Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Why You Can't Always Trust the Source

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Many writers assume that a literary agent's inclusion in a market guide or listing--whether it's a print book, such as Jeff Herman's Guide, or a website, such as QueryTracker--is an imprimatur of reputability. Surely the agent wouldn't be listed if there were any questions about his/her honesty or competence.

But the worst market listings--which may have been compiled by people who aren't very expert (like this one), or may be the corpses of once-active resources that haven't been updated in years (here's an example), or may be databases where every Tom, Dick, and Harriet can create an entry, no matter their qualifications or ethics (WritersNet is a case in point)--may be full of questionable agents. And even the best may allow some undesirables to slip through.

For instance: Publishers Marketplace, which in my opinion is one of the most useful websites around for researching agents and keeping up with the US publishing industry generally. PM offers a wealth of solid information, and is one of the few membership fee resources of its type that I consider to be worth the investment.

However, PM is a membership site--which means that anyone who is able to pay the fee is free to join. While the fee does provide a deterrent to disreputable people, and the great majority of agents on PM are real and reputable, bad apples do sometimes turn up. Two recent listings provide red flag-filled examples.

Listing #1: Linda Cooper at Literary House

Red flag #1: The opening sentence, which I think requires no further comment: "I'm an [sic] hungry hunter... YES, but only of... bestsellers!!!"

Red flag #2: For an agent supposedly located in Chicago and selling to US publishers, she sure writes bad English. This is not really something that enhances a publisher submission.

Red flag #3: A fee of $120, though there's some disagreement between PM and the agency's website on exactly what the fee is for.

Red flag #4: The agency's website.

Red flag #5: Delusional submission procedures.
We offer you a good literary file (about 9-10 pages written by me, an english literary agent, a literary critic (Us, Uk), a tv agent, and an expert in advertising about book) and this is the perfect "material" for the best publishers. If we consider your creation a good product, we contact the publishers sending this file, and we can offer you a quick response (about 7 days! Not more!).
Red flag #6: Big claims ("PUBLISHED AUTHORS: 90% [2009], 91% [2010], 93% [2011]"), zero specifics. If sales claims can't be verified, they might as well not exist (and in fact, probably don't).

Red flag #7: Beware of an agent who uses a stock photo.

Listing #2: Alexis Avi

Red flag #1: Another unfortunate opening sentence: "I'm a literary agent who loves this job!" Oh, goody.

Red flag #2: Dear me--more bad writing and spelling (unless "mistery" is a new fiction genre I haven't heard of).

Red flag #3: Stealth agents. Googling the names of the four agents who are supposedly part of this agency turns up nothing whatsoever related to writing or publishing. This might be understandable if the agents were new--but for the kind of experience that's being claimed (15 years, in one case), it's a tad implausible.

Red flag #4: Stealth clients. A spot check on client names not only turns up no sign of published or about-to-be-published books, but in some cases turns up no sign of clients. Hint to fake agents: if you're going to invent your clients, calling them things like Omi Wonn, Mariangela Thunder, and Tom Hooberg is not the best idea. For heaven's sake give them common names, so a websearch won't make it so obvious that they're bogus.

Red flag #5: Big claims ("114 clients-published authors"), zero specifics. Reputable agencies name their published books--it's a form of advertising.

Red flag #6: Beware of an agent who uses a stock photo.

Wait. A stock photo? Again? What are the odds that two agencies would simultaneously utilize this unfortunate strategy?

And--hmmm--there are some other odd similarities. Both agencies are looking for "thriller horror," a term I've not seen used anywhere else. Cooper claims that "big EDITORS PUT SUBMISSIONS FROM US TO THE TOP OF THEIR PILE," while Avi avers that "in fact editors put our submissions to the top of the pile." And check out the submission requirements, which, while different, are couched in identical terms. Avi:
If you want, you can contact me.
alexisavi.agent@gmail.com
Put in the subject line: "query_title of the book_your name".
Cooper:
If you want,
you can send me all material (certified mail): info@agenzialetterariaidolidinchiostro.com
Put in the subject line "QUERY_your name and surname_literaryfile".
(Uh, certified mail? To an email address?)

Either these two agencies are the same operation, or they hired the same incompetent person to create their listings.

Debunking such obviously fake agencies is like shooting fish in a barrel--it's so easy it may not seem like it's worth the bother. But there are always writers who are too inexperienced to recognize the red flags--or who overlook them because they believe that a reputable market listing must automatically screen out any questionable agents. I've already gotten inquiries about both these agencies, and I expect I will get more.

