Avalon Associates/Media Arts International/Robin Price
Commonwealth Publications of Canada
Deering Literary Agency
Helping Hand Literary Services
Martha Ivery, a.k.a. Kelly O’Donnell / Press-Tige Publishing
Melanie Mills, a.k.a. Elisabeth von Hullessem, a.k.a. Lisa Hackney
PublishAmerica / America Star Books
SBPRA (Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency) / Publish On Demand Global
Woodside Literary Agency
On January 7, 2010, UK literary agent/film producer Robin Price appeared in court, accused of stealing more than half a million pounds from clients.
Price is alleged to have encouraged authors to pay exaggerated literary fees and invest in non-existent film deals, and has been charged with six counts of theft, most committed over the course of several years:
● £293,603 from Cecil Humphery-Smith OBE between 2001 and 2007.
● £99,335 from Judith Day between 2001 and 2008.
● £120,000 from Dr Bryan Walton between 1999 and 2006.
● £14,250 from Chris Bailey between 2001 and 2004.
● £4,200 from Michael William Hawkes between 2004 and 2006.
● £646 from Evelyn Joyce Jolley in 2005.
Price has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He will go on trial sometime in 2011.
Writer Beware first heard of Robin Price in 2001, when we began receiving questions about a literary agency called Avalon Associates, which was asking writers for £150 upfront “to cover initial costs of representation.” The fees were an obvious red flag, as was the fact that the agency had no discoverable sales, either of books or scripts. Price, who made big promises to his clients and touted his industry connections, also owned a production company, Avalon Films, whose website boasted a huge roster of film and television projects planned or in production, many with well-known writers, actors, and/or directors attached.
There was just one problem: It was all a fabrication. The deals and the connections did not exist. Price never sent out the screenplays and manuscripts he claimed to be submitting on his clients’ behalf, and the meetings and phone calls he claimed to be receiving from film industry movers and shakers were all invented. Here’s one example, from Writer Beware’s files: a client was told by Price that the managing director of a major film studio was seeking funding for the client’s screenplay. When nothing came of it, the client herself contacted the individual, only to discover that he’d left the studio some time earlier. He’d never heard of the client’s screenplay–but he had heard of Price. “I have known about Price’s activities for some years,” he wrote in an email to the client, “through my former work at [the studio]. We had continual stories from him of financial, creative, and production involvements which turned out to be entirely fictitious.”
By all accounts, Price was extremely persuasive, at least initially. Several successful writers were caught up in his schemes (Price returned their trust by using their names to boost his credibility and ensnare more clients). But in 2001, after one writer went public with his experiences with Price, complaints began to surface, and Avalon Associates’ listing was removed from the The Writers’ Handbook, one of the major UK writers’ guides.
With word getting round, Price did what dodgy agents often do: he changed the company’s name. In 2002, Avalon vanished and Media Arts International took its place. The M.O. was basically the same: upfront representation fees for writers; a production website with suspiciously enormous numbers of projects, none of which, somehow, ever came to fruition; false claims of contacts, meetings, etc. This time, though, Price did send round a few manuscripts, and even managed to place several books with a publisher called First Century. Again, though, not everything was as it seemed. As Writer Beware later found out from one sadder-but-wiser ex-Price client, First Century was a vanity publisher. (It now appears to be out of business.)
More ominously, we began receiving reports that Price was soaking writers for large amounts of cash–persuading them to invest in the production of their own screenplays, or to pay thousands of pounds in setup or legal fees to release production funds. Similar complaints appeared online. Not surprisingly, the productions never got off the ground, and the funds never materialized.
In 2007, still trying to stay ahead of his poor reputation, Price changed the company’s name yet again, to Prospero Films. But by this time the police were on his trail. In late 2007, search warrants were served on Price and an associate, and computers, manuscripts, and other documentation were seized. Price was effectively out of business. Amazingly, however, some of his clients continued to give him money for a time, even after being interviewed by the police. As a friend of one of these clients told Writer Beware, “thus was the incredible hold he had over people.”
So why the long delay–more than two years–between the seizure and the court appearance? We don’t know the answer to this. Possibly it took that much time to track down far-flung victims, disentangle Price’s fictions, and assemble evidence. Possibly the case got put on hold for a while (as happened after the FBI raided the premises of fraudulent literary agent/vanity publisher Martha Ivery). What’s important is that Price did eventually find himself in court, and will now be prosecuted.
- An article on Price’s January court appearance, from the North Devon Journal.
- More coverage from The Bookseller.
- One of Price’s victims speaks out.
- More complaints about Price and his companies.
Thousands of writers worldwide entered into contracts with Commonwealth Publications of Canada, a vanity publisher founded in 1995 by fee-charging literary agent Donald Phelan. Phelan worked with a number of other fee-charging agents who, in exchange for a kickback, recommended Commonwealth’s vanity contracts to their clients. Phelan also advertised for manuscripts in magazines such as Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Journal. (Writers take note: this is just one example of why you shouldn’t trust the classified ads in writers’ magazines.)
Commonwealth, which identified itself as a “subsidy” publisher (the implication being that the writer was contributing only a portion of the cost) typically charged $4,500 for publication, with a promised print run of 10,000. Its glossy promotional material promised all kinds of support to its authors: editing, proofreading, marketing, international distribution. But few of these services were actually delivered–and there were many other problems. Publication dates were delayed. Authors didn’t receive the number of books they were promised. The quality of finished books was poor. Books never showed up in bookstores. Royalties from books supposedly sold were never paid.
Angry writers began to speak out. In 1996, in response to members’ complaints, the Writers’ Union of Canada issued a warning about Commonwealth. In 1997 the U.S.-based National Writers’ Union put out a similar warning. That same year, Phelan was sued by a Commonwealth author (the case was settled out of court). Meanwhile, disgruntled employees complained publicly about the company, and unpaid creditors began refusing to do business with it.
For a while, the cooperation of literary agents still promoting Commonwealth contracts to their clients enabled the company to limp on, but in March 1998, Commonwealth finally closed its doors. It didn’t go into receivership or declare bankruptcy–it simply ceased operations, abandoning all materials in its possession, including manuscripts, cover art, and finished books.
