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.

March 11, 2009

Victoria Strauss -- Excuses, Excuses

Questionable and incompetent literary agents, publishers, and others (scammers or not) are often unable to fulfill their promises. Non-performance is among the most common complaints that Writer Beware receives: unpaid royalty checks, publication delays, no followup on manuscript submissions, editing projects late by months or even years.

Excuses for these problems (where excuses are made--many dodgy operators simply resort to silence, leaving emails and phone calls unanswered, closing down message boards and guestbooks) range from the mundane (scheduling conflicts, website and email glitches, that old whipping boy the US mail) to the personal (individual or family crises, health problems for key staff) to the downright bizarre. We know of several less-than-honest agents who have announced their own deaths--via an alias, of course (one of them got her aliases mixed up, surprising grieving clients with her apparent resurrection). Another questionable agent explained that he couldn't do his job properly because his house was haunted. And one dubious operator repeatedly claims he must rush overseas to deal with the kidnapping of his child--though his real motive is to put himself out of reach of the people to whom he has made empty promises.

(Of course, some of these excuses--the less fantastical ones, at any rate--are real. But that just points up a different issue. Since marginal agents and inexperienced publishers are so often one-person shows, or are run part-time out of a back room, a single problem can sideline the entire business.)

There are only so many times you can claim to have had a heart attack, or that your house burned down, or that you or your [pick one: spouse, child, best friend] have been diagnosed with some dread disease. Many questionables are delighted, therefore, when a natural event opens the door for legitimate blame. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan provided some much-needed breathing room for questionables in the Southeast (one agency, claiming flooded offices, took the opportunity to rename itself and "discontinue" the old, complaint-ridden business). Ditto for Hurricane Katrina, a year later.

9/11 was an excuse bonanza. I heard from writers whose deadbeat agents informed them that publishers had stopped buying books, or that editors were too afraid to go to work, or that communications disruptions made it impossible to reach anyone in New York by phone or email. I heard from authors whose sleazy publishers told them that fees had to be increased because publishing had "completely changed" in the wake of 9/11, or that publication schedules were being put on indefinite hold because "people weren’t buying books anymore." But the prize for Most Creative Use of a Disaster goes to convicted literary scammer Martha Ivery. At various times, she claimed that her delinquency was due to having been "seriously burned" in the fall of the towers, to caring for friends or relatives who'd been dreadfully injured, and to being in mourning for relatives who'd been killed. To explain why the books writers had paid her to publish weren't appearing, she swore that "dozens" of manuscripts had gone down with Flight 93. (No, I am not making this up. It's all right there in the court documents.)

I'm starting to see signs that the tanking economy is shaping up to be the next big excuseapalooza. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from several writers whose incompetent agents--who don't have the skill or contacts to sell manuscripts at the best of times--are blaming the cutbacks in publishing for their failure to place clients' books, or are advance-rationalizing failure with dire tales of publishing carnage and the "near impossibility" of selling first novels under such conditions. I’ve also heard about a questionable publisher that’s using the economy as an excuse to ditch a bunch of its writers (the unhappy ones, perhaps?? This publisher is the focus of numerous author complaints), and another that is pressuring authors to buy their own books, telling them it's their responsibility to keep the publisher afloat during tough economic times.

What makes these excuses compelling is that they are rooted in truth. The current economic woes affect us all, and without doubt there are scores of small and marginal agencies and publishers that are genuinely affected by the global downturn. But there's also no doubt that there are many that will cynically exploit real problems to their own advantage--and to authors' detriment. Because after all, exploitation is what they're all about.


Robin Bayne said...

Even reputable publishers use excuses. I made the mistake of mailing a ms. to Harlequin a few days before 9/11.

Naomi said...

Having just left an incompetant agent, I can't help but feel a little depressed by this post! Still, at least she never blamed natural disasters. Only because she never contacted me, mind you.

BuffySquirrel said...

I think the worst of it is that there are so many bogus excuses out there ("the cheque's in the mail" and so forth) that nobody believes anybody any more.

Captain Black said...

So, what's our excuse for putting up with unprofessional behaviour from these people?

sexywriter said...

The sad thing is, the economy really is putting a huge damper on legitimate publishing. I'm represented by a top agent who sells an average of 200 books a year. And even she is having trouble in the current environment. She told me the other day that publishers are not only not buying very much at all these days, they are canceling deals they've already made, and demanding advances back. She doesn't expect things to turn around for at least a few quarters.

She is still selling books, but at a tiny fraction of the rate she usually does.

Janny said...

The scary part about that one post is "...and demanding advances back." If the agent is negotiating contracts in which authors have to pay back advances for anything but failure to deliver a manuscript--and even that would have to be qualified!-- that would give me SERIOUS pause.

Yes, I know, if the contract is cancelled, the author's not entitled to compensation for a book that's not bought...but even most reputable periodicals have a "kill fee." If this isn't a consideration for book contracts, now, and it probably isn't...maybe it should be.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

"If the agent is negotiating contracts in which authors have to pay back advances for anything but failure to deliver a manuscript--and even that would have to be qualified!-- that would give me SERIOUS pause."

---Some publishers will still demand advances back even when the contract doesn't give them the right to do it. (it's happened to me). Or, they will only pay a portion of the advance if the deal is killed (such as a multibook deal in which subsequent books are cancelled, or if a nonfiction book was sold on proposal, and the actual manuscript hasn't been delivered yet). If the final manuscript hasn't been delivered, and a book deal is cancelled, then usually the publisher can demand at least a portion of the advance back.

Sometimes those cases end up in litigation.

Victoria Strauss said...

In 1997, HarperCollins canceled more than 100 books in an effort to downsize its lists. It demanded that the authors either return their advances (for books that had missed their deadlines) or repay them if they sold the books elsewhere. The Authors Guild got involved, and Harper dropped the demand.

(It's also interesting to note that the article linked above, published in 1997, might have been written today, with its news of cuts, layoffs, sales slowdowns, and doomy prognostications about publishing. Things don't really change as much as we think they do.)

Just to note again, my post isn't about real agents and publishers who are genuinely effected by economic downturn, but about fake ones who seize on any excuse they can to keep their clients quiet.

Anonymous said...

Just to note again, my post isn't about real agents and publishers who are genuinely effected [sic]

Couldn't resist!

behlerblog said...

Just to note again, my post isn't about real agents and publishers who are genuinely effected by economic downturn, but about fake ones who seize on any excuse they can to keep their clients quiet.

Vic, the scary thing for new authors is exactly what you said; these excuses are steeped in truth. I'm very lucky to work with some of the top agents in the industry, and their stories are all the same; they can't sell the midlist authors anymore because the large houses are only looking for the big blockbuster books.

It's very good for me - and other small trade presses - because we're buying those books because our success threshold isn't as high as Random House.

So it comes down to, how does the new author separate the realities of the industry from the excuses when there is truth in what they say?

Still totally laughing over "excuseapalooza."

ami blackwelder said...

What do you guys think about dorrance publishing, subsiudy publisher.

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