Sunday, September 24, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 2

For context, see Part 1.

Hill’s scam was an elaborate one, featuring personal contact with clients and voluminous written documents.

On intake, clients received a detailed assessment of their manuscripts, covering elements such as target audience, plot structure, and grammar. Some of the assessments I’ve seen were individual, but most were based on a template that was customized for each client. All were written in dense, convoluted prose marked by repeated errors and stylistic oddities--dropped prepositions, missing apostrophes, use of commas rather than conjunctions to link phrases--and featuring such inscrutable pronouncements as “As to the market this really is led by the genre and the opportunities we perceive we would have approaching publishers that either specialise in this genre or have openings.”

A submission package was then created, consisting of a fulsome introduction, also customized from a basic template (“Hill and Hill Literary Agency is proud to present the new face of fiction in [client]. Mr. [client] has a passion in his life, the passion for writing...”); a client-authored synopsis; and several writing samples plucked at random from the manuscript. Clients received monthly submission reports listing the publishers approached (more or less the same list for everyone--in other words, for any given manuscript, most of the publishers were not appropriate), with the manuscript’s current status noted in official-sounding language: “In-House Editor reviewing,” “Full manuscript with Sub-Editor, response promised by 9th July”, or simply “Submission package under review.”

As time went on, the reports acquired publishers’ comments--sometimes brief rejections, but more often, detailed critiques indicating interest and continued consideration. I’ve seen a lot of these over the past few days, and they’re obviously bogus--not just because different clients sometimes got the exact same comments, not just because comments are attributed to publishers that, because of the inappropriateness of the material, would have rejected without explanation--but because they’ve clearly all been written by the same person, in the same style and with the same errors as the assessments. The author also slips up by employing UK spelling and word usage for comments supposedly from American publishers. A few examples:

“The work is vaguely original, definitely in the published world. The work is well written (perhaps to [sic] well written for this genre), and gives clear definition on where we are going here. Characters, though lacking in depth are well constructed, the necessary ingredients for the genre are narrated well.”

“In expressing development of character and narrative, the author has allowed the reader an attraction that could envelope [sic] most post teen age groups. Careful deconstruction of the narrative is essential as the author sometimes fluctuates in his descriptive language.”

“The nature of the manuscripts [sic] appeal is the theme, the cast of characters that are interwoven with this particular genre. We found many manuscripts that were of immediate comparison as in the media and a fair few documented comparisons in novel form. There has [sic] been a fare [sic] few manuscripts submitted to us and our sister companies along such lines, few have made impact on any reader, certainly publication has never been considered, though the main theme has normally been more complex, written for a certain audience, that has little impact home or abroad.”


Very much unlike the typical literary scammer, Hill was willing to make himself personally available to his clients. They spoke with him on the phone, often at length. They received quick responses to emailed questions and concerns. Some even met him face to face, describing him as a good-looking, well-dressed man who answered their questions in a convincing manner and appeared to know a lot about the publishing industry. Those who had telephone contact with Hill’s associate, Claire Ashton, found her equally pleasant and helpful.

Hill didn’t stop at fabricating publishers’ comments. He also fabricated publication offers. In the fall of 2005, a number of clients were informed that Crown had made a “verbal offer” on their manuscripts. These offers later evaporated for reasons never fully explained. Then, in July and August of this year, Hill again began promising clients that offers were imminent, naming some of the biggest publishers and production companies in the business--Spyglass Entertainment, HarperCollins, Penguin, Orion, William Morrow, Kensington, and, once again, Crown. He gave specific dates for contract delivery: September 5, September 15, September 20. Certain clients were told that a woman named Karen Watson Sharpe, whom Hill described as “a contracted finder” for whichever publisher was allegedly contemplating an offer, had agreed to “support” the client’s work. A few even heard from Karen, who (in convoluted and error-ridden prose interestingly similar to Hill’s) claimed that she had “read your work and forwarded with praise” and that the manuscript had been “accepted provisionally.”

Clients have since phoned many of these publishers, only to be told that none had heard of Hill, much less received any material from him. I’m working to confirm this myself, via a contact at Crown.

