When Writer Beware was founded, an embarrassingly long time ago, most of the questions and complaints we received involved literary agents: from scammers charging fees or engaging in kickback schemes, to well-intentioned amateurs with no idea how to do the job, to the occasional stranger-than-fiction episode–such as the saga of Melanie Mills a.k.a. Lisa Hackney (a multiply-aliased faker who staged her own death in order to steal money from clients and turned out to be wanted for attempted murder) and the hoax perpetrated by Christopher Hill (who fabricated publisher submissions, comments, and even contracts in a massively complicated scheme to deceive clients).
But times have changed. Major shifts in the publishing world have created alternatives to the traditional get-an-agent-to-land-a-publisher route to publication. With agents no longer the be-all and end-all of a writing career, it’s become a lot tougher for a scam agent to make a living. As a result, literary agency scams have become rare. Even amateur agencies are much less common than they used to be.
They’re still a potential danger, though, so when I stumbled across AMS Literary Agency, a new venture (domain registered only last month) with a ton of red flags, it seemed like a good subject for a blog post. When I started writing, I thought I’d just be doing an expose on an amateur agency. What I actually found is…more complicated.
Here’s AMS’s solicitation for clients, posted on Instagram and Facebook:
AMS’s website exhibits a host of warning signs.
No agent names or bios. Reputable agencies list their staff. If you don’t know who the agents are, you have no way to tell whether they’re competent.
I’m no expert on Canadian privacy laws, but authors’ names and book titles are hardly confidential information–publishers would face quite the challenge if they were–and other Canadian literary agencies don’t seem to have a problem disclosing clients and sales. Invoking confidentiality makes it equally possible for AMS to say anything or nothing, and impossible for writers to verify either way–very convenient, if an agency is placing books with unsavory publishers, or not managing to make any sales at all.
An emphasis on new and unpublished writers. An agency that’s actively recruiting new and unpublished writers may be doing so because they are easier to bamboozle.
Perpetuation of a myth about copyright. This is what’s known as “poor man’s copyright”, and it’s bunk. Any genuine publishing professional should know better.
As mentioned above, AMS’s website and social media don’t identify any staff members…but here’s a name, from a text exchange with a writer who inquired about submitting:
If you were around for the early days of Writer Beware, that name may ring a bell. Don Phelan (full name: Donald Thomas Phelan) was the CEO of notorious vanity publisher Commonwealth Publications of Canada, which bilked hundreds of writers out of millions of dollars in the mid- to late 1990s, and was the subject of a massive class action lawsuit that resulted in a $10,000,000 judgment on behalf of defrauded authors (none of which was ever paid). After Commonwealth closed down, Phelan and his wife started a ghostwriting business that also was the subject of complaints, and later went out of business.
You can read all about it at the Writer Beware website.
Could this possibly be the same Don Phelan? I’m always cautious about making assumptions, so I put it down to coincidence. Surely it was more plausible to assume that there were two Don Phelans than that the perpetrator of one of the most expensive publishing scams ever would show up 20-plus years later at the head of a brand-new literary agency.
Then I found this, in the Visitor Posts section of AMS’s Facebook page:
My first reaction was that if either were still alive, both Cartland and her long-time agent, Doreen Montgomery of Rupert Crew Limited–the agency that represented Cartland throughout her career and still does–might be startled to learn this. And yet…another bell was ringing. Didn’t Commonwealth at one point re-publish some of Cartland’s backlist? Or was I mis-remembering?
I googled, and sure enough, found this rather snarky account in the September 29, 1997 issue of The Independent:
A breathless press release has arrived from across the water. “Looking to establish itself among the top romance publishers, Canada’s Commonwealth Publications proudly announces the recent signing of `the world’s most published romance author of all time’.” On Valentine’s Day next year, the company will launch Dame Barbara Cartland’s 24-book Classic Romances series, “twelve previously released classic novels and twelve new, previously unpublished, heart-warming romantic tales”. Among them: her “critically acclaimed” novel Enchanted. The notion that Cartland could help “establish” a publisher – let alone one whose alleged intent is to showcase “young and talented first-time authors” – suggests Commonwealth is perilously out of touch. For years, even Mills & Boon has politely declined to publish Cartland, whose audience is to be found only in such places as China, India and Russia.
Enchanted, the novel mentioned, was indeed published by Commonwealth. I couldn’t find any others.
That’s not the only Phelan/Cartland/Commonwealth past-present connection. In 1997, Commonwealth published a commemorative biography of Princess Diana, with much ballyhoo over the foreward by Barbara Cartland. Here is the very same book, re-published as an ebook in 2017–with the identical cover–by Donald T. Phelan.
Instead of an inflated lie, could AMS’s claim in the visitor post be the literal truth? Donald T. Phelan did work with Cartland. And he certainly “handled” (in the sense of “took loads of money from”) hundreds of “other authors”. Could AMS Literary’s Don Phelan actually be Commonwealth’s Don Phelan, back in the writer biz after more than 20 years?
I thought I’d ask, via AMS’s Contact form.
I received this response the next day:
Why, indeed. Some back and forth ensued, with me continuing to (politely) ask questions, and AMS continuing to (brusquely) refuse answers. Eventually they decided they’d had enough:
That’s me schooled.
Bottom line: Don Phelan or no Don Phelan, there are abundant reasons to regard AMS Literary Agency with caution, just based on the many red flags at its website.
UPDATE 3/1/19: AMS has deleted from its Facebook page the visitor posts mentioned above. Lucky I took a screenshot, eh?
Their logo was amateurish enough to make me run.
As a former Commonwealth employee (for a short time and who quit and helped to expose the scam I discovered), yes, it is the very same Don Phelan.
