In our eight years of running Writer Beware, Ann and I have seen a lot of scams. Hill’s (since we don’t know his real name, I’m going to continue to call him that) is one of the cruelest. All scammers promise the possibility of success, but Hill did more–he promised success itself.
Hill’s scam is also atypical, in a number of respects.
– It didn’t make a lot of money. £80 for six months/£129 for a year is chickenfeed. Even assuming that Hill had 300 clients (that’s as many as Martha Ivery/Kelly O’Donnell–who incidentally had a similar mania for aliases–scammed in her entire career), the total take wouldn’t have been more than £40,000-45,000. We know of other scams that charge a low starting fee, but they always involve more fees later on, or entrap truly enormous numbers of victims. I haven’t found any evidence that Hill charged additional fees–in fact, I’ve heard from clients who were allowed to re-up for free, or who were taken on with no fees at all. It’s also my belief that he couldn’t have had a large number of clients, because…
– The scam was extremely labor-intensive. Scammers typically try to save effort and maximize return by contacting clients as infrequently as possible, or by using canned documents that can be sent to everyone (The Literary Agency Group, for instance, employs such an extensive library of pre-written emails that it rarely has to make an individual response, even to casual questions). Hill did duplicate a lot of his material–but it was a LOT of material (the assessments are three pages long, and some of the fake publisher comments are close to a page), and documents were carefully customized, which often involved adding or switching around a good deal of text. Clients got weekly bulletins and monthly reports–and then there were the emails. Some clients report receiving more than a hundred emails from Hill. It’s hard to imagine how a lone individual could maintain such a level of effort for more than a few dozen clients at a time–and I am convinced that the scam was the work of one man, with occasional help from a wife or girlfriend. Of the agency’s claimed thirteen staff members, only Hill and Ashton were ever verified to exist, and all the agency’s writings bear the unmistakable imprint of a single hand.
– Hill made himself personally available. The face-to-face meetings, the phone calls, the prompt email responses–all are incredibly unusual for a scammer. Scammers sometimes try to provide the appearance of availability–for example, New York Literary Agency gives clients a number they can call, but all they get is an answering machine, and the reply (if it comes) arrives in the form of an email. But they shy away from actual contact. Many scammers are almost pathological in their efforts to avoid communicating with their victims.
So what was the purpose of this incredibly convoluted and intricate pretense? Was it an attempt to make easy money? If so, it was a lot of work for a lousy return. Was it a genuine effort by an amateur agent, at least to start? Conceivably, but it employed scam tactics from the beginning. Was it a money laundering scheme or a tax dodge? Perhaps, but it seems self-defeating to make it so complicated.
We’ll probably never know. I suspect, though, that some degree of mental illness was involved–at the very least, an obsessive desire for domination, psychological manipulation, and control. Hill got off on feeding fictions to his clients, on making them trust and depend on him, on creating an imaginary world in which he was the ruler of their dreams, able to lift them up with the promise of a publishing contract or dash them down with news of its rescission–all at his pleasure. This is suggested not just by the magnitude of his falsehoods, but by the extraordinary lengths to which he was willing to go in order to maintain them–in some cases, obtaining actual publishing contracts and altering them to make them look as if they came from a major British publisher*. Think Jim Jones, or Chuck Diederich. Think Unification Church.
What prompted the decision to terminate the agency? The stated reason, negative information on the Internet, is not convincing. Before the debacle, there was actually very little online information about Hill–the thread at Absolute Write contained only a few reports of fees, and Hill’s threats of litigation had removed discussion of the agency from other websites. Maybe Hill got bored. Maybe the scam became too elaborate and burdensome to maintain. Whatever the reason, Hill tore down his own house of cards–and by sending clients to Absolute Write, by assuming the “privateeye” identity, he did so in the same way he had built it: through deceit, misdirection, and manipulation.
And yes, I’m sure he’s reading this, and yes, I’ll bet he’s laughing. But here’s a final thought. Remember that convincing piece of documentation offered by the privateeye alias–the postcard from Sunshine Literary Agency encouraging members of a UK writers’ group to submit their manuscripts to Sunshine? Remember the similarity between Sunshine’s contract and Hill’s? Maybe Hill (whose bio, in a company profile document, wishfully describes him as a multi-published author) was an aspiring writer who got rooked by Sunshine. Maybe he decided to do the same thing to others, using Sunshine as a template. Maybe it’s the old story: the abused seeking revenge by becoming the abuser.
And you know what? At the end of it all, he’s still unpublished.
Believe it or not, the scam continues to unfold. As of this writing, several clients have received reimbursement checks from Hill (dated forward to October 5, so we don’t know yet if they will bounce). Hill has also promised a “letter of response to allegation and comment.” I can’t wait.
* Hill’s alterations weren’t enough to hide the fact that the contract had originally been written for the US market. But in the kind of coincidence you could never write into a novel, I’d just received the very same contract for comment, so I was actually able to identify the publisher it belonged to. I contacted the publisher, who directed me to the forms-for-sale website from which the contract had been downloaded.