Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Another Scammer Bites the Big One

In 1999, I started getting complaints about a guy with the unfortunate name of George Harrison Titsworth, who ran an agency called Helping Hand Literary Service in San Angelo, Texas. Mr. Titsworth sought clients by placing ads like this one in free weekly papers such as Pennysaver:

WRITERS WANTED by literary agent that specializes in getting unpublished writers published. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children's. Free evaluation. Helping Hand Literary Services.

Writers who ignored the multiple red flags (real agents don't advertise; real agents don't represent poetry) and submitted to Helping Hand got an offer of representation, complete with a glowing acceptance letter. "I don't normally have this much to say about a submission," the letter began (and yes, every potential client got the same letter, customized with their name and book title). "You are a talented writer with a great deal of potential...Plus, it doesn't hurt a bit that I found 117 [or 150, or 200, depending on the letter] publishers that buy material like yours." As with those junk mail letters we all know and loathe, there was a PS, and sometimes a PPS, to sink the hook: "There are two ways to break into the publishing industry: Follow the same paths as other successful writers and hope for the best, or write something totally unique and find your own path into the industry. I believe you have done the latter...and, in my opinion, have done it quite well." Or, more briefly: "It appears to me that you have put a great deal of effort into this work. I look forward to hearing from you soon."

There was just one catch, as you might expect. Writers had to hand over an "expense reimbursement" of $100, $200, or $300, depending on how many "publisher contacts" were desired. Those who coughed up the cash received a "submission packet:" a set of pre-printed publisher address labels, a cover letter on agency letterhead ("Dear Editor, I am interested in placing my client's manuscript with your company for publication..."), a return envelope addressed to Helping Hand, and a sheet of instructions. Writers were directed to stick a stamp on the return envelope, place the letter, envelope, and accompanying materials (the writer's own query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters) in a manila envelope, affix the pre-printed label and sufficient postage, and drop the packet in the mail. "Do not put your return address anywhere on the material," the instruction sheet admonished. "It makes the publisher think you are trying to circumvent us and upsets them."

Actually, what upset them was being bombarded by substandard, inappropriate material. Again as you might expect, Helping Hand accepted anyone who was willing to pay their fee (quality not a concern) and didn't invest much effort in researching publishers. The agency quickly became notorious among editors and their assistants. Its submissions were routinely ignored. Some editors went so far as to contact the agency to instruct it never to send anything, ever again!! Needless to say, no pubishing offers ever materialized.

So callous and egregious was this scam that many of the victims--and bear in mind that Helping Hand's solicitations were targeted to the most inexperienced and ignorant writers--eventually caught on. In 2002, to dodge mounting complaints, Helping Hand magically morphed into Janet Kay & Associates (Janet Kay Titsworth being George's wife). Though the name changed, the M.O. (including those fulsome acceptance letters) remained the same...and the complaints kept on piling up. Meanwhile, George and Janet continued to rake in victims, and even expanded into vanity publishing, setting up a POD publisher called JanGeo Ink and offering contracts to literary agency clients after a few rounds of fruitless submissions.

Sounds more or less the same as any other literary scam, right? In this case, though, there was one crucial difference: the San Angelo police took an interest. In early 2002 an investigation was opened, which culminated in February 2004 with a raid on the Titsworths' home. Manuscripts and supporting materials, many in unopened envelopes, were seized and placed in evidence--enough of them to fill two 8' x 11' jail cells. Not seized, unfortunately, were the Titsworths, who maybe had been tipped off or maybe were just canny, and had done a bunk.

A warrant was issued. In September 2004 George and Janet were captured--in part because, like many literary scammers, they were unable to resist a repeat performance. They set up a new fee-charging agency called Harrison & Co (George Harrison Titsworth--duh), whose website included some of the distinctive verbiage that had been on the Helping Hand/Janet Kay website, and whose intake materials were identical. The ever-watchful folks at Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors spotted the similarities and alerted the San Angelo police, who were able to track the Titsworths down and bring them in. Released on bail, they set up yet another scam agency (At Your Service Literary Agency, this time with a New Mexico address). Unbelievably, they didn't bother to revise their intake materials or to vary their M.O.--which led, once again, to exposure by Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors.

A grand jury in Tom Green County indicted the Titsworths in December 2004. After several delays, a judgment was handed down on April 25, 2006. In exchange for pleas of guilty to one count of theft under $100,000, George and Janet were spared prison time, receiving a sentence of ten years' probation each and an order to pay restitution of $159,320.62. In addition, each will pay a $60 per month Community Supervision fee; and the proceeds of a pending civil lawsuit against them will also be applied to restitution.

The news that the Titsworths were going to be allowed to make a plea, and wouldn't do substantial jail time, broke last fall, and produced a bit of a furore among certain people who'd been following the case. These people felt strongly that the court should have tossed the Titsworths into a cell and thrown away the key.

