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WRITERS WANTED by literary agent that specializes in getting unpublished writers published.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.