Unfortunately, I did sign with AMS Literary Agency. The angle seems to be waiting for you to get sick of no action. Only six months left of my contract and I m out. Due to the contract if I publish he still gets 10 % . No thanks, I will wait it out. Very Poor communication and a wasted year. He is Don T.Phelan from Commonwealth.
I knew from the beginning It was a scam. He (the guy identified himself as Don) wrote me on Instagram offering representation and saying that he had in mind some editors already. I thanked him but I never sent my manuscript. I'm not from the US so is hard for me to find an agent but I'm not stupid. I'm a journalist and I know to do an investigation about who I'm gonna choose to represent me. But young writers should be warning about it, how the business work.
Many thanks for this!
Anonymous, did he suggest a specific editor? Or offer to suggest one? Also, was it Don Phelan you were dealing with?
Someone please ask Facebook to delete his page. He contacted & friended me last week. Asked me to send him my manuscript. I did. He called me today. He told me my manuscript was great He told me I needed it edited. I told him I would get an American editor, but he insisted on a Canadian editor. BIG SCAM. He must be in a scam business with the editors. What got me more suspicious is when he INSISTED on a Canadian editor. BIG SCAM. He told me about an advance but then told me I would have to pay for the editing. That sounded very contradicting.
Don't worry, I understand what you're saying and can see the red flags you're pointing out. Just intrigued to know what their angle is. Or "his angle" – I've had e-mails from other names, but that doesn't mean a lot. And he must know I won't fall for or want vanity publishing (the book's already out here in the Netherlands and on Amazon).
No response as yet to my request for a list of publications and their authors who I could contact for references.
When I contacted them, they denied to me that they charged fees. That may indeed be true. But substantial red flags are still present, including AMS's lack of sales and the absence of verifiable information about staff (so you have no way of judging whether they're qualified). With any new agency that hasn't yet proven itself capable of selling books to reputable publishers, or that makes claims about qualifications and experience that you can't verify, it's sensible to wait until they do start selling, or you can find out more about staff. Otherwise you have absolutely no idea whether the agency or its staff are competent.
An agency doesn't need to be a scam to deceive you and waste your time. An amateur agency can sidetrack you as thoroughly as a scam agency.
There's also the question of whether Don Phelan–who may or may not be AMS's sole staff member–is the same Don Phelan who ripped off thousands of writers for millions of dollars in the 1990s. There are definitely enough connections to raise concerns.
I'm another one who has been contacted by AMS Literary Agency. So, judging by the above, they're not to be trusted and intend to make money from me, rather than alongside me from my work.
Very enthusiastic phone call and so forth and indeed a simple template contract in the post the next day. However, it all seems straight enough – there are none of the things you get warned about (no advance payments of agency fees, no editing needing to be done at my expense, no clauses about copyright of edited versions belonging to them and needing to be bought back at stupid prices, etc.)
So what exactly is the catch? Where's the sting in the tail? How does the con work?
John T Shea, it honestly wouldn't surprise me if they are related companies – the initials are a bit of a coincidence. (Writer Beware's opinion of them isn't that great either.)
I still see the Cartland post on their Facebook page. It's under the Community Posts section. They may have blocked you, Victoria!
O lord I contacted them and they seem really interested in my manuscript, glad I came across this. Thanks so much
On the internet, nobody knows that you're a dog, but everyone says later that they were just being sarcastic. Maybe Sam was being sarcastic, but it didn't look like it to me without any other hints.
Sam might have been being sarcastic, but I've seen it go both ways.
When I started working for Dell in '96, the dress-code for us 'non-customer facing' types was very lacks, as in t-shirts and flip-flops on the night/weekend shifts.
Then we got a new manager type that thought it was too loose, problem was he told the guys no flip-flops because OSHA didn't permit open-toed shoes. It upset him to no end when I pointed out that if he was going to use pretend OSHA rules then the gals couldn't wear open-toed shoes either – and I wanted to be there when he told them!
Fun times … 😉
I think Sam was being sarcastic. But the clarification is helpful. Thanks, Bruce.
Sam, it's not actually against the law, either in the US or in Canada. It would be really odd if it was, since so many authors thank their agents by name in their book acknowledgements, and so many publishers identify agencies when they get rights inquiries for rights that authors have held back. That AMS claims it's against the law as a way to avoid answering questions does not make it so. This is a common dodge among con artists: False claims of confidentiality that are required by someone/something else that the con artist can't ever specify.
It's one thing entirely to say "details related to our clients like their addresses, their payment data, their health status are confidential." That is protected by both law and contract. Unless specific contracts do so, however, there's nothing that keeps one from identifying those with whom one does business; even lawyers can be obligated to identify their clients, despite attorney-client privilege.
It's really unfortunate that the major Canadian literary agencies are breaking the law and posting information about their clients' identities and published works.
That publicity has to be so horrible for clients. I assume that there are massive lawsuits in the works as we speak.
"That's me schooled."
No, that's them not liking how fast they were uncovered. Here's hoping no one gets fooled this time (I know, poor odds.)
Keep digging! 😉
Your mention of the name Don Phelan and Commonwealth took me back some twenty years. Of course they wanted to take me on as a client – for several thousand dollars. [A huge disappointment for this beginning writer!] If he is associated with AMS it can only mean bad news.
Thank you, Victoria. This is a great service for writers.
Thank you so much for posting this. And keeping us writers safe. We appreciate all of you hard work and do diligence.
Victoria, you are amazing, thank you for what you do!
Many thanks for this and all your sterling work. Googling AMS Literary Agency brings up Austin Macauley Agency as the first result. So much for Google doing no evil!