In the late 1990s, when Writer Beware first started up, the digital revolution was just peeking over the horizon. Traditional publishing was still the only path to publication, and literary agents were the principal gatekeepers.
As a result, there existed a huge and lucrative subculture of dodgy literary agents, who fed on writers’ hunger for publication and turned the (false) promise of access into money. Upfront fees, editing referral schemes, vanity publishing scams: the list was endless.
No more. With the enormous growth of small presses and the expanding number of self-publishing options, agents are no longer the be-all and end-all of a writing career, and fewer writers decide to seek them. Writers are also more savvy these days about proper business practice. This has been bad news for the predatory agent subculture, which has shrunk to a sickly shadow of its former self. Fee-charging agents, once the most common of all literary pitfalls, are now relatively rare.
That’s not to say they don’t still exist.
LOIACONO LITERARY AGENCY
There’s an impressively large list of book placements on the website of Loiacono Literary Agency (motto: “Where ‘can’t’ is not in our vocabulary!”). In this case, though, size isn’t everything, because apart from a handful of sales to larger publishing houses, most of the books have been placed with small presses that don’t require authors to be agented. For most of the publishers Loiacono has worked with, the authors likely could have placed the books on their own and saved themselves a commission.
This isn’t why you hire an agent. Another thing you don’t hire an agent for: hooking you up with vanity publishers. A very large number of books on Loiacono’s list have been placed with Argus Publishing. Argus, which has also done business as A Better Be Write, A Book 4 You, and A-Argus Book Better Book Publishers, has offered “investment” contracts requiring up to four-figure fees (Writer Beware has received a number of documented complaints). Its owner is a former tax preparer who in 2005 was permanently enjoined from tax preparing by the US Department of Justice, which found that he had filed fraudulent returns.
Despite all of the above, I probably would not have bothered to post a warning about Loiacono, had it not been for a recent change in its author-agent agreement. From the email Loiacono sent to authors at the end of December:
In the current contract, the only charges are for any expenses that may incur (postage, foreign exchange, etc.), $250.00 per year, which has not been used for any author so far, and a $500.00 cancellation fee should the author wish to terminate contract before it expires or the publisher cancels, which breaches the LLA contract.
In the new contract, for any new Work(s) there will be an administrative fee of five hundred dollars ($500.00), made payable to the Agency upon signing. This is a one-time fee, unless the Work(s) do not contract with a publisher and require renewing after one year. Renewals are two hundred fifty dollars ($250.00) per year. Upon publication of the Work(s), only the LLA 15% shall apply.
Charging administrative fees is old-school predatory agenting. But the “cancellation fee” is a new wrinkle. I’ve gotten a lot of complaints about publishers that force authors to pay to terminate their contracts early (this is a potentially abusive practice)–but this is the first time I’ve encountered an agency that penalizes its clients for such termination–and does so even where the termination is not the author’s fault. Wow.
Upfront fees, contract termination penalties, multiple placements with a vanity publisher: the Loiacono Agency is a trifecta of “writer bewares”.
(Literary agent Janet Reid has also weighed in on Loiacono Literary.)
SWETKY LITERARY AGENCY
In other ways, though, it’s similar. There’s a handful of placements with reputable independent and specialty presses; the rest are “sales” to vanity publishers (Koehler Books) and small presses that authors can work with on their own. Also, even if every one of Swetky’s book placements were impeccably reputable, 25 sales over the nearly 15 years the agency has been in business is a pretty sad track record (this blog post from a publisher to whom Swetky offered a completely inappropriate book offers some possible insight as to why).
The agency’s apparent lack of commercial success is certainly reason for caution. But it’s not why I’m posting a warning.
I’ve heard from multiple writers to whom Faye Swetky offered representation or the possibility of representation, and then told them that their manuscripts needed editing. Fortunately, she knew a terrific editor who might be willing to work with them: David J. Herda, a much-published author of nonfiction.
It’s no secret that Swetky is Herda’s agent; that info is right there on the agency’s website. What is a secret–at least from the writers who contacted me with their stories–is that Swetky and Herda are either married or romantic partners. Among other things, they share an address (the image below is public record; note that it matches the address on the Swetky Agency logo, above):
This connection was not acknowledged to any of the writers who contacted me. To make matters worse, Herda charges enormous fees (I’ve gotten reports of up to $40,000; here’s one writer who was told Herda’s fee would be “no more than $45 thousand”), and some of the writers I’ve heard from have not been satisfied with his services.
This is a textbook editing referral scheme–common in the old days, but something you almost never see anymore.
WARNER LITERARY GROUP
Sarah Warner, principal of the Warner Literary Group, has an impressive background as an acquisitions editor. It would seem to be the perfect set of qualifications for a successful literary agent.
And yet, Warner’s track record is tiny. Since the agency’s founding in 2011, she appears to have made just 12 deals. Seven of these are with solid publishers–but the rest are books by agency clients that have been placed with the agency’s own publishing division, Hedgehog & Fox. In fact, with the exception of one book authored by Ms. Warner herself, the whole of Hedgehog & Fox’s miniscule list appears to be made up of agency clients.
Something else agency clients have in common: lawsuits. Warner Literary Group has been sued by three of its authors–a huge percentage for such a small agency.
In 2012, Derek B. Miller sued for, essentially, what he described as substandard representation (his very detailed complaint can be seen here); he later won a motion for declaratory judgment terminating Warner as his agent (she had refused to allow him to cancel the agreement). Firoozeh Dumas sued in 2016 for similar allegations (her complaint can be seen here); ultimately the arbitration clause in Warner’s agency agreement prevailed, and the parties were directed to arbitration. A third lawsuit filed last October is from client Karla M. Jay, whose books Warner published with Hedgehog & Fox. Jay alleges that Warner withheld royalties “in order to pay other expenses of WLG”, and, as with Miller, refused to allow her to terminate the agency agreement.
That agreement, by the way, has a problem. Here’s the first sentence of the agency clause that’s supposed to be inserted into any book contracts the agency negotiates (my bolding):
The Author irrevocably appoints Warner Literary Group, LLC, as the Author’s sole and exclusive agent (the “Agent”) with respect to the Work for the life of the copyright (and all renewals and extensions thereof)
This is known as an “interminable agency clause,” and it entitles the agent to represent a book not just for as long as a contract is in force but for the whole duration of the book’s copyright (in the USA and most of Europe, the author’s lifetime plus 70 years). Major authors’ groups warn about such clauses; I’ve written about that here. This is red-flag language; you do not want to find it in an author-agent agreement.
UPDATE 6/19/19: Both Firoozeh Dumas and Karla Jay prevailed in their legal actions against Warner Literary Group. Dumas’s action was resolved by arbitration in August 2017; she was awarded expenses of $2,787.50 (the arbitration fee owed by Warner, which Dumas advanced so that the case could go forward), and her right to terminate the agency agreement (with cause) was affirmed.