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When I was a boy, dreaming my first dreams of writing and publication, it was generally known that one turned for further information to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, that august publication that lists publishers, agents, etc., along with juicy advice on everything from taxes to how to prepare your manuscript. It’s been around for years—over a century, in fact—and back in the day, everybody seemed to know that this was the place you went to if you wanted to get yourself informed.

Sure, there were those dodgy “Authors: publish your book!” ads in the pages of literary and writing magazines, and we were warned about vanity publishing, but there wasn’t the level of misinformation then that there is now; because, for really powerful misinformation, we had to wait for the Internet to arrive.

Online, it’s much harder to work out who has the authority and who to trust, especially for new writers, who tend to be a timid, nervous breed to begin with. The highest places in Google’s search results go not to the best sources of information, but to those who shout the loudest, and the loudest people aren’t always the most honest.

One scam that has come increasingly to my attention in the last few weeks is what you might call the “fake agent” scam. They’re not exactly fake agents, because anybody can call themselves a literary agent and have it be technically true. You or I could hang up our sign tomorrow and start taking clients. We wouldn’t be breaking the law; we just wouldn’t be any good at agenting, and we’d let our clients down.

But the problem with these particular “fake agents” isn’t that they aren’t going to sell your book. It’s that they’re going to fleece you first, and then they aren’t going to sell your book.

Here, very briefly, is how a reputable agent works:

The agent sees your book, and likes it. Based on their knowledge of the market, they believe that they can sell it. They may make suggestions for improvements and alterations, and may chat with you about proposed changes, but they won’t charge you for that. In fact, they won’t charge you a penny for anything. They make their money by taking a commission when they sell your book.

So, the important point here is that you don’t part with a penny; with a reputable agent, the money flows towards you, not away from you. They just take their cut of the cake.

Now, here’s how these “fake agent” scams work:

The “agent” sees your book and offers to represent you. They don’t care whether it’s any good, and they don’t need to know about the market, because they have no intention of actually selling the thing. Instead, they suggest that you could benefit from a little editing—you know, on your way to the crock of gold—and, as luck would have it, they can recommend a great editor. Just a little critique, say $50, $60. So, dizzy with the excitement of having found an agent, you fork over the cash and get your edit. Then, the agent says that it looks like further work is required. Again, they know just the guy, and would be happy to refer you. In for a penny, in for a pound, you think… only you’re handing over a great deal more than a pound. The editing continues to rack up, the prices rise from tens to hundreds to thousands, and you’re no closer to getting published. Eventually, once they’ve bled you dry, the agent tells you that the book’s no good after all, nobody wants to buy it, and that they’re finished with you. So you’re back where you started, and you’re out a fortune for usually sub-standard, and possibly unnecessary, editing.

The point is, of course, that the editor the “fake agent” kept referring you to was in fact themselves, under another name.

I’m getting enquiries every week from people who are in the process of falling for this scam, and they’re comparison shopping before going with the editor that the “fake agent” recommends.* I do my best to set them straight, although it usually costs me the contract (they’re not so keen to shell out on editing when they discover their agent isn’t real), but I’m getting more and more worried about the sheer volume of victims. If I’m hearing from at least one a week, how many must there be altogether? One trick these companies use is to monitor the U.S. copyright office, and write to everybody who registers their novel. Another is to take obvious Internet domains so that they show up for Google searches related to agencies, or to purchase Adwords advertising on the relevant terms, so that unsuspecting victims see them before they even see the legitimate companies.

The difficult question is, what can be done about this? As literary agents aren’t regulated, these guys probably aren’t breaking the law. However, they are taking advantage of inexperienced writers and charging them a lot of money based on a deliberate piece of misinformation; the writer believes the “fake agent” is going to try to sell their book, while the “fake agent” knows that they’re just going to bleed the writer dry, and then get rid of them.

For now, all we can really do is make sure that people know about what’s going on, and about how to find a good, legitimate agency.

You’ll find more information about these scams here and here.

You can find a list of reputable literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (in the UK) or in the latest Writer’s Market (in the USA). And before signing with any agent, remember that the Internet has its uses: you can Google up the name of the agency, and see what other writers are saying about them.

*When this post was written in 2008, The Fiction Desk provided paid critique and editing services. We stopped that not long after, when we decided to start publishing.

