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February 16, 2017

Red Flag Alert: Loiacono Literary Agency, Swetky Literary Agency, Warner Literary Group

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

In the late 1990s, when Writer Beware first started up, the digital revolution was just peeking over the horizon. Traditional publishing was still the only path to publication, and literary agents were the principal gatekeepers.

As a result, there existed a huge and lucrative subculture of dodgy literary agents, who fed on writers' hunger for publication and turned the (false) promise of access into money. Upfront fees, editing referral schemes, vanity publishing scams: the list was endless.

No more. With the enormous growth of small presses and the expanding number of self-publishing options, agents are no longer the be-all and end-all of a writing career, and fewer writers decide to seek them. Writers are also more savvy these days about proper business practice. This has been bad news for the predatory agent subculture, which has shrunk to a sickly shadow of its former self. Fee-charging agents, once the most common of all literary pitfalls, are now relatively rare.

That's not to say they don't still exist.


There's an impressively large list of book placements on the website of Loiacono Literary Agency (motto: "Where 'can't' is not in our vocabulary!"). In this case, though, size isn't everything, because apart from a handful of sales to larger publishing houses, most of the books have been placed with small presses that don't require authors to be agented. For most of the publishers Loiacono has worked with, the authors likely could have placed the books on their own and saved themselves a commission.

This isn't why you hire an agent. Another thing you don't hire an agent for: hooking you up with vanity publishers. A very large number of books on Loiacono's list have been placed with Argus Publishing. Argus, which has also done business as A Better Be Write, A Book 4 You, and A-Argus Book Better Book Publishers, has offered "investment" contracts requiring up to four-figure fees (Writer Beware has received a number of documented complaints). Its owner is a former tax preparer who in 2005 was permanently enjoined from tax preparing by the US Department of Justice, which found that he had filed fraudulent returns.

Despite all of the above, I probably would not have bothered to post a warning about Loiacono, had it not been for a recent change in its author-agent agreement. From the email Loiacono sent to authors at the end of December:
In the current contract, the only charges are for any expenses that may incur (postage, foreign exchange, etc.), $250.00 per year, which has not been used for any author so far, and a $500.00 cancellation fee should the author wish to terminate contract before it expires or the publisher cancels, which breaches the LLA contract.

In the new contract, for any new Work(s) there will be an administrative fee of five hundred dollars ($500.00), made payable to the Agency upon signing. This is a one-time fee, unless the Work(s) do not contract with a publisher and require renewing after one year. Renewals are two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) per year. Upon publication of the Work(s), only the LLA 15% shall apply.
Charging administrative fees is old-school predatory agenting. But the "cancellation fee" is a new wrinkle. I've gotten a lot of complaints about publishers that force authors to pay to terminate their contracts early (this is a potentially abusive practice)--but this is the first time I've encountered an agency that penalizes its clients for such termination--and does so even where the termination is not the author's fault. Wow.

Upfront fees, contract termination penalties, multiple placements with a vanity publisher: the Loiacono Agency is a trifecta of "writer bewares".

(Literary agent Janet Reid has also weighed in on Loiacono Literary.)


The 25 or so book placements claimed by The Swetky Literary Agency (don't you love that dawn-of-the-web vibe) is much, much smaller than the list claimed by Loiacono.

In other ways, though, it's similar. There's a handful of placements with reputable independent and specialty presses; the rest are "sales" to vanity publishers (Koehler Books) and small presses that authors can work with on their own. Also, even if every one of Swetky's book placements were impeccably reputable, 25 sales over the nearly 15 years the agency has been in business is a pretty sad track record (this blog post from a publisher to whom Swetky offered a completely inappropriate book offers some possible insight as to why).

The agency's apparent lack of commercial success is certainly reason for caution. But it's not why I'm posting a warning.

I've heard from multiple writers to whom Faye Swetky offered representation or the possibility of representation, and then told them that their manuscripts needed editing. Fortunately, she knew a terrific editor who might be willing to work with them: David J. Herda, a much-published author of nonfiction.

It's no secret that Swetky is Herda's agent; that info is right there on the agency's website. What is a secret--at least from the writers who contacted me with their stories--is that Swetky and Herda are either married or romantic partners. Among other things, they share an address (the image below is public record; note that it matches the address on the Swetky Agency logo, above):

This connection was not acknowledged to any of the writers who contacted me. To make matters worse, Herda charges enormous fees (I've gotten reports of up to $40,000; here's one writer who was told Herda's fee would be "no more than $45 thousand"), and some of the writers I've heard from have not been satisfied with his services.

This is a textbook editing referral scheme--common in the old days, but something you almost never see anymore.

UPDATE 1/13/18: Swetky has overhauled its website (though the old version is still around) to make it look a bit more current. The list of recent works includes titles with 2012 pub dates.


Sarah Warner, principal of the Warner Literary Group, has an impressive background as an acquisitions editor. It would seem to be the perfect set of qualifications for a successful literary agent.

And yet, Warner's track record is tiny. Since the agency's founding in 2011, she appears to have made just 12 deals. Seven of these are with solid publishers--but the rest are books by agency clients that have been placed with the agency's own publishing division, Hedgehog & Fox. In fact, with the exception of one book authored by Ms. Warner herself, the whole of Hedgehog & Fox's miniscule list appears to be made up of agency clients.

Something else agency clients have in common: lawsuits. Warner Literary Group has been sued by three of its authors--a huge percentage for such a small agency.