In June 1998, a class action lawsuit was filed by Commonwealth authors, alleging that the company had breached more than 2,000 writers’ contracts. A Consent Judgment was filed the same day, granting judgment to all plaintiffs in the sum of $10,000,000, declaring all contracts terminated, reverting all rights back to authors, ordering the delivery of all materials back to the authors, and ordering Commonwealth to account for all revenues and expenses. Phelan consented to this judgment on behalf of Commonwealth–an action that caused him no pain, since he wasn’t named personally in the judgment and thus was protected from any personal liability.
Because Commonwealth was all but bankrupt and Phelan’s personal assets were off-limits, no restitution was ever paid. And though some authors did receive their rights and materials back, others didn’t. Despite the court-ordered return of materials, one of Commonwealth’s creditors held an auction of warehouse contents in August 1998, and a company called Picasso Publications bought 60,000 Commonwealth books for pennies on the dollar.
Subsequently, Picasso announced plans to market the books, offering writers a choice of paying to have their books destroyed, paying to get their books back, or accepting Picasso’s miserly royalty and distribution terms. However, Picasso did not exert itself to contact the books’ authors to let them know about this, and a number of Commonwealth authors were dismayed to find their supposedly rights-reverted books still on sale at Amazon and elsewhere.
(As might be expected from a company willing to sell books to which it had no contractual rights, Picasso didn’t confine its double dealing to Commonwealth authors. It also ran an associated fee-charging literary agency, and offered publishing contracts requiring writers to pay for book publicity and other adjunct services. Eventually, it followed Commonwealth into oblivion.)
Literary scammers have an unfortunate tendency to reappear in new guises. Only a couple of years after Commonwealth’s implosion, Donald Phelan hit the headlines again in connection with The Write Image, a publishing company owned by his wife Lorraine. The Write Image advertised itself as a producer of ghost-written family histories and biographies; Donald Phelan was listed as a “writing consultant” for the company. According to the Edmonton Journal, he was accused by two elderly clients of failing to write books for which they paid hundreds of dollars. The Edmonton Better Business Bureau issued a warning about The Write Image (as of this writing, The Write Image is no longer in business).
For more on vanity publishing, see the Vanity and Subsidy Publishers page.
- Canadian Vanity Publisher Disappears After Author Threats: coverage from PW.
- One author’s Commonwealth experience: How Bad Can It Get?
The Deering Literary Agency, run by Charles and Dorothy Deering, was founded in 1989 as a fee-charging literary agency (reading fees plus representation fees) that promoted vanity publishing contracts to its authors. Among others, it dealt with Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing, both of which provided kickbacks to literary agents willing to persuade clients to accept pay-to-publish contracts. The Deering Agency claimed it made book sales to commercial publishers, but there’s no evidence of this.
In 1997, entranced by the profit potential of vanity publishing (as demonstrated by Commonwealth and Northwest), the Deerings established their own vanity publishing company, Sovereign Publications. Deering clients could then be funneled right into Sovereign, and the Deerings could profit every step of the way. A Sovereign publishing contract cost anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000; often, a few months after the contract was signed, the Deerings would contact the writer with an offer to “upgrade” his or her book from a mass market paperback to a trade paperback, at an additional cost of $2,000. To sweeten the deal, writers were given a “coupon” good for $1,000 off their next Sovereign publication.
It’s estimated that as many as 250 writers paid Sovereign to publish their books. Most never saw their work in print. The few who did weren’t able to verify the number of books printed, or whether they ever reached bookstores. No Sovereign author ever received any royalties from sales.
As with Northwest and Commonwealth, the Deerings’ greed was their downfall. The amount of money being pulled out of the operation didn’t leave enough to fulfill publishing promises, and angry writers, offered one far-fetched excuse after another, began to smell a rat. In 1998, things got too hot for the Deerings, who announced (via a recorded message at their office phone number) their intent to file for bankruptcy. Callers were referred to the Deerings’ lawyer (who, writers reported, never responded to phone calls or letters), and to the “new” owner of the Deering Literary Agency, Daniel Craig of the Daniel Craig Literary Group–who was actually Daniel Craig Deering, the Deerings’ son.
In March 1999, a group of Deering authors filed a class action lawsuit against Deering/Sovereign for fraud, breach of contract, deceptive business practices, false advertising, and mental and emotional stress. The lawsuit contended that Deering/Sovereign never intended to fulfill its promises of publication and representation, and instead converted funds paid by writers for the personal use of the defendants.
A criminal investigation was also underway. On September 3, 1999, Charles and Dorothy Deering, Daniel Craig Deering, and Dorothy’s brother William Paul Watson (a.k.a. Bill Richardson) were indicted on mail fraud charges by a grand jury in a US District Court in Lexington, KY. All eventually pleaded guilty. In March 2000, sentences were handed down: Charles Deering received 41 months, Dorothy Deering 46 months, William Paul Watson 12 months and one day, and Daniel Craig Deering five years of probation.
Charles, Dorothy, and William were also subject to three years of supervised release following completion of their sentences, and Daniel was required to spend the first five months of his probation in home detention with electronic monitoring. While on supervised release, Dorothy and Charles Deering were required to participate in a mental health treatment program. William Paul Watson was ordered to surrender any literary rights he retained and was barred from owning or operating any business involving literary agenting.
An Order of Restitution was also signed, voiding all publishing contracts and returning rights to the respective authors, and requiring the defendants to make restitution totalling $1,179.782.30. As often is the case with literary fraudsters, this was a symbolic gesture. To Writer Beware’s knowledge, no restitution was ever paid.
An excellent account of the Deering scam is provided in Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent From Hell by former FBI agent Jim Fisher. This engrossing book tells the story of the byzantine con game run by the Deerings and their relatives, and sheds light on why writers get caught up in literary scams.
- Publishing Schemes Prove to be Pure Fiction, an article by Linton Weeks of the Washington Post.
- Writer Travis Heerman blogs about his awful experience with the Deerings.
- The website of Prof. Jim Fisher, of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, describes his book about the Deerings, Ten Percent of Nothing.
- An interview with Jim Fisher, from Bookslut.
Founded by the husband and wife team of Bill Appel and Denise Sterrs, Edit Ink was a New York State-based editing service that engaged in a kickback referral scheme with a wide network of literary agents. Here’s how the scheme worked.
