Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Hill & Hill Literary Agency: A Scam Tale, Part 4

The story so far: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

In our eight years of running Writer Beware, Ann and I have seen a lot of scams. Hill’s (since we don’t know his real name, I’m going to continue to call him that) is one of the cruelest. All scammers promise the possibility of success, but Hill did more--he promised success itself.

Hill’s scam is also atypical, in a number of respects.

- It didn’t make a lot of money. £80 for six months/£129 for a year is chickenfeed. Even assuming that Hill had 300 clients (that’s as many as Martha Ivery/Kelly O’Donnell--who incidentally had a similar mania for aliases--scammed in her entire career), the total take wouldn’t have been more than £40,000-45,000. We know of other scams that charge a low starting fee, but they always involve more fees later on, or entrap truly enormous numbers of victims. I haven’t found any evidence that Hill charged additional fees--in fact, I’ve heard from clients who were allowed to re-up for free, or who were taken on with no fees at all. It’s also my belief that he couldn’t have had a large number of clients, because...

- The scam was extremely labor-intensive. Scammers typically try to save effort and maximize return by contacting clients as infrequently as possible, or by using canned documents that can be sent to everyone (The Literary Agency Group, for instance, employs such an extensive library of pre-written emails that it rarely has to make an individual response, even to casual questions). Hill did duplicate a lot of his material--but it was a LOT of material (the assessments are three pages long, and some of the fake publisher comments are close to a page), and documents were carefully customized, which often involved adding or switching around a good deal of text. Clients got weekly bulletins and monthly reports--and then there were the emails. Some clients report receiving more than a hundred emails from Hill. It’s hard to imagine how a lone individual could maintain such a level of effort for more than a few dozen clients at a time--and I am convinced that the scam was the work of one man, with occasional help from a wife or girlfriend. Of the agency’s claimed thirteen staff members, only Hill and Ashton were ever verified to exist, and all the agency’s writings bear the unmistakable imprint of a single hand.

- Hill made himself personally available. The face-to-face meetings, the phone calls, the prompt email responses--all are incredibly unusual for a scammer. Scammers sometimes try to provide the appearance of availability--for example, New York Literary Agency gives clients a number they can call, but all they get is an answering machine, and the reply (if it comes) arrives in the form of an email. But they shy away from actual contact. Many scammers are almost pathological in their efforts to avoid communicating with their victims.

So what was the purpose of this incredibly convoluted and intricate pretense? Was it an attempt to make easy money? If so, it was a lot of work for a lousy return. Was it a genuine effort by an amateur agent, at least to start? Conceivably, but it employed scam tactics from the beginning. Was it a money laundering scheme or a tax dodge? Perhaps, but it seems self-defeating to make it so complicated.

We’ll probably never know. I suspect, though, that some degree of mental illness was involved--at the very least, an obsessive desire for domination, psychological manipulation, and control. Hill got off on feeding fictions to his clients, on making them trust and depend on him, on creating an imaginary world in which he was the ruler of their dreams, able to lift them up with the promise of a publishing contract or dash them down with news of its rescission--all at his pleasure. This is suggested not just by the magnitude of his falsehoods, but by the extraordinary lengths to which he was willing to go in order to maintain them--in some cases, obtaining actual publishing contracts and altering them to make them look as if they came from a major British publisher*. Think Jim Jones, or Chuck Diederich. Think Unification Church.

What prompted the decision to terminate the agency? The stated reason, negative information on the Internet, is not convincing. Before the debacle, there was actually very little online information about Hill--the thread at Absolute Write contained only a few reports of fees, and Hill’s threats of litigation had removed discussion of the agency from other websites. Maybe Hill got bored. Maybe the scam became too elaborate and burdensome to maintain. Whatever the reason, Hill tore down his own house of cards--and by sending clients to Absolute Write, by assuming the “privateeye” identity, he did so in the same way he had built it: through deceit, misdirection, and manipulation.

And yes, I’m sure he’s reading this, and yes, I’ll bet he’s laughing. But here’s a final thought. Remember that convincing piece of documentation offered by the privateeye alias--the postcard from Sunshine Literary Agency encouraging members of a UK writers’ group to submit their manuscripts to Sunshine? Remember the similarity between Sunshine’s contract and Hill’s? Maybe Hill (whose bio, in a company profile document, wishfully describes him as a multi-published author) was an aspiring writer who got rooked by Sunshine. Maybe he decided to do the same thing to others, using Sunshine as a template. Maybe it’s the old story: the abused seeking revenge by becoming the abuser.

And you know what? At the end of it all, he’s still unpublished.

Believe it or not, the scam continues to unfold. As of this writing, several clients have received reimbursement checks from Hill (dated forward to October 5, so we don’t know yet if they will bounce). Hill has also promised a “letter of response to allegation and comment.” I can’t wait.

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* Hill’s alterations weren’t enough to hide the fact that the contract had originally been written for the US market. But in the kind of coincidence you could never write into a novel, I’d just received the very same contract for comment, so I was actually able to identify the publisher it belonged to. I contacted the publisher, who directed me to the forms-for-sale website from which the contract had been downloaded.

25 comments:

Jenna Glatzer said...

Well done. I suspect there will be a "part 5" at some future point. Definitely one of the strangest cons I've ever come across.

EB said...

Hmm. Sounds like some impostors I know about - those who like to assume other identities as a sort of a self-fulfillment or somethine like, not for purposes of defrauding large amounts of money.

