Saturday, April 29, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The 20 Worst Come Home

Thanks in part to the delightful Miss Snark and the estimable Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents List has been proliferating across the Internet. We thank everyone who has re-posted the list--we're thrilled it has gotten so much exposure. The more writers know about literary predators, the better.

To date, however, the list hasn't appeared on Writer Beware itself. That's because in order to make a major addition of this kind to the site, we need permission from those in charge at SFWA, which sponsors us. Last week they told us "bring it on!" So here it is, home at last.

Something important to note: the 20 agencies on the list account for the bulk of the complaints Writer Beware receives--but they're just the tip of the iceberg. As of this moment, we have files on nearly 400 questionable agencies, and we run across a new one every few weeks. So don't let the list give you a false sense of security. Even if you know the 20 Worst, there are plenty of lesser bad guys waiting to trip you up.

A Worst Publishers list is in the works.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Barbara Bauer Redux

Many of you may be familiar with the recent activities of Barbara Bauer, unlucky number four (in alphabetical order) on Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents list. Always swift with a cease-and-desist demand, and unhappy with her new notoriety as the 20 Worst List proliferates across the Internet, she's taken to slamming people who post the list with yet more cease-and-desist letters. (BTW, Writer Beware, the source of the list, hasn't heard from her lately.)

At any rate, I was recently contacted by an editor who had a close encounter with Ms. Bauer. He's given me permission to quote his letter here in full:

Hi.

Just wanted to give you a bad agent story from the other side of the equation. I've been doing some work for a major publisher, and I recently came across a submission from the Barbara Bauer Agency. From a quick perusal of various blogs, I see that she's much maligned, so I'll presume you know of her.

The submission was in bad shape in terms of its physical condition and its content. Granted, evaluating manuscripts is somewhat subjective, but there was nothing about this work someone might have valued. Specifically, it was so full of grammatical errors that it read like a bad translation. Also, there were some simple flaws in the manuscript (unintentional tense and P.O.V. shifts) that BB ought to have asked the writer to fix before submitting.

Essentially, it was clear that nobody had given the manuscript a thoughtful reading, and I feel it was unconscionable -- especially when charging a steep fee -- to send such a poor work out on someone else's dime. Further, the cover letter was handwritten, using a familiar name for the editor that she does not use (essentially feigning familiarity by doing the equivalent of calling Robert "Bob"), and the half-page synopsis was both poorly written and not very descriptive of what the work contained.

I checked out your list of things a writer should look for in choosing an agent, and in light of what I've seen from BB, it seems you might want to add giving some editorial feedback. If an agent is truly interested in selling one's work, he/she ought to take an interest in it being as good as possible. Similarly, it's probably a good idea to look for agents that are selective, because it means they're not spreading themselves too thin and they are more likely to believe in what they are selling.

My two cents. Feel free to reprint this letter, but please don't include my full name if you do.

Thanks on behalf of all writers.


So there you have it, from the other side of the desk. No wonder BB doesn't have much in the way of a recent track record.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Lisa Hackney/Melanie Mills: Coda

Last time we checked in on the saga of Melanie Mills, a.k.a. Lisa Hackney, a.k.a. Elisabeth von Hullessem, now calling herself Raswitha Elisabeth Melanie Mills, this outrageously bizarre literary scammer and alleged mother-murder attempter had been extradited to the USA from Canada, and was sitting in an Arkansas jail awaiting sentencing on six charges of failure to appear (jumping bail back in 1999), first-degree battery (pinning her mother to a picnic table with a car), aggravated assault (ditto), and theft of property (embezzling part of her mother's estate and kiting bad checks).

On February 10, 2006, she pleaded guilty to all six charges, and was sentenced to two prison terms in the Arkansas Department of Correction, one of 15 years and one of 10 years, to run concurrently.

However, she won't do any jail time.

Say what?

Well, according to this article in the Northwest Arkansas Times, all but 23 months of the 15-year sentence was suspended, and all but 22 months of the 10-year sentence was suspended, and she was credited with the 23 months she served in Canadian jails awaiting extradition. I can't speak to the logic behind this; I assume that Arkansas was not eager to house and feed another prisoner, and since Hackney has Canadian citizenship, was just as happy to bundle her off to the Great White North and let the Mounties deal with her. So, having been returned to the US by means of much paperwork and, presumably, expense, she has been deported back to Canada.

