Monday, October 30, 2006

Red Flags For Writers

I'm very ambivalent about writing this post. The people who were taken in by this scam have suffered a lot already. However, I'm hoping they can take comfort from the fact that their experience serves as an almost textbook example of the "red flags" writers should watch for when considering a contract with an agent, editor or publisher.

I first read about the problems with Hill & Hill on Absolute Write here in mid-September. Over the last four weeks, the comment trail labeled "Hill and Hill Literary Agency" has grown to thirty-six pages. It makes for very painful reading as writers come forward to identify themselves as clients of Hill & Hill. They start out just asking questions and suggesting that there is some kind of misunderstanding. Gradually their protective wall of denial crumbles, their hope diminishes and they begin to acknowledge that they've been scammed.

Last night I saw Kate Hyde's October 14th post for the first time (Thanks, Miss Snark). Kate Hyde is a senior editor for non-fiction at Press Books (HarperCollins) in the UK. Her post on Hill & Hill can be read here. Again, writers who were scammed by Hill & Hill came forward in her comment trail. It was actually THOSE comments that prompted this post.

I won't go into the details of the scam. Reading Absolute Write and Kate's post will provide all you need to know. Suffice it to say that Christopher Hill presented himself as an agent and ripped off a bunch of writers. Some say their money has been reimbursed. However, money was not the only thing they lost. Hill stole their time, their hopes and--for many--their self confidence. He is the worst kind of predator--a vampire who battens on the unwary, feeding from psyches and gaining pleasure from controlling his victims.

While it is never appropriate to blame the victims, when reading their emails, you can see how they were duped. Almost all of them talk about red flags they ignored.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. The purpose of this post is to list some of those red flags. There were lots.

1) Everything you read on the Internet is not gospel. As an example, anyone can post to Wikipedia. It takes a while for the overseers there to catch and edit the false entries.

If you are going to search for information, it is up to you to be an informed consumer. I've said this before. Scam artists plant people in loops and chat rooms to talk up their services. Sometimes the scam artist himself acts as a sock puppet, using a pseudonym to praise his own operation. A common ploy is to pretend to be a writer and give rave reviews to a site that is really run by a rip-off artist.

Ads in magazines should always be viewed with suspicion. Ads are paid for. Most magazines DO NOT screen for the validity of the ad; they just take the money and run the ad. Just because you see it in Writers Digest or Publishers Weekly does not mean it's legitimate.

You should ALWAYS check Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. You should ALWAYS Google for information on any recommendation you receive. Google it in several ways. Google it first with the word "complaint" in the search string. Google again with just the name of the agency. Google again with just the name of the agent.

2) Examine the agent, editor or publisher's website carefully. Look for obvious problems. Poor grammar, poor spelling, a lack of professional voice--all of these are warning signs. If the agent, editor or publisher is claiming to be a legitimate member of an industry in which words are her business, she should be able to write a coherent, error-free sentence.

3) Examine the website's claims. At a minimum, they should list the writers or the books they represent. But don't stop there. I recently received an email from a newbie asking about an "agent." He hadn't found anything alarming in a Google search; actually there was very little at all on the Internet about this agent beyond her website address. She wasn't listed on any of the warning sites either. I went directly to the site, looked up the authors listed and did a search on each of their books. ALL were printed by vanity presses or a print-on-demand press like Lulu. No one needs an agent to self-publish. That's a big red flag.

4) If you don't subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (PM), make friends with someone who does. A search of that database will turn up deals made by the agent. Granted, this is not foolproof. Some agents don't report on PM. However, when you are investigating an agent, you are looking for both positive and negative feedback. A list of deals made can go in the "positive" column.

5) If you can't find deals listed on the agent's website or on Publishers Marketplace, ask them directly to give you a list of the books they've sold. Then follow up to make sure these were REAL deals and not more self-published stuff. If they claim to be a new agent without deals yet, this is a red flag. Ask where they worked previously and google that. Lots of editors go out on their own to become agents. However, you should be able to find information on the publisher they worked for and the books they edited. You also need to decide if you want to be the first client of a new agent. It may work out; it may not. The skills sets for agent and editor are different. My own agent is a former editor, but she's been an agent for a long time.

6) If the agent demands an upfront fee, RUN. No matter what they call it--retainer, reading fee, advance--RUN. Legitimate agents do not request money from clients. They earn their income from the deals they make and the royalties and advances paid to the writer by the publisher. Money should ALWAYS flow to the writer, not from the writer.

