Bill Martin's Agent Research & Evaluation

Bill Martin, whose instincts for seeing that the consumer gets a fair deal were honed by the cooperative movement and President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, decided to research the published results of various literary agents. A year later his novelist-wife Beverly had left her former agent and signed on with a new one - who sold the first book he marketed for her for six times the amount of her previous advances. To the same publisher. "It was pretty obvious that a writer doesn't only need an agent. A writer needs the right agent," says Bill. "At this site we operate on the principle that if your work is publishable you can get a real agent. If it isn't, no agent can help you. Once you separate the charlatans from the legitimate authors' representatives, the vital question becomes which of these literary agents is right for you and your work at this stage of your career. Unless they started in business yesterday, if the public record has yielded no info about the agent's sales they may be legit, but they're probably not worth having."

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Bringing Down the Literary Agent from Hell

New book exposes the underbelly of publishing's slush pile scam artists
Finding an agent or editor to champion his or her work is the rookie author's Holy Grail. It's the initiation into the Writer's Club -- the light at the end of the tunnel on a payoff for all those hours spent in one's own head, grappling with words and imagination.

In the world of writing and publishing there is no aspect so daunting -- aside from the horror of the blank page itself -- than the manuscript submission and rejection cycle. This grueling, often futile exercise has brought about many career changes and driven scores of writers to commit desperate acts. Some of us become willing to do most anything to see our works in print.

It's no wonder that opportunistic con-artists have moved in to exploit the situation, like a pack of wolves attracted to the smell of fresh blood -- and the sweat of despair. As the quantity of undiscovered authors grows, so does the number of services available to them, all promising to end the frustration -- for a fee.

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Former FBI agent Jim Fisher has been keeping track of such opportunists -- fee-charging literary agents, book doctors, and subsidy publishers -- since 1997. A graduate of Westminster College and Vanderbilt University School of Law, he has taught criminal investigation at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania for nearly thirty years.

Fisher was a special agent for the FBI from 1966 to 1972. His expert criminal investigation insights have been showcased on numerous local and national news programs -- including Dateline NBC and 48 Hours -- and he's written five non-fiction books dealing with crime and criminal justice, including The Ghosts of Hopewell: Setting the Record Straight in the Lindbergh Case and Fall Guys: False Confessions and the Politics of Murder, both of which were nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award.

Fisher's entry into the subculture of bogus agents and vanity publishers began when he received a distraught phone call from an old friend, a combative courtroom attorney who was not easily taken advantage of. The aspiring mystery writer told a tale of woe about an agent that charged a fee to evaluate and represent his book and then strung him along for months with little or no communication. He was urged to hang in there; she was determined to find a publisher for his novel. After another several months he finally heard what he'd been waiting for: she'd found a publisher and urged him to sign a contract.

The friend was exhilarated, but his bliss was short-lived. Reading the contract revealed the publisher was actually a vanity press, and getting the book printed would actually cost him thousands of dollars. To add insult to injury, the so-called agent also owned the press.

Jim Fisher was also shaken -- he had no idea this outrageous publishing arrangement existed, and was determined to find out more. Over the next fifteen years, he became an expert in determining a literary agent's legitimacy. During his investigations he discovered an especially shiftless con artist that he came to know as "the agent from hell." Thanks in part to Fisher's tireless investigative work, Dorothy L. Deering, her "literary agency" and "publishing house" were shut down. Deering and two accomplices were arrested and put behind bars -- but not before she had bilked hundreds of authors out of over a million dollars.

This story is so big, and the danger to unsuspecting authors remains so real, that Fisher decided to write a book about it.

"By successfully impersonating a literary agent for ten years, Dorothy Deering operated one of the longest-running confidence games in American history. What follows is the story of how she managed to swindle so many writers for so much money over such an extended period. During her decade of infamy, she took more than her clients' money; she stole their dreams and broke their hearts," writes Fisher in the preface of Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell. And he means it; after the big letdown and disappointment his mystery-writer friend lost his resolve -- his spirit for writing was broken.