- Participating agents sent letters to writers who’d submitted manuscripts the agents didn’t want to represent, saying that the writer’s work showed “promise” but “wasn’t quite ready for publication.” A useful service was recommended: Edit Ink, which for a fee would polish the ms. to make it more salable. Once the ms. had been edited, the agent would then be glad to reconsider it.
- The agent forwarded the writer’s name to Edit Ink, which sent off a solicitation letter claiming, among other things, that Edit Ink received referrals for only a “select few” manuscripts (false), and that most publishing houses insisted on receiving “professionally edited” work (falser).
- If the writer took the bait and paid for an edit, the referring agent received a kickback of 15%.
- Writers who resubmitted their edited manuscripts to referring agents, per the referring agents’ suggestions, were given the brushoff. Either the market had “changed in the interim”, or the agency was “no longer representing that genre.”
Edit Ink charged $5 per page–exorbitant at the time even for a qualified editorial service, which Edit Ink very definitely was not. Its staff mostly consisted of recent college graduates with no publishing experience, working long hours for minimum wage. The typical Edit Ink edit was slipshod and superficial, consisting mainly of basic copy editing suggestions, and omitting the kind of in-depth analysis of plot, theme, character, and structure that might make a professional edit worthwhile.
Appel and Sterrs were smart. They worked principally with marginal agencies that were likely to overlook ethics in the interest of making an easy buck (though a few successful agents did get involved), and targeted beginning writers too inexperienced to figure out what was going on. At its height, dozens of literary agencies participated in the scheme. Edit Ink even set up its own bogus agencies and publishers to funnel more manuscripts its way. It’s estimated that the company made in excess of $5 million.
Mounting complaints from writers, and efforts by writers’ advocacy groups, at last spurred New York State to take action. In January 1998 the NYS Attorney General announced a lawsuit against Edit Ink for deceptive business practices, false advertising, and fraud. (In turn, Edit Ink attempted to sue at least two writers who spoke out against it.) Just two weeks after the suit was filed, the NYS Supreme Court ordered Edit Ink to pay an estimated $6 million in restitution to more than 3,600 authors, plus $500 for each deceptive act, plus $2 million in civil penalties, plus costs incurred by the State of New York.
Edit Ink was also required by permanent injunction to disclose that it paid referral fees, and referring agents were required to state that they benefited financially from successful referrals. Edit Ink was also banned from claiming that editing and/or referral fees were “standard industry practice,” and from implying that referral to Edit Ink was a sign of significant commercial potential. (Documentation gathered by Writer Beware indicates that in many cases Edit Ink didn’t follow this injunction, nor did many of the agents who continued to work with it.)
The Edit Ink defendants (William Appel, Denise Sterrs, Eduardo Gahona, Kelley Culmer, and Charles Neighbors) appealed the court’s decision. But in February 1999, the NYS Appeals Court issued a ruling upholding the defendants’ conviction. The court also upheld the $2 million in civil penalties, though the issue of restitution was postponed–in effect, indefinitely, since by law the defendants were required to satisfy fines and legal fees first.
Throughout the appeals process, Edit Ink continued to operate. Many questionable agents continued to refer manuscripts, and Aardvark Literary Agents (one of Edit Ink’s original bogus agencies) was taken over by co-defendant Kelley Culmer so it could go on functioning as a conduit for Edit Ink referrals. Business was dwindling, however–in part as a result of media attention, but largely because of spreading word in the then relatively new environment of the Internet. Once the appeal was denied, the thrill was gone. In August 1999, Appel and Sterrs closed Edit Ink’s doors for good.
For more on editors and editing services, see the Independent Editors page.
- Writer Brian Knight describes his encounters with Edit Ink.
- Author Diane Craver writes about her Edit Ink experience.
- Vanity Fare, an article from Jonathan Bing of the Village Voice, reports on Edit Ink and similar scams.
Helping Hand Literary Services was run by husband-and-wife team George Harrison Titsworth and Janet Kay Titsworth in San Angelo, Texas. The agency sought clients by placing ads like this one in free weekly papers such as Pennysaver:
WRITERS WANTED by literary agent that specializes in getting unpublished writers published. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s. Free evaluation. Helping Hand Literary Services.
Writers who ignored the red flags (real agents don’t advertise; real agents don’t represent poetry) and submitted to Helping Hand got an offer of representation, complete with a glowing acceptance letter. “I don’t normally have this much to say about a submission,” the letter began. “You are a talented writer with a great deal of potential…Plus, it doesn’t hurt a bit that I found 117 [or 150, or 200, depending on the letter] publishers that buy material like yours.” As with junk mail solicitations, there was a PS, and sometimes a PPS, to sink the hook: “There are two ways to break into the publishing industry: Follow the same paths as other successful writers and hope for the best, or write something totally unique and find your own path into the industry. I believe you have done the latter…and, in my opinion, have done it quite well.” Or, more briefly: “It appears to me that you have put a great deal of effort into this work. I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
There was just one catch. Writers had to pay an “expense reimbursement” of $100, $200, or $300, depending on how many publishers they wanted the agency to contact for them. For this fee, they received a submission packet that included a set of pre-printed publisher address labels, a cover letter on agency letterhead (“Dear Editor, I am interested in placing my client’s manuscript with your company for publication…”), a return envelope addressed to Helping Hand, and a sheet of instructions.
Writers were directed to stick a stamp on the return envelope, place the letter, envelope, and accompanying materials (the writer’s own query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters) in a manila envelope, affix the pre-printed label and sufficient postage, and drop the packet in the mail. “Do not put your return address anywhere on the material,” the instruction sheet warned. “It makes the publisher think you are trying to circumvent us and upsets them.”
Like most fee-charging literary agencies, Helping Hand accepted anyone who was willing to pay the fee, and invested little effort in researching appropriate publishers. The agency quickly became notorious among editors and their assistants bombarded with inappropriate, substandard material. Some editors went so far as to contact Helping Hand and forbid it to send any more submissions. Needless to say, no publishing offers ever materialized.
