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Writer Beware: Interview with
Victoria Strauss

by P. June Diehl

In October's newsletter, we presented an article by Ann Crispin of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America concerning scams. This is such an important subject that we were pleased to have P. June Diehl submit this related interview of Victoria Strauss.You'll find information on both Diehl and Strauss at the end of the article.  —Nann Dunne

Someone out there may be trying to steal your money and your dream. Writers face scams the same as the general public. Not only is money an issue, but our dreams of seeing our works in print may be shattered. Victoria Strauss, author of numerous fantasy novels, is a shining warrior in the darkness of literary fraud.

Q: How did you become interested in fighting literary fraud?

People often ask me if I became interested in scam-fighting because I'd been scammed myself. In fact, I've been very lucky in that I never have been. Overall, I've had very positive experiences with both agents and publishers. 

Naively, I assumed my experience was typical. It wasn't until I went online in the mid-1990s, and began to communicate with other writers and to check out writers' message boards and chat forums, that I began to realize that in fact there was a huge underworld of shady literary agents and publishers and book doctors that specialized in preying on aspiring authors. Out of curiosity I began to do some research; and the more I researched, the more amazed and angry I became at the way writers were being duped and cheated.

As luck would have it, just around that time the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I was a brand-new member, was looking for someone to create a section of its web site that would provide warnings about literary scams and frauds. I volunteered, and the Writer Beware web site was born (the URL is

Q: Tell us a little about the SFWA Writing Scam Committee and its relationship to Writer Beware.

As I was in the process of creating Writer Beware, Ann Crispin, then SFWA's Vice President, was looking into the possibility of setting up a Writing Scams Committee. Neither of us knew about the other's efforts until a kind soul (I'm embarrassed to say I've forgotten who it was) introduced us to each other. Our efforts seemed to complement each other perfectly, and we decided to join them into a single endeavor.

The Writer Beware web site is the Scams Committee's public face, through which we provide information to the public about various kinds of literary schemes and frauds, as well as a free advice service that allows writers to contact us with questions about specific agents, publishers, etc. Behind the scenes, the Scams Committee works constantly to gather information and documentation on questionable agents, publishers, and others. Our archive, which includes files on over 300 agents and 100 publishers, is the largest of its kind in the world. 

We also assist with official investigations of agent and publisher fraud--though this is an area of frustration for us, since it's hard to get law enforcement officials interested. Literary scams defraud thousands of writers and net millions of dollars every year, but the individual amounts of money involved tend to be small (usually no more than a few hundred dollars per victim) and so investigating isn't a priority. There have been a few high-profile convictions--Edit Ink, the Woodside Literary Agency, the Deering Literary Agency (you can read about all of these on Writer Beware's Case Studies page)--but literary fraud remains one of the most under-reported and under-investigated of white collar crimes. One of Writer Beware's goals is to advocate to change this.

Q: What warning signs should writers look for when contacting agents, book doctors, and publishers?

For publishers and agents, a request for upfront money as a condition of representation or publication is an immediate red flag. Not all agents and publishers that ask for money are dishonest--many are simply incompetent, and are placing too few manuscripts with publishers or selling too few books to the public to be able to support their businesses without their clients' financial help. Either way, though, the bottom line is the same:  a business that will not or cannot do what it's supposed to do. In other words, a bad bet for the writer.

(Note that there are a number of perfectly reputable print-on-demand companies--iUniverse and Xlibris are examples--that provide services similar to self-publishing and require payment from writers. They have their own pitfalls, but there's nothing questionable about them.)

Be wary also of an agent who can't or won't provide information about his/her track record of placing books with commercial (advance-paying) publishers. It's essential for a writer to have this information, since it tells you not just whether the agent is successful, but whether s/he has expertise in your subject/genre (important, since some markets--science fiction/fantasy, for example--are fairly specialized, and even a very good agent who hasn't sold to them may not be able to effectively represent your ms.). Track record information is a form of advertising, and any reputable agent should be willing to share it. An agent who refuses, or who claims the information is confidential, probably has something to hide.

For book doctors, who by definition provide an author-paid service, the warning signs are more subtle. A referral from a literary agent or publisher should make you suspicious (though under certain circumstances such referrals can be legit). Be wary also of editors who make statements like "editors at publishing houses no longer edit," or "most authors use book doctors nowadays," or "publishers no longer consider manuscripts that haven't been professionally edited," or "a professionally edited ms. has a better chance of snagging an agent's attention." None of these claims is true--they're being made solely to scare you into buying editing services. A good book doctor should also have professional credentials, either as an editor for a publishing company or as a commercially-published author--and should be willing to reveal them. 

Q: What should a writer do if she feels she's been defrauded?

Seek legal counsel--and don't delay, because if you do you may run into statute of limitations problems. 

The American Bar Association Lawyer Referral Network( and VolunteerLawyers for the Arts ( hook you up with lawyers who are willing to provide low-cost or pro-bono initial consultations. Whichever lawyer you choose, be sure s/he is experienced in intellectual property and publishing law—an ordinary attorney isn't going to have the specialized knowledge to properly help you.

There are also various organizations to which a report can be made—this won't necessarily result in any action, but at least it will get the information on file, and sometimes other potential victims will be able to access it. There's a full rundown on these organizations, with links, on the Overview page of Writer Beware:

And don't forget to contact Writer Beware! If we're unfamiliar with the agency or publisher, we'd like to start a file on it, and if we already have a file we may be able to share information with you. Our e-mail is

Q: Writer Beware is a wonderful resource. Your web site seems to go beyond most sites. What services do you offer writers?