Have we heard the last of our favorite wacky scammer? I don't think so.

For one thing, scammers don't generally change their stripes. Hackney has repeatedly attempted the same kinds of scams; she has even used the same aliases. I'm confident she'll show up on the Writer Beware scamdar again at some point (and you can bet that we'll be watching.)

For another thing, Hackney still has literary aspirations. That's right, folks--she has written a book (or, if you want to get technical, another book, if we count the vanity-published Sins). And she's trying to sell it.

According to reliable sources, several (reputable) literary agents have received a (poorly written) book proposal from one Raswitha Elisabeth Melanie Mills for something called The MM Journal. It's the tale of "Melanie Mills (Literary Agent); Elisabeth von Hullessem (Banff Writer's Conference); Lisa Hackney (fugitive); L.R. Thomas (author of the novel 'Sins'). Based on her life story, 'The MM Journal' is about a German aristocratic family with its torrid, dirty little secrets." Its heroine is "a woman who desperately attempted to live the so called 'American dream life'...[but was] unable to escape fate no matter how hard she tried." Among other things, the book proposes to explain the events of MM's life, such as the attempted mother-squashing ("One fateful night after a bizarre chain of events, her mother, the Countess von Hullessem, who ultimately grew to hate her daughter so much through no fault of her own, and MM have a horrible confrontation in November of 1999, resulting in the Countess partially pinned beneath MM's car"), and MM's many failed ventures, such as the Melanie Mills Literary Agency ("...the economy bottomed out due to the Iraqui war. Suddenly, publishers were not interested, let alone buying, manuscripts from new, un-established writers") and the writers' conference in North Carolina ("people were not vacationing due to a deadly Asian flu outbreak and Mad Cow's Disease by now and the failing economy").

I swear I am not making this up.

Hey, MM--if you're discouraged by the rejections you've received so far, I've got an agent referral for you. Why not query Barbara Bauer?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- News of the Weird

In which the on-the-ball folks at Writer Beware bring you reports from the fringes of the writing world.

An email being sent out to writers' organizations under the heading "invitation to aspiring novelists" announces a "new project called 'Ophir' [that] involves getting unknown aspiring novelists published by royalty-paying publishers, and it involves helping badly wounded war heroes who gave so much fighting for America in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam."

(I wish I could post links to what follows, but there doesn't appear to be anything about this project online. I do have the email, though, provided to me by one of Writer Beware's reliable undercover informants. All grammatical tics and errors have been faithfully reproduced.)

Aspiring novelists who want to qualify for the project must "...never [have] had a novel published under that author-name, have no agent, no famous name, and have completed a novel manuscript that has won an award by a genre group or by a geographic writer-group." (Awards for unpublished novel manuscripts are thin on the ground, but never mind.) Novelists who meet these criteria "will be asked to donate the royalties from this, their first, novel to help grievously wounded veterans...As recompense for donating those royalties, we will do our level best to make that novel a best seller."

How will this be attempted? The project plans to work with "large membership groups with many millions of members, such as veterans' groups, social/fraternal/civic groups, churches, unions and others," which will urge members to go out and buy the novels in bookstores, and in exchange give them coupons as well as a listing in "all books' Good Guys Directory." (Shades of Scientology, which is rumored to make L. Ron Hubbard's SF novels into bestsellers through similar means.) The project hopes "to sell, in hardcover only, 50,000 copies of each title we handle---which will put that book on most best-seller lists." (Actually, I think the bestseller threshhold is higher than that, but let's not pick nits.)

But wait--the project seeks unpublished novelists. So how will those award-winning manuscripts get into bookstores? Well, the twenty best mss. submitted to the project will be selected for the "Gold of Ophir National Award," and award winners will then be "invited" to have their mss. published by "a legitimate royalty-paying publisher...Our award winners may contract with any publisher of their choice, or they may use the royalty-paying publishers we will recommend and who have said they will accept our recommendations." (Holy kickbacks, Batman!)

