Friday, June 08, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Protesting Too Much

In 1998, when Writer Beware was founded, literary fraud was very much an under-the-radar issue. Writers had just begun to realize that reading fees weren't kosher (in part because of the AAR's proscription of them a few years before), but other bad business practices (upfront marketing fees, editing referrals, relationships with vanity publishers) weren't widely recognized as a problem, either by people in the publishing industry or by the writers targeted by scammers. Remember, in 1998, Commmonwealth Publications had only just closed its doors, and some of the most notorious literary scams ever were still in operation, including Edit Ink, the Woodside Literary Agency, the Deering Literary Agency, and Press-Tige Publishing.

Nowadays, literary fraud has a much higher profile. In fact, "money flows toward the writer" has become such a universal maxim that questionable agents and publishers are more and more feeling a need to defend themselves against it--for instance, by devoting space on their websites to disinformation (high-powered agents aren't interested in new writers, new writers often get their start by paying to publish, etc., etc.), or publicly protesting their innocence and/or attacking the whistle-blowers.

Take, for example, the 20 agencies on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List. Of the 13 that have or have had websites, nearly half--six in all--have gone the protest route. Two--the Robins Agency ($1,000-3,200 upfront, no sales) and Desert Rose Literary Agency ($350 upfront, no sales)--currently have dead websites, but their efforts to refute negative information or to present themselves as injured parties have been preserved in our responses on this blog. Here's what the remaining four have to say, in order of bombast:

Mocknick Productions Literary Agency (charges $450 upfront and has no track record that Writer Beware has been able to locate, despite several years in business) is relatively restrained. On its Submission Requirements page, it declares:

On many occasions, we've been questioned regarding websites that clients have seen that taboo up-front fees. The sites state that it is not standard practice for an agency to charge. What they don't mention is the fact that most agents that don't charge belong to organizations such as the AAR and Writer's Guild. These organizations forbid fees. In addition, these agents will not take on new writers who are not already best sellers. The reason? There is little effort to pitch an established author, whereas pitching an unknown to a paranoid industry takes much more effort, time and money.

In essence, it is in fact a standard practice and quite necessary for an agency to charge some type of fee when taking on an unknown author. If they didn't, they would not stay in business.


Mr. Mocknick must be hoping that writers won't follow this claim to its logical conclusion: if an agency can't stay in business without charging fees, it must not be making much money from selling manuscripts.

Stillwater Literary Agency (a.k.a. Sherwood Broome Inc.--charges a $750 contract fee, promotes its own editing services, and has no track record as far as Writer Beware knows, despite the fact that it has been in business longer than us) offers a rebuttal (scroll down to the bottom) of "[Internet] postings which warn against paying any fees for editing or representation of literary material."

"We only offer editing on material that will benefit from such work and is needed before submission to publishers," Stillwater avers. As for its fees: "Since all marketing is undertaken on speculation, we do sometimes ask for an advance against potential commissions for unpublished first-time and/or unknown writers to help cover our overhead." Based on the documentation Writer Beware has gathered over the years, we think this happens a whole lot more often than "sometimes." Also, call me cuckoo, but I've always been under the impression that it's authors who are supposed to get advances.

Stillwater concludes its self-defense with a flourish:

Spreading dirt and mudslinging are not something we take lightly, especially when the ones doing so are selling their 'services' at our expense. We are available to discuss any and all aspects of an author's writing and its potential, not like the faceless, nameless blogs on the Internet.

Er...we aren't selling anything. Our names are right there in the sidebar. And if you click on the links to our websites, you can see our faces, too.

Mark Sullivan Associates (charges an "evaluation" fee of $165, makes frequent referrals to an editing service, has no sigificant track record of sales--according to its website, fewer than 10--even though it too has been around longer than us) describes itself as a hybrid agency, defined as an agency that's "willing to work carefully with both professional and new writers." It devotes an entire section of its website to an elaborate rebuttal of Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors.

