Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Deconstructing an Agent’s Website

There's a new literary agent in town, boys and girls. His name is Henry Santsaver, and his agency is called, rather generically, Literary Associates. Here's his page on Publishers Marketplace. Here's the agency's website.

Anyone’s who’s read my posts on the qualifications an agent needs or fake track records should be able to spot the red flags in the Publishers Marketplace listing. Anyone who’s read my post on evaluating an agent’s website or found the thread about Mr. Santsaver on Absolute Write should be able to analyze the warning signs on the agency’s website. Nevertheless, I’m getting quite a few questions about whether or not Mr. Santsaver is “legitimate” (a term I’m liking less and less these days; I’ll do a post on that soon), so I think a deconstruction is in order.

First, Publishers Marketplace. Unlike many amateur agents, Mr. Santsaver isn’t wise enough simply to stay mum about his professional background. “As a former English college professor Mr. Santsaver began finding good writers in his classes. He has been an editor of Brain Science publications under his own label Daytona House, and has begun an agressive campaign to find southern writers in both trade fiction and literary fiction. He has been a timely reviewer for several APA published educational journals as well as a contributing editor for other publishing needs.” In other words, Mr. Santsaver has no verifiable professional publishing or agenting credentials (websearches for Brain Science Publications and Daytona House turn up zilch). For why that's important, see the agent qualifications post linked in above.

Under Most Recent Sales/Forthcoming Books, Mr. Santsaver lists two books and two screenplays, none of which can be found on Amazon.com, on publishers’ lists of forthcoming books, in recent sales reports from sources like Publishers Lunch--or anywhere else. Sales that can’t be verified are pretty much the same as no sales at all. (And yes, Mr. Santsaver's agency does appear to be new, and new agencies take a little while [though not longer than a year] to start making sales--but that brings us back to the need for a relevant professional background.)

Let’s take a look at Mr. Santsaver's website. Here’s where things get silly.

We're on Page One. What's the first thing we notice, after the generic free clip art at the top? IT'S ALL IN CAPS!!! Okay, so this is not Scam Sign Number One. It is, however, pretty unprofessional--as is the poorly-written pitch for a wide variety of manuscripts. And I don't know about you, but I start to feel uneasy when someone tells me that they have my "best interests at heart."

"PLEASE READ OUR CONTRACTS ARTICLE ON THE HOME PAGE," Page One shouts, "OUR MOST REQUESTED SUBJECT." This abysmally ignorant article could not possibly have been written by anyone with publishing industry experience, or even someone who'd done a minimal amount of research--except, possibly, as satire. Among other things, the author (presumably Mr. Santsaver) wants us to believe in the existence of something called a "done deal memo," supposedly issued by an editor when she decides to buy a manuscript. Authors and editors, have you ever seen or issued a “done deal memo?” I sure haven't. (Apparently, this memo is then “handed to the parties concerned in the publisher’s contracts department where it is used as an outline for the formal contract." But contracts aren't created from scratch with every literary project; most publishers use a standard, though negotiable, contract boilerplate.)

Once the contract is signed, "a voucher is issued, directing the accounts payable folks to cut a check for your advance payment. This check then goes to the controller or authority in charge of disbursements to sign. Then this ‘advance’ is mailed to the agent who removes his ten percent and mails the other ninty [sic] percent to you. After returned books that did not sell are subtracted from the company accounts, the final royalty check owed by the publisher is mailed to the payee, [sic]” How many inaccuracies can you cram into a single paragraph? Publishers don’t issue advances as single lump sums--they chop advances up into halves, or thirds, or even fifths, so they can have the use of your money for as long as possible. Agents don’t charge ten percent (reputable agents, that is)--they charge fifteen. Mr. Santsaver also doesn't appear to have heard of reserves against returns.

After some twaddle about what it takes for a ms. to sell and what genres are currently in demand (random information plucked from the air, intended to make Mr. Santsaver look like an "expert") the article winds things up with with the understatement of the decade ("Some hardback and paperback publishers have been bought out by large media conglomerates…" Er…not just "some," bud) and concludes, inscrutably: “Contracts come email.”

