INTERVIEW: Writer Beware!
Victoria Strauss and A.C. Crispin make Writer Beware what it is: a resource for all who mean to avoid writing scammery in its many slime-coated shapes and sizes. Though Victoria and A.C. officially do their work on behalf of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Committee on Writing Scams, fiction writers across the board have come to rely on their sage advice and can always benefit from knowing who they're calling out next. Therese and Kathleen recently chatted with Victoria Strauss to learn more about Writer Beware, literary fraud, the controversial "20 Worst Agencies List" and more (and, yeah, we actually mention the "B" word). Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Writer Beware's Victoria Strauss
Q: Writer Beware began in 1998. Can you tell us what, if anything, inspired this beginning?
A. People often ask if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no--for the most part, my publishing experiences have been positive.
Naively, I thought I was typical. When I first went online in the mid-1990’s and began participating in writers’ forums and chat rooms, I was amazed to discover how many writers had gotten mixed up with disreputable agents, publishers, freelance editors, etc. (This was just around the time that several major scams were beginning to implode--fake book doctor Edit Ink, fraudulent vanity publishers Northwest Publishing and Commonwealth Publications, and the notorious Deering Literary Agency with its satellite vanity publisher Sovereign Publications). Here was a whole slimy underworld that I’d had no idea existed--a kind of distorted mirror of the real publishing industry, a shadow-side.
I was fascinated and horrified. I began to follow the scam stories, to take note of the names of bad agents and publishers that popped up over and over again. When the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (of which I'm a member) put out a call for a volunteer to create an online resource to warn about literary scams, I jumped at the chance. Around the same time, Ann Crispin (then SFWA’s Vice President), was working on establishing a Writing Scams Committee. Neither of us had any idea what the other was doing until someone who knew us both put us in touch. Like chocolate and peanut butter, we decided we were better together. The Writer Beware website became the public face of SFWA’s Writing Scams Committee...and the rest is history!
Q: How do you define literary fraud?
A. Inducing writers to buy worthless services or surrender legal rights by means of deception and misrepresentation--such as an agent who charges a representation fee and never sends anything to publishers, or a publisher that promises national marketing but devotes its efforts to persuading authors to buy their own books, or an editor who obtains clients by paying kickbacks to agents willing to refer rejectees.
But it’s not just fraud that writers need to watch out for. There are the amateur agents who don’t have the skills or contacts to sell manuscripts. There are the mom-and-pop publishers that have no ability to market or distribute their books. There are the freelance editors who have no relevant qualifications. Often, such people aren’t trying to rip you off--in fact, they may be entirely well-intentioned. But they will cheat you just the same, because they aren’t capable of fulfilling their promises. We warn about these things, too.
Q: Your site offers case studies of literary scams so writers can guard against others' mistakes. What's the worst case of literary fraud you've seen, and what's the hardest kind of literary fraud to call out?
A. There are some horrible scams that are now defunct--such as Northwest Publishing, which charged writers $4,000 and up for books that were never published, because the owners gambled away the proceeds in Las Vegas. But the worst scam I know of is alive and reeling in victims right this very minute. It’s the seven-headed hydra (six agencies, one editing service) known as The Literary Agency Group, run by Robert Fletcher, a.k.a. Robert West, who has a history of securities fraud. Ann and I get more questions and complaints about this outfit than about any of the others we’re tracking. We estimate that it has fleeced thousands of victims.
All literary fraud is hard to call out. Typically, it involves small dollar amounts per victim--$400-500 is probably the average. It can be difficult to tell fraud from incompetence--the submissions of a scam agent (and many scam agents do make submissions) look a lot like those of an amateur agent. It’s a niche crime that doesn’t threaten the general public. These things tend to discourage interest from law enforcement. It’s actually one of the more frustrating aspects of doing this work.
Q: Who's most at risk for becoming a victim of literary fraud?
A. The writer who plunges into the quest for publication without first taking the time to learn about the publishing world. The writer who has been submitting for ages with no success, and can’t let go of the dream. The first writer will fall into a scam through ignorance, because she hasn’t done her homework and doesn’t know a ripoff when she encounters one. The second writer will fall into a scam out of desperation--even though, in his heart of hearts, he may recognize what he’s doing.
