Although 150,000 titles were published last year, most aspiring authors still can't find a publisher. That's generally something to be grateful for. Of course, some worthy books never see the light of day and commercialism smothers many noble manuscripts, but a barrier of cool-eyed agents and editors saves us from wading through an even more unmanageable torrent of titles at the bookstore.
Unfortunately, there's a shadow industry eager to prey on writers who hope to evade the usual hoops on their way to publication. You've seen the ads: "Manuscripts Wanted!" You may even have been tempted to respond with a masterpiece of your own. But before sending any money, read this chilling book by former FBI agent Jim Fisher about "the literary agent from hell."
He tells the story of Dorothy Deering, an out-of-work bookkeeper saddled with a felony embezzlement conviction. By 1987, she had written a science fiction novel and been swindled by three "fee agents" who promised to find her a publisher. Rather than react bitterly, though, she was inspired to start a new career: Taking advantage of aspiring writers just like her.
Within 13 years, she and her partners would be imprisoned for fraud and ordered to pay more than $2 million to the hundreds of authors they had failed to publish. Told in the dramatic style of the TV show "America's Most Wanted," "Ten Percent of Nothing" documents how this convicted felon joined the "genteel racket" of fee agents, vanity presses, and book doctors who bleed writers by promising to represent, publish, and improve their works.
It's easy to understand why, to an insecure author hungry for affirmation, Dorothy's businesses could have taken on the air of legitimate literary enterprise. As the prosecutor on her case would tell one reporter: "There is nothing more vulnerable than a vain writer."
Between the "Dorothy Deering Literary Agency," "A Rising Sun Literary Group" (the spinoff she turned over first to her sister and then to her stepson), and "Sovereign Publications" (her vanity press), Dorothy employed her husband, his three sons, her own drug-addicted son, and her brother, a criminal with outstanding warrants.
From the start, Dorothy falsely advertised herself as the "daughter of Betty Morrow of the original Morrow publishing family." Later, when told by an FBI agent that publishing magnate William F. Morrow had no relations named "Betty," she admitted, unrepentant, that she had been "puffing."
Sovereign Publications even boasted its own genre imprints to give clients the sense that they were signing with a real publisher: Sherlock Press for mysteries, Candy Apple Press for children's books, and Sunset Trails Press for Westerns.
But the reality of Dorothy's ventures was both comical and grim. Of more than 200 Sovereign clients, only six manuscripts ever became books - and one was Dorothy's own. Most manuscripts signed by the Deering Literary Agency lingered in stacks in her smalltown Southern offices. Only a small percentage were mailed to New York City publishing houses, which writers could do on their own for the cost of postage.
As part of the "Manuscript Express," Dorothy charged a fee to travel to New York City to pitch her clients' manuscripts in person. One editor at a New York publishing house recalls a phone call announcing the arrival of Dorothy and her husband. "Not wanting to be rude, and a little curious," Fisher writes, "the editor went to the lobby to see what the agent had to say. She was taken aback by the sight of a tall, rawboned man and his plump, sawed-off companion. Dressed like tourists, they stood next to a stack of manuscripts almost as tall as the agent. Pointing to the tower of paper they had lugged into the lobby, the woman said, 'Well, here they are.' With that, she and the big guy turned on their heels and strode out of the building."
Surely, this represents the darkest extreme of the industry, but Fisher's warnings are valuable for any beginning writer: Real agents don't charge a fee to read your manuscript, and real publishers pay you to publish your book. Even if you hire a reputable vanity or "subsidy" publisher, your book will not be sold in bookstores nor reviewed by newspapers.
Not only did Dorothy's clients never earn a penny, the majority never saw their names in print. And all were left with "ten percent of nothing."
• Teresa Méndez is on the Monitor's staff.