I Can’t Sell Your Book Because…

Victoria’s posts about the wacky and woebegone world (like that alliteration, boys and girls?) of Melanie Mills reminded me of all the crazy excuses we’ve come across during our years of tracking scam agents. Some of these excuses are downright creative, yessiree bob! If only those scheming little minds could be turned to good…

Excuse No 1 for not selling your book: HEALTH –either the agent’s or a family member’s.

This is a perennial favorite in the “excuse lexicon.” We’ve heard agents say they couldn’t work because they (or a family member) had: cancer (various kinds, Kelly O’Donnell always claimed to have breast cancer, as I recall), knee surgery, heart attack, stroke, back operation, amputations, eye operations…seems scam agents are a sickly bunch.

Excuse No. 2 for not selling your book: NATURAL AND MAN-MADE DISASTERS.

With all the hurricanes lately, fake agents in the south have had a readymade excuse for failing to sell books. Agent F, for example, claimed to have lost his entire office down in good old Rat Mouth, Florida, and to still be suffering the effects. (The fact that Boca Raton actually escaped last year’s hurricanes doesn’t seem to have affected its usefulness to Agent F as an excuse…)

Kelly O’Donnell/Martha Ivery, who lives somewhat north of hurricane country in the Catskills, was forced to rely on a manmade disaster: 9/11. For over a year after 9/11, “literary agent” Kelly O’Donnell’s “clients” who called to find out why she hadn’t sold their books were told by Martha Ivery that dear Kelly had perished in the World Trade Center. Aggravated writers who’d been promised publication by PressTige Publishing and who wanted to air their grievances about the lack of publication to Martha Ivery had Kelly O’Donnell telling them that dear Martha had gone down in a maelstrom of concrete, glass and jet fuel.

What’s even more twisted (and even funny in a black humor sort of way), is that writers who called back after receiving the shocking news of their agent’s/publisher’s demise, reported to the FBI that Kelly/Martha seemed to forget what she’d told them before, and thus they received a real shock when the supposedly deceased agent/publisher identified herself on the telephone line.

All I can say is that it’s a pretty damned cold sociopath who will use one of our Nation’s greatest tragedies as a way to scam people. Thank goodness she will soon be where she belongs…in jail.

Excuse No. 3: DEATH.

Kelly/Martha isn’t the only scammer to come up with the idea of dying in order to get angry, scammed writers off her back. Melanie Mills did that too, remember? Frankly, keep expecting Agent F to up and “die” at any moment, to try and throw investigators off his track.

A few scammers have actually been cold-hearted enough to actually use a real death as an excuse. Dorothy Deering did that, when her stepson was murdered. Her shocked, sympathetic writers respectfully left their “agent” and “publisher” alone in her grief. During the months her stepson’s death bought her, Dorothy was able to scam dozens more writers.

Let me tell you, 46 months in Federal Prison was nowhere near enough!


Fake agents have used all kinds of excuses to explain their lack of sales. Computer crashes are a perennial favorite. “The publishing climate in New York is not right” is another excuse we recall. “Our secretary quit.” “We had a break-in in our office.” “I’m going through a divorce.” The excuses are as varied as the agents themselves.

My favorite wacky excuse of all time came from Agent D.R., out west. HE claimed that he couldn’t sell his clients’ books because he could not work during the day. Why couldn’t he work? Because he was exhausted all the time. Why was he exhausted? Because he lived in a haunted house. He whined about how his ghosts kept him awake at night, doing whatever it is ghosts do…rattling chains? Flapping sheets? Moaning? Groaning? Turning down the thermostat?

I suspect you folks can see a pattern emerging here. Agents are people, and people have problems, but if you notice your agent putting you off repeatedly with a bunch of unlikely sounding excuses, chances are, you’ve fallen into the hands of a questionable agent and you need to GET AWAY as quickly as possible.

While most of these wacky “excuse maker” agents are also fee-chargers, not all are. Three that I can recall were once legitimate agents who turned to the Dark Side.

Charles Neighbors started out as a legitimate agent, selling books, but at some point he fell apart, and began lying to get clients off his back. You’d think he’d have just quit, or at least stopped signing on new clients, but no. He kept signing them on, and stringing them along, piling lie upon lie. Several of his clients were SFWA members, and one of them told me she actually hosted him in her home for Christmas dinner, and all the while he was lying to her about whether, and where, her book had been submitted. Neighbors’ final degradation came about after all his real clients had abandoned ship, and he was reduced to making a living by doing Edit Ink referrals. When he was named as one of the defendants in the Edit Ink case, he went on the lam, and the last we’d heard, he had fled the US.

The second agent was a fellow over in Germany, and he went even further. He started taking his clients’ money. He claimed he “had” to do this because the German Mafia was going to take his son and sell the boy into a brothel if he didn’t pay them money. He had lost all of his own funds, so he took his clients’ money. Last I heard, this guy was back in the business, over in Germany, acting as a literary and artists’ agent.

