Saturday, January 28, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Faking a Track Record

I've said here and elsewhere that when you're evaluating literary agents, track record is the bottom line. Even more than business practices, it's the most important indicator of an agent's legitimacy.

(I've gotten in trouble for saying this, by the way. Many people who keep an eye on the shadow-world of literary scams feel that it's fee-charging that's the bottom line--no ifs, ands, or buts. But nothing is black-and-white, even in the world of scams. There are successful agents who ask for some sort of upfront deposit or retainer, or who bill submission expenses out-of-pocket, or who expect writers to provide all full manuscripts [such agents do NOT represent the majority of established agents, but they do exist, and some of them have substantial track records]. There are agents who don't charge a penny upfront, but in years of trying have never made a sale [there are at least twenty or thirty of these in Writer Beware's files--it mystifies us how and why they remain in business]. Given these various shades of gray in regard to fees, it makes sense for an agent's track record to be the clincher.)

Questionable agents are aware of this. That's why so many of them say that their track records are confidential, or claim they've placed books with HarperCollins and Penguin but won't reveal book titles or authors' names, or refuse to answer questions about what they've sold. Or, sometimes, provide a fake track record.

I got an email the other day from a writer who'd signed with an agent in the fall of 2005, and was getting nervous because the agent wasn't responding to her attempts at contact. This agent offers to evaluate submissions for an "optional" fee of $250, and bills a flat $30 per submission. The writer was initially suspicious of the fees, but was won over when the agent sent her a list of books the agency had placed during the first months of 2005. Since the agent had a track record, the writer reasoned, maybe the fees were OK. Plus, they weren't being charged upfront, but only when a submission was actually made.

I already had a file on the agent, about whom I've gotten a number of reports and complaints. Since I've never been able to discover that the agent has ever sold anything, I was pretty surprised to hear about the track record. So I asked the writer to send me the list of books the agent had supposedly placed. Here it is:

So far this year, I've sold Tablets of Pegasus by Al Barnes to Cambrian House, The Next John Lennon by Michael Thompkins to Pemberton Mysteries, A Self Coaching Guide to the Next You by David Borchard to SterlingHouse Publisher, Finding Narcissus by Amy Benjamin to Dove House Books, and A Day in the Life of a Severed Head by Lan Yan to Broadmoor Books. In addition, I'm in the process of negotiating a true crime book with Barricade, a fantasy/inspirational book with Crossquarter, and a fiction book with Dafina.

Sounds OK, right? Five books sold, three books in negotiation--not a big track record, but not too bad, especially for a smaller agency, and also since it's only for part of 2005. Someone who pays attention to the book world would even recognize a couple of the publishers' names--Barricade, an independent publisher of edgy, offbeat books, and Dafina, an imprint of Kensington.

However, books in negotiation don't really count when you're assessing a track record, because negotiations could fall through--and anyway, anyone can make a claim like this, since there's no way to verify it. As for the five books supposedly sold...the clue is SterlingHouse Publisher. SterlingHouse is a vanity publisher that offers contracts requiring authors to buy large quantities of their own books. A trip to the SterlingHouse website reveals that the apparently separate publishers of all the "sold" books--Cambrian House, Pemberton Mysteries, Dove House Books, and Broadmoor Books--are "imprints" of SterlingHouse.

(Multiple imprints are a fairly common ploy by vanity publishers to make themselves look more legit, more like commercial publishers. This is a boon for questionable agents, who can place several books with the same "publisher" and acquire what sounds like a varied track record. Some vanity publishers encourage agents to steer clients into their clutches by paying kickbacks or finders' fees. I don't have any evidence that this is the case here, but it wouldn't surprise me. The owner of SterlingHouse also owns a fee-charging literary agency, which at one point worked with kickback-paying vanities Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.)

As a track record, therefore, this is as fake as fake can be. Unfortunately, the SterlingHouse website looks fairly professional, making it easy for an inexperienced writer to assume that it's a commercial publisher (gosh. Do you suppose SterlingHouse intended that??). Googling SterlingHouse brings up some of the negative information available online--but you don't find it unless you go many pages into the search, and most people probably won't be that persistent. You can also get the info you need by checking Preditors & Editors, or emailing Writer Beware--but probably many people won't do that either. I'm sure that the writer who contacted me today isn't the only one who was taken in by this agent's "sales."

So I guess the moral of this tale is that even though track record is the bottom line, you can't take an agent's track record at face value. If you don't recognize the publishers or book titles, research them--and not just online. Go to bookstores and see if you can find the books, or other books by those publishers. Check P&E. Write to Writer Beware.

Be careful out there!

Edited to add: Since the agency in question has been outed in the comments section of this post, and also included on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agent List, I'll go ahead and name it: Martin-McLean Literary Associates.

17 comments:

Dave Kuzminski said...

I'm going to add those imprints to the P&E listing. The more places they're listed, the more likely they'll be found by someone needing the information.

Anders said...

That SterlingHouse Web site really is good -- had I not known better, I would have thought it to be a commercial publisher.

