Did you make a New Year's resolution to find a publisher for that masterpiece moldering in your files? Have you vowed to polish your synopsis, write a killer query, research agents, and spend your Christmas money on #10 envelopes and stamps?
Congratulations! That takes courage. You're launching your baby out there.
Unfortunately, the scamsters who prey on writers' hopes and dreams will be out there, too.
So many of us are writing books for an ever-shrinking market that none but a charmed few will ever reach that goal of big-house publication. The rest become irresistible chum for the scam sharks.
I gave some basic rules for avoiding bogus agents in my first Agent Hunt article last October I also warned against underhanded vanity publishers like PublishAmerica in July '05.
OK, you've read all that stuff. You've also heard the caveat from established writers: "Never pay an agent up front."
But you're thinking: "Easy for them to say when theyve already got agents. Publishing is tougher today. I'm not going to quibble over a few hundred bucks for expenses when I've finally found an agent who loves my work – an agent with a cool website and testimonials from satisfied clients. Agents negotiate contracts, just like lawyers. Lawyers charge retainers, don't they? My prospective agent knows an editor at HarperCollins who's dying for a book like mine. After I pay the retainer and hire their in-house editor, I'm gonna be the next Dan Brown . . . ."
Cue the theme from Jaws.
Recently, several scam operations dispensing this kind of misinformation set off alarms in the publishing blogosphere.
Scam #1) The Hill and Hill saga that unfolded in 2005-06 was bizarre – and tragic. A Scottish "agent," using dozens of aliases, not only bilked hundreds of writers with up-front fees, but emotionally manipulated them in a labor-intensive and sadistic scam that involved manuscript evaluations, monthly reports, phone calls, and faked messages from real publishing houses promising imminent sales. Absolute Write's Victoria Strauss, who broke the story, said his motivation for the relentless control of his victims wasn't only financial. She speculated "some degree of mental illness . . . think Jim Jones."
Scam #2) The Sobol Agency Contest. The jury's out on its legitimacy, but industry professionals think it looks iffy. It's a writing contest (closed Dec 31 '06) with an $85 entry fee and a prize that includes compulsory representation by "the Sobol Agency" – which has no recorded sales.
Newsflash: As of 1/8/07 The Sobol award has been cancelled, and all participants are to be refunded their $85 entry fee.
Scam #3) The International Independent Literary Agents Association (IILAA). Several notoriously dishonest agencies formed this bogus organization last October. Their website claimed the industry watchdogs who had previously outed them as scammers were "a hate organization" run by a "dragoon" called Miss Snark.
They drew immediate ridicule from the divine Miss S and other legitimate agents. In high dudgeon, the IILAA webmistress retaliated: first with e-mail suggesting Her Snarkiness had passed her sell-by date, and then—apparently displaying the IILAA's literary credentials—posting a picture of the webmistress's naked posterior on the IILAA site.
I missed that high mark in publishing history: the website came down within hours. But I didn't miss the podcast by the queen mother of IILAA detailing the "conspiracy" against her – an amazing contribution to the art of spin.
IILAA looked almost legit. Some member agencies listed published clients. But a Google search revealed the clients were published by imprints of vanity presses owned by the agencies themselves. Other agencies didn't exist. One listed an address in my own small hometown, on a non-existent street, with a bogus phone exchange.
So how do we protect ourselves from these sharks? Here are a few tips:
1. Check sites like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware.
2. Remember that a web presence, or even an entry in Wikipedia, is not a mark of legitimacy. Anybody can put up a website and the Wikipedia folks need time to research and take down bogus posts.
3. Beware sock puppets: scammers who pose as writers to praise their own operations on blogs and review sites. A similar writing style may tip you off.
4. Google the agent's name and follow the leads. Try putting the word "complaint" or "warning" in your search window along with the name.
5. Check for misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Anybody who doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe is probably not selling books to Knopf.
6. Beware gushing praise, slams against the publishing industry, or recommendations to hire in-house "editors."
As the Great Snark hath taught us, "Don't confuse "yay someone likes my work" and "yay it's not my mom" with "yes, I'll sign with you."
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org