Monday, September 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 3

The story begins: Part 1. And continues: Part 2.

The news about Hill & Hill’s closure broke on two fronts: in private email from Claire Ashton to Hill clients, and on Absolute Write, with this post from someone calling himself privateeye. The post contains damaging, if vague, allegations about the operation and a number of people said to be associated with it.

I was curious about privateeye's reference to a connection between Hill & Hill and US-based fee-charger Sunshine Literary Agency (Writer Beware has a file on Sunshine going back to 1999), so I contacted him privately. He assured me that Hill’s contract was practically identical to Sunshine’s; the connection, he claimed, was a Hill staff member, Jeff Miles, who’d previously worked with Sunshine. Later, he provided me with a convincing piece of documentation: a copy of a postmarked postcard addressed to a UK writers' group from Sunshine's owner, Pia Hoffman, endorsing her "colleague" Jeff Miles and inviting submissions to her agency. A trip to my Writer Beware file cabinet confirmed the similarity between the two contracts--which was intriguing, as Sunshine’s contract is distinctive, not something likely to have been downloaded off the Internet or copied from a book.

Meanwhile, at AW, the discussion had turned to a guy named Stuart Hades, who’d contacted several clients as part of Hill’s “buddy system,” whereby clients were linked by email to chat, share news, etc. No one was sure whether Hades was actually a client, or an agency staffer posing as one. Given the revelations of the previous days, clients felt it wouldn’t be surprising if he turned out to be Hill himself.

As it happens, a Stuart Hades had showed up at AW more than a year earlier, and left a rather positive message about Hill & Hill. Claiming to have been alerted to the discussion by friends, he abruptly reappeared, emphatically denying that he was the same Stuart Hades who was allied with Hill. This was not a smart move. One of the AW moderators noticed something that ordinary AW members can’t see: Hades’s IP address...which was the same as privateeye’s. It was a static IP address, too (assigned to a specific computer as its permanent address on the Internet), as opposed to a dynamic IP address (assigned on a temporary basis from a pool of addresses). All of which strongly suggested that posts from privateeye and Stuart Hades were originating from the same location.

Suddenly, privateeye was looking a lot less trustworthy. Before anyone could call him on it, though, he torpedoed himself. As the situation unfolded, he’d struck up a lively correspondence with a number of Hill clients--sharing experience, offering advice, asking questions. With so much on his mind, maybe it’s not surprising that he slipped up...by signing one of his emails “Regards, Christopher Hill.” It hardly seemed credible that the person who’d helped break the news of the agency’s demise, who’d shared documentation with me and others, could be Hill himself--but guess what I found when I compared privateeye’s/Hades’s IP address to the IP addresses in the headers of emails from Hill and Ashton? That’s right: they were identical.

Not, perhaps, irrefutable proof that Hades, privateeye, Hill, and Ashton are all the same person. But what are the odds that Hill and a disgruntled client would be sharing a computer?

It looked very much as if Hill, having scuttled his agency, was still playing head games with his former clients. And with me, because I did take him seriously for a while, largely because of that postcard. (Which, by the way, I still believe is genuine. More about that later.)

Outed on AW, privateeye vanished in a puff of smoke. However, he apparently didn’t realize that he’d also been outed as Claire Ashton, and couldn’t resist one more attempt at manipulation. The following day, clients received emails signed by Ashton (sent, again, from that telltale IP--which, incidentally, traces not to Spain but to the UK), promising refunds of their agency fees. “It is understandable,” Ashton wrote, “that some of you may think that this offer is not genuine...Although matters have become confused and inappropriate we will be issuing these refunds. If you are not happy with this there is little else we can do.”

Cue violins.

So there you have it: the where, when, how, and possibly the who. All that remains is the why. Some speculations, in my final post.

2 comments:

Orhan Kahn said...

Sorry to digress, but thank you for posting the link for Absolute Write. It seems like a very decent forum.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. I have retained all my correspondence with this guy/girl whoever. I also never paid any money. But I paid a hell of a price. I had other agents interested. My book is on www.vostokstation.com.au and I have great reviews. This has cut the legs from under me, I was devastated. I would rather have lost thousands and found out immediately. This was truly cruel. Given a good address, a few minutes with the guy should do it. He would never try this again.