Thursday, August 24, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- A Junk Mail Agent

Some of you may have seen this recent article in the Times online, in which journalist Danuta Kean discusses a couple of fee-charging agents in the UK.

The first, Darin Jewell of the Inspira Group, charges £350 upfront for photocopying and postage. He has been around for a while; Writer Beware first began receiving advisories of his fees in late 2003. The second, John Hancock of the John Hancock Literary Agency, appears to be quite new--at any rate, Writer Beware has only just begun getting questions and reports.

Ms. Kean describes Hancock's basic M.O.--a direct solicitation (supposedly based on a "personal recommendation") with lots of scary verbiage about how hard it is for new authors to get published these days, culminating in a request for a £97 reading fee. However, she doesn't convey the hilarious junk-mail flavor of Hancock's pitch, which I reproduce below in somewhat abridged form.

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WHY SOME AUTHORS FIND A PUBLISHER AND OTHERS DON'T..............

and how YOU can be one of the lucky ones!

Dear Author,

If you've ever tried to find a publisher for your book you know how soul destroying it can be. The big publishers simply don't want to know and the smaller ones ask you for a fortune to publish.

Yet in a recent edition of Publishing News--the news magazine of the book publishing world--there was a series of articles about new authors who had signed lucrative publishing deals with major publishers.

Imagine what it would feel like to get a $100,000 advance!

Publishers are reluctant to reveal the exact sums paid to the authors for these books. And not all will have been advances of $100,000 but some may well have been.

So how is it that some authors can find publishers and you haven't? Is it because their books are so much better than yours? Possible--but unlikely. No, in every article there was a single phrase which explains why. Just three short words. These words are...

the agent was!

The key to publication is that simple. Get yourself a literary agent.

But the reality of this may bring you down to earth with a bump. For finding a literary agent has been just as difficult as finding a publisher. Many won't even consider new authors and those who do have long waiting lists. The classic Catch 22 situation.

Finding a publisher for your book is easier than you think

This is where I can help you. I have recently developed a literary agency specialising in new, unpublished authors. I am now looking for a limited number of authors whose books I will represent to publishers.

This is a truly unique opportunity. To have a literary agent representing you to the major publishers will increase your chances of publication enormously. Publishing doors which have remained firmly closed will open automatically.

Your opportunity to become a SUCCESSFUL author

Let me explain why this opportunity is available to you right now.

I know the book publishing business inside out--from both sides of the fence, as an author and a publisher.

At the age of twenty nine I wrote a book which sold over 100,000 copies. I then moved into book publishing itself and became Managing Director of a major publishing company.

I established numerous contacts, many of them personal friends, within the book publishing world. These are contacts I will put to good use with your book.

When I retired three years ago authors still approached me with manuscripts. I still love the publishing business so I used my contacts to place them. Now I have decided to expand this 'exclusive' arrangement a little. That is why I am seeking a limited number of new, unpublished authors.

Enjoy a deal that benefits you--not the publisher

When I receive offers for your book--usually including an advance against royalties--I will put them to you for your consideration. Your position as an author will be safeguarded and you will have the peace of mind of knowing that any deal negotiated will be to your advantage--not the publisher's.

This is important. I know of one very famous author who failed to protect her film rights in an agreement with her publishers. The book was made into a Hollywood film and the publishers--not the author--received several million pounds in rights. This is something I will make sure does not happen to you.

You will also be supported after publication. Book signing tours, magazine interviews and media appearances all need to be to your advantage. And you would be surprised at the size of the mailbag successful authors receive. When you have someone to take care of all of this it allows you the freedom to continue your writing and concentrating on enjoying the kudos of being a published author.

Take one simple step to find a publisher for your book

All you have to do is to send me your complete manuscript together with the enclosed Submission Form. But please, no preliminary letters or telephone calls. I have simply neither the time nor the inclination to engage in a dialogue until I have read your work.

Please also send a cheque for £97 made payable to John Hancock. I ask this for two reasons.

Firstly, because I intend reading all manuscripts personally and I value my time enormously. Secondly, I only want to deal with authors who are truly serious about publication and this is a way of weeding out those who are not fully committed.

If we reach an agreement for me to represent you then this fee will be refunded. Look upon this fee as a token of your serious intent.

Act now--this is an opportunity that may not be repeated

What you have here is a rare opportunity. It is almost unheard of for a literary agent to actively seek new authors. This is such an opportunity that is unlikely to occur again.

For now you have the chance of having a literary agent to represent you. This will improve your odds of publication enormously. But remember this is a very limited opportunity. Once I have found my quota of authors the chance will have gone.