Anonymous said...

The 'power trip' theory makes sense, especially since, by bringing the house down around him, Hill retains control, at least in some murkey corner of his imagination.

~Nancy said...

Truly amazing and unbelievable.

I just hope the writers who were duped chalk it up to experience and move on.

~JerseyGirl

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Great gods, what a convoluted story. I, too, thought of some mental unbalance as I was reading it--control issues? Frustrated author gone a little over the edge? Fascinating, and yet so hard for those who ended up getting their hopes up because of the hollow promises. Thanks, Victoria--you do one hell of a good job ferreting out this stuff.

Yasmine

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like some kind of variation on Munchausen's syndrome. Doesn't seem otherwise comprehensible as any form of logical thought, anyway.

Kemi

Bernita said...

I agree, Kemi.

This Girl I Used to Know said...

It does kinda sound like someone who got rejected too many times and decided that he could just be an agent on his own. Weirdness.

--E said...

This sort of proves that no matter how old you are, no matter how much life experience you have, no matter what wackiness you seek out, you will never have "seen it all."

I keep hoping that people's mental problems will someday stop surprising me.

MaryAnnTheRest said...

Absolutely amazing story, and you told it so well. Thanks for sharing it with us. I'll be checking back for part 5.

Adam Lipkin said...

Wow. Truly an amazing story.

I'd love to know if those reimbursement checks actually clear. On the one hand, I'd bet they don't. But on the other, he seems like the sort of scammer who might attempt to buy back part of his reputation, thus setting himself up to be able to scam people for even more money.

David said...

I'm so glad that you guys now have a blog, and I don't know how I managed not to be aware of that. Now that I do know, I'm adding a link to it.

Yasamin said...

All I can say is I really hope this guy is caught. Fraud is fraud. simple as that. I mean how horrible can it be for these authors to find out that this man has been wasting their time, money, hopes and dreams?

By the way... this screams lawsuit heaven.

roach said...

I'll throw out my own speculation on Hill's motivations: Agent, the Roleplaying Game. It sounds like he was playing at being an agent, engaging in all the fun stuff (meeting face to face with excited clients, etc.) and when it started to go bad he packed up the game.

Yasmine Galenorn said...

Roach makes an interesting point, and for all we know, a correct one. Some people think "glamour" and not "hard work" when they think of all aspects of the publishing realm. When reality hits them in the face, they fold.

Dave Kuzminski said...

My opinion is that Hill isn't gone by a longshot. He'll probably be back in another agency.

The post-dated refund checks are possibly nothing more than a subterfuge meant to defuse any complaints against him later for being a scam so he can claim he gave out refunds to those who were dissatisfied.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how things work in the UK, but here in the USA post-dating checks is not legal. Once written, the check can be cashed at any time. This is why NO ONE should ever post date a check to pay for anything (unless you are giving the check to someone you trust completely - if the money isn't in the account, don't write the check).

That said, perhaps some of these check-holders should try to cash their checks NOW. If the money isn't in the account then the one who wrote it has commited a crime. If enough bad checks get turned in on someone over here, the bank will sometimes turn the matter over to the police. That would be one way of tracking down the perpetrator.

I know that it can be much more complicated than this, but no one should assume that a con artist will make good on a post-dated check anyway.

Anonymous said...
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Mad Scientist Matt said...

Wow. This is definitely one of the most out there scammers yet.

Anonymous said...

souns like a weirdo with a cruel sense of humour to me. why get all serious and mental ilnessy about it? as far as hes concerned (or maybe she who knows) hes ulled a really funny prank and now acheived a kind of internet notoriety for it.

john d said...

As an (embarrassed) victim, I thought maybe you should know that my penpal cheque (post-dated) did clear. I'm still pissed off by the whole thing (four months after)and would love to know any follow-up info you have. Did anyone find out his real name? Also, I spoke to this 'Jeff Miles' three times on the phone - either he was a third accomplice or CH can do a good US accent. Overall, the mental illness-glamour angle seems most convincing. Why else did he put in so much effort only to give back the money at the end?

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, john d, thanks for commenting. I'm afraid the only followup I have is that no one's check seems to have bounced. Not everybody got a check--I'm guessing that those who were paid were those who participated in the discussion at Absolute Write, or spoke out somewhere else.

From time to time, I hear from another victim--they are definitely still out there.

mickeytaken said...

Well, He certainly took me in, even I was slightly perturbed by the odd grammar and vocabulary. He kept my 80 quid, but in the end when all was revealed, I lmost fely he'd earned it. A sort of on-line fiction writing reality show?

Anonymous said...

hi! i do not know if i'm a victim of Sunshine Literary Agency run by Ms Hoffman, Pia. she was very straight with me. i paid for her services for one year. she got me a publisher, Pearl's Book'Em, who eventually gave me a contract. i was paid 100 quids as sign-on royalty. the trouble now is that the Publisher suddenly disappeared. all efforts by Pia and me to locate or even chat with her, has been abortive. my book was advertised on the net as being published, but no one seems to have seen a copy of the book. i'm desirous of knowing what may have happened.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say Hill & Hill seem to be back. I came across this site when I was looking for Hill & Hill's website - I wanted to look into it as it is listed in the most recent Yellow Pages as being very near me, and as I'm trying to write a novel, thought they would be ideal to act as agents. Guess I was wrong about that, then!