Even if you trust the resource, it's always wise to double-check.

40 comments:

Marian Perera said...

"Reputable agencies name their published books--it's a form of advertising."

I've been checking out agency websites for the past few days. While I've sent 16 queries, I've also jotted down the titles of three books to buy because their descriptions and covers looked so enticing.

And the names of those fake clients... Omi Wonn is from Star Wars, right?

Janet Reid said...

Those websites give me a thrill of horror; maybe that's what they meant.

Jana Oliver said...

I'm in awe. I thought I had a love of parens, but that website puts me to shame.

Iola said...

"in fact editors put our submissions to the top of the pile."

That would be the reject pile, I assume?

Victoria Strauss said...

And the names of those fake clients... Omi Wonn is from Star Wars, right?

Yes, that mastermind of deception, Omi Wonn Con Newbie.

FigmentQueen said...

"120 $ FOR FIRST READING, COMPLETE LITERARY FILE AND THE BEST CONTACTS FOR INTERNATIONAL PUBLISHERS!"

That sounds almost like they GUARUNTEE to do those things for each and every person who pays the fee!

I mean, hopefully "each and every person" equates to no more than five, but...

Jan Rider Newman said...

I've been at this long enough to avoid submitting to "agents" like these. But if I were a newbie, eager to publish and not on my guard, these real "query sharks" might take me in and ruin my opinion of legitimate professionals. I hope this post reaches those who most need to read it.

PublishersMarketplace said...

Just to be clear, the examples cited from PM are not our "listings," they are *member pages*--entirely composed by the paying members, and in no way moderated or controlled by us as host. Just like any other hosted personal page (on Facebook, etc.) They should be read as the person's own words only, since that's what they are.

Our own content--deal reports, Dealmakers, contact database, etc.--is moderated by our staff.

J.W. Alden said...

I can't tell you how nervous agent hunting makes me. Last year I decided to focus on short stories for a while, but I know eventually I'm going to have to get back into the hunt again, and I'm paranoid as all hell about being taken for a loop.

Thank goodness resources like this one exist!

Bonnee Crawford said...

I hate fakers, they're so dumb. Always best to do your research before investing your time, money or possessions into anything.

Anonymous said...

The website for the first listing is in Italian. I am wondering why you didn't mention that little factoid.

Does it make a difference? Yes and no. It does raise a few questions that need answers before labeling them scammers.

Are your quotes from their translations into English or from your browser's translation into English or from their browser's translation?

Are they really incompetent or are they only minimally fluent in English? Is complete fluency in English a requirement for an agent when they don't edit an author's work? Does the degree of fluency in a foreign agent affect their ability to sell an author's manuscript?

Are the laws regulating literary agents in Italy different from the laws in other countries? Is it legal for them to ask for a fee? Is this standard practice in Italy?

Stacia Kane said...

Linda's PM listing also repeats the silliness about how agents can't possibly judge a book based on just three chapters/can't possibly make a decision without reading the entire three chapters:

In fact, when you contact other free agents (and you don't pay anything for the first reading!!!), you have to consider the possibility (or the absolute certainty, trust me!) they don't reply, or they reply in 10 minutes (is it possible to read well and free, 3 chapters in 10 minutes?!?!) or... they reply in one month (one month?! TIME IS MONEY!) or... and this is very frustrating, they write "Thank you for giving me the chance to consider your writing, BUT... unfortunately...", and here... a lot of excuses! I hate this system that does not respect the authors and I want to be different! I hate when I read in other website "because of the high volume of queries we receive... we don't respond to every query". Other excuses!!! I've worked in 3 prestigious literary agencies for 4 years, and I know what is the truth! An agent doesn't receive 10.000 e-mail a week. I assure that it is absolutely possible to respond to every query! ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE to respond without assistant or automatic and ridiculous phrases!);
2. With my agency (Literary House, Idoli d'inchiostro), you can receive an answer in 8-10 days (for a book of 350-400 pages) or in 20-25 days (2 or 3 books);


Of course, her listing itself belies the statement that one must read fifty pages of badness to know it's bad; it's obvious after the first couple of sentences that she's not a professional.

Dennis Latham said...

Keep exposing them. You provide valuable information.

Victoria Strauss said...