Oh, and just one more thing: there's a $50 reading fee.

So is this a reading fee scam, or maybe a vanity publishing scam? Possibly. But I'm more inclined to think that it's a crackpot scheme concocted by, well, a crackpot. Contact info for the Dr. Rick Gelinas of the email is the same as for the Dr. Rick Gelinas of highroadusa.com ("Travel Into The Future On The HighRoad"), which "holds patents on a new kind of elevated rail system" that will "move you and your car safely at airline speed," creating "a way to travel fast in our own cars without having to drive them."

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Deconstructing an Agent’s Website

There's a new literary agent in town, boys and girls. His name is Henry Santsaver, and his agency is called, rather generically, Literary Associates. Here's his page on Publishers Marketplace. Here's the agency's website.

Anyone’s who’s read my posts on the qualifications an agent needs or fake track records should be able to spot the red flags in the Publishers Marketplace listing. Anyone who’s read my post on evaluating an agent’s website or found the thread about Mr. Santsaver on Absolute Write should be able to analyze the warning signs on the agency’s website. Nevertheless, I’m getting quite a few questions about whether or not Mr. Santsaver is “legitimate” (a term I’m liking less and less these days; I’ll do a post on that soon), so I think a deconstruction is in order.

First, Publishers Marketplace. Unlike many amateur agents, Mr. Santsaver isn’t wise enough simply to stay mum about his professional background. “As a former English college professor Mr. Santsaver began finding good writers in his classes. He has been an editor of Brain Science publications under his own label Daytona House, and has begun an agressive campaign to find southern writers in both trade fiction and literary fiction. He has been a timely reviewer for several APA published educational journals as well as a contributing editor for other publishing needs.” In other words, Mr. Santsaver has no verifiable professional publishing or agenting credentials (websearches for Brain Science Publications and Daytona House turn up zilch). For why that's important, see the agent qualifications post linked in above.

Under Most Recent Sales/Forthcoming Books, Mr. Santsaver lists two books and two screenplays, none of which can be found on Amazon.com, on publishers’ lists of forthcoming books, in recent sales reports from sources like Publishers Lunch--or anywhere else. Sales that can’t be verified are pretty much the same as no sales at all. (And yes, Mr. Santsaver's agency does appear to be new, and new agencies take a little while [though not longer than a year] to start making sales--but that brings us back to the need for a relevant professional background.)

Let’s take a look at Mr. Santsaver's website. Here’s where things get silly.

We're on Page One. What's the first thing we notice, after the generic free clip art at the top? IT'S ALL IN CAPS!!! Okay, so this is not Scam Sign Number One. It is, however, pretty unprofessional--as is the poorly-written pitch for a wide variety of manuscripts. And I don't know about you, but I start to feel uneasy when someone tells me that they have my "best interests at heart."

"PLEASE READ OUR CONTRACTS ARTICLE ON THE HOME PAGE," Page One shouts, "OUR MOST REQUESTED SUBJECT." This abysmally ignorant article could not possibly have been written by anyone with publishing industry experience, or even someone who'd done a minimal amount of research--except, possibly, as satire. Among other things, the author (presumably Mr. Santsaver) wants us to believe in the existence of something called a "done deal memo," supposedly issued by an editor when she decides to buy a manuscript. Authors and editors, have you ever seen or issued a “done deal memo?” I sure haven't. (Apparently, this memo is then “handed to the parties concerned in the publisher’s contracts department where it is used as an outline for the formal contract." But contracts aren't created from scratch with every literary project; most publishers use a standard, though negotiable, contract boilerplate.)

Once the contract is signed, "a voucher is issued, directing the accounts payable folks to cut a check for your advance payment. This check then goes to the controller or authority in charge of disbursements to sign. Then this ‘advance’ is mailed to the agent who removes his ten percent and mails the other ninty [sic] percent to you. After returned books that did not sell are subtracted from the company accounts, the final royalty check owed by the publisher is mailed to the payee, [sic]” How many inaccuracies can you cram into a single paragraph? Publishers don’t issue advances as single lump sums--they chop advances up into halves, or thirds, or even fifths, so they can have the use of your money for as long as possible. Agents don’t charge ten percent (reputable agents, that is)--they charge fifteen. Mr. Santsaver also doesn't appear to have heard of reserves against returns.

