Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

January 31, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- A Frivolous Post

I've seen this on a gazillion blogs, and thought I'd try it, since I don't have any brilliant scam thoughts today.

The Meme of Four

Four jobs you’ve had in your life:

- Clerical assistant and all-around galley slave to a self-absorbed self-help writer (I retained my self-respect by refusing to clean up dog poop)
- Financial manager of a not-for-profit corporation (I got D's in math in high school, so imagine my surprise to discover that I was good at accounting)
- House painter (the ladder up to the third storey was fun)
- Temp secretary at an insurance company (where I had NOTHING to do but still had to look busy)

Four movies you could watch over and over:

- Apocalypse Now
- Groundhog Day
- Brazil
- Bedazzled (the original, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore)

Four places you’ve lived:

- London, England
- Hamburg, Germany
- Dublin, Ireland
- Poughkeepsie, New York

Guess which was my least favorite.

Four TV shows you love to watch:

- Lost
- House
- Deadwood
- The Closer

Four places you’ve been on vacation:

- Seven Sisters, Oregon
- Prince Edward Island, Canada
- Mittenwald, Germany
- Vicenza, Italy

Four websites you visit daily:

- Absolute Write Water Cooler
- The well-shod and gracious Miss Snark
- Publishers Marketplace
- The PublishAmerica Message Board (what can I say? It's like watching a train wreck. It's horrifying, but you can't tear yourself away)

Four of your favorite foods:

- Toast
- Pie
- Olives
- Fig Newtons

It's a wonder I'm not dead of malnutrition.

Four places you’d rather be:

Right now--anywhere but here.

Under normal circumstances--exactly where I am.

Meme passed to:

No passing. I learned my lesson in 6th grade with chain letters.

January 29, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Breaking Up (It's Not Hard to Do)

Ann and I often hear from writers who've unwisely signed with a scammer or an incompetent, and want to know how to get out of the relationship. In many cases, I don't think that it'd be a big deal simply to walk away. Since the contract was offered under false pretenses (that the agent was capable of selling your manuscript), you could argue that it was never binding. Still, for caution's sake, it makes sense to formalize things.

(Obligatory disclaimer: nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. I'm not a lawyer. What I'm offering here is a series of general suggestions based on experience and research.)

First, check the contract to see if there's a termination clause. If so, invoke it per the instructions in the contract. Once whatever notification period the contract requires is finished, you're free.

If there's no termination clause (and for future reference, NEVER, EVER sign an author-agent contract that doesn't allow you to terminate at will with adequate notice), send a registered letter (return receipt requested) to the agent's last known snail mail address (if the agent has an e-mail address, send an e-mail as well). State that you're terminating the contract as of 30 days from the date of the letter, and instruct the agent to immediately cease all efforts on your behalf, including but not limited to submissions to publishers. Keep a copy. Even if you don't get a response, this should be sufficient in most cases.

You're not done yet. Read your contract carefully to see what rights, if any, the agent claims after termination--such as a commission on any publishing deal the agent initiated or was negotiating at the time of termination, even if the contract is signed after termination. This isn't really something you need to worry about with a scam or incompetent agent--still, if it's in your contract, you need to be aware of it, just in case. Also, any agent will continue to receive commissions on a contract she brokered, for as long as the contract is in force (again, not really an issue with a bad agent, but something to remember for the reputable agent you wind up with the next time around).

You also need to find out exactly where your manuscript has gone. A new agent will want to know, because you can't usually resubmit a ms. to a publisher or imprint that has already rejected it, and your new agent won't want to replicate others' efforts (unfortunately, if another agent's submissions have tapped out the market for your work, a new agent may find you less attractive as a client--this is the real disservice that marginal agents do their clients, but that's a matter for another post). Be prepared for resistance. Questionable agents often clam up when you ask leading questions of this sort, since the answers don't reflect well on them.

There are also some circumstances in which you don't need to know where your ms. has gone. If you've wound up with a scammer (as opposed to someone who's just incompetent or marginal) the odds are high that IF your submission was sent out (scammers often don't bother to submit), and IF the address was correct (scammers who do submit often get this kind of stuff wrong), no one looked at it because a) the publisher was totally inappropriate, or b) the people at the publisher were familiar with your agent, and not in a good way. (Writer Beware may be able to help you determine what level of scammer your agent is.)

And now for something completely different...

One of the great things about blogging is the chance to get interactive with readers. So ask us questions! Do you want to know if an agent's business practices are kosher? Are you concerned that a publisher isn't legit? Have you run into something that makes you uneasy? Are you unsure about some aspect of querying and submitting? Post questions in the comments section of this or any of our posts, and we'll answer them here.

January 28, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Faking a Track Record

I've said here and elsewhere that when you're evaluating literary agents, track record is the bottom line. Even more than business practices, it's the most important indicator of an agent's legitimacy.

(I've gotten in trouble for saying this, by the way. Many people who keep an eye on the shadow-world of literary scams feel that it's fee-charging that's the bottom line--no ifs, ands, or buts. But nothing is black-and-white, even in the world of scams. There are successful agents who ask for some sort of upfront deposit or retainer, or who bill submission expenses out-of-pocket, or who expect writers to provide all full manuscripts [such agents do NOT represent the majority of established agents, but they do exist, and some of them have substantial track records]. There are agents who don't charge a penny upfront, but in years of trying have never made a sale [there are at least twenty or thirty of these in Writer Beware's files--it mystifies us how and why they remain in business]. Given these various shades of gray in regard to fees, it makes sense for an agent's track record to be the clincher.)

Questionable agents are aware of this. That's why so many of them say that their track records are confidential, or claim they've placed books with HarperCollins and Penguin but won't reveal book titles or authors' names, or refuse to answer questions about what they've sold. Or, sometimes, provide a fake track record.

I got an email the other day from a writer who'd signed with an agent in the fall of 2005, and was getting nervous because the agent wasn't responding to her attempts at contact. This agent offers to evaluate submissions for an "optional" fee of $250, and bills a flat $30 per submission. The writer was initially suspicious of the fees, but was won over when the agent sent her a list of books the agency had placed during the first months of 2005. Since the agent had a track record, the writer reasoned, maybe the fees were OK. Plus, they weren't being charged upfront, but only when a submission was actually made.

I already had a file on the agent, about whom I've gotten a number of reports and complaints. Since I've never been able to discover that the agent has ever sold anything, I was pretty surprised to hear about the track record. So I asked the writer to send me the list of books the agent had supposedly placed. Here it is:

So far this year, I've sold Tablets of Pegasus by Al Barnes to Cambrian House, The Next John Lennon by Michael Thompkins to Pemberton Mysteries, A Self Coaching Guide to the Next You by David Borchard to SterlingHouse Publisher, Finding Narcissus by Amy Benjamin to Dove House Books, and A Day in the Life of a Severed Head by Lan Yan to Broadmoor Books. In addition, I'm in the process of negotiating a true crime book with Barricade, a fantasy/inspirational book with Crossquarter, and a fiction book with Dafina.

Sounds OK, right? Five books sold, three books in negotiation--not a big track record, but not too bad, especially for a smaller agency, and also since it's only for part of 2005. Someone who pays attention to the book world would even recognize a couple of the publishers' names--Barricade, an independent publisher of edgy, offbeat books, and Dafina, an imprint of Kensington.

However, books in negotiation don't really count when you're assessing a track record, because negotiations could fall through--and anyway, anyone can make a claim like this, since there's no way to verify it. As for the five books supposedly sold...the clue is SterlingHouse Publisher. SterlingHouse is a vanity publisher that offers contracts requiring authors to buy large quantities of their own books. A trip to the SterlingHouse website reveals that the apparently separate publishers of all the "sold" books--Cambrian House, Pemberton Mysteries, Dove House Books, and Broadmoor Books--are "imprints" of SterlingHouse.

(Multiple imprints are a fairly common ploy by vanity publishers to make themselves look more legit, more like commercial publishers. This is a boon for questionable agents, who can place several books with the same "publisher" and acquire what sounds like a varied track record. Some vanity publishers encourage agents to steer clients into their clutches by paying kickbacks or finders' fees. I don't have any evidence that this is the case here, but it wouldn't surprise me. The owner of SterlingHouse also owns a fee-charging literary agency, which at one point worked with kickback-paying vanities Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.)