Publishers Marketplace said,

Just to be clear, the examples cited from PM are not our "listings," they are *member pages*--entirely composed by the paying members, and in no way moderated or controlled by us as host.

I tried to make clear in my post that the listings belong to the members, and also to emphasize what a valuable resource I think Publishers Marketplace is.

Thanks for the comment.

Nicola Morgan said...

Victoria - "Yes, that mastermind of deception, Omi Wonn Con Newbie." - BRILLIANT!

Jim Kukral said...

These people could just be bad marketers. Let's face it, people from that side of the business are usually not good at marketing. This proves it.

Just saying, they might be good, qualified people, they are just really, really bad at selling themselves. I find that the more likely scenario.

Warren Caterson said...

Oh man! Once again I got your blog too late!!! I just signed with Agenzia Letteraria because she looks pretty in the photo and because of her prodigious use of exclamation points! (A writing style I also possess!!!) Besides, everyone knows editors are impressed by cute girls with big exclamation points! Now I just wish I hadn't spent the extra money on all those certified e-mail messages! Oh well!! Now, what was the name of that other agency?! Alex something, wasn't it?!

Fiona Glass said...

Perhaps 'mistery' is a thriller set in a foggy landscape?

Thanks for the post - funny *and* informative.

Robin Coyle said...

Timely for me as I am researching agents right now. I now know about two more to avoid. Thanks!

JS said...

Does the degree of fluency in a foreign agent affect their ability to sell an author's manuscript?

Yes, of course it does. Agents need to be able to pitch manuscripts effectively to editors. Fractured English is indeed a barrier to that.

In any case, the website is very clear in representing that agents Linda Cooper and Jim Brown are (supposedly) US and UK nationals, respectively, and veterans of the publishing industries in those countries. So Linda Cooper's English should be colloquial US English.

The whole website is a load of rubbish filled with stock photos. Compare this to the "Who We Are" page of a real Italian agent's website (one that has specifics of books sold, etc.).

I can find nothing about "Antonia Masi" as an agent in Italy, any more than I can find anything about "Linda Cooper" as an agent in the US or "Jim Brown" as an agent in the UK.

Victoria Strauss said...

Agents need to be able to pitch manuscripts effectively to editors. Fractured English is indeed a barrier to that.

It's also a barrier to evaluating salable manuscripts.

Anonymous said...

When are you going to report on the biggest literary scam of all time --the defrauding of the John Steinbeck estate by your attorney, Charles Petit and the ensuing court case and transcripts with all that juicy material about him? Why are you insisting on covering up this biggest scam of all? As for Michael Cader and Publishers Marketplace, I wouldn't trust my money to them. I am a prominent agent and I will not subscribe. I vet all my editors personally. Cader is willing to take anybody's money, and besides, some of the"news" in PM is often erroneous or slanted.

Christine Tripp said...

>Are they really incompetent or are they only minimally fluent in English? Is complete fluency in English a requirement for an agent when they don't edit an author's work? Does the degree of fluency in a foreign agent affect their ability to sell an author's manuscript?<

Not if you want to publish your book in Italy and translated into Italian. Though I wouldn't recommend it, given the state of their economy at the moment!
If you want your manuscript submitted to North America, hell YES it matters!!! All Agents work with their Authors on a certain amount of revision. I can only imagine the "fun" working with an Agent who's second language is English.
Visions of Abbot and Costello's, "Who's On First"!

From the Agency website:
> I'm a different agent who is looking for real HORROR<

That pretty much says it all, yeah, he's "different" all right:)

Telling the difference between a REAL Agency and a... not real one, is as simple as this. A true Agency will not use their websites home page to talk to YOU, the Author! Somewhere on the site they will have a submission guideline page but it's typically the LAST one. They will talk about THEMSELVES, the Agency. They will list their Agents names, bio's perhaps. They may list their books sold and to whom. Most times they list their the names of their Authors/Illustrators. They are good at self promotion, (the ones I have heard speak at conferences certainly are) they promote the Agency and their Authors, TO PUBLISHERS, constantly.

Now look at a Fee based Companies website. The difference is glaring. The whole site is speaking (screaming in fact) to YOU, the Author, because, for them, YOU are their end Client.

For the record, PM should have no concerns. I understood perfectly, from Victoria's post, that these few "bad apples" were in no way being condoned by PM.

Lane said...

When I was building my query list, after my agent had to leave the business for a while, I ran across Alexis Avi's name. Jumped on Absolutewrite.com and checked PM, and rightfully forgot her name!