In 2012, Derek B. Miller sued for, essentially, what he described as substandard representation (his very detailed complaint can be seen here); he later won a motion for declaratory judgment terminating Warner as his agent (she had refused to allow him to cancel the agreement). Firoozeh Dumas sued in 2016 for similar allegations (her complaint can be seen here); ultimately the arbitration clause in Warner's agency agreement prevailed, and the parties were directed to arbitration. A third lawsuit filed last October is from client Karla M. Jay, whose books Warner published with Hedgehog & Fox. Jay alleges that Warner withheld royalties "in order to pay other expenses of WLG", and, as with Miller, refused to allow her to terminate the agency agreement.

That agreement, by the way, has a problem. Here's the first sentence of the agency clause that's supposed to be inserted into any book contracts the agency negotiates (my bolding):
The Author irrevocably appoints Warner Literary Group, LLC, as the Author’s sole and exclusive agent (the “Agent”) with respect to the Work for the life of the copyright (and all renewals and extensions thereof)
This is known as an "interminable agency clause," and it entitles the agent to represent a book not just for as long as a contract is in force but for the whole duration of the book's copyright (in the USA and most of Europe, the author's lifetime plus 70 years). Major authors' groups warn about such clauses; I've written about that here. This is red-flag language; you do not want to find it in an author-agent agreement.


Misha Burnett said...

Back in 1975 Donald Westlake published the novel "Dancing Aztecs" and one of the characters was a scam literary agent who used the name Zachary George. Westlake included an ad for the Zachary George agency, no doubt based on ads that he had seen as he was making his way as a writer. Pretty much only the prices have changed:


Of course, you’re a writer. You know that. But it isn’t enough merely to write, you need to be published as well. Success in writing is really yours only when you have reached the great Public with your ideas.

But how can you “break into” print? Is publishing really the closed world that people say? Do you really have to “know somebody”? Or, can talent “make it” on its own?

I say you can make it. I’ve seen others who made it, and I’ve helped some of them along the way, and I can help you, if you have the talent, and the desire, and if you’ll trust me.

For a limited time only, the Zachary George Literary Agency is seeking to expand its client list. Send me your short story, your novel, your magazine article, your poem. If it’s salable, I’ll find the right market for it. If it isn’t quite “up to snuff,” I’ll write you a personal letter, telling you where I think you went wrong.

Once you’re successful, I’ll take only the standard 10 per cent commission from my sales of your work. Until then, of course, it will be necessary to charge an advance against those commissions—fully refundable when you begin to sell—at the following rates:

Short story or article $10.

Novelette or TV script $25.

Novel or film script $50.

Get in touch with me today. Why wait for success any longer?"

Christine Tripp said...

From LLA's site:

"As the publishing industry evolves, as it has exponentially in the past twenty years, so does the agenting role and model. It used to be that agents could work strictly for commission and actually put food on the table. That was when the quality and quantity of books were rationed, meaning you got more for the money. With self-publishing, a myriad of micro publishers, and small houses that are staying afloat while bailing, agents are no longer able to wait for the check that is six to eighteen months coming; no longer able to work tirelessly for a writer who expects everything for nothing. Who in this world works for free?"

Q: Who in this world works for free? A: Authors, they have and continue to do so until the Agent can find them BOTH a good sale. Then the Publisher works for free until the book they have acquired sells!!!
Certainly Commercial publishing evolves, as does all business, the one constant has been they do NOT charge the Author, nor should any Agent!

Victoria Strauss said...

Adding linkage to the quote (from Jeanie Loiacono) in Christine's comment above so people can see the whole thing. I am pretty sure (though I couldn't swear to it) that this essay wasn't there when I was researching my post.

(I would add that all reputable agents "work strictly for commission.")

Heather McDonald Walker said...

I'm just getting on to the scene of self publishing and worried about Vanity Presses. does any one know if Dog Ear Publishing is considered a vanity press? They do ask for large sums of money for package deals, but does this make them dangerous?

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, Heather,

For me (and some people may not agree with me), what distinguishes a vanity press from a self-publishing service is that a vanity press goes to great lengths to present itself as a publisher, and claims or implies that it is selective and/or provides benefits that are superior to self-publishing. Often, it will conceal its fees, or claim that the fees represent only a small portion of the publishing cost (this is nearly always a lie), or sanitize them by pretending that they apply to something other than actual book production.

On that basis, I'd class Dog Ear Publishing as a self-publishing service. It's upfront about its fees, and it doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

Whether that makes it a good choice is another question. There are many similar services; while the packages they offer are all based on the same set of basic services, they vary a lot in prices and extras (though the extras aren't necessarily worthwhile). I agree with you that Dog Ear is expensive, and its comparison charts are fairly misleading.

When choosing a self-publishing service, comparison shopping is essential. On the Self-Publishing page of Writer Beware, there's information and tools to hep you do that.

Anonymous said...

I worked as an editor, and a few years ago LLA had me edit for a "friend" of theirs who was a "publisher", which then closed down. The "publisher" and then LLA screwed me out of payment for all the editing work I did. Which I provided because I didn't want to punish the authors, and thought that the agent would take care of me. They didn't. I have yet to see a dime. On books that are now published. And still on their site. At the time this caused me to believe they are unethical, and this new "policy" just cements that.

(Apologies for wanting to stay anonymous. I don't want blow-back, and I feel like a fool.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 9/23,

Thanks for your comment. I'm thinking that if this happened to you, it happened to others.

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