An active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Victoria Strauss is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Writing Scams, and co-founder of Writer Beware. She moderates the Bewares & Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, and maintains the popular Writer Beware website and blog .
Give us an overview of Writer Beware. How did it get started? What's your mission statement?
Writer Beware is the public face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Committee on Writing Scams. Like many genre-focused professional writers' groups, SFWA is concerned not just with issues that affect professional authors, but with the problems that face aspiring writers. Writer Beware, founded in 1998, reflects that concern.
Writer Beware's mission is to raise awareness of the prevalence of literary fraud. To that end, we maintain the Writer Beware website, which provides general information and warnings about writing-related schemes, scams, and pitfalls, and the Writer Beware blog, which provides up-to-the-minute information on specific scams and schemes, along with advice for writers and industry news.
We've also assembled an extensive database of complaints and documentation on questionable literary agents, publishers, independent editors, writers' services, contests, publicity services, and others. Writers can contact us with questions, and we'll pass on any information we have. Last but not least, we try to build public awareness of literary fraud by writing articles (our work has appeared in the SFWA Bulletin and Writers' Digest, among others), appearing at writers' conventions, conducting workshops and classes, and participating in online writers' discussion groups and message boards.
How did you get involved?
People often ask me if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no--by and large, my publishing experiences have been positive. But I was fairly ignorant when I began to seek publication, and while scams weren't anywhere near as common as they are now, it was luck more than anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.
Around the time I first went online, in the mid 1990's, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers' discussion of their experiences on the Internet: scam 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. (There are descriptions of all these scams on the Case Studies page of Writer Beware.) I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry, which I hadn't known existed. When I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create an online resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance, and began to put together the website that would become Writer Beware.
At the same time, Ann Crispin, then SFWA Vice-President, was working on establishing a Committee on Writing Scams, whose mission was to gather information on literary fraud and find a way to disseminate this to writers. Neither of us was aware of what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our efforts seemed to dovetail perfectly, and we decided to join forces, merging the Writer Beware website with the Committee and its activities.
Care to share a war story or two from the trenches of writing scams?
Martha Ivery, a convicted check-kiter and bigamist, ran a vanity publisher under her own name, and a fee-charging literary agency under an alias, Kelly O'Donnell. As Kelly, she'd reel victims in via the agency, charging them "submission" fees and selling them her own substandard editing services (she was barely literate). When they'd racked up enough publisher rejections to start feeling desperate, she'd pass them on to the vanity publisher without revealing either the connection between the businesses or the fact that "Kelly" and Martha were the same person.
Basically, the whole thing was a Ponzi scheme--the "investments" of new agency/publisher clients paid for the services provided to existing clients. When the scheme started to collapse, and she didn't have the money to produce the books new clients had paid her to publish, Martha began demanding even more fees--warehousing fees, marketing fees, even an author cruise for more than $1,000. Not surprisingly, the cruise was canceled, and authors never got their money back.
Writer Beware got scores of complaints about Martha in the late 1990's. Through intensive lobbying, we were able to interest the FBI in her case. We helped the agent in charge of the case locate victims--eventually, more than 300 were identified, for a total "take" of over $700,000--and gather documentation. Martha's premises were raided and her businesses were shut down. In 2005, she was indicted for fraud, and in 2006 she was convicted. She's currently serving a prison sentence at a Federal correctional facility.
There's a full account of Martha's scam on the Writer Beware website.
How do you receive the information that you base warnings on and how do you confirm its accuracy?
The bulk of our information comes from writers who contact us to let us know about their experiences. We ask them to substantiate their reports with original documentation wherever possible (letters, e-mails, contracts, website material, brochures, publicity information, etc.). To establish a file on an individual or company, we require at least two independent corroborating reports (for instance, two writers separately reporting a literary agent's reading fee of $350), or a single report with documentation (a report of the reading fee plus a copy of the agent's email or letter requesting the fee). Most of our files contain at least a dozen separate reports. Many contain a lot more. Our largest file, which we've been building since 2001, includes more than a thousand reports.
We don't accept anonymous or second-hand reports; writers must provide us with a name and valid email address. In exchange, we protect writers' confidentiality. Names and contact information are not passed on to others, except by permission.
We also do our best to make a distinction between genuine bad practice and writers' gripes and/or sour grapes. Writers often contact us with general frustrations about the submission process--long agent turnaround times, failure to return manuscripts--or because they're angry that a particular agent didn't manage to sell their book, or didn't call them often enough with updates, or sent a dismissive rejection letter. We don't often regard issues like these as documentable complaints, because they're general problems that anyone can encounter (and often involve unrealistic expectations on the writer's part).
What's the best way for a writer to use this service?
Writers can use the Writer Beware website to educate themselves about common schemes, scams, and pitfalls--how they work, what to watch out for, and how to protect themselves. Currently, the website (which is updated at least quarterly) has sections on contests, copyright, electronic publishing, independent editors, literary agents, print-on-demand self-publishing, small presses, vanity publishers, and writers' services, along with a series of Alerts for writers, case studies of well-known scams, and our famous Thumbs Down Agent and Publisher lists.