18 Comments on “Fake literary agents target new authors”

  1. John Self Says:

    I have two thoughts on this, though the predominant one is ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’. The other one is that it’s a clever trick to pull on people, because people desperate to make a splash with their literary efforts will of course jump on any encouragement whatsoever. As anyone who has ever done the slush pile run for a publisher knows, the vast majority of manuscripts submitted are not just unpublishable, but unreadable. Sadly, self-awareness rarely accompanies enthusiasm.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hi John,

    While I do know what you mean about the poor quality of many manuscripts, and that it can be hard to sympathise with people who don’t take the time to get themselves informed, there’s something about writing that attracts more than its share of vulnerable people. Sometimes a pathological need to believe in something good can eclipse the rational side of the brain, as in this BBC story. Successful scammers are experts at identifying vulnerable people, and then manipulating their victims’ emotions and reason.

    The publishing world is also pretty mysterious to a complete outsider, so it must be hard to judge what is and isn’t appropriate. And I think the Internet is making this worse; misinformation is spreading much faster than good information.

    Some of these people are really rotten, as well. There was a case a few years ago in which a woman running the “fake agent” scam was finally tracked down by police for several instances of this scam, as well as selling tickets for non-existent writer’s workshops, several cases of assault… and the attempted murder of her own mother.

  3. John Self Says:

    Well that story you link to is certainly tragic, Rob, though I draw the line at agreeing with the daughter’s assertion that “receiving this kind of mail started [my mother] to deteriorate mentally.” In fact, the lawyer in me wants to say that if her mother was as incapable of looking after her own affairs as she seems to have been, then her daughter should really have taken over with the help of the courts if necessary.

    Anyway, on the subject of publishing, I’m surprised that the people who are attracted to the fake agents don’t go down the simpler route of self-publishing on lulu.com or AuthorHouse or similar. I normally consider these operations lower than dirt, but it would save the victims a good deal of money and be no worse in terms of having their book ‘published’. But no doubt many would look down on self-publishing when they have had an offer from an ‘agent’.

  4. Rob Says:

    You make an interesting point about responsibility within the victim’s family, John, and (based on the little information in the article) I may be inclined to agree with you. Still, the fact that others could have done more to help doesn’t really make the scammers any less guilty.

    I agree with you about the self-publishing houses. Lulu isn’t as bad as some of them (if you know what you’re doing on Lulu, you can get a finished book into your hands for less than the price of a takeaway), but of course it’s still not really publishing. I’ve known some of these houses to charge plenty, though, and I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t understand the difference between the self-publishing outfits and traditional publishing channels. I’ve had some long conversations trying to explain to people that, if they want to get their book into stores and into people’s hands—if they want to be read, then something like Lulu or iUniverse isn’t going to cut it.

    There are times when self-publishing can be appropriate, but these are few and far between, and even then, outfits like iUniverse aren’t necessarily the best way to do it.

    And, of course, there are success stories like the Jennie Walker / Charles Boyle book. But, in that case, Boyle had a background in the industry and knew what he was doing.

  5. John Self Says:

    Indeed, and then there are people like Matthew Reilly and G.P. Taylor, both of whom self-published before making it really big with real publishers – though they’re not great examples as they’re both really bad writers. Maybe that’s the key…

    Writers need to realise that every step of the process is fraught with difficulty. You thought it was hard writing your book? Try getting it published. You thought that was hard? Try getting anyone to take notice of a new author in a crowded marketplace.

    Just the other day I had an email from a debut author, published by one of the major houses, who had sent me a copy of their book for review a few months ago. They were chasing up to see if I had read it (which I hadn’t, being inundated with review copies). There was a certain tone of desperation to the email, which I sympathised with. I was reminded of how established authors, when asked to offer advice to new writers, often say, “Don’t”. It’s not through an unwillingness to share the limelight; it’s through knowledge that 99% of them, even if they do get an agent and do get published, will never make a living wage from their writing.

  6. Advice for young writers Says:

    […] about how the publishing industry works. After all, there are a lot of unscrupulous people and scam artists who are very willing to prey on inexperienced new writers who don’t know their stuff. Pick up […]

  7. Jackie Says:

    I am a new writer trying to become successfully published and almost fell prey to the scam of a fake agent. I thought that I had done a lot of reading and searching before finally signing a contract with this agency. Boy was I wrong. However, I did learn enough to know that I was not going to send the additional money that they requested for “other things to make their job easier.” I didn’t find your website until I cancelled my contract. It gave me some good information and I feel that I’m on the right track. Thank you for your information and I realize that just because I’m inexperienced I’m no longer stupid.

