Every time I look at Writer Beware's bulging file drawers, and wonder whether I should get rid of files for agents and publishers that have gone silent (or at least consign them to the basement), I'm reminded of why it's important to keep old information handy. The bad guys may disappear--but, as this week's guest blog post by former SFWA President Michael Capobianco demonstrates, you never know when they're going to pop up again.
by Michael Capobianco
Even before the creation of Writer Beware, Ann Crispin was on the watch for literary malefactors.
Back in 1997, when I was serving my first term as SFWA President, SF writer Dave Smeds filed a complaint with SFWA's Grievance Committee (GriefCom for short), reporting that he'd found one of his short stories published in German, but hadn't received any payment or even been notified of the sale by his German literary agent, Uwe Luserke.
Consulting with GriefCom's Foreign Rights Chair Charles Sheffield, it soon became clear that Dave's complaint was the tip of the iceberg. There was an enormous problem with rights sales to German and other European publishers, affecting many SFWA members, including Andre Norton, Robert Jordan, and Terry Pratchett. Short stories and novels were being sold to European publishers, but authors weren’t receiving royalties; in many cases, writers weren't even aware that the sales had been made. (Here's a typical complaint.)
The common link in all these missing payments and stealth sales: Uwe Luserke. Many of the affected authors were represented by Luserke--but many others had never heard of him.
How could such a thing happen? It’s probably difficult today to understand how remote Europe seemed in those days of the early Internet. In addition to the language barrier, communication took place primarily via paper mail. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive, so there was simply not that much contact between the average American author and foreign publishers. Add to that authors’ general inhibition about contacting publishers directly, and you had a situation that was ripe for exploitation.
SFWA began working to connect the dots. In response to a call for information in the SFWA Forum, more and more SFWA members began to come forward with complaints. Dave Smeds, who had taken over as Chair of the Foreign Reprints Committee, did admirable work in collecting and disseminating information. Ann, who at the time was serving as SFWA's Eastern Regional Director--and who was herself affected by the scandal, through her collaborations with Andre Norton--met with representatives of Amber, the Polish publisher that had brought out Polish editions of Norton's Witch World books. Amber showed Ann documents proving that they had paid Luserke--payments that were never passed on to Norton.
SFWA also contacted the major German publisher of science fiction, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, and began action against Luserke in the German courts. Ultimately, Wolfgang Jeschke of Heyne provided SFWA with a list of more than 100 stories that Heyne had purchased from Luserke. Robert Jordan supplemented this with a list of novels sold by Luserke to Heyne, including one by SFWA founder Damon Knight.
In some cases, especially early in his career, Luserke had been making appropriate payments to authors, but it appeared that he had mostly stopped after about 1990. While the problems with Heyne and Amber were fully corroborated, Luserke was also doing business in then-Czechoslovakia, Romania, and other European countries, and the extent of his thefts was never fully discovered. SFWA’s efforts to bring him to justice in Germany were impeded by the distances involved, and the case was dropped after my term as President was over.
Why go into all this now? Over the last few years a shadow has been growing in the East. We’ve heard various reports that Luserke is again asking writers and artists if they need representation. (Here's one recent example. Here's another.) Writer Beware has received a handful of questions about Luserke from writers who've been approached by him. And it was just discovered, as part of SFWA’s Estates Project, that Luserke is listed as the agent of the estate of one well-regarded author.
Luserke has an active Facebook page.
It seems clear that Luserke is active again--even if only sporadically. Given how few reminders of his perfidy survive on the Internet, I and Writer Beware feel it's important for writers and artist to be aware of his history of financial and intellectual property theft. Anyone who is currently doing business with Uwe Luserke, or considering making him their agent, should most certainly beware.
Michael Capobianco is the author of one solo science fiction novel, Burster (Bantam 1990), and co-author, with William Barton, of the controversial hardcore SF book Iris (Doubleday 1990, Bantam paperback 1991, Avon Eos 1999), Alpha Centauri (Avon, 1997), and the critically acclaimed near-future novel Fellow Traveler (Bantam, 1991). Capobianco served as President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) from 1996-1998 and 2007-2008. He received the Service to SFWA Award in 2004 and is currently on SFWA's Board of Advisors.