First and foremost, an extensive, constantly updated, easily accessible Internet resource not just on literary schemes and frauds, but on a variety of issues of concern for writers. We don't just offer up warnings about illegitimate practice; we try to provide an insight into legitimate practice as well, and to give writers the tools they need to tell the difference.

We currently have sections on book doctors, contests, copyright, e-publishing, electronic rights, literary agents, print-on-demand publishing, and subsidy and vanity publishers. Another section deals with legal recourse available to defrauded writers, and we have a Writer Alerts page where specific warnings are posted. Of special interest is our Case Studies page, where we examine a number of actual literary scams in detail.

The second important service we provide is a free advice resource. Writers can contact us with questions about specific agents, publishers, book doctors, etc., and we'll share any information that's in our files. Or if you have a more general question--about the pros and cons of fee-based print-on-demand publishing, for instance--we'll try to help you with that as well. Writer Beware receives between 30 and 50 e-mails a week, and we respond to every one. Again, our address is

Q: How does Writer Beware become aware of potential fraud concerning agents, publishers, writing/poetry contests, and others?

Mostly through writers who contact us to report a bad experience, or with questions about an agent/publisher/contest we haven't heard about before. We gather most of our documentation this way.

Both Ann and I also spend time in online writers' forums/bulletin boards/chat rooms. Writers often report bad experiences there, or write in with questions.

As publishing professionals have become more aware of our services, we've been hearing more often from established editors and literary agents who refer writers to us, or report problems, or are curious about the legitimacy of organizations that solicit them. We've found out this way about a number of vanity publishers that offer agent kickbacks.

Q: Does the internet play a role in literary fraud?

Definitely, though literary fraud was a thriving business well before the Internet became so dominant in all our lives. Many questionable agencies have web sites and do much of their business via e-mail. There are many commercial sites where questionable agents and publishers solicit writers (solicitation is another warning sign, by the way:  an established agent or publisher doesn't need to beg for business). And the majority of questionable publishers these days seem to be Internet-based. The Internet, along with the ease and accessibility of print-on-demand technology, has resulted in an explosion of questionable publishers over the past few years.

I have to say that while the Internet is a fantastic resource for information and communication (especially for writers, who tend to be isolated), it also helps to support a lot of error and misconception. So many people who have writing- or publishing-related web sites don't really know what they're talking about, and may offer serious misinformation--usually without realizing it;  this is especially true of agent lists you find online, most of which include a lot of questionables. There are also a lot of negative myths about the publishing industry (for instance, the idea that a new writer can't get a good agent unless s/he has a celebrity connection or has already published something), and writers' forums, where writers gather to chat and commiserate, really help to perpetuate these. 

It's definitely a good idea to take what you read on the Internet with a grain of salt. And always double check the information!

Q: Since you choose to be public with your connection to Writer Beware, what concerns do you have that some action might be taken against you?

We're lucky that we work under the umbrella of a major writers' organization, and are therefore covered by SFWA's liability insurance. We're also very fortunate in being assisted and advised by an experienced intellectual property attorney. Most of all, we're careful to provide only accurate and factual information. All of our information--both on the Writer Beware web site and in response to writers' questions--is supported by extensive research and documentation.

As a result, we don't receive many challenges (I'm knocking wood). Now and then we hear from questionable agents or publishers who are angry at the information we're providing; but since we're so careful about accuracy, there has never been anything actionable involved.

We do get personal hate mail occasionally, and we have been the focus of some personal attacks. For instance, one fraudulent agent has tried to spread rumors that Ann runs her own fee-charging literary agency and isn't the author of her books. And a questionable publisher launched a plagiarism rumor about me. I won't say this kind of thing isn't upsetting, because it is. But so far the smear attempts have been so absurd or so farfetched that they've died off pretty quickly.

Q: What's the financial impact to writers from literary fraud? The emotional impact?

The financial impact can range anywhere from $35 to $35,000 or even more, depending on the variety of fraud. I've heard from people who've lost astonishing amounts of money--sometimes in multiple experiences (most writers get burned once and move on, but unfortunately there are some writers who are scammed over and over). But for the most part, the people I hear from have "only" lost a few hundred dollars.

However--in my opinion at least--it's not the financial loss, but the emotional loss that's most devastating. Literary scammers don't just rob writers of their hard-earned cash, they rob them of their hopes and dreams. The saddest letters I receive are from writers who've been so traumatized by their experiences that they're considering giving up writing.

Many writers who've been scammed or duped or fooled feel deeply ashamed and isolated, and as a result don't speak out about their experiences. But thousands of writers fall victim to schemes and scams every year, and if you're one of them, you're definitely not alone. I encourage you to report your experience, and to speak of it to others. Silence is the scammer's best ally.


Victoria Strauss is the author of a multitude of novels, articles, and book reviews. Her newest book, THE BURNING LAND, is already in the hands of her publisher, scheduled to be published in 2004.An excerpt can be found at her web site:


P. June Diehl has published numerous nonfiction articles during the past several years. Online, she works as an editor, writing coach, and teacher. She currently has five on-going fiction series, and is the editor of WRITER'S CROSSING. Her chapbook DRAGON WORDS: ASSORTED POEMS is currently available. You can visit her at:    

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