Our third case is one of the most infamous in the annals of agents. Big-name agent Jay Garon embezzled millions of dollars from writers such as John Grisham. Garon escaped punishment/prosecution by dying. (Though the timing was convenient, enough people went to his open-casket funeral that I’m pretty sure he actually bought the farm. Garon was pretty old.) I heard that his writers and other creditors received only pennies on the dollar.

I bet Jay Garon had a zillion excuses.

But for every real agent who goes bad, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fake or incompetent agents who start out being unable to sell books, and giving writers excuses. No one has a crystal ball to predict the future, but you can protect yourself by doing your research BEFORE querying, and BEFORE signing with an agent.

After all, you’d much rather hear about sales than excuses, right?

-Ann C. Crispin


  1. Ms. Ann: I’m still alive and thriving in the good ol U S of A. Haven’t “fled the country” since visiting Toronto for a day in 1997. Unless, of course, California and Texas don’t count as destinations.

    I would like to apologize to anyone (writers especially) who were misled (as I was) by Bill Appel’s Edit Ink blandishments. You should all know that I cooperated with the NY AG’s investigation and will rue the day I left Buffalo (months before the court’s judgment) without doing what I should have to clear my own formerl;y good name. What I didn’t know: for more than a year: Edit Ink was using my name to entice unsuspecting writers into their web.

    Nevertheless, that was no excuse for my staying one minute longer after I discovered what Appel was doing. So I’ve paid a high price: my one-time reputation for fairness may never be completely repaired.

    Despite that knowledge, for the past 20 years I’ve worked hard to do just that, with public service (EMT, ski patroller, substitute teacher) and fair dealing with the few writers and publishers with whom I’ve worked during those years.

    I certainly appreciate the efforts you and the Writer Beware crew are doing. However, the times they are a-changing when it comes to fee-for-service editing and agenting. the e-world is affecting all of us, because what goes on “the web,” stays there forever, to be embellished with excess and only occasionally with truth and fairness.

    Hereby: I apologize for any soul who feels misled or cheated by me during my “dark years.”


    Charles Neighbors

  2. before anyone else disparges Jay Garon, rightfully, or otherwise, they, he she, would do well to remebe the ‘let him cast the first stone who has never sinned’.

    I knew Jay, professionally, and saw, visited, respected him until the mid 80’s . i was a young, just out of college general contractor in Key West, Jay was an honorable, patientt mentor to my contract writiing skills.Jay had me do several major renovations, two of which were cited in very reputable magazines.

    Jay had an early successful career, and although he may have ‘slipped’ in later years, My wife and I only knew him to be fair, and considerate. And, while I did noot indulge/paicipate iin hiis g lfestyle, ever, I did not presume to take God’s place to judge him.

    Many was the time I met the great ‘discoveries whom Jay had financed and nurtured, and I witnessed their testimonies to Jay’s generousty and empathy. Many of them never paid back their expensive advances from Jay, of that I am convinced. Yet Jay would never hurt their feelings or rebuke them harshly!

    I don’t know or even have an opinion about Jay’s affairs after the mid 80’s. But I find it difficult to think I have enough facts to judge anyone, let alone someone who devoted so much of his life to the arts, and artists, and did much charity work when he was younger, without fanfare, or acknowledgement.

    May Jay Rest in peace. ajacktarr1@msn.com; JOHN RICCARDI

  3. Dorothy Deering did WHAT??

    I sent a query off to her agency back in 1995 and the subsequent plea for fees turned my stomach and I tossed her reply.

    But using the death of a family member to dodge responsibility…?

    That’s REAL low…

  4. Good heavens–I’d wondered what had become of Charles Neighbors. I got his name from Warren Norwood back in 86-88 when I was trying to sell my first novel.

    Neighbors gave me the confusing verdict “You’re a good writer, but unpublishable,” a WTF line if I ever heard one. I came to see he’d only been looking for an easily placed genre sale; mine was a shiny-new cross-genre that would take a bit of work.

    He did me a favor with that rejection since I got mad and rewrote the whole book. It sold not long after.

    When I asked for my MS back–I’d put in return postage which I could ill-afford in those salad days–he said that his mother had died and he couldn’t find it.

    How that event, if it was true, had to do with his business mail I was never able to figure out. By then he was giving off a squirrelly vibe even over the phone. The next time I called to ask for the MS back he said he’d moved everything to New Mexico and still couldn’t find it. (Good thing I’d kept a carbon–yes, this was all done on a typewriter, aaack.)

    Thanks for the update!

  5. seems scam agents are a sickly bunch.

    if kharma has anything to do with it, I bet they wind up that way. 😀

Leave a Reply

FEBRUARY 6, 2006

Lisa Hackney: And You Thought It Couldn’t Get Stranger

FEBRUARY 11, 2006

Lisa Hackney: Song of the Mother-Squasher