Questionable and incompetent literary agents, publishers, and others (scammers or not) are often unable to fulfill their promises. Non-performance is among the most common complaints that Writer Beware receives: unpaid royalty checks, publication delays, no followup on manuscript submissions, editing projects late by months or even years.
Excuses for these problems (where excuses are made--many dodgy operators simply resort to silence, leaving emails and phone calls unanswered, closing down message boards and guestbooks) range from the mundane (scheduling conflicts, website and email glitches, that old whipping boy the US mail) to the personal (individual or family crises, health problems for key staff) to the downright bizarre. We know of several less-than-honest agents who have announced their own deaths--via an alias, of course (one of them got her aliases mixed up, surprising grieving clients with her apparent resurrection). Another questionable agent explained that he couldn't do his job properly because his house was haunted. And one dubious operator repeatedly claims he must rush overseas to deal with the kidnapping of his child--though his real motive is to put himself out of reach of the people to whom he has made empty promises.
(Of course, some of these excuses--the less fantastical ones, at any rate--are real. But that just points up a different issue. Since marginal agents and inexperienced publishers are so often one-person shows, or are run part-time out of a back room, a single problem can sideline the entire business.)
There are only so many times you can claim to have had a heart attack, or that your house burned down, or that you or your [pick one: spouse, child, best friend] have been diagnosed with some dread disease. Many questionables are delighted, therefore, when a natural event opens the door for legitimate blame. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan provided some much-needed breathing room for questionables in the Southeast (one agency, claiming flooded offices, took the opportunity to rename itself and "discontinue" the old, complaint-ridden business). Ditto for Hurricane Katrina, a year later.
9/11 was an excuse bonanza. I heard from writers whose deadbeat agents informed them that publishers had stopped buying books, or that editors were too afraid to go to work, or that communications disruptions made it impossible to reach anyone in New York by phone or email. I heard from authors whose sleazy publishers told them that fees had to be increased because publishing had "completely changed" in the wake of 9/11, or that publication schedules were being put on indefinite hold because "people weren’t buying books anymore." But the prize for Most Creative Use of a Disaster goes to convicted literary scammer Martha Ivery. At various times, she claimed that her delinquency was due to having been "seriously burned" in the fall of the towers, to caring for friends or relatives who'd been dreadfully injured, and to being in mourning for relatives who'd been killed. To explain why the books writers had paid her to publish weren't appearing, she swore that "dozens" of manuscripts had gone down with Flight 93. (No, I am not making this up. It's all right there in the court documents.)
I'm starting to see signs that the tanking economy is shaping up to be the next big excuseapalooza. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several writers whose incompetent agents--who don't have the skill or contacts to sell manuscripts at the best of times--are blaming the cutbacks in publishing for their failure to place clients' books, or are advance-rationalizing failure with dire tales of publishing carnage and the "near impossibility" of selling first novels under such conditions. I’ve also heard about a questionable publisher that’s using the economy as an excuse to ditch a bunch of its writers (the unhappy ones, perhaps?? This publisher is the focus of numerous author complaints), and another that is pressuring authors to buy their own books, telling them it's their responsibility to keep the publisher afloat during tough economic times.
What makes these excuses compelling is that they are rooted in truth. The current economic woes affect us all, and without doubt there are scores of small and marginal agencies and publishers that are genuinely affected by the global downturn. But there's also no doubt that there are many that will cynically exploit real problems to their own advantage--and to authors' detriment. Because after all, exploitation is what they're all about.