Fisher extracts some revenge with this timely book. He tells the Dorothy Deering story in great detail, listing the warning signs that expose publishing-bizz crooks, and offers tips and resources that will help authors identify the good guys and bad guys they are bound to run across on their path to literary success.

His book and website supply plenty of historical background, beginning with the first fee-based agent, Scott Meredith, who began charging unpublished writers up-front fees in the mid-1960's. He died in 1993, but the firm that carries his name has continued the practice: the company's "Discovery Program" currently charges a $450.00 flat fee to evaluate a manuscript.

Fisher estimates there are about 400 such businesses in operation in the U.S., and admits not all of them are crooks. "But because it's so hard to distinguish the fakes from the well-intended, it's best to avoid all of them," he says. "From the writer's point of view, it really doesn't matter, because a fee-agent is not the way to get published."

He also points out that there are no fee-charging literary agents among the members of the Association of Author's Representation (AAR), the premiere literary agents' professional organization. In order to qualify for membership in AAR, an agent "must meet professional standards specified in the organization's bylaws and agree to subscribe to its Canon of Ethics." Part of the canon states: "The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity."

Fisher suggests that the most important information to get from a potential agent is his or her most recent sales list, which should include publisher identities. He opines that there are very few successful literary agents headquartered outside New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, or Boston -- so an address in Reno, NV or The Bahamas should probably be taken as a warning sign.

"Getting into the fee-charging business only requires a mailing address, some letterhead stationary, a line of bull and an ad in a writer's magazine or a site on-line," says Fisher. "The business is also possible because in America there are more writers than readers." As P.T. Barnum might have said, "There's an aspiring novelist or poet born every minute..."

And now, back to our femme fatale, Ms. Deering...

In 1989, about all Dorothy Deering had going was a high school degree and a recent embezzlement conviction -- for skimming profits at a carpeting store where she worked. She had written a sci-fi novel and picked up the Writer's Market to look for an agent. After numerous rejections, she paid one, then another, and even a third fee-based agent to place her book before she realized it would probably be a lot easier to become a fee-charging agent herself than a published writer.

All it would take would be a schedule of fees and a listing in Writer's Market. What could be so difficult about mailing manuscripts off to New York City?

Soon, with absolutely no experience as a professional writer, editor, or publisher, Deering began operating a fee-based literary agency out of her garage in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Over the next ten years she racked up a fortune in reading and marketing fees, learning the business of sham publishing as she went along. Later, as the owner of a vanity press, she bilked 1.5 million dollars out of her clients, masterfully manufacturing dreams of literary success until she was brought to justice by Fisher's investigative journalism, an FBI probe, and the retaliation and testimonies of numerous victims.

Amazingly, Deering never sold a single manuscript to a major publisher. With the money in her pocket and her clients' hopes and hard work wrapped up in fraudulent contracts, Deering produced a few copies of four cheaply printed, poorly edited paperbacks. These she used as bait to hoodwink more clients. She was abetted by her husband, Charles, a former car salesman; his son, Daniel, a drug user with a ninth-grade education; and her brother, Bill, a fugitive from the law at the time he ran her vanity press.

The financial loss for her clients was devastating, and the heartbreak was extreme. The book includes interviews with victims who mortgaged homes and cleaned out savings accounts to finance their book projects. Drawing on these experiences and documents recovered from the Deering venture, Fisher shows how Dorothy engineered and executed her scam, drawing parallels to other sham agents, crook book doctors, and mendacious publishers -- all in hopes of helping new aspiring authors avoid these modern-day snake oil hucksters.

Fisher's findings also prompt new inquiries into the potential licensing of literary agents and the prosecution of interstate scam artists. He says legitimate literary agents are aware of the fee-charging racket, but they prefer to ignore its existence. "If real agents were truly concerned, they would support the idea of licensing, which they do not," he says. "Editors are aware of the problem as well but do not get involved for fear of offending professional agents. The only people really concerned are aspiring writers and a handful of writer's groups and organizations." (See links below.)