(Does this mean that Hill never made any submissions at all? Not quite. One client, whose submission package had supposedly been sent to nine publishers, discovered that three had actually received it. Since her work was not appropriate for their lists, all three had rejected without comment. According to the reports she got from Hill, however, those submissions--as well as the fictional ones--were still under consideration.)

Would Hill have concocted an explanation for the non-materialization of the promised contracts, as he did for the Crown contracts the previous autumn, and encouraged his disappointed clients to remain hopeful? Was this the opening move in a more nefarious scheme? We’ll never know, because on September 14 the agency ceased to exist. Claire Ashton (whose prose style is also remarkably similar to Hill’s), initially claimed that Hill was “no longer with the agency,” but in later emails declared that the man calling himself Christopher Hill was an imposter whose activities weren’t sanctioned by the agency.

An impostor? Maybe. What’s certain is that whoever Hill is, he has quite a taste for fake identities. In my next post, Hill unmasked...sort of.

13 comments:

Kendall said...

Interesting and totally bizarre, thanks!

Matt D said...

What a strange scam. I'll never get it, I guess. Whatever works.

December Quinn said...

This is absolutely amazing.

ColoradoGuy said...

The psychopathology here seems to be that this guy found pleasure and prestige in impersonating a literary agent. He took in money as part of the scam, but I wonder if his chief motivation was whatever satisfaction he got playing his role. The money may have been secondary.

ilona said...

You know, considering the amount of money and time he spent pretending to be a literary agent, it seems it would be almost less effort to just be a legitimate literary agent. This is just so odd to me. I have to wonder, if he wanted it so much, what kept him from becoming one?

p.n. elrod said...

Gee--wish I had this story for a "Literary Scams" panel I did this weekend at FenCon.

Can't wait to read your next installment--you GO, girl!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing all this research for us!

BuffySquirrel said...

A little while ago, I watched a documentary about a narcissist who pretended to be a cardiac surgeon and did so much research into his supposed field that he could hold his own in conversation with experts. Yet he had dropped out of medical school.

Who knows? Maybe the fantasy is in some way more satisfying than the reality would be--while it lasts.

--E said...

Ilona, if he were a real agent, he would have to do much more work:

1. Actually send in all submissions
2. Follow up on submissions
3. Develop relationships with editors and keep abreast of what they're looking for (if you don't think that's work...!)
4. Negotiate contracts
5. Shop subrights
6. Give detailled critiques and generally help authors whip manuscripts into shape (not all agents do this, but many do)
7. Receive advances and royalties and do all the bookkeeping involved in splitting up the checks
8. Chase down missing royalties

And doubtless a whole host of stuff that I don't know about or am not thinking of at the moment.

And of course while he was doing all that, he'd be earning no money at the start, since he doesn't get paid until the authors do.

Much easier to create the fiction, recycle the boilerplate, and roleplay on the phone.

But wow, this guy may well have a "not mentally competent" defense.

Anonymous said...

The work is well written (perhaps to [sic] well written for this genre),

Oh, that's just brilliant. Because, y'know, really good writers don't write genre. Pearls before swine and all that.

Aconite

Beth said...

"...vaguely original"

Is that like vaguely pregnant?

Jim D said...

I signed for the Hill & Hill agency in 2005 and initially paid £80 for six months. The agency then extended my contract by a further year for no extra cost, during which a "verbal" offer of contract from Crown came to nothing and a written contract from Orion (to whom I was recommended by Karen Watson-Sharpe) also came to nothing.

I have met the gentleman who perports to be Christopher Hill on four occasions.

He is approx thirty - eight years of age, 6' 4'' and speaks with a middle class accent (possibly English rather than Scottish.)

He also claimed his wife held a relatively high position with a Scottish bank, and the reason for his (temporary)move to Spain was that her parents stay there and she is recouperating from a serious illness.

Obviously nothing is beyond this guy in terms of lies.

Good luck Victoria in exposing him.

Anything I can do to help please let me know.

blaukey said...

I am a "victim" of not only Pia Hoffman (Sunshine), but Debbie Fine (Southeast)(wonder if they "do lunch"). My picture may be viewed in two places in the latest Webster's: under stupid and naive (sorry about the umlaut).