Helping Hand’s solicitations were targeted to the most inexperienced and ignorant writers. But its scam was so callous and egregious that many of the victims eventually caught on. In 2002, to dodge mounting complaints, the Titsworths changed the agency’s name to Janet Kay & Associates. Eager for more easy cash, they also expanded into vanity publishing, setting up a company called JanGeo Ink and offering publication to agency clients after a few rounds of fruitless submissions.
Despite the name change, complaints continued to flood in. Eventually, the San Angelo police department took notice. In 2002 an investigation was opened, culminating in February 2004 with a raid on the Titsworths’ home. Manuscripts and supporting materials, many in unopened envelopes, were seized and placed in evidence–enough of them to fill two 8′ x 11′ jail cells. Not seized were the Titsworths, who had fled just before the raid.
A warrant was issued. In September 2004 the Titsworths were finally captured–in part because, like many literary scammers, they were unable to resist a repeat performance. They set up a new fee-charging agency called Harrison & Co, whose website included some of the distinctive verbiage that had been on the Helping Hand/Janet Kay website, and whose intake materials were identical. Writer Beware and another watchdog group, Preditors & Editors, spotted the similarities and alerted the San Angelo police, who were able to track the Titsworths down and bring them in.
Incredibly, while released on bail, the Titsworths set up yet another fee-charging agency–At Your Service Literary Agency, this time with a New Mexico address–but once again, didn’t bother to change their intake materials. This led very shortly to exposure by Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors.
In December 2004, the Titsworths were indicted by a grand jury in Tom Green County, TX. After several delays, a judgment was handed down on April 25, 2006. In exchange for pleas of guilty to one count of theft under $100,000, the Titsworths were spared prison time, receiving a sentence of ten years’ probation each and an order to pay restitution of $159,320.62. In addition, each will pay a $60 per month Community Supervision fee; and the proceeds of a pending civil lawsuit against them will also be applied to restitution.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite end here. On the heels of the Titsworths’ arrest, a former employee, Leann Murphy, established her own fee-charging agency, Desert Rose Literary Agency. The San Angelo police recently arrested Ms. Murphy. For more information, see this alert.
Between 1998 and 2003, Writer Beware received scores of complaints about Martha Ivery, a.k.a. Kelly O’Donnell. Ivery ran several fee-charging literary agencies (Kelly O’Donnell Literary Agency, Inc., O’Donnell Literary Services, Inc., Writers Information USAgency), as well as two vanity publishing operations (Press-Tige Publishing and New Millennium Publishing). It was a soup-to-nuts operation: writers came in through one of the agencies (which charged “marketing” fees and pressured clients to accept paid editing services) and were then passed on to one of the publishing companies (which charged several thousand dollars). The connection between the agencies and the publishers wasn’t revealed; to further the deception, clients were encouraged to believe that the Kelly O’Donnell who ran the agencies and the Martha Ivery who ran the publishers were two different people.
Writers who paid fees to Ivery–whether for agenting, book doctoring, or publishing–frequently didn’t receive the promised services. Manuscripts submitted for agenting were never sent to publishers, or were placed with vanity publishers (including the fraudulent Commonwealth Publishing, which paid kickbacks to agents who persuaded their clients to accept expensive vanity contracts). Promised editing was never completed or was poorly done. Books contracted for publication were never produced, or if produced, weren’t marketed. In addition to whatever fees had been agreed upon, Ivery bombarded authors with demands for even more money for nonexistent services: publicity, warehousing, even a Press-Tige cruise (not surprisingly, the cruise was canceled and authors never got refunds).
Ivery was notable for her attempts to intimidate dissatisfied clients and people who attempted to expose her activities. Authors were told that she would “blacklist” them so that publishers wouldn’t look at their manuscripts. Writer Beware staff received death threats (bizarrely, Ivery also claimed at various times to be our agent).
She was also adept at fabricating outlandish excuses to explain her habitual nonperformance. For instance, in the aftermath of 9/11 she variously claimed to have been “seriously burned” in the disaster, or to be in mourning for relatives who’d been killed. To explain nonpublication of paid-for books, she claimed that “dozens” of manuscripts had gone down with Flight 93. She had numerous heart attacks. She frequently got cancer. As both Martha and Kelly, she died several times. Of course, with so much to remember, once in a while she got her lies mixed up. One pesky author, shocked to learn of Martha’s sudden and tragic demise, was later somewhat taken aback to receive a phone call from her.
As a result of a large number of author complaints (and lobbying by Writer Beware), a criminal investigation into Ivery’s activities was launched by the FBI in 2001. Writer Beware assisted the case agent in the investigation, sharing documentation and contacting victims. Ultimately, nearly 300 victims were identified.
Under pressure from the investigation and dogged by increasing public knowledge of her scammery, Ivery decided to fold Press-Tige Publishing. On June 19, 2002, she filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (if granted, a Chapter 7 petition results in liquidation). At her first bankruptcy hearing on July 26, Ivery testified under oath that all the authors listed on Schedule F of her bankruptcy petition had canceled their contracts with Press-Tige. This was a lie. Additionally, many authors’ names had been left off the creditors’ list.
She also admitted that her other publishing venture, New Millennium Publishing, had obtained contracts from Press-Tige, and that she was New Millennium’s sole employee. “Craig Roussan”, supposedly editor-in-chief of New Millennium, was yet another manifestation of her mania for aliases. Ivery claimed she’d met the real Craig Roussan on the Internet, and paid him $200 in cash for the right to use his name.
Ivery didn’t provide any of the documentation that she was directed in writing to bring to the hearing. Ordered to present it at the second hearing, on August 20, she again failed to bring the material, and again perjured herself on a number of issues. She also admitted that much of the testimony she’d offered at the previous hearing was perjury–including the story about Craig Roussan, which, it turns out, was complete fabrication. The name was Ivery’s own invention.
Not one to let a little thing like business liquidation get in the way of hoodwinking authors, Ivery continued to be active throughout the bankruptcy hearings and for some time afterward–sending release forms to Press-Tige authors, contacting authors to harass them and demand yet more money, and soliciting business under a number of aliases, including O’Donnell Literary Services, Creek Lane Literary Agency (for which she used the name of her daughter, Sheryl Montanye), and Joseph Wilson Associates (for which she used the name of a Press-Tige author who’d been especially vigorous in demanding accountability). She also dabbled in real estate scammery, and in a scheme involving racehorses (thankfully, without success).