Fisher recently received an e-mail from a woman who served time with Dorothy Deering at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. "She informed me that Dorothy completed her sentence on August 26, 2003, and, among other things, that she told her fellow inmates that she was in prison because of a book she had written identifying the real truth behind the assassination of JFK. Good old unremorseful, pathologically lying Dorothy."

Here's hoping there is an especially hot place in Hell reserved for those who would treat authors and their books with such heartless scorn.

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Resource Links:
Science Fiction Writers “Beware” Page
Jim Fisher’s Publishing Scams Page
Bill Martin’s Agent Research & Evaluation
Moira Allen’s Site
Everyone Who's Anyone in Publishing (contact info for 1,179 literary agents).

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Agent Tip Q&A

How can I find out about publishing scam artists?
Read publishing industry magazines and trade journals like this one, as well as writing organizations' newsletters that regularly disclose the identities of authors and their agents. Also, check the acknowledgement pages in published books similar to yours for references to agents. And finally, if you are willing to pay the fee, use the services of Agent Research and Evaluation (AR&E), an agent data base maintained by Bill Martin in New York City. Bill can match you and your manuscript with agents who have had success with books like yours. This approach can save a lot of time.

Is it true that one cannot get published without a literary agent?
No. Small publishers and university presses accept nonfiction, trade submissions that have not come through an agent. Moreover, a good query letter from an uniquely qualified author of a nonfiction book can get through to an interested editor of a big commercial house. Agents, however, are most needed by writers of genre fiction.

Should I query several agents at the same time?
Yes. If you don't, you may not live long enough to see your book in print.

How long should I wait before calling an agent to check on the status of my submission?
If you haven't heard anything in four weeks, call. If the agent sounds annoyed that you've called, scratch that one off your list.

If I decide to go with a vanity publisher, or publish this book myself, what are the odds of seeing my work on a best seller's list?
About the same as being hit by lightening on the day you've won the lottery.

Rather than waste time sending out query letters, is it a good idea to telephone agents cold to pitch my book?
No. Agents don't care how well you talk. They want to see how you write.

Should I sign a contract with an agent?
Not unless you have to, and then for not more than one year.

Should I query an agent before my book is finished?
Most agents aren't interested in partial manuscripts, proposals, or great ideas for books.

How can I find out what kinds of books are hot and sought after by agents?
Don't even try. Agents themselves really don't know what they want until they see it.

Would the publishing world be a better place without agents?
Yes, but in a world where editors no longer edit, and publishers no longer screen submissions, agents have become a necessary evil.

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Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell
by Jim Fisher
232 pages; $27.50; cloth (June 2004)
ISBN: 0809325756
Published by Southern Illinois University Press

author of Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent From Hell

Beware of agents who:

Offer you a contract for representation after your receiving your manuscript. This suggests that the agent, particularly if a fee is involved, is more interested in your money than your work. Ask questions to determine if the agent is familiar with your manuscript. Remember, real agents, when accepting a manuscript, don't use form letters.

Solicit your manuscript for representation out of the blue. Some agents get your name from copyright registration files. This kind of manuscript-chasing is not the way real agents obtain clients. Again, beware of the form letter.

Refuse to disclose whom they represent and what books they have recently sold. Why would an agent want to keep this type of information a secret? Maybe they have no sales to report.

Offer wild but general praise for your manuscript. Agents who are fast-buck artists don't have time to read manuscripts. Ones who charge big reading fees won't look at your work until you've paid them to read the manuscripts. Even if you have paid a reading fee, that doesn't mean the agent has read your work. These agents are entrepreneurs who pay others to read and evaluate the manuscripts that come to them. Take praise from fee-chargers with a grain of salt.

