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Breaking into Print: Tales of Success

Have you broken into print, or recently signed a contract with a commercial publisher of trade books? If so, Jim Fisher would like to hear from you. Your story could inspire and enlighten other writers. Please e-mail Jim (jfisher@edinboro.edu) a summary of your tale of success.

July 9, 2007

Dear Mr. Fisher;

My name is Erin Richards, and, in poking around the web recently -- actually googling (should that be in caps?) my old literary agents -- I came across the title of the book you wrote called Ten Percent of Nothing and actually began shouting, as much as my Episcopalian upbringing would allow, at my computer screen. When I was 21 years old, 18 short -- and they really have been short -- years ago, Dorothy Deering was my first "literary agent."

A professional writing/journalism major in college, I always hoped, dreamed and planned on becoming an author of fiction one day, and when I cobbled together a children's story at 21 and found the Dorothy Deering Agency, I thought that day had come, just months after graduating undergrad. And, oh, how easy this writing business was. I was so young and so dumb. Although I haven't read your book yet, I suspect you know my story very well. I sent the woman $300, which to a new college graduate was a fortune. It still is. She strung me along for over two years, if I recall properly. Letters periodically and phone calls, too. There were enticements. "Duttons is interested but wants to see more. Could you send me more stories?" By then, I was newly married and in seminary, studying to become a minister (religion minor), and I didn't have the time to write. Then came my all time favorite call in retrospect. Forgive me if this is repetitious for you. I really am going somewhere with this e-mail. I got a call one day from someone claiming to be Dorothy's husband, telling me that the reason I hadn't heard from the agency in so long was because Dorothy was in the hospital and needed either a kidney or a liver transplant. It was so bizarre that I should remember, but it has been 18 years. It was one of the two. But the husband assured me that he was running the business and would be sending me an update soon, and he didn't seem terribly bothered about his wife's condition. The update came in a letter (and in red ink, by the way) and was essentially this: We've updated our offices, and if you want us to keep representing you, send $500.

The letter that carried this news was riddled with errors, and it was this that raised red flags for me. I thought surely a literary agent knows what a run-on sentence is. I logged onto this new thing called the Internet, something called Writers Forum on CompuServe, posted a message and ended up corresponding with a best-selling author who sent my story to her agent, who happened to be the president of the AAR. The author told me not to respond to the Deerings letter. When I didn't, they pursued me with a few more letters, a lowered price, a couple of phone calls I didn't return, and then nothing. Yes, ten percent of nothing. Well, nothing but my utter embarrassment, such shame at being fooled and disappointment.

Fast forward to the present. I have been a lay youth minister for ten years (http://stmarks-ua.org/staff.htm). In all this time, I've continued writing with strange successes for someone who is still not published. A movie producer liked my first, albeit everlastingly unpublished novel, optioned it for a time and encouraged me to keep writing. I've had a couple of other agents since the Dorothy Deering disaster, all members of the AAR, which I learned of as a result of Dorothy Deering, so some good came of it. These agents kept handling this one novel the movie producer liked. Finally I put it aside, concentrated on youth ministry, kept writing and am, today, under contract with my first YA novel with Firebrand Literary Agency, which was recommended to me by an agent at Writers House, so I figure this one's legitimate.

So I'm back to hoping, dreaming and planning, back thinking about actually becoming an author, and this is what led me recently to google my old agents, which is how I ended up shouting at my computer screen early one morning when Ten Percent of Nothing appeared on it. I had no idea!

And in googling you, I found your web site asking for success stories from writers who were once conned and went on to find legitimate representation. This would be much more of a success story if my agent, Nadia Cornier, actually sells the book. She is newly on her own, by which I mean she owns Firebrand after working several years for Creative Media Agency and is not yet 28, I think, which means she won't be needing a new kidney or liver for some time. I've been with her since January of this year and am waiting to hear back from her about the re-writes I did. (I am on her site www.firebrandliterary.com under my maiden name Erin McCahan.)

I will definitely order Ten Percent of Nothing from Amazon.com, but I'll probably order some of your true crime books first, particularly the one I read about just tonight called Ghosts of Hopewell. It sounds very interesting.

Thank you for letting me pass this along.

Erin Richards

See Erin Richards update below:

December 7, 2007

Dr. Mr. Fisher;

I signed with my first literary agent when I was twenty-three years old and thought this writing business was rather easy.  I wrote a children’s story, sent out a few queries to agents and heard back from one immediately who offered representation, which I accepted, for a mere $300.00, which I paid. 

From books I had read about agents and from professors I had in undergrad, I knew that some agents charged fees for such things as reading and manuscript handling, which – before the advent of e-mail – including photo-copying, faxing and shipping costs.  What I did not know was that $300.00 was excessive and that the top price for such things should not have been over $75.00, and even that was steep.

No, I was new to this and naïve and, like so many people who knew from childhood that they are meant to become authors, over-eager, thinking this was the beginning of my lifelong calling.  It turns out that the literary agency I signed with, Deering Literary Agency, was a scam whose owners defrauded hundreds of would-be writers out of approximately $1.5 million and eventually spent time in jail for it.

The Deerings strung me along for about two years with sporadic phone calls that this or that publisher was interested but wanted to see more work, or that a certain publisher was considering buying my book, and I’d hear good news any day, which, of course, I never did.  Eventually, they told me they’d need more money, another $500.00, to continue representing me. 

As I was in grad school at the time, I just didn’t have the money, so I ignored the letter.  More came, all asking for money.  I got increasingly bizarre phone calls, too, with similar requests, but I let the machine answer and didn’t return the calls.

Eventually, I logged onto a writer’s forum on the Internet and ended up communicating with a handful of best-selling authors who all warned me not to send the money, said the whole thing sounded alarmingly fishy and told me to just be done with the Deerings, who eventually stopped pestering me.

A number of these writers, who were genuinely helpful, told me to consider myself lucky that I only lost $300.00 to the Deerings, but the effects of getting conned were more than material.  I felt ridiculous, utterly embarrassed, heartsick and foolish.  I had told everyone I knew that I was about to become an author, kept this up for two years and then had to explain that, instead, I had been thoroughly and rather easily conned.  Worse, I had been conned out of that lifelong dream – at least for a time – and the devastation I felt was quite real and lasting.

By then, I was in graduate school – seminary – and eventually became a lay (not ordained) youth minister.  I still wrote, sold some articles to small and large publications and even wrote a couple of novels – never published but optioned by a movie production company.

In sticking with writing over the years, I naturally met a number of agents, and in 2006, one of these agents recommended me to an agent friend of his.  I submitted my young adult manuscript to Firebrand Literary, owned by literary agent Nadia Cornier, and signed with her at the beginning of 2007.  And in October, 17 short years after my rocky introduction to the world of publishing – yes, 17 years – she sold my first YA novel, Formerly Known As Phoebe Lilywhite, to Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic.

I hope this is of some encouragement to other writers who have been deceived by con-artists posing as agents.  The con doesn’t have to be the end of the story.  Anyway, in good novels it never is.


Erin McCahan

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com