By December 2003, however, when the judge in the bankruptcy case signed an order to close administration of the estate, abandon all property, and revert all authors’ rights, she had given up her attempts at self-employment, and taken a job as a signal flagger with the New York State Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, the criminal investigation continued. On September 26, 2002, a federal search warrant was served on Ivery and the offices of Press-Tige. Many boxes of material were removed from the premises, but no arrest was made. There then followed a long and frustrating hiatus in which the case was repeatedly shunted aside. At last, in the fall of 2005, Ivery was indicted on 15 counts of mail fraud and acts against the United States as a principal in a conspiracy, one count of improper use of an electronic access device (legalese for “credit-card fraud not involving the mails”), and one count of false sworn testimony in a bankruptcy proceeding. In December 2005, she pleaded guilty to all 17 counts.
After several postponements, Ivery appeared for sentencing in Syracuse, New York on Thursday, November 29, 2006. Her lawyer argued for probation rather than jail time, pleading serious mental illness, but the prosecution’s psychiatrist, while acknowledging some degree of mental imbalance, did not agree that this prevented Ivery from distinguishing right from wrong.
The judge saw it the prosecution’s way, sentencing Ivery to 65 months in Federal prison, plus 3 years’ probation. Ivery is also required to pay restitution to her victims, at the rate of 10% of everything she earns or $100 per month, whichever is greater. Since the total restitution amount is $728,248.10 (representing her “take” from nearly 300 victims), this is more symbolic than anything else. She must also pay court costs of $1,700, and will be required to get mental health and sustance abuse counseling. Her report-to-jail date is January 9, 2007.
Ivery’s sentencing closes a chapter not just for her victims, but for Writer Beware. We’ve been tracking Ivery since our inception, and were deeply involved in providing evidence and identifying victims. We’re hoping her case will serve as a precedent for the prosecution of other literary scammers.
- Martha Ivery’s indictment. As usual with indictments of this sort, only a fraction of Ivery’s fraud is included: just sixteen of her nearly 300 victims, $55,000 of her take of three quarters of a million dollars, and one of nine documentable instances of false sworn testimony before the bankruptcy trustee. Even so, it’s worth reading, for a concise window into the way literary scams work.
- The North Country Gazette on Martha Ivery’s guilty plea.
- Ann Crispin attended Ivery’s sentencing, and blogs about it here and here.
- Writer Peggy Tibbets’ experience with Martha Ivery in both her identities.
- From the SeeingGreene blog: The Martha Chronicles, a fuller account of Ivery’s wacky shenanigans.
- Angela Hoy of Writers Weekly tangled with Ivery over a warnings report. Here you can see some examples of Ivery’s distinctive literary stylings. Writer Beware staff were on the receiving end of this kind of invective a time or three.
In late 2000, Writer Beware began to receive reports of a new literary agency: M.W. Mills Literary Agent, of Myrtle Beach, SC, run by a woman named Melanie Mills. The agency charged a $350 upfront fee, and required clients to provide their own query letters (a marker for an unprofessional agent). Later, it implemented a paid editing scheme, whereby Mills’s own editing services were offered to clients based on a false promise of publisher interest. Editing costs ranged from $800 to more than $1,500.
In 2003, Mills announced a writers’ conference to be held over Memorial Day weekend in Myrtle Beach (Writer Beware staff was not only invited, but offered an honorarium of $1,000 apiece–we found this pretty amusing, given that Mills was well aware that we were watching her, and had several times written us angry letters denouncing our warnings). In early May, the conference was abruptly canceled with no reason given. A reschedule date was promised, but never provided. Then, in June, clients of M.W. Mills were shocked and grieved to learn that their agent had been killed in a car crash in Germany. The agency was closed down; clients were released from all obligations.
Writer Beware was skeptical. There’d been signs that the agency was in trouble, and this wouldn’t be the first time a questionable agent had attempted to duck financial obligations and angry clients by faking her own death. Mills’s con games hadn’t been limited to literary scamming, either. According to the North Myrtle Beach Police Department, which we contacted on a tip from an victim, she’d also been involved in eBay auction scams and real estate rental scams.
In August 2003, we began to receive reports of a writers’ conference scam in Banff, Alberta. The conference’s organizer, Elisabeth von Hullessem, had announced a lavish event, accepted money from would-be participants, then canceled the conference and absconded with the proceeds. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police caught up with her in British Columbia on Oct. 30, arresting her on seven counts of fraud, two counts of false pretenses, and one count of theft. She was hauled back to Alberta to stand trial.
When news of the Banff scam first broke, Writer Beware was struck by the similarities to Melanie Mills’s fake writers’ conference in North Carolina, and also by the similar writing styles of the solicitation letters sent out by “Elisabeth von Hullessem” and correspondence we’d seen from “Melanie Mills”. Once Hullessem was arrested, we contacted the RCMP to inform them of our suspicions that Hullessem and Mills were the same person. They were already investigating the South Carolina connection, but we were able to fill them in on Mills’s activities there and also to put them in touch with the North Myrtle Beach police detective in charge of Mills’s case.
In return, they told us that Mills’s/Hullessem’s real name was Lisa Hackney, and that she was wanted in Arkansas on six charges filed in 1999–including battery in the first degree, aggravated assault (Hackney allegedly attempted to murder her mother by running her over with a car), theft, possession of stolen property, passing bad checks, forgery, and failure to attend court (she spent 28 days in jail and then jumped bail, relocating first to Missouri and then to South Carolina, where she began her career as a literary scammer).
Lisa Hackney was able to broker a plea bargain in answering the charges in Canada, and was sentenced to time served (less than a month in custody awaiting her hearing) in exchange for a plea of guilty. She promptly went to ground, and–except for a bizarre posting on eBay, in which she attempted to auction off a copy of her vanity-published, semi-autobiographical novel Sins, plus “lunch with a fugitive author” for $10,000–appeared to have vanished for good.
