Friday, June 01, 2007

Tools For Spotting A Literary Scam

Okay, we're going to try something new here.

I belong to multiple writers' lists. Today a newbie writer announced he had googled "literary agents" and come up with a name. He wanted feedback from the group on that agent.

The thing is, he should never have had to come to the group to ask. There's a world of information out on the Internet if you just know where to look and what to look for. So, I'll give you a quick checklist for how to spot potential scammers.

Then I'll give you three names and let you check them out to see if you would be willing to submit a manuscript to any of them.

Let's start with the Mark Sullivan Associates Literary Agency

Here's the checklist for how to determine whether you should submit a query to an agent:

1) First, go to the agent's website here and take a look.

The first thing I see are covers of books sold. This is a good sign. Scam artists usually don't list clients or sales (or else the writers shown are all unpublished or self-published). We'll come back to these books later. For now, let's just keep looking.

I start to read the copy and see a warning sign almost immediate-
ly. This language: "It is important that a new writer be guided by professionals who understand how to present a work to the right editor at the right time."

This *may* be language intended to prepare the writer for long delays and excuses like "Your work is unique. We need to find just the right market for it" when the writer complains that his work hasn't been submitted anywhere.

Next: A photo of New York "before 9/11." By itself, this says nothing. But be aware that con artists often include appeals to patriotism or religion on their websites as though these lend legitimacy to the site and, by association, to the agent.

Let's keep going. To the icon for "Information." All kinds of questions are raised here. First, Sullivan describes his policy as "Our usual method of selling is to approach many publishers simultaneously and initiate a 'literary auction,' in order to encourage increased price bidding."

Literary auctions are reserved for the few special books that everyone is going to want. It is not a "usual method" of approaching publishers.

Major Red Flag: "Our fee for evaluating a full-length manuscript ranges from $250-500, depending on the nature of the material and the length. Some agencies charge nothing, others charge far more. This fee reflects our basic desire to keep our doors open to new writers while covering the expense involved."

LEGITIMATE AGENTS DO NOT CHARGE READING FEES OR EDITING FEES. EVER. The Association of Artists' Representatives (AAR) does not permit member agents to charge such fees. Ever. Go here to read the AAR Canon of Ethics if you want to know what legitimate agents will and will not do. If an agent is a member of AAR, s/he has agreed to abide by that code of ethics. It's usually a good sign if an agent is a member of AAR.

Once I saw the reading fee, the game was over. However, just for fun, let's see what else the Sullivan website tells us.

Under the "Guiding New Writers" icon, we find an attack against Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors. A legitimate agency does not need to attack anyone else; least of all, the places where writers go to prevent being scammed. Another major red flag.

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but let's go look at those books Mr. Sullivan lists. There are a couple of warning signs there, too. One of the books Blood, Money and Power has a note that Mark Sullivan edited this book over a five-year period of research.

Since we already know that Sullivan charges for services, we can surmise that he charged this writer fees for five freaking years. Not a good sign.

Another book Hidden Fortune was published by the author in collaboration with Mark Sullivan. That means it was self-published. Not a good sign.

So, before we even go to #2 on the checklist, we have a pretty good idea that Mr. Sullivan's agency is not legitimate by the definition established by the AAR.

Let's continue down the checklist.

2) Second, go to Preditors and Editors here and Writers Beware here to check out the agent.

When we go to P&E, we find this: "Charges fee. Editing conflict. Not recommended. Also a Top Twenty worst according to Writer Beware."

Another major red flag. And do you suppose that "editing conflict" had anything to do with that book Blood, Money and Power that he spent five years editing?

3) Third, google the agent. Let's google Mark Sullivan Literary Associates and see what we get.

In just two pages (the first twenty listings), I found warnings from Preditors and Editors, Writer Beware AND Miss Snark.

Would you send a manuscript to this agent? I doubt it.

If you finish your checklist and still are not sure if the agency is legitimate, go to your network (writers' groups, professional organizations, loops) and ask. However, that should be your last resort, not your first.

Now, let's see what you do with your newfound skills. Here are three names in alphabetical order. I'll make it easy and give you their websites. One is an absolutely legitimate agent. Using the AAR Canon of Ethics as our touchstone, the other two agencies are not legitimate. See how many warning signs you can find on those two agencies. And, conversely, what were the signs of a legitimate agent on the third name? I'll review with you tomorrow:

Barbara Casey Literary Agency here
Kimberley Cameron here
Writers Literary Agency here

Have fun!


Stephen Parrish said...

Interesting choices. Of course, when I see Reece Halsey North I know I'm okay, but I spent hundreds of hours researching agencies, and a newbie may never have heard of them. P&E takes care of the other two.

Barbara Casey is the interesting one, because it appears she wants to be a legitimate agent. Which leads me to the reason I'm commenting:

Given how hard it is to cross the vast gulf between "I'm not an agent" and "I'm a legitimate agent," to what extent should we condemn the people on that path who critique manuscripts to pay the bills?

I personally think a would-be agent ought to start out in publishing or as an assistant in an established agency, but as long as no formal vetting is required we're going to have well-meaning wannabes straddling the gulf.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: We're talking whether an agent is fish or fowl--agent or editor. They must decide to be one or the other because otherwise they have a conflict of interest.

The reason that AAR does not allow member agents to accept reading fees or editing fees is because the lines then become blurred. Does the agent seek lousy manuscripts so she can earn money fixing them?

Agents must be like Caesar's wife--above even the suspicion of impropriety. Most agents are former editors. That's where they learn the business. My agent offered me lots of editing advice along the way--she considered it a cost of doing business.

Miss Snark once said she wouldn't take on clients who required a lot of editing--it was not cost effective for her.

Go to my post of 12/4/06 to read about an agent/editor who is now serving five years in prison for scamming unsuspecting writers.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm extremely cautious - perhaps overly so, but it's kept me safe for many years, so I'm sticking with it.

Barbara Casey's site set off warning bells the second it opened. I don't want to get to an agent's site and see a link for editorial services, tyvm. She's cheaper than some I've heard of but a penny or a pound, it still means a pass from me. NEXT!

Kimberly Cameron: Nice professional site without being too glitzy. And right off the bat, I see she's a member of AAR. I'd send her a query if I thought she'd like me work, but she's all literary fiction. Darn. (And yes, I've heard of Reese Halsey, but don't just be drawn in by a agency name, folks. There are some pretenders out there with similar sounding names.)

Bachelor #3 I remember from somewhere and the memory is negative, but I followed the link to check it out for myself. I see some things to set off warning bells, and some stuff carefully designed to ease my mind (which shouldn't be necessary, if they're legit). On further investigation... Oh geez, NOW I remember who these folks are... RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY!

Excuse me while I go clean the cookies off my hard drive.