Brag about how successful they have been as literary representatives. Truly big-time agents do not boast to unpublished authors; it's the other way around. The aspiring writer must impress the agent. When it comes to fee-charging agents, do not believe everything you read or hear-especially when it comes from the agent.

Issue fancy, expensive brochures advertising their agencies. The agent might be selling you a costly service that will not help you find a publisher. Do not forget why you wanted an agent in the first place. You don't need a friend, you don't need a coach or a cheerleader -- you need a royalty-paying publisher.

Are difficult to reach personally by telephone. Agents hiding behind answering machines and services might be avoiding former clients. Some fee-charging agents, once they realize they can't get any money out of you, vanish into the night. Don't be a pest, but don't be afraid to talk to your agent when you need to.

Write poorly. Some of the fee-chargers, even ones who sell editing services, are borderline illiterate. Run from any agent who can't spell, write a solid sentence,or use proper grammar. If writers would quit paying these people fees, they might go back to selling used cars.

Are hazy about their professional backgrounds. Most successful, commission-based agents were either writers, editors, or publishers. Beware of former real estate agents operating fee-based literary agencies out of Bluegrass, Kentucky.

Change their business trade names and/or business addresses frequently. Some fee-based agencies have had five addresses in ten years. What are they running from? If the agent you're considering hasn't been around awhile, check old publishing directories to see if they had ants in their business pants.

Advertise for fee-paying clients online, in newspapers, and in magazines aimed at aspiring writers. Some of these agents are in the reading fee business rather than in the business of selling manuscripts. Notice that many of these firms, rather than bearing the names of literary agents, have catchy trade names.

Place their clients regularly with subsidy publishers. Such agents might be taking kickbacks from these vanity publishers. Some of these agents are nothing more than branch sales offices for these publishers. Remember, one does not need an agent to get subsidy-published. Also remember this-in the literary world, the publisher pays you. It's not the other way around.

Own or have a financial interest beyond mere kickbacks in a subsidy publishing company. This includes publishers that require authors to purchase a number of their own books. If you seriously want to have a career as a commercial author, stay away from any kind of subsidy publisher.

Make what seem, on their face, outlandish claims of success. Some agents who have never sold a manuscript have claimed to represent Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare all in the same year. One such agent claimed kinship to a famous publishing empire, while another said she was Rosie O'Donnell's half-sister. Neither such statement was true. A couple of agents, when under attack by a number of clients who had caught on to their lies and demanded their money back, suddenly because seriously ill, only to recover when the pressure is off.

Have no record of sales with Bill Martin's Agent Research and Evaluaion (AR&E) database. If Bill Martin ( has never heard of the agent you are considering, think twice before signing a contract, especially if the agent wants up-front money.

Seem more interested in line-editing your manuscript than submitting it to a publisher. Book-doctoring is big business, often at three to five dollars a page -- substantially less that a professional copyeditor would charge for extensive revision. Do you want a book doctor or a publisher? Is the agent you are considering really a book doctor in disguise?

Are not located in or near the East or West Coast publishing centers. Most successful commission-based literary agents have offices in the New York area. Other publishing centers include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Although modern communications, including the fax machine and the Internet, have made having an office actually in one of these locations less necessary, an agent from outside these areas still needs to take regular trips for face-to-face contact with acquiring editors.

Were not part of the writing/editing industry before becoming agents. Don't be afraid to ask agents to outline their professional credentials for the job. If they clam up or become indignant, look for another one. This is especially true for fee-charging agents.

Use form letters to correspond with you. This is a sign that the agent is not actually giving your manuscript individual attention. Some of the worst agents package up several manuscripts and with a single form cover letter, drop them over the publisher's transom. This is just going through the motions. If this is the case, you are better off writing a good pitch letter and sending the manuscript yourself.

Are rude, disrespectful, or downright hostile. Some of the fee-chargers, once they get their money, don't want anything more to do with you. An agent who has no respect for a writer is not going to be a good salesperson for your work. Look for an agent who truly enjoys working with new writers. (more)