But the saga continued. On March 23, 2004, Hackney was arrested in Victoria, British Columbia on an outstanding Canada-wide warrant of extradition. The arrest was accomplished by the Victoria Police Strike Force with the assistance of the RCMP Major Crime Unit, on a tip from a pair of Victoria realtors. Apparently Hackney had contacted the realtors, claiming to be best-selling author “Melanie Mills”, in town to purchase a multi-million-dollar estate. The realtors agreed to work with her, but were suspicious enough to do an Internet search, which turned up the Writer Beware website, among others.
While being held in jail, Hackney made an apparent suicide attempt, and subsequently claimed amnesia. A brief psychiatric assessment was ordered, and the extradition hearing was held over until April 1. On that date, with Hackney still claiming not to know where or who she was, the judge ordered a full-scale psychiatric evaluation, which concluded that her amnesia wasn’t genuine. On April 23 she appeared again, and a bail hearing was set for the following week.
On January 7, 2005, a Supreme Court judge in British Columbia ruled that Hackney should be extradited to Arkansas to stand trial on the charges she fled in 1999. Hackney fought extradition, but the following December she was delivered by US marshals to Arkansas and transported to Fayetteville, where she was officially booked into the Washington County Jail on Dec. 22, 2005, her 51st birthday.
On February 10, 2006, she pleaded guilty to all six charges, and was sentenced to two prison terms in the Arkansas Department of Correction, one of 15 years and one of 10 years, to run concurrently. All but 23 months of the 15-year sentence was suspended, and all but 22 months of the 10-year sentence was suspended, and she was credited with the 23 months she served in Canadian jails awaiting extradition. She was deported back to Canada, where she holds citizenship–but there was nothing barring her from returning to the USA, which she quickly did.
She’s now living on the West Coast and calling herself Roswitha Elisabeth Melanie (Remi) Mills-Hackney, and trying to market her memoirs. Scammers don’t generally change their stripes; we expect we’ll be hearing from her again.
The above only scratches the surface of this weird and twisted saga. There’s a much more detailed (and far more humorous) account at Writer Beware’s blog.
- Is This a Flair for Fictions? An article by Gayle MacDonald for The Globe And Mail, published just after Hackney was arrested in British Columbia.
- The Melanie Mills thread on Absolute Write, a writers’ message board, includes complaints from victims.
- The MM Journal, Hackney’s self-published autobiographical “novel” (which she has periodically attempted to flog to commercial publishers) provides an alternate account of her activities.
Northwest Publishing of Utah was founded in 1992 by businessman James Van Treese. Like Commonwealth, Northwest acquired manuscripts through a network of literary agents willing to accept kickbacks in return for offering their clients vanity publishing contracts (Northwest actually owned some of these agencies). Also like Commonwealth, it claimed to be a “subsidy” publisher, and to provide a range of supporting services for its authors, including editing, marketing and distribution. Typically for a vanity publisher in disguise, it purported to be selective in the manuscripts it accepted for publication. In reality, any author willing to write a check got a contract.
Northwest was a fraud right from the start. The idea was use a small portion of the author’s investment to print a few hundred of the several thousand books promised by contract, and convince the author that the rest of the books were being warehoused. Meanwhile, the balance of the money, converted to cash, went directly to Van Treese, who–according to charges later brought against him–took most of it to Las Vegas and gambled it away.
Inevitably, income from author contracts ceased to be sufficient to replace the funds being taken out of the company, and the scheme toppled of its own weight. Northwest began ducking creditors and bouncing checks. Royalties were sent out against insufficient funds; later, they weren’t sent out at all. Toward the end the company abandoned even the pretense of publication, stonewalling authors with excuses and delayed publication dates.
Angry writers began to complain–first to Northwest, then to the Utah Attorney General. Eventually, the Attorney General launched an investigation, culminating in April 1996 with a raid on Northwest’s offices. All of Northwest’s computers and more than 100 boxes of business records were seized. A few months later, Van Treese filed for bankruptcy, and Northwest Publishing ceased to exist.
Northwest’s assets were sold to defray the company’s debts (more than $7 million at the time of bankruptcy). The company’s accounts were in such disarray that an audit could not be conducted. Records were so inaccurate that it was impossible for bankruptcy trustees to determine how much money was actually owed to authors and other creditors.
In 1997, Van Treese and his son Jason were charged with 22 second-degree felony counts of communications fraud, securities fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. In 1999, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Van Treeses were personally liable for the company’s debt, freeing bankruptcy trustees to go after their personal assets. In February 2001, James Van Treese was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The sentence was the result of a plea agreement: Van Treese pleaded “no contest” to four counts of communications fraud, two counts of securities fraud, and one count of failing to pay income taxes. Jason Van Treese pleaded “no contest” to two third-degree felony counts of failure to pay taxes, and entered guilty pleas to four class A misdemeanor counts of attempted communications fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Despite the resolution of the Van Treeses’ criminal case, questions remain about the number of Northwest’s victims and the actual amount of money stolen. It’s estimated that as many as 500 writers may have been defrauded, for as much as $10.5 million. It’s unclear at this point as to what (or even whether) future action will be taken to clarify these issues. And as usual in such cases, restitution has not been forthcoming.
For more on vanity publishing, see the Vanity and Subsidy Publishers page.
- One writer’s experience with Northwest Publishing.
Maryland-based author mill PublishAmerica opened its doors in 1999. In January 2014, it changed its name to America Star Books, and expanded into foreign-language-to-English translations for overseas authors.
Writer Beware received hundreds of complaints, reports, and advisories about PA/ASB. Hundreds–possibly thousands–of other complaints appeared online (you can see examples here and here), making the company notorious under both its names. Bad experiences described by authors include page proofs and finished books full of errors, books bound in the wrong covers, books with chapters from other books interpolated, books that fell apart as they were being read, ordered books that never arrived or that took months to arrive, exorbitant book prices and shipping fees, production delays, royalty irregularities, and serious difficulty communicating with staff. Where communication did occur, PA/ASB was famous for its rude, condescending, bullying, and outright abusive responses to authors’ questions and concerns.