After some twaddle about what it takes for a ms. to sell and what genres are currently in demand (random information plucked from the air, intended to make Mr. Santsaver look like an "expert") the article winds things up with with the understatement of the decade ("Some hardback and paperback publishers have been bought out by large media conglomerates…" Er…not just "some," bud) and concludes, inscrutably: “Contracts come email.”

Highlights from other sections of the website:

From the Published Authors page: "Our commissions are the normal rate in the publishing, agent, author business triangle. Depending on the contract we range from five percent for best sellers to ten percent for normal trade contracts." Ummm...so Mr. Santsaver is clairvoyant, and knows about those bestsellers ahead of time so he can offer that 5% contract? And imagines that bestsellers get different contracts from "normal trade" books? And thinks that 5%-10% is "the normal rate?" Oh dear. (I love the business triangle, though.)

"Please do not hesitate to contract us by email OR PHONE if you have a publishing need or question," the Publishers page urges. That's right, Mr. Publisher--we're waiting for you to come to us! Please call soon. We're getting lonely.

The Submissions page (which badly badly needs some of the "editing that is minor in nature this we do free for everyone” that the agency offers to submitters) imparts this inexplicable advice: "Above all get ten people to read your ms and someone at the local paper to review it." Hmmm.

As for the Prepublication Reviewers page, I’m still marveling that anyone would imagine that readers “with credentials” would be attracted by this pitch: “We want to send you a manuscript of [sic] screenplay for an honest review that we think has promise; [sic--and what is it that has promise, the review or the manuscript?] We find exciting fiction and nonfiction writers who need opinionated marketing reviews for their efforts. There is no payment involved. And you might discover a new screenwriter or author who might never get published without your help. Also you may want to quote their work in your own publication or paper.”

As for the two major things you DO want to see on an agent's website--a list of recent sales and CV's of the member agents? No sign of 'em. Nada. Zip.

I should say that despite a number of questions about “legitimacy," Writer Beware has so far gotten no complaints about Mr. Santsaver or Literary Associates. We may never get any complaints--it may very well be that Mr. Santsaver is well-intentioned (many questionable agents are) and that he doesn’t charge fees (many amateur agents don’t). Why am I picking on him, then, rather than lambasting a real scammer who cynically exploits writers' ignorance and rips them off for thousands of dollars? Because he's clueless…and for a writer, “clueless” and “scammer” mean almost exactly the same thing: NO SALE.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 49 - Writing Query Letters

Yesterday I drove up to Annapolis to give my writing workshop on "Finding an Agent" at Anne Arundel Community College. The last hour of the short workshop is devoted to writing a first draft of a query letter for the student's current work-in-progress.

At the upcoming Balticon, Victoria and I have volunteered to conduct a free workshop on "Finding an Agent" and we'll be running this query letter exercise there, commenting on what the students write.

So let me speak today of writing that all-important query letter. There are two kinds of query letters that work, basically. One kind, the kind I teach, is a good, workmanlike business letter, and it does the job. It's short, to the point, written in dynamic, specific language, with NO errors of any kind -- no typos, punctuation, spelling, grammatical, etc. All kiss of death, my friends! Query letters must be letter-perfect!

The other kind of query letter is weird, quirky, but so irresistable and creative that it will capture the attention of an agent even though it's far outside the "accepted" model. This kind of query letter springs from true talent and writing genius, and really can't be taught. I've seen some of them, and they leave me in awe -- and they immediately captured the interest of the agent(s) they were sent to. However, since they can't be classified or taught, I'm going to concentrate today on the first type of query letter.

My suggested "template" for a query letter runs like this:'

1. First paragraph: you introduce your project, give the title, the number of words, and make sure the agent understands that it's a completed, polished book. If you can quickly compare the book to something the agent would recognize, or give a one-line description that's bound to capture the agent's attention, it would go here.