As a track record, therefore, this is as fake as fake can be. Unfortunately, the SterlingHouse website looks fairly professional, making it easy for an inexperienced writer to assume that it's a commercial publisher (gosh. Do you suppose SterlingHouse intended that??). Googling SterlingHouse brings up some of the negative information available online--but you don't find it unless you go many pages into the search, and most people probably won't be that persistent. You can also get the info you need by checking Preditors & Editors, or emailing Writer Beware--but probably many people won't do that either. I'm sure that the writer who contacted me today isn't the only one who was taken in by this agent's "sales."

So I guess the moral of this tale is that even though track record is the bottom line, you can't take an agent's track record at face value. If you don't recognize the publishers or book titles, research them--and not just online. Go to bookstores and see if you can find the books, or other books by those publishers. Check P&E. Write to Writer Beware.

Be careful out there!

Edited to add: Since the agency in question has been outed in the comments section of this post, and also included on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agent List, I'll go ahead and name it: Martin-McLean Literary Associates.

January 25, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Fine Print

Here's a good reason to always read the fine print when you're thinking of entering a literary contest: this contest from UK-based SFX magazine.

Many aspiring writers think that entering literary contests is a way to build a list of writing credits. For the most part, I disagree. Of course there are prestigious contests, where a win serves as a professional credit--the YA novel contest run by Delacorte, for instance, where the prize is publication--but of the many, many contests out there, few have this kind of clout. Winning a contest run by an obscure ezine or a local writers' group won't cut any ice with agents and editors, not just because the editors and agents won't have heard of the contests, but because they know that small contests are much less likely to employ rigorous judging standards. In my opinion, a writer's time is better spent on submitting to legitimate publishing venues than on entering contests.

The SFX contest looks to be one of the rare exceptions. The winner and runners-up will be published in an anthology brought out by Gollancz, a large and well-respected UK publisher. There's no question that inclusion in such an anthology would count as a professional writing credit.

However, the contest has some noxious rules. Originally, the grant of rights read as follows:

All entries will become the property of Future Publishing Limited on its receipt of them and will not be returned. Upon submission of their stories to the address set out at rule 2, entrants irrevocably assign to Future Publishing Limited all intellectual property rights that they have in any part of the world in their stories and waive all their moral rights. Future Publishing Limited reserves the right to edit any story as it sees fit for the purpose of publishing the story in the SFX short story compilation.

Under this grant of rights, all entrants--not just winners--would have been giving Future Publishing (SFX's parent company) copyright. Just by entering the contest, writers would have been relinquishing all rights to their stories. Future Publishing would have been able to publish any of the stories, anywhere, anytime, without attribution or compensation to the author, forever.

Apparently as a result of discussion on one of their message boards, SFX recently revised the grant of rights. The clause now reads:

Upon submission of a story to the email address set out at rule 2, an entrant grants to Future Publishing Limited a perpetual non-exclusive, worldwide licence to publish the story in any of its magazines or any licensed editions thereof, or in any other format or via any other medium. All intellectual property rights in the story shall remain with the entrant save as set out in these terms and conditions. All entrants shall waive their moral rights in their story in respect of any use of the story by Future or any of Future's licensees in accordance with the licence granted herein. Future Publishing Limited reserves the right to edit any story as it sees fit for the purpose of publishing the story in the SFX short story compilation. [Clarified 24 January 2006]

But this is still a problem. Writers do keep their copyrights, and the non-exclusive license means that the writer can try to sell the story elsewhere. However, just by entering, writers are still granting Future Publishing the right to use the story anywhere, anytime, without compensation, forever. There's also the issue of waiving moral rights. US writers may not be familiar with moral rights, since the US doesn't recognize them, but they are important elsewhere in the world, including Europe. Among other things, they protect the writer's right to attribution. Waiving moral rights suggests that the publisher could publish any of the entrants' stories without the author's name.

Bottom line: SFX is stepping back from its copyright grab, but every other problematic aspect of the grant of rights is still in place.

SFX is a good magazine. Gollancz is a great publisher. But the grant of rights is exploitive--and unnecessary. For instance, why does SFX's parent company need the rights to all the entries, as opposed to just the entries actually published in the anthology? Unfortunately, new writers are much too willing to let themselves be exploited for the sake of a publishing opportunity--but I'd urge anyone thinking about entering this contest to think again.

Edited to add: I've been told (by Writer Beware's very own Law Shark) that under UK law, moral rights can't be waived for works that aren't specifically commissioned. Nevertheless, if Future Publishing ever did act on the waiver, you'd probably have to take legal action to get the waiver nullified.

January 23, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- What Real Agents Don't Do

Just back from a few days in New York City, staying with my mom. We had a great time--did some shopping (is anyone else out there addicted to Peter Fox shoes? Just call me Imelda), saw a movie (Brokeback Mountain--very subtle and artful, beautifully acted, heartbreaking at the end, but overall rather slow), saw an off-Broadway play (the Red Bull Theater's exuberant, no-holds-barred interpretation of The Revenger's Tragedy--I adore classical theater, which is too rarely produced in this country), ate lots of delicious food (oof. Time to exercise). It was a welcome, if temporary, respite from the family health troubles that have occupied a lot of my time since Thanksgiving. And for once, the train from NY to Springfield wasn't three hours late.

Since Ann has so thoroughly covered what real agents do, I'm going to spend a little time on some things that real agents DON'T do--practices and procedures that, if you encounter them, should make you very, very wary. Ann's already mentioned some of what follows, but I thought it'd be helpful to have it all listed in one place. Note that these aren't necessarily signs of a scam--they may just indicate that the agent doesn't know what he or she is doing. Inexpert agents are often sincere and well-intentioned, but their low level of expertise means that they aren't any more likely to place a book than a dishonest agent. So scammer or incompetent, the bottom line for writers is the same: no sale.

Blitz submitting. Blitz agents submit your work simultaneously to a laundry list of publishers (this is also called shotgun submission)--15, 20, even 30 at a time. The submission usually consists of a synopsis and partial, plus a generic cover letter. Since agents who blitz often aren't very good at matching publishers to the subject or genre of your work, it's possible that many of these submissions won't be appropriate--something that really annoys editors, who also can usually tell when they're getting a form letter. So if your agent tells you that he's going to submit to 30 publishers at once, or asks you to provide 25 sets of submission materials, beware.

A set number of submissions every month. Some agents say they'll send out three submissions each and every month, come rain or shine. This is really just a time-release version of blitzing. A good agent sends your ms. to the one or two or three editors she feels are most likely to be interested, and waits for a response before approaching anyone else.

One from column A, two from column B. An agent may promise to submit to six editors if you sign one version of his contract, and to twelve editors if you sign another. Since this kind of agent is usually a fee-charger, you should already have given him the heave-ho, but in case you didn't, this is an unprofessional practice for the same reason as sending out monthly submissions. A good agent submits to exactly as many, or as few, publishers as are needed to sell your book.

Bundled submissions. The reverse of blitzing. Instead of sending one writer's work to 20 publishers at the same time, bundlers send 20 writers' work to one publisher in a single envelope. Even if all the submissions are appropriate for the publisher (and since bundlers, like blitzers, tend not to be very competent, they often aren't), this is a Bad Idea, because editors hate it. Unfortunately, it's not easy to find out if your agent bundles; few will admit to the practice. Bundling is especially galling if your agent is billing you for postage.

Extras. Did your agent agent ask you to provide a photo? Testimonials from your friends and family? Is she billing you for portfolio covers, personalized manuscript boxes, color copies of the agency's logo? Editors don't want all this extra stuff. They just want the writing--which means you shouldn't have to give your agent anything other than your manuscript and synopsis, and perhaps a bio. Tarting up a submission with fancy extras will immediately mark it as coming from an unprofessional source--plus, some unscrupulous agents use this as a way to make a profit by overcharging clients, or by billing for things they don't actually provide.

A marketing plan for a novel. Marketing plans are standard for nonfiction, where niche audiences are important (and relatively straightforward to identify). But the audience for fiction is far more amorphous, and no matter what you may have heard, commercial publishers--publishers capable of effectively marketing and distributing their books--don't want a marketing plan with a novel. For one thing, the publisher has far more experience with marketing than you do. For another, writers don't have access to the marketing channels of the book trade (which focus on selling the book long before its release). There are many things that writers can do to help publicize their books, from readings/signings to conference appearances to websites--but those strategies are only effective if the book is already widely available, and do little on their own to create volume sales. An agent who asks you for a marketing plan for your novel doesn't know much about publishers' requirements or the way publishing actually works.

