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Monday, May 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Cautionary tale for writers: 'literary agent from hell'

By Teresa Mendez
The Christian Science Monitor

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Although 150,000 titles were published last year, most aspiring authors still can't find a publisher.

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 "Ten Percent of Nothing," a 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.

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), Deering employed her husband, his three sons, her own drug-addicted son, and her brother, a criminal with outstanding warrants.

From the start, Deering 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."

But the reality of Deering's ventures was both comical and grim. Of more than 200 Sovereign clients, only six manuscripts ever became books — and one was Deering's own.

As part of the "Manuscript Express," Deering 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 Deering 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 Deering's clients never earn a penny, the majority never saw their names in print. And all were left with "ten percent of nothing."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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