(An example of a one-line description that actually sold a book to an editor while I was waiting in line to get into a restaurant at a World S.F. Convention was when Harriet Macdougal asked me what I was currently working on, and I replied, "Well, Andre and I are writing Witch World: The Next Generation." Harriet promptly told me to send it to her as soon as we finished, which I did. She bought it.)

2. Second paragraph: here's where I tell my students to get creative. Here's where you give the agent a "snapshot" of your book by providing a couple of "sound bites" about it.

Michael Cassutt first described sound bites to me, and I'll never forget the example he used. He would tell his screenwriting students this wonderful sound bite for an apocryphal television show: "Bongo and the Pontiff. She's a chimp. He's the Pope. Together, they solve murders."

I never forgot it -- and that's the POINT of a sound bite. It's not a synopsis. It's a "snapshot" of a book, meant to stick in the agent's or editor's head, to interest them in project so much they'll want to read it -- hell, they'll DEMAND to read it! I haven't written very many sound bites in my life (my agent handles this stuff now) but retroactively, I came up with one for my first book, Yesterday's Son: "Mr. Spock finds his son Zar living in a lonely ice age on doomed Sarpeidon, and is grimly determined to do his duty by the young man. Zar has always longed for a father, someone he could love and be close to. When the two must work together to stop a Romulan takeover of the Guardian of Forever, conflict is inevitable -- and far from logical."

That's a sound bite. A brief encapsulation of the heart of the novel. Not a synopsis, not a summary. Just a snapshot, designed to intrigue, to spark interest in reading.

3. The third paragraph should contain a summary of your credentials for writing the book. If you don't have any, then don't try to manufacture some, it looks really lame. Credentials fall into three categories:

a. Best and foremost, writing credentials. You sold your writing somewhere. Cite the venue, and give the title of the article, short story, or book. If you didn't receive any payment for the writing, chances are you shouldn't mention it. Things like letters to the editor published in your local paper don't count. A receipe in a parish cookbook doesn't count. If you had a letter ON THE SAME SUBJECT AS THE BOOK YOU'RE TRYING TO SELL published in some really prestigious venue, say The Wall Street Journal, that MIGHT be something to mention.

b. The other two categories of "credentials" you can mention would be lifetime experience, and/or academic degrees -- IF THEY RELATE TO THE SUBJECT OF YOUR BOOK. There's no point in mentioning that you have a degree in quantum physics if you've written a humorous fluffy unicorn story. Or a romance novel set in the Miami drug culture. Lifetime experience, ditto. If you have written a detective novel, and you can truthfully state that you've been a homicide detective for 10 years, that's definitely worth a mention. If you have a PhD in quantum physics, and your novel explores the "true nature" of dark matter, or something like that, you should definitely mention it in the third paragraph. Mentioning your age, marital status, number of children, grandchildren, whether you have bunions, or gout, is NOT relevant, so don't include it.

4. This last paragraph is simply your comment that you're working on a new novel (well, you SHOULD be!, if you're not, START ONE!) and a thank you to the agent for considering your query. You can mention that it's available for review either as chapters and synopsis, or as a full ms. Tell them you hope to hear from them at their earliest convenience. Typical business style.

Then you write "Sincerely," and sign your name. Don't forget your business-letter-sized SASE. I've noted that Miss Snark says it's not a bad idea to include just the first five pages of your ms. with the query, on the grounds that most agents are curious creatures, and will glance at them.

Hope this little summary has been helpful.

Write on!

-Ann C. Crispin
Author: STORMS OF DESTINY/HarperEos
www.accrispin.com

Friday, April 07, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- The Life of Riley -- er -- Writer

This was one of the silliest writing-related (well, sort of) things I ran across last year: the Book Millionaire "reality show." It's the brainchild not of a publishing industry insider--or even a publishing industry outsider--but of Lori Prokop, purveyor of a variety of get-rich-quick tapes, seminars, and books, and owner of her very own vanity press, Best Seller Publishing, Inc. (which has no website, but here's one of its projects.)

Trudging in the footsteps of reality shows like Fear Factor and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, the Book Millionaire reality show will feature "Eight people with dreams of seeing their book ideas become published and being the next author launched to best selling and celebrity status." And guess what--these lucky would-be authors don't need to squeeze out a single line of prose! According to the show's FAQ: "We are looking for a person who desires to be America's next Book Millionaire and best selling author. This means the book may or may not be written yet nor would it need to be written before filming of the show."