Highlights from other sections of the website:

From the Published Authors page: "Our commissions are the normal rate in the publishing, agent, author business triangle. Depending on the contract we range from five percent for best sellers to ten percent for normal trade contracts." Ummm...so Mr. Santsaver is clairvoyant, and knows about those bestsellers ahead of time so he can offer that 5% contract? And imagines that bestsellers get different contracts from "normal trade" books? And thinks that 5%-10% is "the normal rate?" Oh dear. (I love the business triangle, though.)

"Please do not hesitate to contract us by email OR PHONE if you have a publishing need or question," the Publishers page urges. That's right, Mr. Publisher--we're waiting for you to come to us! Please call soon. We're getting lonely.

The Submissions page (which badly badly needs some of the "editing that is minor in nature this we do free for everyone” that the agency offers to submitters) imparts this inexplicable advice: "Above all get ten people to read your ms and someone at the local paper to review it." Hmmm.

As for the Prepublication Reviewers page, I’m still marveling that anyone would imagine that readers “with credentials” would be attracted by this pitch: “We want to send you a manuscript of [sic] screenplay for an honest review that we think has promise; [sic--and what is it that has promise, the review or the manuscript?] We find exciting fiction and nonfiction writers who need opinionated marketing reviews for their efforts. There is no payment involved. And you might discover a new screenwriter or author who might never get published without your help. Also you may want to quote their work in your own publication or paper.”

As for the two major things you DO want to see on an agent's website--a list of recent sales and CV's of the member agents? No sign of 'em. Nada. Zip.

I should say that despite a number of questions about “legitimacy," Writer Beware has so far gotten no complaints about Mr. Santsaver or Literary Associates. We may never get any complaints--it may very well be that Mr. Santsaver is well-intentioned (many questionable agents are) and that he doesn’t charge fees (many amateur agents don’t). Why am I picking on him, then, rather than lambasting a real scammer who cynically exploits writers' ignorance and rips them off for thousands of dollars? Because he's clueless…and for a writer, “clueless” and “scammer” mean almost exactly the same thing: NO SALE.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice job Victoria. Keep up the good work. A bad agent is worse than no agent.

Dave (the1dsquared at the absolutewrite water cooler)

Anonymous said...

Could Phil Benedict possibly resurfaced as Henry? The resume and style seems so familiar.

Kristen Painter said...

Just curious what you guys think of this agency:
http://www.starworld-literary.com/index.html

Dave Kuzminski said...

Well, they have an editing service. Though it's listed on their self-publishing page, that doesn't mean it can't be recommended to other clients. P&E already has criteria established for rating that. They'll be listed real soon.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Hmmm, an agency that offers editing. Well, we'll get them listed soon, but they might not like it.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Argh, the first post gave me an error and didn't post. Now it shows up as posted.

Eldheni said...

And as if that isn't bad enough...they don't even spell check their own copy! Note PAGE ONE: "DO YOU HAVE A BREAKTHOUGH NOVEL COMPLETED?"

Tsk tsk tsk.

A. J. Luxton said...

Is there some unspoken rule that scam and gormless agencies have to have the word "Literary" in their names? I'm starting to wonder about this, especially since the post about good and bad agency websites -- note the title of each agency in that one . . .

Bernita said...

Though he may not be a scammer in the usual sense, ie with a mens rea, he appears to be something else - a time thief.

Sam said...

Is this for real?
I thought maybe you and Ann dreamed this up for a 'hands on' lesson about what to watch out for...
I mean, Marlon Brando?
LOL!
Come on,
'fess up!

Bernita said...

Would any "former English professor" who allows "receive" to be spelled "recieve" on his website be "legitimate?"

Victoria Strauss said...

We don't need to make this stuff up! The Henry Santsavers of the world do it for us.

Kristen asked what we think about StarWorld Literary Agency. It fails the two really important tests: are sales listed on the site? (No.) Is there information on the member agents? (No. Not even their names.) Reason enough to give these folks a miss--even without taking into account the fact that they sell "consultant services" to aspiring authors (a conflict of interest), and the extreme improbability of a "publishing law practice" that provides no names or contact info for the members of the firm--oh and by the way, the firm doesn't appear to have a name (or an address) either. How likely is that?

Other warning signs: they accept every genre known to man. They waste space on silly stuff: a list of stupid genre definitions, a fatuous "Vision Statement."