    Thanks

  8. Dominic Says:

    Wouldn’t an article about fake agents and editing services be The Perfect Cover for such a service — even better if there was an informed, intelligent debate about the subject in the comments section!

    Appeal to authority — “the lawyer in me” and the hint of threat and mental degradation — the BBC story. All compelling.

    However, the lack of spelling and punctuation errors within the discussion is what does the most to raise suspicion. You find yourself exposed, Moriarty, by your own perfection.

  9. Rob Says:

    Of course, my real stroke of genius was to invent your comment and then approve it, giving the illusion of transparency…

  10. Dominic Says:

    You’ll never make me alive!

  11. Rob Says:

    Oh, but you already are alive. One assumes.

  12. Diwakar Methil Says:

    Never pay cash in any form to any literary agent who demands it. Right now one supposed agent is asking me to contact their editorial services. So be wary, don’t be a scam victim.

  13. David De La Osa Says:

    Thank the good Lord I came across your website.I have spent years writing and re-writing my novel.After reading your article about fake literary agents,writing my book looks like it was the easy part.I will use as my mantra”The money flows towards the writer.”

  14. William Price Says:

    I have a finished book and have a string of publisher contracts for it in my bottom draw, thanks to many “open your wallet” Literary Agents both in the UK and USA, they are going to rot there. There ought to be legislation passed against these sharks instead of “happy banter” about them and their scams by those who have already been published.

    I’m still hoping to get published one day – without paying a penny – but I’m doubtful as the world is full of charlatans both in the Literary Agency and Publishing trade – it’s a closed shop – and not for the faint hearted!

    There is no difference between self-publishing, vanity publishing and subsidy publishing – they get you skint for a few of your books in print. Bahhh!

  15. Mosezickle Says:

    When I started out a few years ago hoping to get published and I found what I thought to be proper and true agent. I was dead wrong. Writers Literary Agency took me for all of $2,000 plus other expenses. They promised me reviews, editor, 10 mailings to publishing co. but what I found out after all of this when they could no longer squeeze another dollar of my money offered me a sister company who could care for me. I dropped the idea after that. I began to venture out alone in hope to find some way of publishing my book and stumbled across amazon.com’s Createspace which is a self-startering author’s workplace. Within one week I had created my book from the original manuscript and had the first copy in my hand another week later. Afterward I discovered an article in the local newspaper of a 13 yr old boy who published his first book and then I thought wow! If he could do it so can I. I researched his purblisher though self published I thought again to myself this is can’t be any worse than the first scam and just maybe I may be on to something real this time. I prayed about it and sure enough the company is real and within a few months I became a published author and my work had been sent to more than 125 companies of which several responded possitively or at least of all acknowledged receipt of my query and my media kit. My advice to anyone breaking into the business of being an author is this…”Stay focused, don’t be in a hurry. If its sounds too good to be true then it probably is. Yes its true, there are certain cost that go along with publication such as mailings, printings and online advertising website creativity etc. however if you find yourself paying out and no results come within a reasonable time then get out fast and report it to someone quickly. Most of all important research the scam list before giving into unknown agents. May sure they are members of the Writer’s Market and have credits and good reviews.

    Best of luck to you upcoming artist and remember the best advice is good research prior to signing contracts with an agent or so called publisher. A good agent will rake you over the coals prior to contract and you will have a time getting through. Be patient and understanding along with having the power of endurance.

  16. Sudhir Pande Says:

    God Bless you all for writing your experiences. I am a writer struggling to get published and was above to fall prey to ‘critique’, editing. and other fees.
    Hope the scamsters are tracked down and punished.

  17. Laurie Ellis (Mr) Says:

    Interesting reading (the previous comments).
    I wrote my autobiography in 2008, and had it formally appraised by East Midlands Arts Council. The appraiser gave me heart, but also advised me that biographies are difficult to market unless one is a celebrity. I was aware of this, but I would still like to see my efforts in book form.Watch out for ‘That’s Life’…250 odd pages with 11 illustrations.

  18. Elle Says:

    Thank you for this article about literary agents. I got caught by one of these fakes. I sent a query letter to this agent, who wrote back he was very interested in my book. He said please send me the book. I sent the book to him and he kept it for 2+ months. The only letter I received from him during that time and after sending multiple letters to him was a letter telling me what he would do for me and how much it would cost plus several “editing”add ons.I told him by registered mail if my book wasn’t sent back pronto I would sue him (I meant it!) I received my book back in 2+ weeks. Don’t get caught by one of these sleazy operators.

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