Though it boasted that it didn’t charge to publish, PA/ASB’s roots were deep in vanity publishing. A successor to Erica House, a pay-to-play publisher founded in the mid-1990’s by PA/ASB’s co-founder Willem Meiners, PA/ASB’s business model closely followed the vanity template, with minimal editorial gatekeeping, little or no editing or marketing, and a huge range of fees for “extras” like expedited processing, changes in proof, and useless (but expensive) promotional “opportunities” (many examples can be seen here). PA/ASB also often demanded payment from writers who requested termination of their contracts, and ceaselessly bombarded authors with solicitations and incentives to purchase their own books (here’s a particularly egregious example, in which PA/ASB claimed to be able to bring books to the attention of J.K. Rowling; this one actually got PA/ASB in trouble).
Sometime in 2015, PA/ASB spun off its pay-to-play publicity services into a sleazy new division called ASB Promotions. Writer Beware received many reports of out-of-the-blue solicitations by this entity, which also engaged in blog comment spam.
PA/ASB was the subject of a number of lawsuits by its authors, several arbitration proceedings, and two class action lawsuits (one dismissed, the other settled out of court). It also sued itself. In 2015, PA/ASB co-founder Larry Clopper sued ASB, Meiners, company attorney Victor Cretella, and others for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, among other causes, with a petition for dissolution and appointment of a receiver. After more than a year of legal wrangling, including subpoenas issued by Clopper, the parties reached a settlement, stipulating to dismissal with prejudice in July 2016.
The lawsuit was apparently the company’s death knell. In April 2017, PA/ASB stopped accepting new submissions and abandoned its translation program. Then, in August, PA/ASB abruptly announced that it was “morphing” into a new company called Paperback Services (basically ASB Promotions under a different name; Paperback Services, along with sister service Paperback Radio, were both owned by ASB co-founder Willem Meiners). If this was an attempt to save the company, it was in vain. By mid-September 2017, the PA/ASB website had disappeared, and Paperback Services and Paperback Radio were gone as well. Authors reported bouncing emails and unanswered or disconnected phones. ASB’s print books began showing as out of stock or unavailable on retailers’ websites–though Kindle editions remained on sale. Also in September, ASB co-founder Willem Meiners sold his house and decamped to Maine, where, as far as Writer Beware knows, he is still living.
No official announcement of ASB’s closing was ever made. Authors received no release of rights, and no payment of outstanding royalties. PA/ASB also left its creditors high and dry (among others, the State of Maryland, which had several outstanding liens on the company).
For a fuller account, with updates and many comments from ASB authors, see the Writer Beware blog.
Writer Beware warned about PA/ASB almost from the company’s inception, and I wrote numerous blog posts about the company. It threatened us a number of times over the years, but never followed through until March 2014, when it filed suit against Writer Beware and its staff, alleging defamation and conspiracy to disparage. Although three staff members were named in the complaint, I was the only one who was ever served, which suggests the suit’s real purpose: harassment and silencing of a notable critic.
In 2015, shortly after my attorneys presented interrogatories and discovery requests, PA/ASB contacted us asking to settle. We didn’t know it at the time, but PA/ASB was being pulled apart by internal wrangles and lawsuits, and we’re pretty sure that that, along with a disinclination to respond to our very tough questions, is why they wanted out. In January 2016, all parties agreed to stipulate to dismissal with prejudice.
The Atlanta Nights hoax:
From the very beginning, many of the writers’ advocates providing warnings about PublishAmerica were speculative fiction authors. In an attempt to retaliate, PublishAmerica posted a venomous screed against science fiction and fantasy writers at its AuthorsMarket.net website (“…writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters”).
A bunch of us wretched hacks decided to accept the challenge, and see how high a bar the supposedly selective PublishAmerica set for its own books. Over the course of a weekend, thirty professional science fiction and fantasy writers and editors sat down and banged out a chapter of a deliberately unpublishable opus entitled Atlanta Nights (I was one of them). Guess what: PublishAmerica accepted it.
Atlanta Nights is just one of several similar hoaxes:
SBPRA–which, unlike the other companies featured on this page, is still in operation–is a predator of many faces.
Beginning life as a fee-charging literary agency in 2001, the company that now calls itself SBPRA has re-named itself multiple times, spun off well over a dozen satellite businesses, and expanded into publishing and PR. Over the past 20 years, Writer Beware has received hundreds–perhaps thousands–of complaints and advisories of predatory business practices, including fees for literary agency services, fees for publishing, paid critique and editing referrals, and more. Other questionable practices include selling marketing services to authors, charging authors to attend book fairs, and referring clients to other branches of the business without revealing the connection.
In 2001, Robert M. Fletcher of Boca Raton, Florida began operating a fee-charging literary agency under the name Sydra-Techniques. Around 2003, the name was changed to ST Literary Agency, and then, briefly, to Stylus Agency. An editing service was added, called My Editor Is A Saint; agency clients were referred for editing to what, they were encouraged to believe, was an independent service.
Around 2005, the business became The Literary Agency Group, and the editing service was also renamed, becoming Writers’ Literary and Publishing Services Company. This name change coincided with an expansion of the company’s fee-charging agency activities, with several satellite agencies set up under the following names:
- Children’s Literary Agency
- Christian Literary Agency
- New York Literary Agency
- Poet’s Literary Agency
- The Screenplay Agency
In early 2007, the business re-christened itself once more, to Writers’ Literary Agency and Marketing Company (a.k.a. WLA or WL Writers’ Agency). Even more satellite agencies were added:
- Writers’ Book Publishing Agency
- WL Children’s Agency
- Children’s Book Publishing Agency
- WL Poet’s Agency
- Poetry Book Publishing Agency
- WL Screenplay Agency
- Screenplay Writers’ Agency
- Global Book Agency
2008 rang in yet another name change: to AEG Publishing Group. At the same time, the business expanded into vanity publishing, with two new “imprints” and a pay-to-play marketing service:
- Strategic Book Publishing
- Eloquent Books
- Strategic Book Club, a.k.a. Authors’ Edge
- Strategic Book Marketing
In 2009 the business finally abandoned its long-standing pretense that the agencies, editing service, and publishers were unaffiliated, consolidating all operations as Strategic Book Group, while continuing to use the other names more or less interchangeably.
Fast forward to 2011, and yet another name change. The business was re-titled Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, a.k.a. SBPRA (the name it still retains). It also added an “international” arm called Publish On Demand Global, a.k.a. PODG, and its editing service got a new moniker as well: Best Quality Editing Services. On web searches, most of the former names/websites were set to default to current ones, though some of the old names still appeared to be in use.