(Whenever I say this, I nearly always hear from writers who say, "But my publisher wanted a marketing plan." Well, I'm sorry, but if your publisher asked for a marketing plan for your novel, it probably intends to rely on you to sell it, and that is not a good thing. Did I mention that writers don't have access to the marketing channels of the book trade, and that the publicity that writers can manage for themselves does little to create volume sales? It's your job to do all you can to increase your visibility to readers--but it's your publisher's job to sell your book into bookstores. If your publisher relies on its authors as an unpaid sales force, your book probably won't sell many more copies than a book from a POD vanity publisher.)

Using your own query letter. Do I need to explain why this is unprofessional? Besides, if the agent uses your query letter, what do you need the agent for? If an agent asks for a query letter, move on. Fast.

Claiming to do everything by email. While most agents are located in or near the centers of publishing (New York and to a lesser extent LA), location isn't an issue as long as the agent makes regular business trips to New York. One of the few things about publishing that hasn't totally changed over the past three decades is that it's still a person-to-person, deals-over-lunch business. Face time is essential. If an agent says she can do everything by fax or email and doesn't have to travel, beware.

A contract that's shorter than six months. I actually think that a six-month contract should prompt at least some caution. Many questionable agents use short contract terms as an excuse to charge fees twice a year; also, six-month contracts don't make a lot of industry sense, since it can take way longer than six months to sell a book--and even if it doesn't, it'll then be a year or more before the book comes to market, during which time the agent ought to be negotiating your contract, interceding with the publisher, and selling your subsidiary rights. Some reasonably well-established agents do use six-month contracts, however, so it's not an infallible warning sign. But anything less than six months should prompt serious suspicion. As far as I know, only fee-chargers or total incompetents use a shorter term (including one notorious fee charger/vanity publisher whose contract is just four months).

Anything that strikes you as bizarre. I know of one agent who requires writers to present a copyright registration certificate (Ann's copyright posts explain why it's not necessary to register unpublished work). Another recommends that writers register their manuscripts with the WGA (important for scripts, meaningless for book-length manuscripts). Another wants writers to donate a percentage of their income, if their book is sold, to a charity the agent is involved with. Another requires clients to agree to critique other clients' work. If something seems strange to you, don't let the thrill of an agent's interest overrule your judgment--do some extra research. You may well be glad you did.

If you've encountered unprofessional agent practices, we'd love to hear about them. Post them to the comments section--or email me, and I'll post them here.

January 20, 2006

A.C. Crispin 33 - What REAL Agents Do - Part 4, Subsidiary Rights

Okay, folks, time for the last post in my “What REAL Agents Do” series. Today’s topic will be a brief overview of the subsidiary rights agents handle. A caveat: I am not an agent. I am not a literary or IP attorney. I'm basing these posts on what I've observed and experienced during the past 22 years of my career as a writer. YMMV.

First, let’s define “subsidiary rights.” These are rights other than the ones that are primarily conveyed in a book sale, which is First North American book publication rights in hardcover, trade paperback and mass-market paperback. (It used to be that paperback rights were considered subsidiary rights, but that hasn’t been true for a long time.) Subsidiary rights can be transferred to the publisher via the contract or retained by the author, depending on the terms of the contract.

Some typical examples of subsidiary rights are:

1. Foreign rights – that is, the sale of the book to countries other than the United States and Canada. These rights can be broken down further between English language speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and countries where translation would be necessary, such as Germany, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, etc., etc., etc.

2. Film or television rights

3. Book club rights

4. Audio rights

5. Electronic publication rights. This one can be a deal-breaker, despite the fact that publishers don’t seem to know what to do with them. Yet. However, it’s my opinion that every author should at least try to limit the description of what these rights cover. Signing a contract where electronic rights are “defined” as everything ever invented, now or in the future that could be construed as an electronic right probably is not a good idea. (She noted dryly.) One possible way to limit this is to give the author approval of any electronic licensing deal. Another way would be to specify a minimum amount that must be paid for any electronic right, so that the publisher will not just give away e-rights as a promotional tool.

6. Abridgement or condensation rights

7. Dramatic rights (for plays, rather than screenplays)

8. Merchandising rights (look in any Toys R Us at the Star Wars section)

9. Newspaper syndication rights, photocopying rights, Braille rights (usually neither the author nor the publisher receives any monies connected with having a book printed in Braille, it’s considered like a public service), novelization of screenplay rights and (though I’ve never encountered this, but it’s possible for some famous fantasy/s.f. universes) role-playing or electronic game rights (e-game rights would be different from e-text rights).

Just about anything you can imagine that can be done with a novel, short story or book can be covered by a specific right detailed in a contract. How specific and all-inclusive a contract is depends on the publisher and what the agent is able to negotiate.

Usually, the author keeps some portion of the subsidiary money, and the publisher gets the remainder. For example, in most of my contracts, I keep 75% of any possible film money and the publisher gets 25%. The splits are completely determined by negotiation.

The only subsidiary right that most authors will have experience with during their careers is foreign or UK/English speaking sales. In many cases, the agent will attempt to retain these rights and not license them to the publisher. Most agents, when they attempt to sell foreign rights, will work with a foreign rights agent. Many larger literary agencies have a whole foreign rights department. Commissions on foreign rights sales are higher than on domestic sales, because the commission is split between the domestic agent and the foreign agent. Other agents, who don’t have the capability to sell foreign rights, will let the publisher handle it, splitting any money from foreign sales.

Often, an agent or author will not negotiate the other subsidiary rights mentioned very aggressively, because in the vast majority of cases, they’re not worth much. Despite what you hear about million dollar film deals, etc., this kind of big money deal is RARE. Most authors will go through their entire careers without having films or television miniseries made from their works.

Okay, this concludes the basic primer on what REAL agents do. I hope it’s been useful.

I’ll be gone for the next couple of weeks, off on a southern vacation/writing retreat. Victoria is in New York for a few days, but should be back early next week, and she’ll be holding down the fort here at the blog.

Be safe, stay warm, and write on!

-Ann C. Crispin

January 17, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Dubious Writers' Services: The Manuscript Display Website

Manuscript display websites promise to showcase your writing to agents and editors in electronic form. Instead of printing out and snail mailing your cover letter, synopsis, and first three chapters, you can display them online in a venue that agents and editors can easily visit. Some display sites are free, but many charge membership fees, and some offer extra services, such as editing or POD publishing, at an additional cost. Some sort of ranking service may be included, on the (dubious) theory that agents and publishers will pay more attention to offerings that have a greater number of positive reader reviews.

You may be familiar with the display site concept because of the recent flurry of attention paid to Bookner, a display site whose aggressively opinionated owner has come in for a fair amount of ridicule from writers, agents, and editors. Bookner is pretty recent--it came online in mid-2005, touting itself as "a new and revolutionary concept." But manuscript display sites aren't a Big New Idea. In fact, they're a pretty old idea. And not a very good one.

Display sites first began appearing in the late 1990's, on the crest of the same hysterical futurism that spurred the dot com bubble and forecast the demise of the printed book by the year 2010. They were touted as writers’ Great New Hope: a brand-new cyberspace opportunity to bypass publishers’ closed-door policies and agents’ huge slush piles. Agents and editors, the sites declared, would be eager to visit a venue where manuscripts were pre-sorted into easily-searchable categories and genres, where submissions were pre-screened for quality--and best of all, where they wouldn’t have to put another piece of paper on their crowded desks. All hail the brave new electronic world.

By 1999, there were dozens of display sites online, all offering some version of this dream. Trouble was, many of the sites didn't have enough content or variety to make visiting them worth agents' or editors' time. Also, since most weren't run by people with publishing experience, they weren't as good at screening submissions as they thought they were. Uninterested in exchanging a paper slush pile for an electronic one, established agents and editors stayed away in droves. In 2000, when Ann and I wrote an article on display sites for Writer's Digest, the successful agents we interviewed told us either that they'd never been tempted to visit a display site, or had visited one and weren't impressed by the quality of the manuscripts on offer.