Anonymous said...

The web site did fail my personal favourite test - if you can find out how to submit a manuscript to them in under 30 seconds, it's almost certainly a vanity press.

JaysPlays said...

It was assessing the track record that saved me.

When I was very green, I pitched my plays to nearly every agent I could find. Then after six months I recived a letter stating that an agent was willing to sign me.

Having run a couple of checks what to do in this circumstance on Writers.Net I then asked to see a list of the plays that they had placed with publishers/production companies. It was at this point that the alarm bells started to ring.

I received a response stating that they did not provide such a list for confidentiality reasons. In addition, they would not inform me which publishers they were pitching as one of their writers had sent rather unpleasant emails to publishers that had passed on their work.

A little research later and I discovered that this agent had never represented a play before – so why was he willing to take mine on? Then I received a letter for a highly respected agent that informed me that although he did enjoy my play, he didn’t love it enough to take it on. But most importantly, he pointed out that most agents wouldn’t even have read it in the first place – as I had used completely the wrong format and agents/theatres would not have been capable of determining the running time of the play.

After a lot of arguing, I managed to convince the agent that I was not interested in his services and convinced him to return my manuscript and the disk with a soft-copy that he requested (I still can’t work out why he wanted that).

A year ago this agent had disappeared – but now I discover that he is developing a new website. I won’t make the mistake of submitting to him again.

Victoria Strauss said...

jaysplays, the tactic you cite--saying a client list is confidential and refusing to tell you where your work was submitted because previous clients contacted publishers directly--is classic scamspeak.

Would you contact me by Writer Beware email to let me know the name of the agent?

JaysPlays said...

Will do!

JaysPlays said...

Err... I did try and email you - bit for some reason my email keeps bouncing back!

I'll try from my other email account later.

Allan MacLaren said...

Dear Allan,

Many writers have asked me to represent them without charging expenses, however, Martin-McLean Literary Associates is a fee agency and we do charge for our time. Because we represent over 95% first time authors, we cannot stay in business without charging fees. The majority of agencies that rely totally on commission, work with known authors and take approximately 2% new authors.

We work very hard for our clients and we're successful at getting books published, but the publishing industry is fiercely competitive and publishers aren't willing to take the risks they did in the past. It costs a publishing house between $40,000 and $75,000 to publish and market a new book and generally the advances, if any, for new authors are between $1,000 and $5,000. Fifteen percent of that barely covers postage and wouldn't put a dent in the costs of running a business.

There is a lot of negative publicity about fee agents on the Internet written by a handful of people who think literary agents should work for free. I guess they feel our time is not worth as much as theirs. The truth is, the majority of agents are fee agents. Otherwise, very few new writers would ever have a chance!

So far this year, I've sold Tablets of Pegasus by Al Barnes to Cambrian House, Church Signs Across America by Pam and Steven Paulson to Overlook Press, Gun Play by Michael Thompkins to Pemberton Mysteries, A Self Coaching Guide to the Next You by David Borchard to SterlingHouse Publisher, A Waking Dance (memoir) by Amy Benjamin to Dove House Books, Deadman's Hand by Ronald and Richard Goulding to Pemberton, and Justice Gone Awry, by John Morganelli and Sum of Existence to SterlingHouse. I also sold Fantasy Trust Vs Reality Trust by Dr. Steven Trobe to New Horizons, but it appears there are complications because he has signed other contracts in foreign countries and the publisher wants full rights.

In addition, I'm in the process of negotiating a fantasy/inspirational book with Crossquarter, a fiction book with Dafina, and a memoir with Barricade Books. In the past, we’ve sold books to Algora Publishing, HarperCollins, Price/Stern/Sloan, Element (Putnam), M.E. Sharpe, Roberts Rinehard, Llewellyn, New York University Press, Health Communications Inc, and many others.

We have a very good success record, especially since we are working with almost all unknown, first-time writers.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

All best,

Lisa


Lisa Martin
Martin-McLean Literary Associates
(303) 465-2056
martinmcleanlit@aol.com

Anonymous said...

I found that if you google the name of the publisher, agent, etc. with the words like complaint, scam, problems, etc. you can bring up all sorts of scary and helpfull information.

Michael Thompkins said...

Dear Ms. Crispin and Ms. Strauss,



You have approximately ten days to remove references to my name and my novel, Gun Play, from your website.

As of July 10th, if this has not been accomplished, I will be forwarding all pertinent data I have collected to my attorneys, Perkins & Coie (Seattle.)

Some of your information is grossly inaccurate in regard to my dealings with SterlingHouse Publisher and the Martin McLean Literary Agency. Some of that inaccuracy could be damaging to me.

You have no way of knowing what those inaccuracies are because you never consulted me or interviewed me.

I am giving you an opportunity to withdraw all info about me from your website before I take the
actions my attorney suggests.



Sincerely,



Michael Thompkins, Doctor of Psychology, author of Gun Play.

Dr. Michael Thompkins said...

