, Chuck, Chuck's three sons, and Dorothy's son Michael to the tune of about $250,000 per year. ... Being accepted by Sovereign was like getting into drunk driving school. Congratulations. Richardsons statement that "no accepted manuscript will languish on the desk of some obscure editor" was true. Sovereign's own obscure editor, Stephanie Baker, was buried under a mountain of the unread books "accepted" by the "editorial department." Instead of languishing on her desk, they were stacked against the walls of her office. Millions and millions of words, each carefully considered, were lying on top of each other in an office in Nicholasville, Kentucky, while their authors waited anxiously for them to be read and commented on by Sovereign's unobscure editors. They might as well have been waiting for a bus to Mars. ... BY JANUARY 1998, WRITERS WHO HAD BEEN WAITING months for some evidence -- edited manuscripts, galleys, cover art -- that their books were being published, were screaming bloody murder. The telephones at Sovereign and the literary agency were constantly ringing, and no one wanted to pick up the phone and catch hell from another crazed author.
With the Internet, Deering found more ways to get money from wannabe writers.
[A writer] could purchase six months of Web-site exposure for $375 or pay $575 for a year's worth. He bought the $575 package, bringing his total investment in the Deering Agency to $1,250. To determine what his $575 had bought him, [he] kept checking the Deering Web site. Not only wasn't his or any other manuscript featured, the Web site itself was a mishmash of misspellings and bad grammar.
Slowly some of the thousands of writers deceived by Deering began to compare notes and get wise. First Writer's Digest published an alert against the agency.
In November 1997, Kimberly Reese, an unpublished writer from west Texas who had dealt with a series of fee agents she believed were bogus, created a Web site called the Write Connection. Reese wanted to protect writers like herself from unscrupulous agents, book doctors, and publishers. In addition to providing general information and advice, she hoped to compile a list of literary enterprises aspiring writers should avoid. To help her with this roster of bad apples, she turned to published novelists Ann C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss, members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Through SFWA, Strauss and Crispin had been collecting and cataloguing written complaints about a growing group of fee agents, book doctors, and joint venture publishers such as Northwest, Commonwealth, and Sovereign. Using this . The Write Connection quickly became a safe harbor for aspiring writers. ... In November , two months after Sovereign bit the dust, Kimberly Reese, under a blistering attack from dozens of agents on her Web site's disapproval list, shut down the Write Connection. She couldn't afford to hire a lawyer to fend off the threatened lawsuits. That she held on so long under such hostile conditions revealed her commitment to helping writers spot the charlatans. She was a pioneer and, in the world of the aspiring writer, a hero.
When the FBI investigated Deering, she had answers for everything.
Dorothy informed the agent that over the past ten years, she had learned a lot about writers. As creative people, they had big imaginations. They also tended to be self-centered and, when they didn't get what they wanted, could be unreasonable and even cruel.
Poor baby. To summarize, Deering went to jail. But she has plans when she gets out.
Dorothy Deering was not your ordinary swindler. She was a con artist, an impostor. That she had taken so much money from so many writers for so long, without changing her name, moving great distances, or altering the identity of her enterprise, shows how good she was at selling herself and the dream of being published. Her own dream of leading the life of a literary agent and publisher collapsed when she could no longer maintain the illusion of legitimacy. One can only speculate how much longer Dorothy could have sustained her fantasy life had she not decided to impersonate a publisher. Unlike her literary clients, her Sovereign victims had purchased more than just an illusion. Books are tangible objects. They either exist or do not exist. Dorothy could manufacture the dream but not the book. She crept into her victims' lives and took more than their money. She stole their dreams, their confidence, and their self-respect. She was worse than the ordinary thief; she was every writer's nightmare. ... In December 2001, when this writer visited Dorothy at the federal prison camp at Lexington, she walked without a limp, spoke softly, and made it clear that being in prison was a living hell. According to Dorothy, her fellow inmates were having sex, fighting with each other, or getting drunk on readily available booze. She had been threatened many times and called a racist. The only bright spots in her life were the letters she regularly received from Chuck and the periodic writing workshops she held at the prison. Her writing seminars had been so popular, she was thinking about starting a correspondence school for aspiring writers once she got out.
Does this happen today? Oh, yes. But often not as blatantly.
Not long ago I received an email out of the blue, which began this way.
Your website is phenomenal. I greatly admire your work and would like to be your literary agent. I am an ambitious young literary agent who has recently launched my own agency.