So this is a book contest in which an actual book is irrelevant. Why didn't I think of that? How easy would my authorial life be if I didn't have to worry about writing those damn books? I guess all the people who always kinda thought they might write the Great American Novel but never quite found the time, or the people who have a fab idea for a book if someone else would just take care of writing it for them, or the people who want to be authors but don't want to take the time to turn themselves into writers, now have a chance to become rich and famous, just like me.

What can lucky contestants expect? "You and other chosen Candidate Authors will come to a filming location near Minneapolis, Minnesota," the FAQ continues. "You and others will complete a series of tasks which pertain to book promotion and living the lifestyle of a best selling author." Sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry, doesn't it--unless of course these authors have aspirations to be Bret Easton Ellis, in which case Minneapolis will be too small to hold them. For any contestants who might be feeling a little nervous about that unwritten book, not to worry--you can use someone else's! "You will not need to have your own book finished for the filming," the ever-helpful FAQ explains. "Rather, we will use prominent company products and currently published books for the tasks." Goody! Can I be Robin Hobb?

The lucky winner will realize "the ultimate dream — to enjoy the lifestyle of being a successfully published author." Yeah, baby! The late advance checks. The impossible deadlines. The writer's block. The unsympathetic editors. The too-busy agents. The midlist. The death spiral. The constant struggle to juggle a writing life with real life. Bring it on!

Of course, if you read the fine print, the actual prize is much less than it appears (surprised?) In fact, based on this excerpt from the participation agreement that Book Millionaire hopefuls are required to sign, it appears to be a contract with Lori Prokop's own vanity publisher, Best Seller Publishing:

8. PRIZES. Game Winner receives: A Publishing Contract. The winner gets to have their book manuscript published and available on Amazon.com and available to bookstores in the United States. Prizes are not transferable and no substitution of prizes is permitted except that Best Seller Publications reserves the right to substitute a prize of equivalent value or greater if a prize is unavailable.

Note the key words "available." That's a euphemism for POD. So what would be equivalent value? A contract with iUniverse?

If, like me when I first ran across the contest, you thought that no one would be so gullible as to fall for this flimflam (which actually made it into the Museum of Hoaxes), you'd be wrong. Videos made by aspiring book millionaires have begun to appear on the contest website, and there will be more in coming weeks. Right now there's Neil, who wants to reveal the secrets of creativity. There's Nick, who has "spent a great deal of my life being a Christian – a characteristic about myself that I commonly share with many other Americans." There's Chet--who, believe it or not, is already a multi-published author, with books from Bantam and Thorndike Press among others. There's Sheree, who wants to "die a best selling writer." (Me too, Sheree, although I'd like to live with it a little first.) There's feisty New Yorker Robin, the Red Hot Woman, whose magnum opus is a porn novel. You can vote for your favorites. In fact, since there don't appear to be any provisions in place to guard against vote-rigging, you can vote for them often.

So where will we be seeing Book Millionaire, once the finalists are chosen? Not on network TV. Not on cable TV. Not on local access TV. Not even at 2:00am on paid infomercial TV. No--Book Millionaire will be broadcast FREE online! The website tries to put a good face on this. "After listening to all the emails asking how people could make sure they could see the show (regardless of where they lived) and talking to cable channels, who were both very interested in the show and very fun to talk with, and talking to sponsors who wanted the highest amount of distribution possible, we have all agreed that broadcasting Book Millionaire online for FREE is a great answer." It's pretty easy to read between the lines, however. The TV channels wouldn't even take a meeting for this absurd concept, so Book Millionaire is stuck with the Internet.