Dear Ms. Crispin and Strauss:

As it turns out your attempts to malign me and my agent have proved fruitless.
Gun Play is selling well, my writing career is off and running, and my agent continues to prosper.

I am curious to know who finances your blog page? It has contained no new information in 6 months.
Somehow my success and my agent's
success must be a threat to someone.

Curious.

Michael

Anonymous said...

Has anyone heard of Writers Literary Agency? I saw their at at the E Bay site and wondered if they are legit. The Better Business Bureau has no record of them and the only address I could find through Whois was in Chesterbrook Pa where evidently the website was registered. They claim to share offices in New York.
Got any feedback?
Thanks, Brenda

Anonymous said...

I am also interested in any information on the Writer's Literary Agency and Marketing Co. Is this place legit?

Victoria Strauss said...

For information on Writer's Literary Agency (a.k.a. WL Literary Agency), see this Alert at Writer Beware.

Anonymous said...

Here is part of something I received from Martin Mclean Literary about Sterlinghouse;

SterlingHouse is a traditional/commercial publisher that believes in giving first time writers a chance and many of their writers have received awards. Just recently, Adrenaline, a medical thriller by John Benedict, made the Regional Bestseller list. Gun Play, a mystery thriller by Michael Thompkins, is also on its way to the Regional Bestseller list, and John Morganelli's book, The D-Day Massacre, sold over 1000 books the first month it was out and SterlingHouse is now negotiating movie rights for that book. And two of their other mysteries were nominated for the Rising Star Award.

Not only that, SterlingHouse has been chosen to be on the cover of Publisher Weekly (THE magazine of the trade) in May, 2007, and that particular issue of PW will be distributed by PW in New York, at the BookExpo America (May 31-June 3, 2007). You think a vanity publisher could get that kind of publicity? Also, PW reviewed one of my client's books (Lannie!).

Bottom-line is this: Small publishers are just that... small publishers. They have to play by the mega-publishers' rules. They really don't have much of a chance to win at the game, but sometimes... sometimes they do. They win when they publish a high-quality book that no one else would give a chance. Okay...it may not always do extremely well in the marketplace, but considering the competition (over 200,000 new titles published each year) and the fact that they have published something they are proud of, they did well. SterlingHouse at times requires their unknown authors to purchase a small amount of books, but this is hardly an exception in the publishing world. It is known as shared risk and most publishers (even the biggest ones) will not take on a writer with no following without shared risk, in some form or another. Why would they? Bottom line is they are in business to make money.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 11:06:

Re: regional bestseller lists and Rising Star Awards--which ones? There are as many regional bestseller lists as there are regions, and many different Rising Star awards. Claims like this mean very little without specifics that you can verify.

As for the cover of PW...that's not something you're chosen for, it's something you buy. It's advertising. SterlingHouse paid a bundle for that cover--which says something about its desire to be perceived as a commercial publisher, but nothing at all about its reputation or business practices.

SterlingHouse at times requires their unknown authors to purchase a small amount of books, but this is hardly an exception in the publishing world.

Well, actually, it is. No commercial publisher, large or small, contractually requires its authors to buy their own books.

As for a "small amount"...SterlingHouse contracts in Writer Beware's possession show that the amount is 550 books--not so small--for a total cost of $6,395--also not so small. Even if such pay-to-publish contracts are only offered "at times" (and the advisories and complaints Writer Beware has received over the years suggests the frequency is rather higher than that), SterlingHouse is still a vanity publisher. Not all independent publishers can afford to pay advances--but no commercial publisher offers contracts that require authors to pay.

Nor do reputable literary agents place their clients with publishers that require payment.

Speaking of which...Martin-Mclean recently added a New Releases page to its website. Eleven of the fourteen books listed there are from imprints of SterlingHouse. So Ms. Martin has a bit of a vested interest in trying to portray SterlingHouse as a "real" publisher.

Anthony Ravenscroft said...

Hi, Ms. Strauss, I'm *>seriously<* late to the party, but I figured I could elaborate in case anyone's actually still reading this thread.

I'm Tony Ravenscroft. Any negotiations done with Crossquarter Publishing prior to 2007 were likely with me. I will admit to having bought two novels through dubious "literary agencies." In part, this is because I was dedicated to at least browsing every OTT query, & at the time we were trying to plan 25 titles (~3 years, then) ahead.

For the records, CQP doesn't "support" any putative agencies. In fact, it's been easy for us to spot the potential scammers: fifth-generation (at best) photocopies of a poorly-typed query letter, with our names handwritten into the blanks.

But, even a blind squirrel finds an occasional acorn, & I don't regret a few interchanges with hopeful new writers. However, I stopped dealing with those agencies because every fiber of my being wanted to prod the writer to move on, & some of those contracts could have opened CQP (& me) up to all sorts of legal grief.

Publishing is a business. It's cruel enough to clueless writers, without having clueless intermediaries. A well-intentioned "agent" is about as helpful as an untrained (but enthusiastic) EMT: good intentions hide the risk from the victim, & open doors that should stay shut.