Writers can also subscribe to or visit the Writer Beware blog, which features up-to-the-minute information on schemes and scams, as well as general advice and publishing news.
Last but not least, writers can contact us directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions about agents, publishers, and others. We'll check our files to see if we've gotten any documented complaints, and pass on that information. General questions about etiquette and procedure are also welcome.
Are there signs you advise a writer to look for that they might be dealing with a scam?
- Any sort of upfront fee due on contract signing (most reputable agents expect writers to bear some of the cost of submission, but they don't ask for a lump sum upfront).
- The offering of paid adjunct services, such as editing (if the agent can make money by editing your manuscript, how can you trust that the recommendation to edit is in your best interest? Reputable agents often work with clients to edit and polish manuscripts for submission, but they don't charge for this).
- Regular referrals to paid services (there may be a kickback involved, or the agent may own the service him/herself).
- If the agent is new, the absence of publishing or agenting experience (people who come to agenting from non-publishing-related fields rarely manage to make a go of it).
- If the agent is established, the absence of a track record (if the agent has made no sales for his/her other clients, the odds s/he will make a sale for you are slim).
For publishers (as distinct from self-publishing services):
- Any sort of upfront fee, such as a reading or assessment fee (no reputable publisher charges such fees).
- Any sort of expense associated with publishing--whether for printing/binding, editing, publicity, cover design, or anything else (reputable commercial publishers do not expect authors to make financial contributions to the publication process).
- Any purchase required as part of the publication process--such as having to buy your own books, or having to buy space in a company catalog (you may not be paying for "publishing," but the bottom line is still that you must lay down cash in order to see your work in print).
- Unfavorable contract terms--such as taking temporary or permanent possession of copyright, paying royalties on net profit, or imposing a kill fee for early termination. Unfortunately, you often can't find out about these until you've gone all the way through the submission process.
Although there are many scams out there, it's important for writers to understand that amateurism can be just as dangerous. The amateur agent or publisher, who starts his or her business without any relevant professional background or training, may be completely well-intentioned--but since they don't know what they're doing, the end result is the same as with scammers: an unsold manuscript or a badly-published book.
On the flipside, how can a writer learn more about newer or more obscure agencies and presses to confirm their legitimacy?
The best tool for evaluating new/small/obscure agencies and presses is simple: knowledge. The more you know about the way publishing and agenting ought to work, the easier it will be for you to spot bad practice or amateurism if you encounter it.
For instance, if you know the difference between a distributor and a wholesaler, you'll understand that the new small press that has distribution only through Ingram and Baker & Taylor is not very likely to be able to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores. If you know that agenting is a skilled profession that requires prior experience and training, you'll realize that the brand-new agent who was previously a librarian is unlikely to have the knowledge or contacts to do an effective job of representing your manuscript.
Google can be your friend in these situations, turning up writers' message boards where the agent or publisher has been discussed. And you can always contact Writer Beware.
What steps should a writer take if they've already been hooked by a scam agent or publisher?
First off, don't hand over any more cash! Examine your contract, and take what steps you can to break free. A literary agent's contract, for instance, may contain a termination-at-will clause.
If you can't break free (as is often the case with publishers), or if there are issues of copyright, or if you believe that your money should be returned, you may need to seek legal advice. On the Overview page of Writer Beware, there's a section on legal recourse that includes links to low-cost legal services.
Other steps you can take:
- File a complaint with your local law enforcement officials. Have them forward a copy of the complaint to the appropriate authorities in the jurisdiction where the scammer is located.
- File a complaint with other authorities: the US Postal Service (if the scammer had to cross state lines to email or snail mail you, it's mail fraud), the Attorney General's Office in the scammer's state, the Better Business Bureau, and the FBI (there's a list, with links, on the Overview page of Writer Beware). A single complaint may not spur any action, but a volume of them may--and if the complaint is kept on file, other writers may see and be warned by it.
- Go online. Post a report about what happened to you at writers' message boards such as Absolute Write and WritersNet, and at Internet resources like RipoffReport.com (keep it businesslike and factual). If another potential victim Googles the scammer, your report may come up.
- Contact Writer Beware, to let us know about your experience and to share documentation.
I know that you're also an author. How has your work with WriterBeware influenced how you approach your own career?
It's hard for me to quantify that, as so much of my career has unfolded simultaneously with Writer Beware. I think that my work with WB has certainly made me more skeptical and cautious, and far more aware of what I need to fight for in order to protect myself. It has also given me inside knowledge and enabled me to make contacts that I probably wouldn't have otherwise. And I have to admit that it gobbles up time that I could use for writing, self-promotion, etc. It's a pretty consuming avocation!
Victoria is the author of seven fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer's Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.Learn more about Victoria at her own website.
Thanks to Dara Girard for inviting Victoria to blog and to Elaine Isaak for her enlightening questions.