Hard Lessons By Susan Eileen Walker

I never thought I was a stupid person, or even particularly naive, until I started learning the hard way that trusting the wrong people in the publishing business can be heartbreaking as well as expensive. I hope someone will learn from my humiliation.

My first lesson came when a literary agent called and gushed about the three chapters I’d sent her. She went on, saying that what she’d read was wonderful and she’d be happy to read the rest of the book. She claimed to have extensive ties in the publishing industry, was a family member of one of the leading publishers and had decided to move to Georgia and represent people who didn’t always have a chance with New York agents and publishers. Believing in my book, I sent my manuscript off the next day. Well, she supposedly loved it and eventually sent me a representation contract. The only hitch was she required $1500 for expenses up front. Thrilled that someone believed in my book, I made monthly payments and thought I’d found an agent.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next months I kept in touch with them, until they told me not to call, but to write with any questions and they would send me a statement regarding the response to my book. A few more months went by and finally she called and said that they had an offer on my book. Of course I was thrilled, but suspicious, when I was told that it would cost $5400 of MY money to publish this book. I didn’t have the money and refused to even consider payments again. I thought I’d learned my lesson. But then she called and said she was starting an e-book company and wanted to publish my novel as an e-book. Cool, I thought, but this was 1994 and the publishers were Dorothy and Charles Deering, who as far as I know are still serving time for their fraudulent practices as literary agents and publishers. I believed them when they said that e-books were the wave of the future and within 10 years ALL books would be produced this way. I sent the required $500 and received my 10 copies of the book on disk. Within months the e-book company had been sold to a man in Canada who didn’t answer his phone and the literary agency had folded their tent and slipped quietly out of Atlanta, destination unknown. Feeling burned, I thought I’d learned.

The next agent I dealt with was recommended to me by a contest offered by a new publisher I’d read about in the Writer’s Digest classified section. They loved my book, but it wasn’t right for their publishing company, so they recommended this agency. So again I sent off my manuscript (this was before the Internet made doing research about such people easy).

Again I sent the required $500 to cover expenses. This time not only did I not receive occasional, vague reports of no real value, but I usually had to leave a message with a machine and, again, received nothing in response. Within months he, too, had disappeared. Burned twice, I decided to be my own agent. I submitted to a small publisher. The owner was someone who had also been burned by the first agent above and I figured that maybe he’d treat me right. He was friendly and willing to take time when we talked on the phone so I thought once again I’d found someone I could trust with my book. After several days of discussing finances with my husband who had been skeptical in the beginning and was now a complete pessimist, I arranged to make payments to cover the $4500 to be an “active participant” in publishing my book. I looked forward to the release date that was approaching quickly, though I hadn’t heard very much from my publisher. Six weeks before my book was supposed to be released, I received a registered letter from the attorney for the company which had declared bankruptcy and gone out of business. For the next six months I tried in vain to recover something, anything that I’d sent them. I knew I couldn’t get my money back. I was told the only asset of the company was a computer that had crashed and was junk anyway. What I really wanted was MY disks, MY copies of the manuscripts and some sort of proof that he’d done SOMETHING in the way of editing. I finally got my manuscript and disk back, but only after a conference call with the publisher and his attorney. The manuscript had coffee and spaghetti sauce stains and the disk was broken such that my computer wouldn’t even accept it, much less let me see if anything had been done in the form of editing.

Poorer, but feeling a lot smarter, I returned to scouring the Writer’s Digest Children’s Market Guide for possible homes for my work. Having given up on the young adult novel, I sent a picture book query off and was shocked when, two weeks later, I received a telephone call from the editor listed as the contact in the Market Guide. She wanted to see my manuscript, but there was a $25 reading fee. I could either send her a check, or buy $25 worth of books published by the company. I bought the books, looked them over and was impressed by their quality. Submitting my manuscript along with the receipts for the books I’d bought, I waited, half-fearful she would demand more money.

Instead, she called, not wanting money, but actually interested in the book, though some serious problems needed to be worked out. Six revisions later, she agreed to publish the book under a “work for hire” contract because that was how she was publishing “that series”. I told her about another picture book I’d written and she agreed to look at it. So off that manuscript went with a $25 check to cover her reading costs. She called with the news that with some work it would fit. After only four revisions, she sent “a standard publishing contract”. No advance and 5% of the cover price to be split between the author and the illustrator. The book was to be published within two years. I didn’t care about the money; I wanted to see my name on a book.