I would urge you to send your material immediately.

Yours sincerely,

John Hancock

P.S. Don't hate yourself for missing this opportunity. Since writing this letter I have been in contact with two publishers who are looking for books in different genres. Your material could be just what they want.


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I especially love the P.S.--the typical, ultra-tacky junk mail marketing ploy.

Obviously, the major scam marker here is the reading fee. Charging reading fees is a thoroughly discredited practice; in fact, it's so discredited that even dishonest agents don't generally employ it these days. But there are also a number of other warning signs. Let's count them.

1. Direct solicitation. (Rarely, a reputable agent may contact a writer who hasn't queried first, but this nearly always happens on the basis of published work. Reputable agents don't cold-call unpublished authors.)

2. Specialization in new writers. (The bulk of an established agent's list will consist of published writers--not because established agents are prejudiced against new writers, but because they regularly sell their clients' books. Someone who specializes in new writers usually does so because they're easier to fleece.)

3. Unverifiable claims of experience/success. (Of course you want your agent to be experienced and successful, but if he tells you he worked for "a major publishing company," he should identify it. A claim you can't verify is meaningless.)

4. Extravagant suggestions about your possible success. (Naturally your agent hopes that once he sells your book it'll become successful, but he won't encourage you to imagine you'll be the next Stephen King. Why? Because there are no guarantees--not even that your book will be published--and a good agent knows better than to make them.)

5. Claims of "limited" opportunity and pressure to act immediately. (Reputable agents don't employ high-pressure sales tactics.)

6. Promises to reveal insider secrets or little-known shortcuts that will magically transport you to the realm of publication. (There are no shortcuts, and magic is for fantasy novels. Sorry.)

Hancock does get scam points for one small innovation. He promises that the reading fee will be refunded if he agrees to represent--which means that all he has to do is to reject all comers, and he can pocket the cash without the bother of having to pretend to be performing any agent duties. What could be simpler?

Fortunately, I suspect that Mr. Hancock, whoever he is, won't find his scheme quite so lucrative as he expects. Nowadays, most new authors--even those who may not be aware that upfront marketing fees aren't kosher--know that reading fees are illegitimate. Mr. Hancock (not that I believe for one second that this is your real name), you are a tad behind the times.

The Society of Authors has posted an advisory about the John Hancock Literary Agency.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the part where he says that small publishers ask for a fortune to publish your work.

A lot of POD publishers do, but anyone who spends time investigating the market will find small time publishers who actually pay the author instead of the other way around.

The catch is not that they ask for lots of money or that they don't want new writers. Small publishers have a limited buget and cannot publish as many books as the big guys.

And there's indeed no shortcuts. Write a good query and a great novel. There's no other way.

WWWWolf said...

Um, basically, "If you want $100,000 (BAJILLION US DOLLARS ONLY), please send your manuscript and £97." ...and a little bit of extra money to handle all those small expenses... and then this one little fee... oh, wait, that submission didn't work, perhaps you could hand me a little bit more money...

Can someone please tell me what's the difference between this thing and the 419 scam? (Aside of the fact that there's a small chance that the scammer might actually forward the manuscript to someone who might be genuinely interested about it, if only there wasn't a blatant spamscam going on...)

And if there isn't, can we get the 419 scambaiters to teach these people a lesson? =)

Confused said...

Was there another famous John Hancock in England? Otherwise, doesn't it seem weird to name your literary agency after a man who would've been considered a traitor and seditionist?

roach said...

Any idea on the title of the book Mr. Hancock supposedly authored?

"Don't forget the part where he says that small publishers ask for a fortune to publish your work.

A lot of POD publishers do, but anyone who spends time investigating the market will find small time publishers who actually pay the author instead of the other way around."

No legitimate, commercial press (small or large, POD or offset) charges an author.

BuffySquirrel said...

confused, I don't think THE John Hancock is all that famous here in the UK.

Jeb said...

The one that made me blink was that agents who DO accept new authors have long waiting lists.

Not that I'm an expert, but I know a few people in the agent hunt (some of them successful) and I read as many agent blogs as I can find... and I've never seen nor heard of a legitimate agent that invited prospective clients to sit on a waiting list. Either they think they can sell something, or they pass.

Anyone else heard of this?

Victoria Strauss said...

Jeb, I've never heard of a legit agent having a waiting list for new clients. As you say, either they think they can sell something, in which case they offer representation, or not, in which case they don't. The waiting list idea is just more of Hancock's junk mail B.S.