"My website" is my archive at the University of North Carolina, a considerable collection of previously published/produced and unpublished/unproduced work, a record of almost half a century of writing. Like most writers in the world, I've had marginal success along the way but am not "a star" in a culture that depends on them. This was exciting news. I made a knee-jerk response, telling the agent that, in fact, I had just finished a mystery novel for which I sought representation. The agent fired back that she wanted to read it.
What wonderful timing. I handle both fiction and non-fiction. I would be delighted to work with you on this mystery series.
I shared the news with my wife, of course. This is too good to be true, she said. It must be a scam. What's the catch?
This agent remains unnamed since I don't want to have to hire a lawyer and enter a legal battle (but I will furnish the name privately upon request). Here let me call her The Snow White Literary Agency. I did two things: I began a correspondence and I began researching her on the web.
Meanwhile, I heard back on the novel so quickly that it was amazing Snow White had had a time to read it. I believe now that she actually didn't read it.
"Dead Body in a Small Room: A Dallas Norgood Mystery" is incredible. You have created a highly original plot that is laced with drama, suspense and intrigue. I would be proud to be the literary agent for this wonderful novel.
Well, I thought the novel needed another polish at least. This was happening too quickly. And all the praise here was so general -- it could apply to anything. Yet we all love to be praised. But red flags were going up.
The contract she had sent (already) as an attachment to the praise of the novel had no escape clause. I mentioned this, and she quickly agreed to add one. The contract also mentioned a monthly marketing fee never to exceed $50. This, of course, was fishy -- but at the same time, clients were responsible for charges like postage (usually subtracted from royalties), and more and more legitimate agencies were charging them up front to first time authors. This, it seems to me, is the camouflage of this scam -- modest fees of a kind legitimate agencies are beginning to use. You need hundreds of clients to make this work, of course. It seemed Snow White was busy getting them.
Another red flag was that she had responded to the novel and to my request for a contract change but not to direct questions I had asked -- she seemed to be very selective in replying to email. I flat out had told her my wife thought she was running a scam -- and asked her for info I could give my wife to settle her down. In the meantime, I learned that Snow White had been associated with two previous literary agencies (the implication in her first email being a lie, therefore), both of which had been warned against on websites that had followed in the tradition of Write Connection above. The science fiction writer Victoria Strauss was involved in one, still helping writers. I also met other writers who were being wooed by Snow White. And then I met a writer who had signed with her -- to represent three short stories.
This was the biggest red flag of all. I'm aware of no legitimate agent who handles single short stories or poems from new writers. The market simply isn't there. To do this, one obviously is depending on marketing fees.
Meanwhile Snow White wrote to ask where the signed contract was. She repeated some boilerplate background info, actually the third time she had sent identical paragraphs in an email. I wrote back that I was still waiting for answers to the questions I had posed in my early email.
I heard from a writer whose husband was a lawyer and who was being wooed. She'd asked for a list of clients and references and received back a whining letter about how rude she was, and Snow White withdrew the offer of a book contract.
The short story writer who signed a contract refuses to believe Snow White is not legitimate. She let him add starting and ending dates to his contract. He'll still be paying the monthly marketing fee, and apparently he doesn't understand the reality of the short story marketplace. He insists she's actually a legitimate agent.
Well, maybe she is. Maybe she's just overly enthusiastic. Maybe she thinks she can do what other agents can't, like market single short stories from unknowns. A lot of work for ten percent of not much money, but what the hell. Maybe Snow White is an honest, nice person -- she does say "have a wonderful day" a lot in her emails. Maybe she repeats herself because so many writers are contacting her she can't keep them straight. Maybe she is sincere.
Maybe I'm Elvis.
The moral is, check out the track record of agents and be doubly cautious when up front fees are asked for, no matter how small. Yes, they are becoming more and more prevalent -- but make sure if asked for, they come from an agency with a sales record. Victoria Strauss had written me that this agent had been around since 2000 but had no sales record that she could find; also, many writers complained about her practices.
Finally, beware of extraordinary praise of your work. You actually may not be as good as the agent thinks you are. Even old farts who should know better can fall for this one.
4/11/2005 06:02:00 AM |
Hey! I got it to work on this computer! WOOHOO!
Anyway, I wondered if this particular letter was what you were talking about in the "details later" post...
Makes me glad to be a composer (although sometime author and playwright - I was both before music). Sometimes I wish composers of "serious" music could have agents to market our work (would make the job SO much easier), but we are mostly represented by Publishers.
And really, all I think the Union (or Guild, whichever it really is) does in the end is make sure we get our Royalties.
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