As a result, display site success stories were few and far between. Worse, the sites were a magnet for marginal and questionable agents and editors--not exactly the kind of contact the hopeful writer was looking to make. Writer Beware received many complaints from writers who were contacted by non-reputable agents and publishers as a result of a listing on a display site.

By 2002, most display sites were out of business. The only major one I know of that has survived in anything like its original form is Authorlink. Authorlink--unusually for a display site--is run by someone with publishing experience, and has always been diligent about promoting itself and its writers to people in the industry. Authorlink offers some genuine success stories. However, its archives are also full of deals with marginal publishers and bad agents.

Trends are cyclical--and in the nanosecond-attention-span environment that is the Internet, trends cycle much faster than in the real world. Over the past year or so, new display sites have begun appearing--Bookner being just one--making the same promises and employing the same techniques as their defunct predecessors. A sampling I've discovered in my travels around the Internet include Bookpitch ("A publishing portal"), Zirdland ("...answering the call to provide a solution to the ever-widening rift between the writers and the market"), Monkeyclap ("...streamlin[ing] the entire publishing process in less time, at less cost, and without wasting precious resources"), Writersconnect ("...enables you to upload your manuscript directly to the desktops of publishers around the world"), The Next Big Writer (" find, reward, and promote the best undiscovered talent"), 2BEntertainment (" unconventionally discover literary, film and musical talent"), and Publish-This (" Authors the opportunity to get their work in front of the people that matter").

I'm sure there are and will be others. But I don't expect they'll be any more successful this time around.

January 15, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 32 What REAL Agents Do...Part 3

Here’s post number three in my series on “What do REAL agents do?” In this post I’ll answer the question posed in the comment section, plus cover some miscellaneous tasks most agents do:

First of all, the question: What happens to a writer’s book(s) if his/her agent dies or retires? First, we have to make a distinction between books that are still in print and those that have gone out of print and whose rights have reverted to the author. In most cases, when the rights revert, the publishing contract is no longer in effect, and the agent no longer has any interest in the book until he or she sells it again. When we talk about an agent of record, we’re only talking about books whose contract the agent negotiated that are still in effect.

With that in mind, the answer to the question is: it depends. In general, it’s dependent on what was agreed to in the agent/author contract, if there was a contract. Not all agents have written contracts, but these days, many do, and even the ones who don’t will usually agree to a contract if the author insists. In the agent/author contract, what happens in the event of the agent’s illness, death, or bankruptcy should be spelled out. In general, the book(s) the agent represented will remain with the agent’s agency, transferred to another literary agent, IF the agent belonged to a multi-agent agency. But, what about agents who work solo, as a one-agent operation? If the agent dies, (and keep in mind I’m not an attorney) generally speaking, the book(s) would become part of his/her estate, unless some provision to transfer them had been made prior to his/her death. In the case of retirement, often a conscientious agent will attempt to place his/her clients with another agent. I’ve heard of cases where one agent actually sold an author to another agent before he retired. When a solo-operating agent goes bankrupt, your work could be treated like any other asset of the business and distributed by the bankruptcy court.

It all comes down to what the contract spells out. So, if you sign with a one-person agency, read your contract closely, and if it doesn’t address this question, then make sure you ASK, and, depending on the response, add in a clause to the contract that will cover these contingencies. Remember, if there’s no written contract, the odds are pretty good that you won’t have any control over what happens if the agent dies or the agency goes bankrupt.

If you’re an author whose agent has become ill or incapacitated, and the agent is a one-person operation, you can request that your publisher separate out your money from the agent’s commission, and have it mailed directly to you. I’ve heard of this being done rather frequently. But remember, if it’s not spelled out in a written contract, that makes your position to request this much weaker.

My husband found an article that’s related to this question that you might be interested in reading. Here’s the URL:

Okay, on to some miscellaneous things real agents do:

1. Career counseling. My agent was the first to suggest that it was time for me to do a series (The StarBridge series, which by the way, will be coming back into print in omnibus editions with a couple of new books added; reprint rights have just been purchased by the small press, Meisha Merlin), a fantasy trilogy (The Exiles of Boq’urain), plus other suggestions regarding career strategy. Real agents have their finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not, and several times my agent has given me excellent advice regarding my career path.

2. Serve as your advocate when dealing with publishers. Agents run interference with editors when books are late, or deadlines are missed. Agents remind editors of excellent “sell-throughs” (the percentage of books that actually sell as opposed to the quantity ordered) in order to justify a higher advance. I know of at least one author whose agent was able to get a publisher to make extensive alterations to a proposed cover, when the publisher’s choice of a cover was unsuitable.

3. Serve as a business contact. I don’t put my home address and phone number out on the internet, do you? Probably not! But people in the publishing industry who want to do business with me will know who my agent is, and will often get in touch with her for things like speaking engagements, writing workshops, etc. (And when my publishers receive such contacts, they will automatically forward them to my agent.)

4. Review and critique manuscripts before submission to publishers. Note: this one doesn’t apply to all agents! Not all agents are good editors, and not all agents want do this, or have time to do it. Some do, however, and their clients tell me their feedback can be most useful when revising. My agent doesn’t usually read my manuscripts prior to submission any more, but when I request that she do so, she will, or will have her assistant read the ms., and get back to me with comments. And do I have to remind you that if a real agent reads a client’s ms, and offers feedback, there is NO CHARGE for this? I didn’t think I had to…

Some things REAL agents DON’T do or require: create a website or display site where the author’s work (or an excerpt from it) can be posted on the internet, demanding that the author create a marketing plan for his/her book (that’s up to the publisher), ask for author photos (the publisher will do this after acquiring a book), or ask for extensive biographies from the author (the publisher often will, as a marketing tool). Scam agents, in order to keep authors too busy to question why their books aren’t getting sold, will often require authors to do lots of these kinds of tasks. But real agents don’t.

I think that’s it for today. The next, and final, post in this series will be on SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS. If anyone has further questions on anything I’ve covered so far, do pose them, and I’ll respond in the blog.

-Ann C. Crispin

January 13, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- A Business Proposition

The recent flurry of news about supposed teen novelist J.T. LeRoy and the probable hoax of his/her identity has got me thinking. No, not about the long and fascinating history of literary hoaxes. Not about the rather annoying cleverness of the people who sat down and cooked up the perfect literary persona, with a sensational biography guaranteed to garner media attention and thus to sell books. Not about the screwed-upness of a world in which publicity stunts and a lurid persona can create commercial and critical success for an author whose books otherwise would have gotten a nice review in PW, sold 1,500 copies in hardcover, and gone out of print in a year and a half.

Well, all right. Maybe I'm thinking about those things just a little.

But here's what's really on my mind. The story of J.T. LeRoy is all about inventing a character to serve as a frontperson for the books. An Author Surrogate, if you will. In my opinion, this is a really useful idea. Someone should start an Author Surrogate business.

Now, I know this sounds rather like the premise of a Philip K. Dick novel. But think about it. Authors have all kinds of public persona problems. Maybe your background isn't very dramatic (you live in Podunk, Iowa, with your spouse, two kids, and a cockapoo? BO-ring). Maybe you look like a troll (they say that readers and publishers don't care what authors look like, but I'll bet you've wondered if that's really true). Maybe you don't have time to run around promoting yourself at writers' conferences and book signings (you do have to write more books, you know). Maybe you have social phobia, and would rather get your teeth drilled than do a reading (I know exactly how you feel). Wouldn't it be great to have an Author Surrogate to do all those things for you, and be cute and fascinating and fabulous along with it?'

Finances might be a problem. I imagine that a really good Author Surrogate would cost a bundle. The surrogates would have to be good at disguises, because the surrogate you hired for your debut novel might not still be available for your third or fourth. And the service would have to be extremely discreet--at least until readers got used to the idea. But I think it could work. I really do.

So. Anyone ready to take out a business loan? I'll be your first customer.

January 12, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Worthless Services for Writers, Part 1

Writers' services are proliferating across the Internet, targeted to both aspiring writers and writers who are self/vanity/POD-published. There are submission services and manuscript display sites; there are book marketing services and electronic press release websites and book review services. Some are free. Some are modestly priced. Some are eye-poppingly expensive. Are they worth it?