Soon after that she called and asked if I would like to write some other stories for three collections she was putting together. I agreed and soon was able to put together a story that would need no revisions. These were also under a work for hire contract that would pay several months after the book was published. I thought things were going well, until she informed me that the name listed in the Market Guide was an alias so she didn’t have to deal directly with authors, but now that I was “trusted” author, she could tell me the truth.

She eventually set up a website advertising the books with a lot of fun stuff to do for kids. She encouraged, or rather demanded, her authors to do school visits, interviews and as much promotion work as we could well before our books were published so that people would order the books online. Unfortunately, everywhere I turned, I was told that as soon as I had a copy of the book in my hand, people would love to talk to me, have me do school visits and the three local papers would run feature articles in their Sunday editions. But first I had to have a book to show them. The publisher started requiring her authors to buy postcards and posters which publicized HER company and not our books. She claimed that people had to know the publisher before they could know us and our books. She planned to publish more than a hundred books at one time and flood the market. I wondered if she wouldn’t be better off working like the romance publishers do and put out 3-4 books a month in each line so that the kids will come back month after month and buy the newest books and encourage their friends to buy the ones they missed. When I suggested that, I was told I didn’t know anything. I was then on her “bad author” list with threats to drop me from my contracts because “I was the cause of all her problems”.

That was more than three years ago and I’m still waiting to see my name on the cover of a book. I’ve stopped listing the triumph of being under contract with that publisher on my query letters and try not to talk about it. When people ask me when they’ll see the books they ordered more than two years ago, I tell them the truth, that I doubt they’ll ever see them. The last contact I had with this publisher, she threatened to sue me because I would not sign over all rights, monies and claims to MY work. This was after she informed me that I owed her $5000. No explanation, just that I owned her the money. I have since blocked her e-mail address from my address book.

DO NOT pay anyone, paper publisher, e-book publisher or agent to read your work. There is always something a little dishonest about someone who works with you not because they believe in you, but because you’re paying them a basket full of money. My best advise to anyone struggling through this minefield of publishing is never give up your dream of being published, but don’t give up your money.

I haven’t given up yet. I went on to work as a freelance writer for a website and sold more than 45 children’s stories and travel articles for enough money to bring me out of the publishing debt I’d put myself in over the last 10 years. I recently dug out that YA novel that started all this trouble, revised it and fixed problems that have since been pointed out to me and am trying to find a home for it once again.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I put myself through this hassle. Why would I admit this tale of woe, especially in a magazine such as this? My answer has to be that if just one person learns not to pay anyone to read anything you’ve written and to research who you’re dealing with, then my humiliation will be worth it.

Agents should be members of the AAR, Association of Author’s Representatives. If you have questions about agents or publishers, contact the Better Business Bureau in their state, contact AAR, the SCWBI, the Writer’s Guild, or WritersWeekly.com to see if they have any news, good or bad. The Science Fiction and Fantasy website also has a listing of agents and publishers to avoid and news to keep abreast of.

Yes, I still write. In fact, the young adult novel I spoke of earlier was published last year and I have recently signed an incredibly generous contract for a 12-book series of children’s books with Benoy Publishing. They’re paying me, not the other way around. I’ve learned the hard way that knowing whom you’re dealing with makes all the difference. From now on, I’ll keep that in mind and hold tight to my money (until I hit the bookstores).

Susan Eileen Walker previously served in The Air Force as a Medical Administration specialist. While serving in the Air Force, Susan met her husband, gave birth to a son. She has worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, an office manager for a financial planner, and a medical transcriptionist. Along the way, Susan kept daydreaming…and writing. In the spring of 1999, Susan and her family (husband, son and two rat terriers) moved from Goldsboro to New Bern, North Carolina. Susan has stayed in touch with Goldsboro through her home-based medical transcription business. She’s volunteered over 4,500 hours to the Goldsboro hospital, knitting hats and blankets for premature babies. And while she’s still not sure what she’s going to be when she “grows up”, the publication of her first novel has shown her it’s never too late for childhood dreams to come true.