INTERVIEW: Writer Beware!, Part 2
Writer Beware's Victoria Strauss and A.C. Crispin work hard to unmask agents with less-than-ethical intentions toward writers. Therese and Kathleen recently chatted with Victoria Strauss to learn more about Writer Beware, literary fraud, the controversial "20 Worst Agencies List" and more. Missed it? Click here to read part one, then come on back. In part two, Victoria tells us what it takes to make the beware-worthy database and how to become a fraud-hunter. She also provides us with a hilarious must-read list: the top ten signs your agent is a scammer. Enjoy!
Part 2: Interview with Writer Beware's Victoria Strauss
Q: According to your site, you have over 600 names to beware in your database. Is one report enough for a suspected person or group to be listed there? How often is the database updated? Who can access the information?
A: For a person or group to be entered in our database, we must receive one advisory or complaint of questionable practice with supporting documentation (correspondence, contracts, brochures, etc.) or two substantially identical advisories/complaints. Our average file contains 10-12 advisories/complaints; many files contain many more. Single, undocumented advisories go into a “caution” file, where we hold them until we get more information.
We have a very specific list of things we consider to constitute questionable practice (see About Writer Beware). What don’t we consider questionable? Regrettable facts-of-life of the publishing industry, such as long exclusives or slow turnaround times or failure to return material. It would be nice if these things never happened, but they do, and writers have to be prepared to deal with them. We also sometimes hear from writers who are angry that an agent didn't manage to sell their manuscript, or didn't call often enough with updates, or sent a dismissive rejection letter. We don’t consider these to be valid complaints either, because they're general problems that anyone can encounter (and often involve unrealistic expectations on the writer’s part). Occasionally, with multiple similar reports, they add up to a pattern, and if so we feel a warning is in order. But that's rare.
We hear about a new agency/publisher, or changes in practice for people we already have files on, every week or two. If I were efficient, I’d update the database right away, but what actually happens is that documentation piles up until I can’t stand it any more, and I then do a marathon updating session. We constantly disseminate information from the database, but because of the frequent changes, the full database is accessible only to Ann, me, our legal counsel, the SFWA Board of Directors, SFWA’s legal counsel, and the two or three Writer Beware volunteers who prefer not to be named.
Q: I read on your site that there are other fraud hunters who help you but wish to remain anonymous. If someone feels inspired to help the cause, what might they do or who should they contact?
A: We can always use people who are willing to help us gather information about agents and publishers. Contact us at email@example.com.
Q: If an agent ever felt wrongly named on your site, what's the RIGHT way to go about challenging it?
A. The only names that appear on the Writer Beware site are the names of agents who’ve been indicted, convicted, are being sued, or are the subject of some sort of official investigation. This is public information, so it’s hard to dispute.
We do occasionally hear from agents or publishers who feel that the warnings we provide in private emails or on public websites like AW are unjustified. Sometimes they just want to let us know that new agents have no choice but to charge fees, or that charging $4,000 for publication isn’t vanity publishing if you don’t accept all comers. We politely disagree. Sometimes they tell us that our information is incorrect or that they’ve changed their policies. In that case, we ask for documentation. If we receive it, and it supports their claim, we change our warnings or remove them from our database--whichever is appropriate. We really, really, want to provide accurate, updated information. If we’re wrong about something, we’re glad to be put right.
Q: Tell us about your free research service. Who's eligible to use it? What does the service offer?
A. Anyone can use the service. Just write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. People can send us the names of agents, publishers, editors, publicity services--really, anything at all--and we’ll check our database to see what information we have. General questions about etiquette and procedure are also welcome. We mostly keep track of the bad apples, but we also follow the real world of publishing, so if someone’s legitimate we can tell you that too.
Q: Writers can watch for updates at your sites, and sites like Absolute Write and Preditors and Editors, in order to stay knowledgeable. What else should we do to protect ourselves from scammers?
A: The first thing that any writer should do--and I mean BEFORE starting to send out work--is to educate herself about the publishing industry. Knowledge is a writer’s best tool and most effective defense. If you know how things ought to work, you’ll be more likely to recognize a questionable situation if you encounter it. Unfortunately, many writers seem to want to skip the research and jump straight to submission. This is not good. As noted above, desperation can lead writers into the arms of scammers and amateurs, but by far the greatest risk is ignorance.
There are many decent how-to-get-published books that will provide the basic information, from the Dummies and Idiots lines among others. For something a little more in-depth, I like Donald Maass’s The Career Novelist and Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages. For scam protection, I recommend Jenna Glatzer’s The Street-Smart Writer, which offers lots of excellent advice on keeping safe from scams and schemes, and Jim Fisher’s Ten Percent of Nothing, a fascinating case study of a classic literary scam.
Q: You recently returned from a workshop where you passed along tips for acquiring a reputable agent. Can you share any with us here? Maybe a "top ten signs your agent is a scammer?"
Top Ten Signs Your Agent is a Scammer:Q: Loved it! Thanks for that! You obviously receive a lot of flack from at least some of those appearing on the naughty agents list. Has anything ever tempted you to leave the howling objections behind? What motivates you to keep on keeping on?
10. Your offer of representation comes via form letter (somehow, you never do get his phone number).
9. Whoever typed his contract didn’t use spel chek and can’t rite real gud neither.
8. You first heard of him when [pick one: you found his ad in the back of Writer’s Digest/you saw his ad on Google/he solicited you].
7. When you asked if he’d worked for another agency before establishing his own, he said yes--a real estate agency.
6. When you asked for a list of recent sales, he told you the information was confidential, because he didn’t want you pestering his clients. And by the way, only bad, ungrateful writers ask that kind of question.
5. When you asked what publishers were looking at your manuscript, he told you the information was confidential, because he didn’t want you pestering the editors. What is he, anyway, your secretary?
4. When you got his contract, you discovered you had to pay [pick one: $150/$250/$450/more] for [pick one: submission/administration/marketing/circulation/other].
3. He told you your ms. was great, but when you got your contract you discovered you had to [pick one: pay for a critique/pay for line editing/pay for a marketability assessment].
2. He got you an offer from a publisher--but you have to [pick one: pay for publication/pay for editing/pay for publicity/buy 1,000 copies of your book].
And the number one sign your agent is a scammer: You got an email from his assistant telling you he’d been killed in a car crash, but when you called to ask where to send the sympathy card, he answered the phone.
A. I think that Ann and I get less flack from the scammers than writers’ advocates who don’t operate under the aegis of a professional writers’ group. Being under the SFWA umbrella seems to discourage threats. We actually get more grief from non-scammers (including some legitimate industry people) who consider us crackpots, or assume that our warnings are based on rumor and innuendo, or think that we’re too hard-line (especially in our comments about amateur agents and publishers), or proclaim that because we aren’t agents or law enforcement officials ourselves we’re not qualified to comment on the business of agenting or to identify scams.
Yeah, it bugs us sometimes. But both of us really believe in what we do. Many people seem to regard literary scams as a kind of Darwinian mechanism, winnowing out the ignorant and the unworthy. That’s as may be, but I don’t think any writer deserves to get ripped off. I also believe in paying forward. I was pretty ignorant when I started out--I could easily have fallen for a scam. I know better now, and I’d like to pass that on.
Also, as any scam-hunter will probably tell you, there’s a strange fascination to scam tracking--the weird psychology of scammers, the endless permutations of scam paradigms, the thrill of detective work. It’s kind of an addiction. Hi. My name is Victoria, and I’m a scamoholic.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A. Thanks for the great questions!
Thank you, Victoria, for all you do and for a great interview!