Sometime in 2013, Best Quality Editing Services disappeared, and paid editing operations were quietly folded into SBPRA itself.
SBPRA’s ambitions–if not the quality of its services–continued to grow. By 2015, PODG had cloned itself into various overseas markets (or claimed to have done so), and SBPRA was moving in on the education and translation markets, with a gaggle of websites aimed at teachers and students. In alphabetical order:
- Author Marketing Ideas (authormarketingideas.com)
- Author Services International (authorservicesinternational.com)
- Best Selling Books Rights Agency (bestsellingbooksrightsagency.com)
- Cookbook Marketing Agency (cookbookmarketingagency.com)
- ePubCo (epubco.com)
- Inquiry Connection (inquiryconnection.com)
- Inquiry Ed (inquiryed.com)
- Memoir Publishing (memoirpublishing.com)
- Professional Publishing Press (professionalpublishingpress.com)
- Publish On Demand Global Africa (publishondemandglobal.africa.html)
- Publish On Demand Global Australia (publishondemandglobal.australia.html)
- Publish On Demand Global China (publishondemandglobal.china.html)
- Publish on Demand Global India (publishondemandglobal.india.html)
- Publish On Demand Global Japan (publishondemandglobal.japan.html)
- Publish on Demand Global Korea (publishondemandglobal.korea.html)
- Publish On Demand Global Latin America (publishondemandglobal.latin-america.html)
- Publish On Demand Global Nigeria (publishondemandglobal.nigeria.html)
- Publish on Demand Global Philippines (publishondemandglobal.philippines.html)
- Publish on Demand Global Singapore (publishondemandglobal.singapore.html)
- Publish On Demand Global South Africa ((publishondemandglobal.south-africa.html)
- Rapid Illustrations (rapidillustrations.com)
- SBPKidsBooks (sbpkidsbooks.com)
- Sight Word Ebooks (sightwordebooks.com)
- The Education Publisher (theeducationpublisher.com)
- The IB Library (theiblibrary.com)
- The PYP Student (thepypstudent.com)
- The Translation Teacher (thetranslationteacher.com)
Reality seems to have caught up with these enterprises. As of 2021, most of the websites are either gone or default to the main SBPRA website. The PODG websites remain, but are badly outdated. Currently, the only active branches of the business seem to be SBPRA’s book and ebook publishing operations, and its two PR companies (Author Marketing Ideas and Author Services International).
Warning about publishing industry predators can be risky business. On the other hand, preying on writers can get you into trouble.
In February 2008, Robert Fletcher and his company (under its then-current name The Literary Agency Group) filed a retaliatory lawsuit against Writer Beware, alleging defamation, loss of business, and emotional distress. Like the PublishAmerica lawsuit described above (as well as other legal threats aimed at Writer Beware), the intent wasn’t to proceed, but to intimidate us into shutting up. It didn’t work. On March 18, 2009, the suit was dismissed with prejudice by the Massachusetts Superior Court, due to Fletcher’s failure to to show up for two scheduled depositions, respond to discovery, or otherwise prosecute the lawsuit (see SFWA’s official press release).
We filed a motion to recover our legal fees and expenses. On July 31, 2009, the Court granted our motion, ruling Fletcher/TLAG’s claims insubstantial, frivolous, and not advanced in good faith (the ruling can be seen here; it’s short, but worth reading. Also see SFWA’s official press release).
In September 2009, the shoe was on the other foot when, as a result of a public consumer-related investigation, the Florida Attorney General filed suit against Fletcher, Writers’ Literary Agency and associated businesses, and several staff members, alleging deceptive business practices.
After much wrangling and numerous delays, the suit was settled in April 2014 (the judgment can be seen here). While Fletcher and the other defendants did not admit guilt, they did agree to submit to a series of conditions relating to the business practices identified in the suit, to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor to oversee implementation of the conditions, and to pay $135,000 in court costs and author reparations (an amount increased to $145,000 when they missed one of their payment deadlines).
As yet, Writer Beware has not heard from any writers who’ve received reparations, which, as far as we know, Fletcher has never paid.
The Woodside Literary Agency, founded by Ursula Sprachman and James Leonard (a.k.a. John Lawrence) in 1996, became notorious among Usenet users in the late 1990’s for spamming thousands of messages to dozens of newsgroups, advertising for writers and manuscripts. The ads neglected to mention that Woodside charged reading fees, had no record of commercial book sales, and would accept any manuscript, no matter how terrible. A group of angry Usenet denizens organized a sting operation to document Woodside’s unsavory practices. When they made the sting public, Woodside’s owners threatened and stalked them via phone and e-mail.
In November 1997, the New York State Attorney General initiated a civil suit against Woodside for false advertising, deceptive business practices, fraud, and harassment. One of the stalking victims, writer Jayne Hitchcock, also filed a civil suit for $10 million (the suit was subsequently settled out of court). Even after the suits were filed, Woodside continued to send out spam and to harass critics. Sprachman and Leonard even filed a counter-suit against Hitchcock, alleging that she and her friends had harassed them, not the other way around.
In 1999, the NYS Attorney General’s Office announced a judgment against Woodside. The agency was ordered to stop its Internet solicitation scheme, provide restitution to consumers, pay penalties and costs to the state, and post a $100,000 bond to protect consumers in future business dealings. Woodside did stop soliciting, but (not surprisingly) most of the restitution and penalties weren’t paid.
In January 2000, the case took a criminal turn. James Leonard and Ursula Sprachman were arrested by federal postal inspectors at their home in Queens, and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Sprachman was also charged with perjury for lying under oath. The following December, James Leonard received the maximum sentence allowed, eight months in prison and three years probation. Due to her age and declining health, Ursula Sprachman received only three years probation. The defendants were also ordered to finish paying restitution according to the Attorney General’s order, though their limited resources effectively made this impossible.
For more on literary agents, see the Literary Agents page.
- Cyberstalked, Jayne Hitchcock’s website, covers the whole Woodside story and offers links to other resources.
- Judge Makes Literary Agency Reimburse Angry Clients, an article on Woodside from The New York Times.
- Stranger Than Fiction: an article on the Woodside case by Heidi Kriz for Wired magazine.
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