Would-be book millionaires, I, a book non-millionaire, salute you. I wish you all the best of luck. I also hope you read the disclaimer in your participation agreement--just in case this celebrity author thing doesn't wind up being all it's cracked up to be:

20. PARTICIPATION...You understand if chosen as a Candidate Author, your participation in Program will not be all that you may want or need to do to achieve the ultimate publishing success. You understand and agree the Book MillionaireTM Reality TV Show and its producers, owners, officers, directors, employees, judges, agents, representatives, and affiliates do not warrant any particular level of success from your participation in the Program. You expressly acknowledge that no promises have been made to you, either express or implied, verbal or written, regarding any income you might earn or success you might achieve due to your participation in the Process or Program or any expenses you might earn back, including your travel or other expenses in conjunction with the Application or Participation in Process or Program.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Evaluating an Agent's Website

A few posts back, I linked to an example of the sort of agent website that fairly screams “Avoid!” Unfortunately, the reason I know about this website is that someone wrote me to ask whether the agent was reputable. You’d think that some things--an inability to spell, for instance--would register on the clue meter. Sadly, for many people, that’s not so.

But there are also more subtle signs of wrongness that are harder to recognize. Here, therefore, are some tips for evaluating an agent’s website.

WHAT YOU SHOULD SEE

Reputable agents’ websites vary a lot. Some stick to the basics--staff, sales, submission guidelines--while others include extras, such as interviews with clients, FAQ’s for new authors, query letter or proposal guidelines, links to helpful resources...the list goes on. But there are two things you really want to see:

A list of recently published books. If the agency has been in business for six months or more, it should have sales, and those sales should be given a prominent place on the website. Some agents simply list what they’ve sold; some provide thumbnails of book covers and links to Amazon; some include capsule information on the books and/or bios of the authors.

Whatever the format, it should include the title, the author, and the publisher, so you can check that a) the books really exist (because bad agents sometimes make up sales), b) the sales actually are recent (some marginal agents who've turned to the dark side have sales from years and years back--but having a track record from 1991 says nothing about the agent's ability to sell your book next week), and c) the publishers are real publishers (because sometimes they’re not. See my earlier post, Faking a Track Record. Remember, bad agents lie).

Some agents also provide a list of clients. This is even better than an enumeration of recent sales, since it lets you do a more thorough evaluation of the agency’s interests and expertise. Not all agencies are willing to post a full client list, however, so if you don't see one, it isn’t cause for alarm.

The name(s) of the agent(s) and information about their background. Not only does this assure you that the agents are qualified to be agents (or not, if this is an amateur agent who’s honest enough to provide a CV), it will help you decide which agent is best for you to approach, if it’s a multi-agent agency.

Knowing the agent’s professional background is especially important if the agent is new and hasn’t yet built up a track record. You want to be sure that a new agent has actually worked in publishing or trained at another reputable agency. Here’s why.

WARNING SIGNS

Finding any one of these on an agent’s website should make you wary. More than one should start alarm bells ringing. Most or all should motivate you to walk very fast in the opposite direction.

No sales. A brand-new agency will take a few months to start selling. Longer than a year, however, suggests that the agent lacks either expertise or contacts. If an agency has been around for a year or more and no sales are listed, be very cautious. This is the principal thing that distinguishes the website of a questionable agent from that of a reputable agent: no mention of sales.

Unverifiable sales claims. Reputable agents provide specifics: author, title, publisher. Less reputable agents make claims that can’t be checked: "We've sold to major publishers such as Avon, Penguin, and Random House" or "Last year we sold 15 books." Unverifiable sales claims are meaningless.

A claim that sales information is “confidential”. It’s not. Agents report sales to the media as soon as the ink on the publishing contract is dry. The only reason not to list sales is if there are none, or if the list reflects badly on the agent.

A client list unaccompanied by information about published books. Not all reputable agents list their clients, but all reputable agents list their sales. A client list means very little if no sales info is provided. Of course, you can look the clients up on Amazon--and you should. Odds are, you’ll find they’re unpublished.

No information on who’s running the agency. Reputable agents say who they are. If you can’t find the name of an actual person on the website, move on. If the agent or agents are listed but there’s no biographical information, do some more digging. Don’t take anything at face value.

Spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical errors. This should be obvious, right? A literary agent should be literate.