Great post for naive queriers, Victoria!

GalaktioNova said...

Yes, both lead to the same Italian web site, don't they?

They target desperate beginners who wallpaper their bedrooms with rejections... but even then the "agents"' questionable English skills should already raise a red flag for their potential clients.

Arjesi said...

Getting published is really a competition from all sides: publishers, agents, fake agents, and other writers. I have a hunch that the future of book publishing will be left at the hands of the writers themselves with minimal or no help from anyone else.

Tyler said...

Great advice. I'm a bit more leery of the general shady practices (fake clients, phony sales figures) than bad web design and lousy English. As mentioned above, some of these people may just be bad at marketing themselves.

Anonymous said...

More out of curiosity than desperation (though I am a newbie who'd like to be published), I sent a query and first few chapters to Alexis. Apparently, he liked it and will have his assistant contact me with a literary contract (though not a publishing contract...? *confused*). Note that I never sent over the whole manuscript yet. The red flags are glaring enough that I won't be signing (without a lot of convincing), but will be asking many questions and will let you all know how he responds!

Would it be wrong to tell another (well liked) agent who has my complete manuscript that he's interested as well? Or is that not fair? ;-p

Anonymous said...

(P.S. I sent the query before any Google hits and blog entries... probably wouldn't have after reading this!)

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous,

It would be a literary contract, a.k.a. an agency agreement or an author-agent agreement, which is what you sign with an agent when s/he agrees to represent you--not a publishing contract, which would come later (assuming your agent was competent).

If you get an offer from a real agent, and another agent is still reading, it makes sense to let the second agent know. Alexis Avi is, at best, an amateur agent--not only is that kind of interest irrelevant to a real agent, it'll make you look clueless (sorry to be blunt).

A real agent wouldn't make an offer on a partial manuscript, by the way (unless you were already an established author)--a good beginning doesn't guarantee a good ending, and a real agent would want to read all the way through to make sure the quality was consistent.

Jay said...

So, if I'm lucky enough to have 2+ (real) agents interested in my work, I should tell each the name of the other interested agent(s)? Agents like these fine specimens, I avoid or ignore altogether?

(Not there yet, but good to know... just in case!).

Victoria Strauss said...

Jay,

You don't need to tell agents about each other (even if they ask you to, which occasionally they do--it's really none of their business who else you've queried). There are only two reasons to mention to an agent that another agent is reading:

- If Agent 2 asks for an exclusive while Agent 1 is reading the full ms. or a partial. You can let Agent 2 know that someone else is reading, and you can't grant an exclusive--but would Agent 2 be interested in reading anyway? Agent 2 may say yes, in which case you can send the manuscript along, or s/he may say "Send it when the other agent is done," in which case you would do that. (This assumes that you haven't granted an exclusive to Agent 1--in which case you shouldn't be sending the ms. to anyone else until the exclusive expires.)

- If two agents are reading at the same time, and you get an offer from Agent 1, but you'd rather be with Agent 2, or at least you'd like to be able to choose between them. In that case, you can put Agent 1 off for a couple of weeks, and let Agent 2 know you've received an offer but you'd like to hold off on making a decision in case Agent 2 is interested. This may result in an immediate rejection, but it may also cause Agent 2 to speed up his/her reading and/or consideration of whether to make an offer.

In NEITHER of these scenarios do you have an obligation to reveal the name of one agent to the other. You can if you like, but you don't have to. You can just say "another agent."

Anonymous said...

Received a response... eeep.
--- (part 1)
1. About me: My name is Alexis Avi and I work in literary business (books and movie or tv-series).

You don't see my face or my name because, unlike other agents, I don't want to use social network or forum that are not official and I don't' mean to brag. This is a necessary decision! 3 months ago, we had a beautiful website in 4 languages (I loved it!), but… unfortunately, someone entered in our private control panel and blocked all site, using my account. This is very frustrating for an Agent. That’s'why we are using a new website and we change e-mail continually. We changed the webmaster... and he is very good in his job (no spam in this new website, no risks).

2. About my clients:

The webmaster is working (very soon, you can read on my website all the material we had on the first website!). My clients are everywhere. Look at the website today: I think you can see a list of my best clients or screenplay representation.