Among other ripostes, I, Ann, and Dave Kuzminski are dismissed as "an unpopular fantasy author (#412,507 - #945,879 book rankings on Amazon); another fantasy author of minor impact; and one very unsuccessful writer, respectively." Mr. Sullivan claims that "Fees were once handled well in this country by major agencies and can still be used in a fair, positive manner" (he fails to note that the kinds of fees he charges have long been prohibited by the AAR due to rampant abuse) and claims that "In Britain, fees are accepted as a means for agents and new writers to work together." (In fact, reputable UK agents don't charge reading or evaluation fees any more than reputable US agents do.) Moreover,

Fees originated due to the large volume of book submissions. "No-fee" means that the few successful writers represented by an agency then subsidize all other writers submitting their books.

As a result, it is difficult for a developing writer to get a careful reading by a serious agency. Better to submit your manuscript to an established "no-fee" agency if you have been referred by one of their writers, a publisher or a friend of the agency. This is the reality, irrefutable in everyday practice.

Our very reasonable fees for reading or editing allow us to work with more writers, especially those demonstrating seeds of real ability. Our way of working guarantees that your work will be read with care and evaluated on paper by a MFA or equally qualified reader, and not by an intern. It may then be developed and submitted to a publisher for a fair reading.


One can't help observing that the charging of fees by an agency with fewer than ten sales over a decade of existence is likely to be due to reasons other than a concern for talented new writers.

The protests of Writers Literary Agency & Marketing Company (formerly The Literary Agency Group--charges a variety of fees, including editing fees and service/submission fees, and has no commercial sales Writer Beware knows of, despite having been in business under one name or another since 2001) aren't quite so public. One of these protests is hosted on an agency website, though it can't be accessed from any of the website's main pages. A link is provided to people who ask questions about the agency's fees or the widepread negative information on the Internet. Here's an excerpt:

Q) Is what is being said about TLAG [The Literary Agency Group] on the writers' blogs true?

A) Do you remember the game where the class sits in a circle and you start with a statement and whisper it in each ear around the circle? By the time it reaches the end of the circle, it's unrecognizable. That's what our diligence showed.
[Writers Literary is pretending here that it is a separate company that has "acquired" The Literary Agency Group.] Yes, they had some startup woes, and yes, they made some mistakes, but in general, they did what they said, they had sales, and they have pioneered some interesting concepts. We think there is value in the authors they have on their roster.

The other protest is a form letter, also provided to people who ask awkward questions. There have been a number of versions; here's a recent one, posted to the Absolute Write Water Cooler by a recipient (Writer Beware has also received several copies of this letter from other recipients). Here's a choice quote:

Let me tell you where that stuff [negative information about the agency on the Internet] comes from. First, we insist on working only with edited work. There is an entire camp of people that believe that we should pay for the writers' editing. If the writer's name is Hillary Clinton, we'll pay for the editing, but for a new author, we just can't afford it. Also, because the value of editing and critiquing stays with the owner/writer of the script, even if we were fired, then it would make logical sense that the author would pay for editing.

The next group is basically just upset that they can't make it as a writer and they are spiteful and generally upset with the way the world treats them. And to add to their angst, telling a writer their story isn't good enough to sell is like telling a parent that their kid is ugly. And, when a writer is upset, they write hateful things. We just toughen up and ignore them. I suggest you do the same.


Yeah! Ignore the bad stuff. That'll solve the problem.

Literary agencies with bad business practices thrive on the ignorance and desperation of aspiring writers. There's little to be done about desperation, but over the years Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, and others have chipped away at ignorance, and our success may be judged by the fact that the four agencies discussed above, which in 1998 would not have needed even to explain their practices, now find it necessary to publicly justify them. They are by no means the only ones. We're still a long way from achieving universal awareness, but we're a lot closer than we were when we started out. On the dark days, that's something to remember.

12 comments:

Susan said...

After reading a few things written by people I knew who were trying to get published and had paid for "professional" editing services, I begin to think that all this is code for "our clients are so bad that we can't get them published, but even we have more dignity than to allow their manuscript to continue without running spellcheck on it, for which we will charge several hundred dollars."

