The Cruelest Hoax

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Writer BewareThere’s been some Internet buzz over the past few days about an apparent scam in which an unknown individual, posing as agent Jodi Reamer of uber-agency Writers House, targeted an unsuspecting author with a fake representation offer, followed by a fake high-advance contract offer from a major publishing house, all in the space of a few hours. As quickly as the hoax evolved, it collapsed–just one day after announcing what she believed was her good fortune, the author, self-published YA writer Aaronni Miller, revealed on her blog that she’d been punk’d.

A statement by Writers House appeared to confirm the hoaxer’s existence.

Writers House has learned that a series of fake emails claiming to be from WH agent Jodi Reamer have been circulating to self-published authors this week. “These emails, which contain a number of false statements, have not in fact come from Jodi Reamer and should thus be disregarded.” One easy “tell”: they advise that any e-mail from a non-Writers House address “expressing interest in representation is counterfeit.

Still, some people were skeptical. Could the whole improbable story have been a lie, or some kind of spectacularly ill-advised publicity stunt, with Aaronni inventing the hoaxer as a way of saving face when an actual client of Ms. Reamer confirmed on Twitter that there’d been no representation offer?


Naturally, I was intrigued. So I contacted Aaronni, and she was kind enough to share with me all the emails she received from the hoaxer, as well as screenshots of the fake Twitter account the hoaxer created to “apologize” after Aaronni posted about the hoax on her blog. I’m satisfied that the hoaxer was real, and that Aaronni was the victim of an extraordinarily cruel prank.

There were certainly some major red flags, as you’ll see in the emails reproduced below–the biggest of which is that no one gets a book deal within a few hours of receiving a representation offer, where the editors involved have never seen the book before. You probably won’t be alone in feeling that Aaronni should have known better, or at least should have been more cautious. But she’s very new to the publishing game, and like many new writers who get mixed up with sweet-talking scammers, ignored some of her own gut feelings in the excitement of what appeared to be a dream come true. Plus, the hoaxer was fairly convincing, at least to start. This is the second email Aaronni received, after the initial contact praising her writing and telling her she had a salable book:

From: Jodi Reamer [[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wed, July 20, 2011 12:30:32 PM
Subject: Re: Possible Representation-Aaronni Miller

Fantastic. I’m at meetings for the rest of today, and tomorrow I leave the office for the remainder of the week to go on vacation.
I’m having lunch with a few of my editor friends tomorrow (one at Razorbill, have you heard of them?) and I’d love to show her some of your work.
Would that be ok?

Jodi

JODI REAMER
LITERARY AGENT
WRITERS HOUSE
21 WEST 26th STREET
NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10010
http://writershouse.com/

OK? Why wouldn’t it be OK? Aaronni said yes. Then, after just a few hours:

From: Jodi Reamer [[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 5:52 PM
Subject: Re: Possible Representation-Aaronni Miller

Great news: Razorbill loves your story. They want to buy it.

I want to send it to HarperTeen first, though, before we make any decisions. I really feel like your work is going to sell at auction!

Jodi

An actual publication offer! Aaronni must have been over the moon. And just imagine her feelings when, an hour later, this arrived:

From: Jodi Reamer [[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:12 PM
Subject: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Hi Aaronni,

Just heard back from HarperTeen. Okay, so here’s the deal:

Ben Schrank at Razorbill can offer us a $120,000 advance, and Erica Sussman at HarperTeen can offer us $200,000.

I’ve decided that we’re going to go with HarperTeen. Erica is going to get edits to you sometime in the fall, and that is also when HarperTeen will discuss release dates, covers, etc.

I’ll send you your check in a few weeks! I generally take 75% commission, so you should be getting $50,000.

Jodi

JODI REAMER
LITERARY AGENT
WRITERS HOUSE
21 WEST 26th STREET
NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10010
http://writershouse.com

Now, the hoaxer was knowledgeable enough, or research-savvy enough, to get the names of editors and imprints right (an area where scammers frequently trip up–pairing the wrong name with the wrong imprint, or using the names of people who are no longer with the companies). But s/he also started to get careless. Note the suddenly different email address, the outlandish advance amounts, the unilateral “decision” to go with one publisher over another without asking the client’s opinion, and the absurd commission percentage.

Here, Aaronni told me, was where she really started to smell a rat. But, still in thrall to the dream, “I rationalized this by thinking that she (meaning Jodi) was busy and she made a mistake.” Plus, when called on the commission percentage, the hoaxer quickly backtracked:

From: Jodi Reamer [[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:26 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Did I say 75%? Crap.
Forgive me, I meant 15%! You’ll be getting a check of $170,000 in the mail. What’s your mailing address?

Jodi

The hoaxer then went on to urge Aaronni to proclaim the good news.

From: Jodi Reamer [jodireamerr@y[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:29 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

Since the deal already went through, you’re free to announce this to your friends, Facebook followers, etc.

And again:

From: Jodi Reamer [[email protected]]
To: Aaronni Miller [email address redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 8:05 PM
Subject: Re: Offer from Razorbill and HarperTeen

I understand. :)
I’m excited to work with you in the future!

Now, go celebrate your book deal…

Jodi

Presumably, this was the aim of the hoax: to get Aaronni to humiliate herself by going public. Which she did, in an ecstatic blog post that same day. (The post has since been removed.) It wasn’t long before she was dragged down to earth. “I finally realized (for good) this was a scam when people commented on my blog saying how strange it was that I had a book deal that I could announce and my agent cleared it. From there, I contacted Writer’s House and I was told that Jodi was actually traveling on business; her assistant, also, had never heard of the two emails I gave to him when I called. I further knew this was a scam when the scammer made a fake Twitter account and apologized to me about everything.”

The Twitter account appeared the same day Aaronni posted about the scam. Yet another nasty prank–but this time, Aaronni didn’t bite. The Twitter account was soon deleted.

I’m reminded here of the Hill & Hill Literary Agency scam, in which writers were bamboozled by a possibly deranged scammer who fabricated elaborate “evidence” of submissions, publisher comments, and even publishing contracts in order to convince his clients he had sold, or was about to sell, their books. But though Writers House’s response to Aaronni’s experience suggests that multiple authors were targeted, I haven’t been able to find anyone else who received the fake emails. It looks to me as if this prank was a one-time personal attack, rather than part of a wider scam.

Aaronni thinks she knows who did it–but not why. “The person who scammed me is someone who I follow on Twitter and he follows me; we’ve only talked a few times and none of those times involved an argument or ill-will.”

So what’s the moral of this tale? There’s the obvious one, of course: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. And the less obvious one: Pay attention to your gut; don’t let hope and desire blind you to a nagging sense that something’s wrong. And the practical one: Arm yourself with knowledge before embarking on your journey to publication; the more you know, the safer you’ll be. And the paranoid one: Never trust strokes of extreme good fortune until they can be verified. But writers are already paranoid enough, thank you very much; and most of the time, things really are what they appear to be. What happened to Aaronni is extremely unusual. I don’t think that any aspiring writer needs to lose sleep over the possibility that it could happen to them.

There you have it: the true story of one of the meanest tricks I’ve seen played in my thirteen years of following this kind of stuff. Aaronni has gotten a lot of support online. If anyone out there is still skeptical of her story, hopefully this blog post will put their doubts to rest.