Today I got an email from a writer who wanted to know if a service called Bookblaster is likely to be effective. "Picture this," Bookblaster's website begins, " open your email inbox and there are numerous requests from literary agents and publishers, all wanting to read YOUR manuscript." And why are you suddenly in so much demand? Because of Bookblaster's "comprehensive query campaign," which "can deliver almost instant results." All you have to do is send Bookblaster your query letter, and they'll email it to over 350 agents for the low, low fee of $95 ("Finding an agent to represent your novel has never been easier!"), or over 500 agents and publishers for just $145 ("This extensive query campaign represents great value!").

The fees aren't terribly high (you might spend that much if you snail mailed that many queries). Bookblaster has compiled agent and publisher contact info so you don't have to. They even generate the emails from your address, so that agents and publishers can respond directly to you. Happy testimonials from authors suggest that response is swift and enthusiastic.

So why is this not a good idea?

  • The first reason's pretty obvious. The queries are sent out by email, which many agents and publishers don't want to receive. This is something that's rapidly changing--I'm guessing that in a few years equeries will be the norm--but as of now, if Bookblaster is contacting reputable people (a big if--see below), most of the contacts will be viewed as spam.

  • There's no information on who runs Bookblaster, or how the agents' and publishers' addresses are gathered. So you can't know whether the service has made any effort to vet its lists to ensure only legitimate agents and publishers will be approached. Odds are that a good number of amateurs and scammers are mixed in. Unlike so many legit agents and publishers, scammers usually don't have any problem at all with email queries--so if you do hear back from agents and publishers as a result of Bookblaster's query campaign, guess what kind they're likely to be.

  • There's nothing on the website about targeting the query campaign to agents and publishers that are appropriate for your book. So a lot of the queries will be going to people who won't have any interest. Of course, since most of them will be hitting the delete key, this point is probably moot. Still, it's one more thing to potentially annoy the recipients.

  • Did I mention that most of the people who get these queries will regard them as spam? And guess what--since the emails will appear to be coming from you, you're the one who will get angry requests to be taken off "your" mailing list, and whose ISP will get spam complaints.

As for all those happy authors...note how the many testimonials conveniently leave out important details, such as the names of agents and publishers. Gee. Do you suppose they could all be made up?

There's a similar service for screenwriters: Scriptblaster. (Why am I thinking of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?)

Save your money, folks. This one definitely ain't worth it.

January 11, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 31, "What Real Agents Do" - Part 2

Okay, here’s the second post in my “What REAL agents do” series. This is a big topic, so I’ll probably devote the entire post to this one subsection, which is: RECEIVE AND DISBURSE ADVANCES, ROYALTIES AND OTHER MONETARY PAYMENTS.

(At this point we’re far beyond the point people who deal with scam agents would ever reach. When you’re dealing with scammers, you never Get Paid -- You Pay.)

Okay, so when we last left our hypothetical agent and writer, a commercial publisher had made an offer on the book, and the agent, in consultation with the writer, had negotiated a contract for the sale. It’s now the agent’s job to receive the advance payment from the publisher, check that it’s the correct amount, and then deduct his/her commission and expenses from the payment, before cutting another check and sending that on to the writer.

You hear a lot of back and forth these days on whether it’s kosher for agents to collect “submission expenses” from writers before a sale is made. Writer Beware’s position, which is shared by most top-tier agencies, is that good, legitimate agencies with decent track records of sales let billable expenses accrue and then deduct them from an advance or royalty payment along with the agent’s commission.

What’s the standard literary agent’s commission these days? 15%. A very few agencies still charge 10%, but that number is shrinking. It’s interesting that quite a few scam agencies tell writers they charge only a 10% commission. Writers who see this are often impressed that they charge a lower commission than the top tier agents. But when you’re dealing with an incompetent or scam agent who never makes a sale anyway, the amount of commission is moot, right?

What legitimate expenses do legitimate agents charge for?

Messenger service to get a manuscript across Manhattan and into an editor’s hands quickly.

Express mail or other expensive (especially overseas) postage.

Photocopying manuscripts, though most agents never make more than a few copies of a manuscript while trying to sell it, because they know how to TARGET the submissions.

(Real agents don’t do what Victoria and I term “shotgunning” of manuscripts – sending submissions to every publisher they have on record, regardless of what the imprint publishes, the editorial staff’s taste, etc. That’s something incompetent agents/scammers do. We’ve seen Agent F, for example, with his multitude of agencies, send novels to non-fiction publishers, and vice versa. We’ve seen him send romances to mystery editors, and adult horror to children’s imprints. That’s because Agent F (maybe I should just call him Bobby) HAS NO IDEA WHAT THESE COMPANIES OR IMPRINTS PUBLISH. HE HASN’T A CLUE ABOUT THE TASTE OF ANY OF THE EDITORS.

Actually the above diatribe is rather moot these days. Bobby never did submit much, and these days he’s pretty much stopped making any pretense towards submitting manuscripts for his many victims. Instead, he gets his money, from all his various “agencies” from editing scams. But Writer Beware still has the documentation from his early days, when he sent out a few query letters, with multiple authors crammed into each boilerplate letter. MOST unprofessional!)

There are one or two instances when a legitimate agent may make as many as 10-12 copies of a given book. Sometimes in trying to make foreign sales, they’ll send out multiple copies by way of their foreign rights department, to many of the foreign agents they deal with. And, of course, they will send out multiple copies when they are running a BOOK AUCTION. Book auctions are not something most beginning writers will have to worry about with a first sale, especially novelists. It can happen, but it’s rare. In a book auction, the agent talks about a book, or a series, to multiple editors at multiple publishing houses, and if they express interest, sends the book, or book proposal or trilogy/series outlines around for review. Editors who receive copies are given a certain time to review to work, then a day is set for the auction, which is carried on by phone. The agent and the author then select the publisher that has made the best offer to be the purchaser.

Before leaving the topic of legitimate expenses charged to the author, I will comment briefly that some scammy agents/agencies play fast and loose semantic games with the “reimbursement for submission expenses” that is allowable under the AAR (Association of Authors Representatives) Canon of Ethics. The AAR Canon forbids “reading fees” per se, so some agencies have been smart enough to drop that term, and call the fees they charge, “reimbursement of submission expenses” which is allowable under the Canon. (Writer Beware wishes heartily they’d change this, as it’s VERY misused as a seemingly “legit” way to collect upfront fees.) But be advised. I think in all the years I’ve dealt with my agent, the most I’ve ever been charged for “reimbursable expenses” deducted from a payment I was sent, was something on the order of a hundred or so bucks. And this covered a year or more of dealing with my projects. The money was deducted from one of my advances, or a royalty payment, I forget which. The difference here is that many scam agents manage to finagle writers to pay them hundreds of dollars every six months as the “reimbursable expenses” – and they get them to pay it BEFORE A SALE IS MADE. That’s why WB always uses the term “upfront fee” in our warnings. Got that?

Of course in dealing with publishers’ royalty statements, legit agents check the math, and let the publisher know if they’ve underpaid the author. This does happen…it’s happened to me more than once. Reading royalty statements and doing these calculations is actual work, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. My husband and attorney do read over my royalty statements, but the main burden of checking the publisher’s figures falls on my agent.

The agent also handles money for foreign sales, often splitting a commission with a foreign agent. Writers often wind up paying a higher commission on foreign sales, for that reason. The agent would also handle the monies received from things like gaming rights, audio book rights, film rights, etc. Most legit agents have a Hollywood screen agent they use if one of their clients writes a screenplay or has a book optioned for screen rights. (In my experience, this is rather rare, and I don’t know much about it. It’s never happened to me.) Beginning writers seem to imagine that film options happen all the time. Trust me, they don’t.

Even if the writer leaves an agent, the agent remains the “agent of record” on the book, and continues to receive and disburse the payments on the work, unless there is some separate agreement to transfer those rights, which is unusual, or until the book goes out of print and the rights have reverted to the author.

Okay, that about does it for our third agent task.

Hope you’re all well!