I'm sure there are probably some good ones, but by and large "professional" editing by someone who doesn't work at a publishing house seems to involve only the absolute most basic grammar and spelling, and sometimes not even that. I think these places appeal, at heart, to the sort of person who doesn't want to actually keep working on their novel until it's publishable, they just want to throw money at the problem until they get their name on the cover.

And, alas, you can't protect people like that, even if it is a scam.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Gosh, did we do all that to those poor, sales-challenged agents?

B.E. Sanderson said...

Thank you, Victoria, Ann and Dave for everything you do to stamp out ignorance.

Miko said...

I ca't begin to tell you - how much I appreciate all of your efforts.

Recently, I noticed a new user in a forum (that has a lot of writers) that I moderate, bragging the a shout-box about her hypothetical book that's "getting published." She then went on to proclaim the greatness of this Agency tht she is working with - and giving people links to the homepage, etc.

I copied the link (because a $10,000 advance for a 1st novel seemed a bit too good to be true) and it turned out to be the homepage of * WL Writers' Literary Agency*

I don't know if it means anything. This person was possibly just a misinformed writer. Sadly, I didn't think to write down the name this user registered with - so will simply have to remain on the lookout for more attempts to recruit writers.

Thanks to Writer Beware for increasing awareness about this sort of thing...

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I once did some work for Mark Sullivan Associates--when Mr. Sullivan ran an association under a different name, I believe New York Editors. I was a Columbia student, naive, and didn't realize it was a scam.

After a few manuscripts, I realized it *was* a scam. He accidentally included some paperwork in with a manuscript I was supposed to 'evaluate.' He was charging some poor little old lady $900 to have me 'edit' her work. For which I was being paid $150.

I challenged him on it. He threatened to "fuck me up bad."

I went to the Columbia Career Center with a complaint (I'd gotten the job through the Columbia U Career Center) and they put him on a warning list.

But he's a bad dude, and not above conning and threatening the people who work for him.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Miko, a $10,000 advance for a first time novelist is not at ALL "too good to be true." In fact, it's pretty common.

Please see Karen Fox's excellent "SHOW ME THE MONEY" survey on author advances in the romance field here:

http://www.karenafox.com/money.htm

Tobias Buckell's survey on (mostly) fantasy and science fiction advances here

SFF first time advances seem to be a bit lower, judging by the average/medians. But it's still not at all outside the norm.

p.n. elrod said...

I have noticed in life that the kind of person who cheats is the first to put hand to heart and declare himself to be honest.

Honest people never have to assure others of their honesty.

I went to Sullivan's site, and while you have a link to him, he did not link to you in the "poor me" rant.

An honest site would do that.

Hmm...like yours.

Might I suggest that anyone who reads this blog should go out today and buy books by Ann & Victoria, then send a thank you mail to Mark Sullivan for pointing out a couple of really good writers. Perhaps one could suggest he put a proper link to their blog in the body of his rant page to make them easier to find. Sometimes Google can be so slow!

Miko said...

Thanks for the helpful link, Diana!

Anonymous said...

I'm a new author, and I called up a big Publisher. Simon & Schuster told me to go to David Mocknick. I've read your article, and I do appreciate what your doing to warn others, but when a big Publisher recommends a person to go to. I take what they said in good faith, that they know of who is reputable inside the industry.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, could you please contact me at beware@sfwa.org ? I'd like to know who at S&S recommended David Mocknick. S&S may be a major publisher, but this is a bad recommendation. David Mocknick is a fee-charging agent with no discoverable track record of sales to commercial publishers.

All information shared with Writer Beware is held in confidence.

berlin said...

oh dear. I sent the first 30 pgs to WL Literary Agency and, while I now know not to proceed further (they offered to represent my book) I'm worried. I asked them to destroy the pages; can they legally ignore my request?

Anonymous said...

Also beware of Alpha Beat Press, Chicago Sports Journal, and Poets & Writers (all known to steal ideas or not make payments promised)