Sure, it'd be nice if these unscrupulous con artists wore orange jumpsuits for the next ten years or so. Realistically, though, literary fraud is hard to prove, and an expensive trial might have come to nothing. This way, the Titsworths are convicted criminals--no chance of an acquittal. Their victims will receive about $100 in restitution each--not a lot, but more than would have been available had the Titsworths used the money (an insurance settlement from an auto accident) to mount a defense, and also more than is received by victims of most literary scams (zero). And probation is no picnic. The Titsworths won't be able to leave Tom Green County without written approval; they must refrain from "the voluntary inhalation or ingestion of any substance calculated to cause intoxication," and submit to urinalysis and/or breathalyzer testing at least weekly (and at their own expense); they must be home by 10:00pm and can't leave home before 6:00am; they must attend psychological counseling sessions and complete an educational program on financial responsiblity (again at their own expense); they must refrain from criminal activity and avoid other criminals; and if they violate any of these provisions, they go straight to jail. Which means, among other things, that they shouldn't be thinking about starting up another scam literary agency or publisher anytime soon.

All in all, I'd say it's a pretty satisfactory outcome.

Of course, the Titsworths have already proven themselves somewhat deficient in common sense where literary scams are concerned. So we wouldn't be too surprised, one of these days, to hear about George Kay Literary Associates, or GeoJan Publishing Unlimited. Watch your step, Janet and George...the Eye of Writer Beware is on you.

14 comments:

December Quinn said...

Yay!

(Was Sgt. Walker involved in this one? >g<)

Bernita said...

The parol conditions as described, if maintained, sound deliciously just to me.

Agent Kristin said...

Three cheers for Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors.

As you guys know, I support (and report) whenever I can.

What a great story and I'll link in my blog today!

HH said...

Hurrah, and big pat onna head for you guys! I tried to warn a fellow member of Critters about this lot several years ago, to no avail, but presumably he's wised up by now and I'm very glad to see these scammers have been taken out of circulation. Them having to pay for their own urinalysis is just icing on the cake.

Anonymous said...

I recently ran across a literary arts group going by the name of Kimble McKay Literary Arts Group. I've checked writersbeware, and they are highly not recomended. I'm wondering if there is any chance that this literary arts group could be in any way associated with Janet Kay Titsworth. The name McKay sends up a red flag to me.

Anonymous said...

What saddens me is that someone I know who has a master's degree, teaches writing at a local college, fell into the Janet Kay trap a few years ago. She won't talk about it.

Allison Brennan said...

Anonymous, I know of at least two people who spent in the thousands by a scam agency at the beginning of their careers. Both are now published, and one is doing very, very well.

Some people are naturally more trustworthy than other people . . . doesn't make them stupid, especially if they are very new to the business and have no contacts with writers or professional organizations.

Victoria Strauss said...

Re: Kimble McKay Literary Arts Group...Writer Beware has gotten complaints about it in its various incarnations (initially an editing service run by people without obvious qualifications to be editors, then a literary agency that recommended its own editing services and never made any commercial sales, then whatever it is now--kind of an editing/middleman service), but as far as we know, it has no connections with the Titsworths.

garymarkbe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sling Words said...

Hey, I'm from Texas. I've been to San Angelo. Why would anyone think a credible agent existed in San Angelo? Sad that there are so many people out there more than willing to prey on those desperate to make a dream come true.

Anonymous said...

I have been approached by Kimble McKay to send in four chapters and a synopsis of my book. Would you recommend I don't do this?

Det. Brian Elkins said...

I want to thank Ann and Victoria of Writer Beware for all their help with the Titsworth case. It took a few years but the outcome was worth it.
Thanks Again

Det. Brian Elkins
San Angelo Police Departmet

Gina L. said...

Hi, all! This is what I had written you about, Ann -- I was one of the 700+ writers conned by that miserable She-Beast!!!!! I lost $300 but I wasn't even so much mad about the $$$ as I was with the fact that this Witch had me sending my story to publishers who had no flippin' idea who I was or what I was writing about!!!!!! Grrrrrr!!!!!! She wasted a whole year when I could've been looking for a Bloody legit agent!!!!! I have no doubt what their afterlife is gonna be -- I've already arranged it!!!

Anyway, another thing I wanted to ask is if anyone has an opinion on a site I came across called Manuscript Screening, at the URL www.manuscreen.com. Is it for real or too good to be true? Any advice would be much appreciated.

Well, that's about it for now. Take care, Ann, and have a great weekend. Drop me a line if you get a minute.

Love,
Your old pal,
Gina LoB. from Havertown

Anonymous said...

Now at least my wife and I have some closure and have begun to look for another agent. This time we're using the trusted sources that we researched at our local book store.