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware

January 9, 2006

The Utterly Bizarre, Absolutely True Saga of Lisa Hackney, Literary Scammer: Part 3

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Being the third installment of the continuing saga of Lisa Hackney, a.k.a. Melanie Mills, a.k.a. Lisa Mills, a.k.a. Lisa Thomas, a.k.a. Elisabeth V. Thomas, a.k.a. Elisabeth von Hullessem, a.k.a. Roswitha von Hullessem, a.k.a Roswitha Thomas, a.k.a. Roswitha von Meerscheidt, a.k.a. Roswitha Mills, a.k.a. Hullessem von Meerscheidt, a.k.a. a number of others that I don’t know. For those who need a refresher course, Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Megan MacBeth is notified that her mother has died in Germany. Months later she goes to the airport to pick up her mother’s boyfriend who, she assumes, is bringing back her mother’s personal possessions and there’s her mother, alive. Later that same evening her mother tries to kill her and by accident, she runs over her mother with her car, which saves Megan’s life. Her mother survives and accuses Megan of trying to kill her. Eventually, charges against Megan are dropped.

So begins the synopsis for “Elisabeth von Hull’s” thriller Sins of the Mother, a spinetingling novel of greed, murder, money, sex, and betrayal. According to Ms. “von Hull’s” query letter, “This novel is based on actual events that occurred in my life and have been fictionalized.” (Um...yeah. Really, really fictionalized.) Despite the not exactly scintillating writing skills demonstrated in these documents, Ms. “von Hull” did manage get her novel published, under a different title, Sins, and a different name, L. R. Thomas. The publisher is--wait for it--PublishAmerica!

Can you say "irony"?

(How I got hold of the query and synopsis is another howler. Apparently, when she was still Melanie Mills, Hackney was giving it to agency clients as a template for their own queries and synopses. [Note to writers: if an agent wants to use your query letter, run fast in the opposite direction.] When the Banff story broke, a former client noticed the eerie similarities, and sent me the documents.)

Hackney departed Banff in late November 2003. Almost at once she popped up again...on eBay. As Elisabeth von Hullessem, she posted an auction entitled “Fugitive Von Hullessem/Hackney/Mills,” described as “an invitation to a 1 hour lunch with the author, the first week of May 2004 in beautiful Victoria BC. Background check of buyer will be required.” Also included was an autographed copy of Sins, a signed photograph, and an excerpt from her “humorous” autobiography Damsel in Distress. The opening bid was set at $10,000. When eBay yanked the listing a day after it was posted, there were no bidders (imagine that).

Hackney now seemed to vanish completely. Writer Beware knew that the Arkansas sheriff’s office was seeking extradition, but we weren’t all that hopeful that anything would come of it.

Then, in mid-March, I got an e-mail from someone claiming to be a realtor in Victoria, B.C. He wanted to know if I had any information on Melanie Mills other than what was posted on the Writer Alerts page of Writer Beware. I told him I didn’t, and asked if he had news of her. He didn’t respond.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this; I half-thought it might be Hackney herself, checking up on Writer Beware’s info (this happens more often than you might think--scammers emailing us under fake names to find out what we know. Usually we can spot these contacts, but not always).

But it wasn’t. About a week later, I was contacted by a Canadian reporter for comment on Lisa Hackney’s March 23 arrest in Victoria, BC, on a Canada-wide warrant of extradition. There wasn’t much I could say but “Huh?”, because I hadn’t known she’d been arrested again. Turns out that she’d shown up in Victoria in early March, claiming to be best-selling author "Melanie Mills", in town to purchase a multi-million-dollar estate. The realtors she contacted agreed to work with her, but something about her story didn’t seem quite right. When they did an Internet search, what should they find but the Writer Beware website, with all of Hackney’s aliases and shady dealings laid out for everyone to see. They tipped off the police, who promptly tracked her down and arrested her.

(You really have to wonder about someone who gets into so much hot water under an alias that she’s forced to abandon that identity--by faking her own death, no less--but then, less than a year later, starts using the alias again. Hackney knew about the Writer Beware alert. She knew about the long thread at the Absolute Write Water Cooler full of messages from angry former clients of her literary agency. It's not like she hadn't changed her name before. Could she really not come up with a new one?)

Hackney was jailed. While in custody, she made an apparent suicide attempt by covering her face with cellophane, and ripped her clothes to shreds. At her arraignment in B.C. Supreme Court on March 30, she appeared in a “bunny suit,” the white overalls usually reserved for dangerous prisoners. She claimed not to know who or where she was. A brief psychiatric assessment was ordered, but the psychiatric nurse who performed it couldn’t determine whether or not the amnesia was an act. On April 1, the judge ordered a full psychiatric evaluation. The evaluation determined that Hackney’s amnesia wasn’t for real (gee). On April 23, the way was cleared for her extradition hearing.

It was all over but the crying. On January 7, 2005, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that Hackney should be extradited to Arkansas to stand trial on the assault, battery, and theft charges she fled in 1999. The order was signed by the federal Justice Minister in August. Hackney immediately filed for judicial review of her case. However, she lost her fight this December. She was returned to Arkansas and the custody of the Madison County Sheriff's Office, and, as I noted in Part 1, booked on her original failure to appear. On January 6 she pleaded innocent (!). Her trial has been set for January 20. She's being held in lieu of $75,000 bond.

In a strategic consolidation of her multiple aliases, she’s now calling herself Roswitha Elisabeth Melanie Mills.

What’s next for our wacky scammer? Another cellophane-assisted suicide attempt? A new wardrobe of bunny suits? Alien abduction? Perhaps that's why she jumped bail in 1999.

If nothing else, Hackney can take comfort in the fact that her roman à clef, Sins, is still for sale. Here’s the listing at Barnes& Note the enthusiastic review by one M. Mills, avid mystery/thriller reader.

The diligent scamhunters at Writer Beware will be watching.

UPDATE, April 2006: On February 10, 2006, Lisa Hackney pleaded guilty to all charges facing her in Arkansas, and was sentenced to two prison terms, one of 15 years and one of 10 years, to run concurrently. However, due to various machinations, she won't do any time beyond what she has already served. For more information, see my followup blog post.

Apparently undiscouraged in her literary ambitions, she is also hawking a tell-all memoir called The MM Journal. Several reputable agencies have received a proposal for this masterwork; you can see the proposal, in all its ungrammatical glory, here.

January 7, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 30 What Does a REAL Agent Do?

Here in this blog, we talk a lot about what fake agents do to rip off unsuspecting, naive writers. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to discuss what a REAL agent does. Once you know what a real agent does, it's easy as falling off a log to spot the fakes. My time today is limited, so I'll probably have to post this in a couple of different sections.

A real agent does the following for his/her clients, at minimum:

When taking on a new client, they:

1. Read the book or book proposal in question, until they are very familiar with it, then they decide where to SUBMIT it. Real agents know the editors in question well enough to know their tastes, and what they've acquired recently for their line, etc. They have spent "face time" with these editors, either in business lunches, or by keeping up via the telephone with the publishing house's needs, and the needs and wants and taste of each individual editor. The agent will usually apprise the client, in general terms, of where he or she plans to submit the book.

Agents these days tend to specialize, so it's not like they're intimately familiar with every editor of every publisher and imprint owned by Random House, for example. But they'd know every s.f. and fantasy editor, every paranormal romance editor, and every mystery editor, for example, if their client list is mostly comprised of mystery writers, s.f. and fantasy writers, and romance writers who specialize in paranormal romance.

So when they take on a new client who has a fantasy novel to sell, the agent would know right away which editors at which houses are looking for that kind of fantasy. The agent would probably make contact via phone with the editor and "talk up" the project, touching base about sending it along. The agent might offer the editor a 60 day "exclusive" on the work, if they feel strongly that a work is perfect for a given editor's line.

Many agents regularly schedule lunches or coffee with editors they know well so they can keep up with each editor's line, and the editor's needs.

Once the agent has touched base about the project, the agent then writes a specific, glowing, individualized cover letter for the project, and send it along to the editor. If they are in NYC, they often use messenger services to send a project to an editor who has agreed to see it. They do not let grass grow under their feet in submitting material.

2. Assuming the agent has chosen the editor well, and the editor in question loves the project as much as the agent anticipated he or she would, the editor will then run the book past his or her editorial committee or publishing review board. (We're assuming a sale to a major commercial publisher here.) If the editorial committee agrees that they should acquire the book, the editor will make an initial offer to the agent.

The agent then NEGOTIATES the contract with the publisher, in consultation with the client.

Contract negotiations take several weeks. They cover more than just the amount of the advance or the percentage of the royalties for each book sold. (Royalties should be based on cover price, rather than net. Remember this.)