Q: Tell us about Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agencies List -what it is, how it began, the work that goes into it, the varied feedback you've received.
A. Since 80% of the questions, complaints, and advisories we receive involve the same twenty or so agencies (some of which operate under more than one name), we thought it’d be useful to publish a list so that our warnings could reach more writers. None of the listed agencies has a significant track record of sales to commercial publishers, and many have no track record at all. All charge clients before a sale--either directly, through a reading or “submission” fee, or indirectly, by charging for editing or other adjunct services.
We’ve gotten an incredible amount of positive feedback. A lot of it stems from the Barbara Bauer debacle, which resulted in the dissemination of the list across the Internet. Writer Beware gets a fair amount of traffic, but we never dreamed the list would become so widely known! We know that writers are finding the list and avoiding the agents on it; we’ve gotten many thank-you notes. The list has also motivated people to tell their scam stories, which is great--the more information that’s out there, the better.
As you might expect, there’s been some negative feedback as well, from agents (not just those on the list) who feel threatened, and individuals who think we’re too hard on amateur agents or that we shouldn’t call it the 20 Worst Agents List because they’re not real agents. We take it in stride.
Q: The controversy with agent Barbara Bauer left a great writers' resource, Absolute Write, without a home on the Internet. Can you provide a brief recap of what happened, for the one or two people who might not have heard the story?
A. Barbara Bauer is a fee-charging literary agent ($650-$1,000 upfront) with no history of recent sales that Writer Beware can discover. She’s the subject of many online discussions and warnings. Since last fall, she’s been contacting websites and individuals and threatening them with legal action if they don’t remove “libelous” information about her. She contacted Ann and me; on advice from our legal counsel, we didn’t respond. For one thing, Bauer’s threats were baseless--the truth is an absolute defense against accusations of defamation, and we have plenty of documentation of Bauer’s fees. For another, scammers love to threaten legal action--but they don’t really want their day in court, because it would expose their nasty business practices to public scrutiny. If you ignore them, they will usually go away.
The AW forums discuss anything and everything related to writing, but one of the site’s busiest areas is Bewares and Background Check, where people ask questions and post warnings about agents and publishers. Bauer became aware that there was a thread about her there, and contacted Jenna Glatzer (AW’s owner) to demand that it be removed. Jenna wasn’t intimidated; she has been threatened many times, and knows how to deal with it. Unfortunately, Bauer then contacted the owners of AW’s hosting service, who--partly out of fear, partly for not-so-honorable personal reasons--decided to shut down the site. Writers and others were outraged, and the shutdown became a cause célèbre. If things hadn’t been so bad for AW, the irony would have been delicious--in her effort to suppress one thread on a single website, Bauer managed to become probably the most famous scammer ever.
Over the course of a tense week, the owners of AW’s former hosting service held the site’s content hostage, issuing ever-more unreasonable demands in exchange for letting it go. Eventually they relented, and Jenna and her tech people were able to retrieve the information. AW is now safely installed on a new host, and more popular than ever.
Q: Could anything have prevented what happened with the AW site? What steps should a site owner take if similarly threatened?
A. What happened with AW was a fluke. It would not have happened if Bauer had confined her threats to Jenna. In the owners of the hosting service, she happened to hit upon the perfect combination of ignorance and personal motivations. It was pure serendipity.
The first thing that Ann and I do when we receive a threat is to check with our legal counsel. Usually he advises us not to respond. If things escalate, we refer whoever is making the threats to him. This usually takes care of the problem; if not, he responds as necessary. Most of the time, we never hear back after the initial threat.
For a site owner, I’d advise the same thing, with the additional step of checking first to make sure that the offending information is basically factual--an account of a personal experience, or allegations supported by documentation-- and not just someone trying to smear someone else, or turning sour grapes into an accusation of scammery.
Q: I know that AW is functional again with a new host, but I've heard they have legal and other bills stacking up. What can people do to support AW?
A. Donations are very, very welcome. They can be made via Jenna's blog, or by sending a check or money order to: Absolute Write, PO Box 621, Islip NY, 11751.
Fun AW merchandise is available through Dawno's CafePress site and Jason Tudor's CafePress site. All proceeds benefit AW.
Ready for part 2 of our interview with Writer Beware?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com. 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!