Thursday, December 15, 2005

Victoria Strauss -- More on Desperation

In my last post, I talked about a writer who knew better, but still paid $8,500 to an agent with no track record. I've gotten a number of comments, mostly from people who find it hard to believe that anyone could get so desperate. Why would this writer think that an agent with no track record could help her? Why would she keep trying to sell a manuscript that, given the number of rejections she'd received, was obviously unmarketable? How could anyone--whether or not they knew you shouldn't pay for representation--possibly rationalize handing over such a huge amount of money?

Actually, that aspect of the story boggled me too. It really is an enormous amount of money. Most bad agents ask for a few hundred, not thousands. But if even a few people can manage to rationalize $8,500, imagine how many are able to rationalize $150 or $300 or even $550. Especially when the agent who's asking for the fee is the first person to say good things about their work, to confirm what they've known all along, despite all those other agents who ignored them or told them different--that their manuscript is publishable.

But why would a writer think that an agent with no track record could sell her book? That's an interesting question, which I'll discuss in a future post (the short answer is that many people, who wouldn't consider hiring an accountant without asking for a CV or employing a building contractor without checking references, are willing to accept a literary agent on the basis of promises and a good attitude). In this case, the agent lied about his credentials, with a bio on his website that presented an impressive list of accomplishments.

Of course, his claims of books and scripts sold to major publishers and production companies weren't supported by any verifiable detail--no book or film titles, no publishers' or producers' names. But while it's easy to say that writers should always do their own research to make sure such claims are true, really, how many of us are that suspicious? Sure, I am. And maybe you are. But plenty of us are not. The agent is a professional. He, or she, is the expert. Who are we to dispute what he or she says? If an agent who has expressed enthusiasm for our work tells us that he's sold six books to Random House in the past year, how many of us will ask for titles and authors so we can check up on him, and how many of us will say, "Random House! That's great!"

Also, unless you have quite a bit of experience in tracking these things down, it's not so easy to find out about an agent's track record if he doesn't list specifics on his website or at a venue like Publishers Marketplace. Especially when you're desperate, it's a whole lot easier to take the agent's claims at face value.

How desperate do you have to be, though, to keep trying with a manuscript that has been rejected and rejected and rejected? Why (especially in preference to handing over a huge sum of money) wouldn't you put your rejected manuscript in a drawer and try again with a new one? To put it another way...at what point do you trade belief in your work--your brainchild, your lifeblood, the sweat of your brow--for an acceptance of failure?

Belief in one's work is essential to the process of seeking publication. Without it, we couldn't endure rejection at all, let alone keep submitting. But what divides a true certainty of one's own talent, as in those inspiring stories of writers who persevered through years of rejection and then went on to make it big, from self-deception? How can we know the difference? Should we know the difference? And how seductive is it when an agent--any agent, even a fee-charging one--confirms our belief in ourselves with enthusiastic praise and an offer of representation? At that point, especially if we've been turned down again and again, the line between belief and desperation is very thin indeed.

Desperation is insidious. It twists our perceptions, often in ways we don't consciously recognize. It makes us do things we shouldn't--even things we know we shouldn't. It encourages us to compromise, to settle for less. Maybe we wouldn't pay $8,500. But would we pay $100? Maybe we wouldn't sign with an agent who'd never sold a book. But would we sign with a marginal agent? Maybe we wouldn't seek out a book doctor. But would we pay editing fees to an apparently professional agent who promised she could make our manuscript publishable? Those of us who are well-educated about the publication process, who understand the warning signs and have the research skills, are better defended--but we shouldn't become complacent, because in this bruising business, all of us are vulnerable.

6 comments:

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I can't understand that kind of desperation, so I don't know what motivates them. Probably the same thing that makes people self-publish!

Great discussion!

Anne Merril said...

There are still a lot of writers out there who believe that "agents are not taking on new clients" and "publishers are not publishing out of the slush pile anymore".

It's quite sad; they obviously haven't opened their eyes to the numbers of new authors that are popping up in bookstore shelves every day.

These are the sort of people who fall into this trap. They believe their work has a right to be published. When they don't get gratification from agents and publishers, they say the system is broken and turn to VP.

What can you do?

Liz said...

I understand the desperation but I think it's combined with a lack of understanding about the publishing business. When I had less than a dozen form rejections, I had a most interesting phone conversation with Bill Appel. He knew exactly what to say to a discouraged writer and spoke with authority when he told me that no one gets published without going through an editing service. He claimed times had changed and the truth was that no one could get an agent or a publisher through the old query method. The conversation took place in December and, although he was certainly convincing and had me wondering if he could possibly be correct, his fatal mistake was telling me that he would cut me a break on the price if I could have $1,000 to him in 3 days. It was all I could do not to laugh at him. But our conversation taught me how slick these people are. I can see how he convinced people that he was the direct route to being published.

I think the people who are the easiest targets for these scams are the ones who haven't joined writing groups or educated themselves about the business of publishing.

A. C. Crispin said...

Vic, that was one of the most cogent, insightful posts I've ever seen on the subject of why people turn to writing scams.

Thank you so much for making it.

I think some of the problem deals with the fact that people feel "out of control" when trying to sell to a commercial publisher or land a real agent.

Scammers tell them that there are things they can do to regain control over the fate of their manuscript, and that's what they want to hear.

Just as you have, I've talked with dozens, if not a hundred or more, scam victims. The best scammers have an uncanny ability to recognize and act on a person's weaknesses. They are very perceptive in some ways.

At least we know from the threats to sue us that we're helping turn at least some victims away from the scammers -- no matter how desperate they are.

-Ann

Victoria Strauss said...

And speaking of threats, we got another cease & desist today. Tee hee! Bring 'em on!

I agree that writers who've bought into the popular writers' myths, or who aren't educated about the business of publishing, are much more vulnerable to scammers and incompetents. This is the popular image of the scam victim; it's what leads some people to blame the victim, or to see the scam world as natural selection in action. It's also (I think) a kind of self-defense mechanism, because if I tell myself that all scam victims are dumb or ignorant, I'm all the more certain that it could never happen to me.

But I've talked to enough writers over the years to know it ain't so. Plenty of people really do know better, but get scammed anyway. As Ann says, the scammers have an often uncanny ability to target people's weaknesses. They also offer (or seem to offer, because they're usually lying) recognition and praise. For people whose usual experience with agents is a form rejection, that's a powerful thing.

Speaking of Bill Appel...there's one now very well-known author who, after many rejections for her unusual first novel, sent him a check for editing. Within days, she got an offer of representation from a top agent. Luckily she was able to stop payment. But if she hadn't gotten that offer, who knows?

kbee said...

"Why would this writer think that an agent with no track record could help her? Why would she keep trying to sell a manuscript that, given the number of rejections she'd received, was obviously unmarketable?"

Great post, and great question. We were having a conversation sort of on this topic in a writers group last night. A couple of the folks have "POD's," and said that they'd gone that route after receiving a wall full of rejections. My personal opinion is that, if one has received a wall full of rejections, the project either needs to be substantially rewritten or abandoned, and certainly not inflicted on a generally innocent audience. I tried to say this tactfully, and also talked a little about individuals needing to know whether or not they should be writing at all, too. Maybe they'd be better off pursuing the perfect recipe or soccer game or song, or some other muse. I don't think they got my point. Ah, well...

This does bring up a discussion point, though. (You may have already covered this -- I'm new.) How many rejections are "too many." In other words, at what point can an aspiring writer know with a fairly high degree of certainty that a project needs to be rewritten or abandoned? Is there a ballpark number of rejections?

Thanks for all you do!