3. What plans? How many and which publishers?

Before the contract => The question is not "How many?", but "which?". I have to contact only the publishers that: 1) can interested in the genre; 2) accept material in this period or in the next month; 3) don't ask money for publication (of course!); 4) want to review your work. This is my first plan! I have a list of publishers and in the database of literary agents (publishers marketplace, writersnet, 1000 literary agents...) we can see which publishers are open for new ideas. The Author doesn't contact publishers (to avoid to create a bad impression, because Publishers don't consider an Author, but only his Agent! The Author will read only the final contracts! Generally, it's really appreciated the policy "uniquique suum" (translate: to each his own), This is for every literary agents: you can verify asking to other agents). Plans depend on the publishers and contracts! I can't say now!

After the contract => Generally, the publishers and the Agent collaborate to launch the book in the best way (rewiever, reporter, daily newspaper, literary website, official website, advertising agents, Bologna and Frankfurt book fair, and we have a collaboration with Google to advertise book).
---

Anonymous said...

---(part 2)

4. Commission: first contract: 139,99 $ (1 year). After publication and distribution, example (1)=> publisher buy the rights and give you 25.000$ to distribute your book for 1 year (example 1 is very frequently when publisher strongly believes in the book and wants to made a huge amount of money. In this case, the Agent insists to guarantee something different and asks more!). You have 27.600$, so the Agent has 2400$. Example 2 (no frequent for new writers) => publisher gives us a contract for distribution and publication. You have 0,80 or 0,99$ for each copy sold... and Agent has 0,18 $ or 0,23$ for each copy sold. Commission depends on the contract and publisher.

5. It looks like you're Italian.

I work in Us and my clients are in many States (England, Spain, Germany, Italy. Now, we work also with Mexico and Russia). I think you don't know the Spanish, German and Italian merchant (Example to understand the situation in Europe: copies sold in Us of your book: 50.000 in 1 month. Okay. Copies of the same book sold in Spain or Italy are 3-4 times as big! What do you think?! American writers are very appreciated in Italy and Spain... Agent must be consider this important possibility!

If you want to know, I speak italian very good (because I have to go to Bologna for the book fair, so many clients don't speak a word of Italian language, and I help us!), and I'm studying other languages because I fly everywhere to look for new talents and in my opinion when I go in another State, I consider very polite to speak the language of that State (it's not simple, but... I try! Now, I'm in Switzerland, Lugano, for a daily representation).

Okay. I'm very busy today, so... if you want... I can't accept more of 6-7 new books a month (I have 5 new ideas, so it is possible to accept other 2 books for March, for me and my Agency).
Thank you.
Alexis.
---

There's obviously a few problems, but being new -- how scary is this? I'm not a fan of the "I don't want to use social network or forum" ... wha?!

(Also, looking at his website, he has "Tim Keegan" listed as writing "To see the mountain" when that's the name of the collection Tim Keegan's "What Molly Knew" story is in... Oops.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Alexis,

I think you've done more to make my case about your agency than I ever could have.

Victoria Strauss said...

Yowza, Alexis. I took a look at your revamped website. (Cheesy music alert, if you click.) Are you seriously claiming that you represent Terry Pratchett?? I think his real agent might be interested to hear about that.

And guess what--you're not a member of the Association of Authors' Agents, either. I've written to alert them to your false claim.

Jay said...

Doing a Google search on Alexis' photo (which is also the one used on Google+) shows a number of other companies using the same picture. For example, mediacation.ca, actioncollections.ca/pay_direct.asp, lacamas.org/ncua.html and elviesessentials.com/invest/.

Unless Alexis gets around in the financial circles, she is absolutely a fraud.

Christine Tripp said...

Victoria, looks like they have taken down the site (that was fast!!!) or the link you posted isn't working (error message)

Victoria Strauss said...

Christine, I just checked the link, and it now leads to "agenzia Antonia Masi." Different agency name, and now all in Italian, but the same website template.

It's now advertising a 339.99 euro "evaluation" fee and a 269.99 euro representation fee.

All the false claims, including the client claims and the claim to be an AAA member, have been removed.

The only "agent" now mentioned on the site is Antonia Masi. At Publishers Marketplace, the pages for Linda Cooper and Alexis Avi have been removed.

Just goes to show that if you turn over a rock, the bugs go running.

Lisa said...

The Publisher's Marketplace links in this article go to a page not found message and the website you comment on goes to a website that's in Italian, so I'm wondering what went wrong. I would have liked to have seen the websites you were discussing, unless this is intended to be humorous and the sites don't actually exist.