The agent will negotiate things like:

a. the publisher's option on the writer's next book

b. how much the writer will be paid on "discounted" books (book club sales, discount store sales, etc.)

c. how many free author copies the writer will receive (I usually get 50)

d. how long the author will have to make revisions, if asked for, and how long the publisher has to publish the book (18 months is pretty standard)

c. foreign, film, audio, electronic, and other rights, and how they can be sold, and what percentage of the sales money the author keeps

d. the schedule of payment for the author (twice a year is normal for royalties), for advances, payments are often broken into three parts (1) on-signing of the contract, (2) on acceptance of the final manuscript, and (3) on publication of the book

e. lots of other contract details that would require too much explanation to go into here. For samples of publishing contracts you can read, check the SFWA site.

Okay, my time grows short, I'll continue this list in my next post.

-Ann C. Crispin

January 6, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- How Warnings Can Backfire

Just saw this on the messageboard of a faux publisher that shall remain nameless (though I bet that most of you can guess which one it is):

I know that it is possible to find anything negative about anyone on the internet. Just look at the negative hype that is out there about [Publisher X]. If I had taken the time to research all the message boards that have negative posts about [Publisher X] I may not be a published author now. So time will tell if [Agency X] will be a good thing for me or not.

Agency X is one tentacle of an especially slimy scammer that Ann and I have been tracking since 2001. Since Agency X's scam model is based on volume, not discretion, its evil doings are just as--or maybe even more--widely known than those of Publisher X. The person who made the post I've quoted from above has been warned about Agency X by others on the messageboard, but has decided not to heed them. In a neat turnaround of what groups like Writer Beware try to accomplish, the warnings aren't driving him away from the scam, but toward it.

I know this person's reaction isn't typical. I also know that it has something to do with the, er, unique mindset of many of Publisher X's writers, who dismiss overwhelming evidence of the lying scumbaggery of their publisher as the carpings of an elitist industry scared of change. Still. It's kinda depressing.

January 5, 2006

The Utterly Bizarre, Absolutely True Saga of Lisa Hackney, Literary Scammer: Part 2

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you need to refresh your memory, Part 1 is here.

In the summer of 2003, writers began hearing about a major writers’ conference and celebrity charity event to be held in Banff, Alberta. Well-known editors and agents would be in attendance at the conference; famous entertainers such as Celine Dion would grace the event, the proceeds of which would benefit a national autism foundation. The conference registration cost was a bit steep--$1,699 US, including accomodations--but hey, it sounded totally fab.

Originally scheduled for August, the conference was postponed, supposedly due to smoke from forest fires near Banff. Instead, it would be held in October--though the organizer, Elisabeth von Hullessem, didn’t give an actual reschedule date. Then, in September, von Hullessem skipped town for parts unknown, failing to refund the writers who’d paid the registration fees, and neglecting to notify the well-known literary agents who’d agreed to attend to the event.

Sound familiar?

It certainly did to Writer Beware, when news about the Banff conference scam first appeared in early October 2003. We were also struck by the similarity in writing styles between the solicitation letters sent out by von Hullessem and the correspondence we'd seen from the supposedly dead Melanie Mills--though it hardly seemed credible that the two could be the same.

But fact really can be stranger than fiction. On October 28, 2003, von Hullessem was found in British Columbia, arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and returned to Banff, where she was charged with seven counts of fraud, two counts of false pretenses, and one count of theft. According to official statements by the RCMP, von Hullessem had many aliases and was wanted in the US for fraud-related offenses.

That clinched it for me--I was sure now that Mills and von Hullessem had to be the same person.

I contacted the RCMP officer in charge of the case. He confirmed that he was looking into the Mills connection. I was able to fill him in on Mills’s shady dealings in South Carolina, including the fake writers’ conference there (obviously, in hindsight, a test run for the more elaborate scam in Banff). I also put him in touch with the North Myrtle Beach Police Dept. detective who was investigating Mills. Under questioning, von Hullessem later admitted that she’d operated as Melanie Mills; a mug shot sent by the RCMP to the South Carolina detective confirmed the identification.

In return, the RCMP officer told me all about “Elisabeth von Hullessem,” one of 16 aliases of a woman named Lisa Hackney. The daughter of wealthy German countess Greta (or Gurda; the news reports use both names) von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, Hackney lived in a trailer on her mother’s estate in Arkansas. In the fall of 1999, Countess Greta went away to Europe on vacation. A little later, an apparently distraught Hackney informed neighbors that her mother had been killed in a car accident in Germany (sound familiar?). She filed the paperwork to declare her mother dead, and proceeded to embezzle about $250,000 in merchandise and money from the estate.

But then--whoops--Mom and her boyfriend returned. They called Hackney from the airport to ask for a ride. When they got back to the house, Hackney tried to run her mother over with the car, pinning her against a cement picnic table, crushing her pelvis and causing internal injuries (according to the sheriff’s report, if the table hadn’t fallen, Countess Greta probably would have been killed). Hackney then fled, knocking down and injuring her mother’s boyfriend in the process. She was caught and arrested, spending 28 days in jail before getting out on bail--which she promptly jumped, moving on first to Missouri (where, among other felonies, she passed bad checks), and then to South Carolina, where she embarked upon her career as M.W. Mills, Literary Agent.

The whole thing was so outlandish that it excited quite a bit of crossover interest in the media--not something that often happens with literary scams. Several newspapers and publishing industry periodicals gave it coverage, including Publishers Lunch:

It was even the subject of a cartoon in the January 4, 2004 New York Times Book Review. I cut the cartoon out; it’s preserved for posterity in my Lisa Hackney file.

Those of us who were hoping that Hackney would do time in Canada were disappointed. She was able to broker a plea bargain in answering the charges against her, and was sentenced to time served (less than a month in custody awaiting her hearing) in exchange for a plea of guilty and an agreement to refund the defrauded authors. She didn’t let any grass grow under her feet in getting outta, Banff.

Weird enough for you? But wait--there's even more. The bizarro conclusion in Part 3.

January 3, 2006

A.C. Crispin - 29 What to do if you've been scammed...

Sad to say, though we try out best, Writer Beware can't save all the writers out there from scam agents, publishers, contests, book doctors, editors, etc. This grieves us. Some of the toughest letters we receive are the ones from from writers who write something like, "I paid Agent B a $50.00 "submissions fee" and then I paid her a $600.000 "evaluation/consultation fee" when I signed the contract she sent me. Then I saw on Absolute Write (or, or The Rumor Mill) that Agent B isn't legit, she's a scammer. NOW what do I do? Is there any way for me to get my money back? Will she take my book manuscript, put her name on it and sell it as her own work? Can you help me?"

Well, no. We probably can't, except to offer advice.

(There is a ray of hope, though. If you send money and your book to a scam agent, or a scam publisher, you're probably never going to see your money again, but your BOOK is probably safe from plagiarism. Scam agents and publishers are interested in MONEY, not in selling books. If they could actually sell books, they might not have to charge those upfront fees. Selling a book is a lot of WORK.)

So, if you've been scammed, we suggest you do the following:

1. REPORT the fraud to law enforcement. File a complaint with your local sheriff or city police, or State troopers. Have the cops forward a copy of the complaint to the appropriate authorities in the jurisdiction where the scammer is located. (For example, for Agent B, that would be a small town in New Jersey.)

2. GO ONLINE. Post a report about what happened to you on, Absolute Write, The Rumor Mill, Usenet, any place that you can think of where other writers will see it. Don't be coy, give names. You may be able to keep some other writer from suffering the same fate.

3. If the scammer had to cross State lines to email you, or snail mail you, that makes the fraud a federal crime. Report the crime to the FBI Field office near you. Write a complete chronology of what happened, giving the dollar amount of all expenses, and include documentation, such as cancelled checks, credit card statements, etc. Save all correspondence with the scammer and keep it in a separate file, both in hardcopy and electronic versions, if they communicated via email or fax. Write a "phone log" if they contacted you by phone. KEEP your records. It can take law enforcement YEARS to begin prosecution of a scammers.

4. Send a copy of your chronology to Writer Beware, including documentation. Also email Preditors and Editors about what happened. We track and keep a database of scams, as you know. Sending us your information will help us warn other writers away from that scammer.

5. If you lost a lot of money, say, over a thousand dollars, you may want to invest in getting an attorney to write the scammer a threatening letter demanding your money back immediately. With PublishAmerica, this won't work. They don't even read such letters. But with some scammers, they have shown that they'll cave under this kind of threat, and refund your money. "Agent F" for example, will usually make a complete refund if the author threatens to inform the Better Business Bureau and local law enforcement of the scam.