My guess is that the "consulting" packages are their real business, and the other stuff is just bait.

December Quinn said...

My favorite part of the Star World site is the typo in "Book Poposals 101":

You want to make an editor say, "I need to read this book?"

Cheryl Mills said...

Wow. I love the Submissions page and the way the items are numbered. Must have decided to drop items 2 and 3. Or just believes that 4 follows 1. Yeah, edit ME, please!

ColoradoGuy said...

I love the line on his Publishers Marketplace page in which he describes himself as "a former English college professor." What? So he's from England? Maybe he taught cell biology (and not English)? Or maybe he isn't English anymore?

Anonymous said...

It gets even better. On the published author page they say:
We Do NOT USE AUTHOR'S NAMES AT ANY TIME TO SOLICIT BUSINESS


That would be crappy business practice. You need to tell which works you sold and who wrote them, but that's nowhere near as bad as lying. If they don't use your name then where did the Publisher Marketplace listing info about their sales came from?

Anonymous said...

Among other things, the author (presumably Mr. Santsaver) wants us to believe in the existence of something called a "done deal memo," supposedly issued by an editor when she decides to buy a manuscript. Authors and editors, have you ever seen or issued a “done deal memo?”

Actually, yes. It is not sent to the Contracts dept., however, nor does the author receive a copy. It's simply a slightly formalized way of keeping track of the negotiation notes. Often I scribble things on scrap paper while on the phone (yes, really!), but if you want to get fancy, many houses have a basic checklist sort of form (noting royalty rates, payout splits, subrights, etc.) that you would use to record what you & the agent agreed upon during negotiations.

In my experience, this "deal memo" is used as a template for you or the poor assistant drafting the CIS, or Contract Information Sheet -- which is the real formal "deal memo" that is routed to Contracts. And no, the author doesn't get a copy of that either -- why would they? The CIS provides all of the details about the contract that were *negotiated* for this particular deal that Contracts needs to draft the actual contract. They use basic boilerplate to draft the bulk of the contract, yes, but various points change depending on the negotiation -- such as royalty rate thresholds, payout, subrights that the house owns vs. what the author retains, option language, obviously territories, and any special clauses (like cover consulation, for instance).

So he's not making up the "deal memo" completely -- he's just not entirely clear on exactly what a deal memo is. At least not as I've encountered it. In fairness, I must grant him points for being close, however.

-Juliet U.

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for explaining that, Juliet. Very helpful!

Miss Snark said...

I've used the phrase "deal memo" on my blog but I don't think it's an industry standard term.

I use it to describe the informal list I keep of negotiating points we hammered out before it goes to the contracts dept. and to make sure that the boilerplate gets changed to what we agreed to.

I don't ever send this deal memo to the editor but I do send it to clients to say "here's what we've got on the basics, are you ok with this."

Jill said...

So far I have received two replies from Santsaver, both favorable, inasmuch as they offered invaluable advice on how to make my book marketable. They suggested books on writing to study and writing exercises to do, and to send them my updates. They advised that hyperbole is what is needed for today's market. That confused me as per prior advice I had just toned down and tossed out all such hype, adverbs, adjectives, descriptions and plot details. I restored the hype and liked the fast pace and wordiness. At the end of the email was the statement that as they are overwhelmed with manuscripts they are not accepting any more at the present time. Well, I got some writing lessons and kind words from Santsaver, far more than I've ever got from most of the other agents I've queried.

Jill said...

So far I have received two replies from Santsaver, both favorable, inasmuch as they offered invaluable advice on how to make my book marketable. They suggested books on writing to study and writing exercises to do, and to send them my updates. They advised that hyperbole is what is needed for today's market. That confused me as per prior advice I had just toned down and tossed out all such hype, adverbs, adjectives, descriptions and plot details. I restored the hype and liked the fast pace and wordiness. At the end of the email was the statement that as they are overwhelmed with manuscripts they are not accepting any more at the present time. Well, I got some writing lessons and kind words from Santsaver, far more than I've ever got from most of the other agents I've queried.

Jill said...

Re the above email comment from Jill. The actual words used by Santsaver were: "Hyperbole is necessary for today's readers. Anyway that's our feeling here." and "Enjoy your studies, but as of now we are backed up with MS to read...Thanks and keep writing."