Ignorant and/or silly statements. For instance, urging you to register copyright (a good agent should know that's not necessary). Or telling you that your manuscript must be "professionally edited" (watch out--the agent may want to recommend an editor). Or saying that new authors rarely get published (this is a common writer's myth--a good agent knows it's not true). Or a statement that the agency works only with "traditional" publishers (apart from the fact that "traditional publisher" has no accepted industry meaning, this should go without saying). Or a claim to specialize in new writers (new writers usually make up a fairly small percentage of an established agent's list). Or lots of verbiage about how the publishing industry is shutting out original voices, or overlooking good stories, or ignoring the potential of unpublished authors (this is often a sign that the agency is run by frustrated writers--not a good thing).

THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER

The absence of a website. Successful agencies don’t need to advertise--word of mouth and market listings bring them all the submissions they can handle. In the late 1990’s, when most businesses were frantically scrambling to establish websites, agents were an exception. This has changed. Still, there are many successful agencies that haven’t yet gotten round to creating a website. So the absence of a website doesn’t, as some new writers fear, indicate that the agency isn’t reputable.

The presence of a website. Nor does the existence of a website say anything about an agency’s legitimacy. It’s as easy for a scammer to set up a website as it is for a legitimate agent.

A domain name. Many people assume that a domain name is a sign of business legitimacy. But plenty of scammers have their own domain names, and a few successful agents are still on free servers or share domains with others.

Good or bad design. A lot of bad agents have ugly, amateurishly-designed websites. But so do some successful agents. Many top agents have gorgeously designed sites--but so do some scammers. It isn’t how the site looks, it’s what it contains--or doesn’t contain. See above.

Business memberships. Some writers are impressed if an agent claims membership in the BBB or other business group. They shouldn't be. Such memberships are irrelevant. The ONLY membersthip that counts for a literary agent is one of the professional agents' trade associations such as the AAR, AAA, or AALA. There's more about credentials here.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Some examples of what I consider to be exemplary agents’ websites:

BookEnds, LLC
Manus & Associates
Jenny Bent
The Knight Agency

Some websites of agents on Writer Beware's 20 Worst list:

Children’s Literary Agency
Mocknick Productions Literary Agency Inc.
The Abacus Group Literary Agency
Desert Rose Literary Agency

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A.C. Crispin -48 -MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT!

WELL, LEST ANYONE READ THIS POST IN THE ARCHIVES AND NOT NOTICE THE DATE, I AM HEREBY ANNOUNCING, IN BIG LETTERS, THAT THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN ON APRIL 1st, 2006. IT IS AN APRIL FOOL'S JOKE. JOKE. HA HA HA. DO NOT SEND US ANY CHECKS OR MANUSCRIPTS. THEY WILL BE RETURNED UNREAD AND UNCASHED. I'M LEAVING THE POST BECAUSE IT WAS FUN TO BE GOOFY HERE FOR ONCE. HAVE A GREAT APRIL 2nd, FOLKS!

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Hello, faithful blog readers! To thank you for your readership, Vic and I are announcing our newest, most exciting venture HERE first!

The Writer Beware Literary Agency!

Victoria and I have been associated with the publishing field for over 30 years between us, and we are POSITIVE we have the knowledge, the contacts, and the expertise to represent your work to publishers. We’ll be looking at all genres, though we may decide to specialize later, as business picks up. Naturally, we’re actively seeking science fiction and fantasy writers to represent. Our ad for the Writer Beware Literary Agency will be appearing starting next month in Writers Digest magazine, also in Literary Marketplace, Publisher’s Weekly, and the New York Times Book Review.

We’re so excited about this! It’s taken months of secret planning, but now we are “go for launch!”

So please send us your nonfiction books, novels, poetry collections, and short stories. We will query publishers on your behalf, using our intimate knowledge of the publishing field to target just the RIGHT market for you.

Please send your submissions, hard copy only, on white paper, printed on one side of the paper only, in black ink. Leave an inch margin all around, and please double-space your manuscript. No email submissions will be accepted at this time, though we’ll review this policy later if we don’t get enough writers submitting work in the first few months.

Oh, and with each submission, please enclose your check for $1000 dollars for the first six months of submission fees. This will guarantee you submissions to at least 10 carefully selected and vetted advance and royalty paying publishers.

We’re ready to get you published! Send those manuscripts and checks TODAY! Don't delay!

-Ann C. Crispin