(Note: the Better Business Bureau is totally useless as a source to detemine the legitimacy of agents or publishers. The BBB was still listing the Deering literary agency and publishing house as "legit" the day Dorothy and Charles were led away in handcuffs.)

I know it's tough to get scammed. You feel violated, you really do. But if you don't report what happened, due to embarrassment, the scammer will blithely go along, scamming other victims. If you report them, and post what happened to you, you'll be able to hurt them back, at least a little.

Scammers are ugly, sociopathic predators, who don't just steal money, but dreams. Their worst fear is exposure and the inside of a courtroom. Every time they're reported puts the public one small step closer to being rid of them for good.

Let's hope that today I was wasting my keystrokes and that this post doesn't apply to ANY of you!

-Ann C. Crispin

January 2, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Much Ado About Nothin'

This article in the Times UK describes yet another of those experiments where famous published authors' manuscripts are sent anonymously to publishers and agents in hopes that they will be rejected and thus provide grist for the "publishing ain't what it used to be" mill.

There are so many problems with this experiment that it's not worth listing them all (besides, our favorite shark, C.E. Petit, has already done so). Most obvious, it seems to me, is that publishing styles change; what was desirable 30 years ago isn't necessarily what's desirable today. For instance, I'll bet that Ursula K. Le Guin might have a very tough time publishing The Dispossessed today--but that doesn't necessarily imply (as is clearly the subtext of the Times article) that publishing has gone to hell in a handbag and no one is publishing good books anymore. Good books are being published. Just not the same kind of books.

The experiment included 20 publishers and agents (no word as to how many of each). The article mentions 21 responses--just over half, if one assumes that both mss. were sent to the same places. I wonder how many of those 19 nonresponses stemmed from the fact that someone recognized the books? Also, in a world where publishers are increasingly unwilling to consider unagented manuscripts (a whole other issue, which I won't get into here), how many of the publisher submissions actually found their way onto the desk of an editor? Not many, I'll bet. A form rejection from a harassed assistant assigned to whittle down the slush pile does not count as a comment on the state of literature.

Yet another question: how were the publishers and agents chosen? For their appropriateness to the manuscripts? At random? If you're a savvy writer, you know that it's a waste of time to approach an editor or agent who isn't interested in the kind of book you've written. You don't send a dense literary novel to an agent or an imprint that's mainly focused on commercial fiction. I wonder how many of the rejections (or nonresponses) stemmed from the simple fact that the manuscripts weren't a good fit?

One of the authors whose book was used is quoted as saying, "People don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays." But in my opinion, this experiment doesn't prove that publishing is in decline, only how frothingly eager people are to proclaim that it is. I'm not saying that things aren't tough for writers--just ask me how tough, I can bitch about it with the best of them, though I usually do so in private--or that things aren't wrong in the publishing industry. But what's tough and what's wrong are deeper issues than this kind of facile hoax can address. In my opinion, this "experiment" means precisely nothing.

January 1, 2006

The Utterly Bizarre, Absolutely True Tale of Lisa Hackney, Literary Scammer: Part 1

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

On December 21, 2005, literary scammer Lisa Hackney (a.k.a. Melanie Mills, Elisabeth Von Hullessem, Roswitha Von Meerscheidt-Hullessem, and several others), lost her fight against extradition from Canada to the United States. She was wanted in Arkansas on multiple charges filed in 1999, including battery in the first degree, aggravated assault, theft, possession of stolen property, passing bad checks, forgery, and failure to attend court. Hackney also has multiple felony warrants in Missouri, and was under police investigation in North Carolina, where, as "Melanie Mills," she ran a fraudulent literary agency and engaged in a number of other scams.

She was delivered by US marshals to Arkansas from Vancouver, BC, and transported to Fayetteville, where she was officially booked into the Washington County Jail on Dec. 22, 2005 (her 51st birthday). She's being held on $750,000 bond on her failure to appear on the original charges.

We have a lot of strange stories in our scam archives, but the saga of Lisa Hackney is right up there at the top of the weird-o-meter.

Melanie Mills, at home in Myrtle Beach

In late 2000, Writer Beware began to receive reports of upfront submission fees charged by a new agent, Melanie Mills, d.b.a. M.W. Mills Literary Agent, of Myrtle Beach, SC. Despite the fees, the agency appeared to be sincere--its contracts and other materials were reasonably professional, and it did make publisher submissions--in fact, it actually managed to sell a couple of books to commercial publishers, including Kensington. Based on this, we concluded that Mills was well-intentioned but inexperienced. We kept an eye on her, hoping that as her agency built a track record, she might stop asking for upfront money.

But those initial sales were the only ones Mills ever made. At some point, she must have decided that it was just too hard to run a real literary agency, even with the cushion of an upfront fee. In 2002, we began hearing from clients and potential clients who'd been offered the agency's paid editing services at a cost that ranged from $500 to more than $1,500. In many cases, the suggestion to edit was purportedly spurred by an expression of interest from a major publisher--but writers who paid for editing invariably discovered that the publisher wasn't interested anymore, or else they waited in vain for their editing to be completed. One writer was angry enough to follow up with the publisher...who'd never heard of Melanie Mills or her agency.

In early 2003, Mills announced that she was organizing a writers' conference, to be held in May in Myrtle Beach.

Believe it or not, Ann and I were not only invited, but offered an honorarium--

--which we found pretty odd, in view of the fact that Mills, who knew we were providing warnings about her, had several times contacted us to angrily protest. We were tempted to accept just to see what she'd do, but our legal counsel, sensibly, told us that wouldn't be a terrific idea.

Not entirely to our surprise, the conference was abruptly canceled. A promised reschedule date was never given, and writers, who'd paid around $400 to attend, never got their money back (nor did several reputable editors and agents, who had agreed to be speakers and had already bought plane tickets).

Then, in June, clients of M.W. Mills were shocked to receive an email from someone identifying herself as Mills’s assistant, announcing that Mills had been killed in a car crash while visiting family in Germany. The agency was closed; writers would have to look elsewhere for representation. No materials would be returned.

Ann and I were suspicious, and not just because no one had heard of this supposed assistant before. The lack of sales, the editing scheme, the canceled conference--it was clear to us that the agency was in trouble, and Mills's "death" just seemed a bit too opportune. It wouldn't be the first time a scammer pretended to die in order to get pesky clients and/or creditors off her back. We resolved to keep an eye out--literary scammers, having discovered how incredibly easy it is to deceive inexperienced writers, are seldom able to go cold turkey, and often turn up again under other names and in other places.

Shortly after the death report, I got an email from a North Carolina woman who claimed she’d been scammed by Melanie Mills. I assumed she was a writer--but when I phoned her, she told me she wasn’t. She’d run into Mills not through the literary agency, but on eBay, where Mills was selling jewelry. The woman had put in a bid on a necklace; after the auction closed, Mills contacted her to let her know that the high bidder had dropped out, and, as the next high bidder, she could have the necklace at her original bid price. The woman sent Mills the money...and never got the necklace. When she contacted the North Myrtle Beach Police Department to file a complaint, she discovered that the police already had a file on Mills.

She gave me the name and phone number of the detective in charge. He informed me that he was investigating Mills not just for eBay auction fraud, but for real estate rental fraud. Apparently Mills had been advertising vacation rentals in New York and New England newspapers; she'd accept deposits and give happy vacationers nonexistent addresses, so when they arrived with suitcases and sunblock in hand, they'd find themselves standing in front of a vacant lot. The detective had been aware of her literary agency--apparently the dumpster behind her now-empty office was filled to overflowing with discarded manuscripts and other materials--but not that it was a scam. I was able to fill him in. Like Ann and me, he was sure the death report was a fake; he felt that things had gotten too hot for her in Myrtle Beach, and she'd done a bunk.

Which in fact turned out to be the case. Mills had actually left North Carolina some weeks before the death report, and was alive and well and kicking up her heels in Alberta, Canada.

And that's not even the strange part.

This post is getting long, so I’ll pause here and make you wait for Part 2 (visitors to Writer Beware already know the punch line, but there’s some strange tidbits you haven’t heard). Stay tuned!
Design by The Blog Decorator