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November 02nd 2009 print

Hal G.P. Colebatch

Authors, Beware!

I then did what perhaps I should have done in the first place and Googled the literary agency, adding the word scam.

As an author I am in the fortunate position of being able to deal directly with my publishers locally and in the USA for most of my work. However, I am always on the lookout for a good literary agent to get that better deal or sell those Chinese rights or maybe even those film rights. Good agents with vacancies for new clients are, however, hard to find.

When I encountered on the internet a professional-looking site in the USA I sent them details of my CV and publications and asked if they would be interested in acting for me. Yes, came the quick reply, indeed they would. I have a manuscript that is not in my usual publishers’ lines and I sent it off to them.

They must have been fast workers: a little later I received an acceptance from a US publisher—with quite a different e-mail address, mark you—who loved the work and was keen to publish it. However, it was pointed out in some detail that because publishing was an expensive business, I would be required to sign an agreement to purchase five copies of my book every week for a year.

I could, it was further pointed out, on-sell these to my friends (assuming, of course, that I had 260 friends) or use them at book-signings. No details were given as to the size of the print run, whether the book would be hard-cover or paperback, the envisaged jacket, the jacket-designer or anything else. Or indeed what buying five books a week from the USA (including, presumably, covering international postage each week) was going to cost me. I replied that I did not wish to hear from them again.

Soon, the excitingly titled “Acquisitions Department” of my new agency got back to me. Had I been satisfied with the publisher they had referred my work to? I replied that I was very disappointed that they had sent it to a vanity-publishing scam.

Back, soon enough, came another e-mail from my agent. Tactfully, there was no reference to the reply I had sent, but they truly loved my work. However, it would need professional editing. They would supply me with a list of recommended independent editors to whom I might send the book (by e-mail—and they all had different e-mail addresses, too!), who would edit it for, they estimated, about US$90.

I happen to have edited books for publishers myself. The publisher, not the author, has paid for the editing, and since thoroughly editing a book is labour-intensive and time-consuming, I charge a lot more than $90. Anyhow, and without I hope being overly conceited, I did not think my book needed further editing, but if it did, I thought that, having been the managing editor of an international publishing company, a journalist for many years and an experienced and fairly well-published author, I could do it myself. The rat I had begun to smell with the offer from the vanity publisher was smelling a good deal stronger now.

I sent them back a few simple questions about this work of mine which they were so keen on: In what year was it set? (It was actually about time-travel, so that question was central to it.) In what country was it set? What was the principal character’s name?

Had they actually given the manuscript even a cursory reading they would have been able to answer these questions instantly. Instead, I received a hurt and angry e-mail to the effect that they were “too busy to play games” and that they were disappointed in my attitude.

I then did what perhaps I should have done in the first place and Googled the agency, adding the word scam. There was plenty on the internet about it, including a number of stories from hopeful writers who had indeed paid out good money to have their work “edited”, their manuscripts having gone through a process apparently very similar to mine. The vanity publisher, by now not to my surprise, was listed on several websites as part of the same organisation. Some hopeful authors had paid a further fee to have a website set up for them, and a further fee yet to have their work “aggressively marketed”—in fact a literary agent who has confidence in a writer is supposed to market that writer’s work, aggressively or otherwise, anyway. That is what agents are meant to be for.

Since a genuine agent is paid a percentage of the writer’s earnings, a genuine agent has every incentive to market their writers’ works and make sure that their writers’ works are marketable in the first place. I was unable to find anyone who had actually had my agency sell a book for them. As far as editing went, one girl claimed that she had been paid US$10 by my agency to “edit” a manuscript.

It is easy to imagine the degree of expertise, professionalism and thoroughness a $10 edit for an entire manuscript would buy. With a real editor and a manuscript with clean copy, it might get you all the way to the bottom of page 1.

It was also pointed out that this agency operates under a plethora of other names that are frequently changed. My advice to budding writers who wish to have an agent act for them is to check that agent’s credentials first. The internet is a good first step, including one site, Predators and Editors.

A scam agent is not merely useless but worse than useless, for it not only costs you money if you fall for its blandishments but also takes out of circulation a manuscript—perhaps the result of years of work and the repository of many hopes—that might otherwise be marketed legitimately.

Hal Colebatch’s books include seven books of poetry, three biographies and 13 novels and stories totalling about 450,000 words in the US science-fiction series The Man-Kzin Wars.