7) Recently a number of writers have been approached by people claiming to be agents who read the writer's blog and are interested in representing the writer because of the marvelous quality of the work. While this MIGHT happen, it is less than likely. Most agents have their hands full with submissions. They don't need to go looking for clients.

8) Another red flag is fulsome praise. Everyone wants to be validated. However, when the praise goes over the top, red flags should be raised. Any time a writer is told they are the next Mark Twain, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or John Steinbeck, they need to take a deep breath and consider the source. I know your mother thinks you're a good writer, but come on. Let's stay in the real world. I suspect the people who get taken here are the ones who write in isolation and are not in critique groups. Good critique partners will teach you humility. Mine do every day.

9) Beware of anyone who pushes you for an immediate decision. A legitimate agent is looking to build a relationship. Someone who threatens that the offered contract will be withdrawn in eight or forty-eight hours (usually coupled with a claim that they are working with a publisher who needs an immediate decision) is trying to get you to ignore those warning bells in the back of your head.

10) If you hear warning bells, slow down. Talk to writers you personally know and trust. DO NOT go back on the loop where you found the agent and ask there. There are likely to be sock puppets lying in wait to reassure you. The other problem is you may find writers who are being scammed, but who haven't realized it yet. Go to Absolute Write and post a query. Jenna Glatzer and Victoria Strauss give great advice. Send an email to Miss Snark. I've asked her questions and gotten good, solid responses.

11) If the agent says he will take your manuscript if you have it professionally edited, take a deep breath--especially if they give the names of specific editors. Legitimate agents DO NOT refer to editors by name; they say you need editing. I blogged several months ago about a writer who thought an agent was on the up and up because she was given three names of potential editors. Turned out all three names had the same IP address. Go back and read my blog for 12/08/05 here ("Anatomy of a Writing Scam") about the "agent" who scammed writers by using different names for herself as agent, editor and publisher.

12) Remember: publishing is a business. Agents are business people who do not take on clients unless they believe they can sell the work. Publishing houses are business operations. They do not take on manuscripts that they don't believe will sell.

Advice for wannabe writers. Stop blaming agents and publishers for not contracting your work. They don't owe you anything. Saying they are only in it for the money makes you sound like an idiot. Would you say a doctor is only in the business of healing for the money?

What's prompting me to say this is the plaintive tone of some of the comments on Kate Hyde's blog. Several victims suggested that publishers contact them. Hello?

I know those poor victims are feeling beat up and beat down. However, to expect that a publisher is going to contact someone outside of the regular query process is delusional. Publishers are in business to make money, not to do social work.

13) There are NO shortcuts. If you are going to get impatient or depressed, maybe writing isn't for you. Real writers keep writing UNTIL. They have no choice. They could no more stop writing than they could stop breathing. They plug away, year after year--taking workshops, getting critiques, attending conferences, and learning about the industry. Remember what Joe Konrath says: "What do you call a writer who won't give up? Published."

Impatience and arrogance won't help you get published. They will only make you a target for scam artists. Crooks prey on people who are too impatient to wait or too unwilling to subject their own writing to a critical eye. I see these writers every day. They start out with the right mindset. After four or five rejections, they get impatient and angry and start talking about self-publishing.

Four or five rejections? Try a hundred. Lots of well-known writers racked up triple-digit rejections before they finally were published. If you want to be a published writer, you need to pay the dues. There's no other way. Write, write and write some more.

To those writers who were taken in by Hill & Hill: I know you feel awful. I know some of you are thinking about walking away from the business altogether. Don't do it. Take a break. Write something new, or give yourself some time to recover.

This was not about you. This was about a corrupt predator who took advantage of your eagerness to be published. That doesn't mean you will never be published. It just means the time (or your manuscript) isn't ready yet.

Good luck to you. My thoughts are with you today.


Emjay said...

I need a little fulsome praise.

How much will it cost me???

Maya said...

Emjay: I have three cats looking for a good home.

Sherrill Quinn said...

Maya, great post. And I'm happy to report that the IILAA website (from yesterday's post) is now totally gone.

Writers unite! *G*

Maya said...

Sherrill: Thanks for the update.

It's good news/bad news. Like Whack-A-Mole, we've squashed them this time, but they'll pop up somewhere else. New name, new scam.