July 2004

Adrienne Martini

features

An Interview with Jim Fisher

Aspiring writers are a vulnerable, neurotic lot. It’s hard to say which came first, of course. Did the writing lead to the vulnerability and the neuroses, or did the wannabe published author’s base state make writing the only satisfying thing he or she could do? This isn’t a pejorative question. A little needy maladaption has created some of the world’s best art.

But human nature is just as red in tooth and claw as Mother Nature’s is. Where there is a vulnerability, there is a predator waiting to pounce. The book publishing ecosystem is no different. Established phylum -- like easily recognizable publishers, editors and agents -- aren’t the issue here. These folks simply making books. That is their niche.

For the writerly folk looking to join the ranks of this definable order, it can seem unforgiving, especially to a critter with its soft underbelly already exposed. Up trots a hyena, drawn by the scent of weakness, and this predator then spins lies designed simply to suck as much life from its prey as it can.

Former FBI agent Jim Fisher’s new book Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell is a glimpse into this wild kingdom, a place he was driven to explore after a friend of his was drawn in by these hyenas of the publishing world. With direct prose and subtle humor, Fisher takes down Dorothy Deering, one of the most notorious fee-agents of the last ten years, and shows the reader exactly how the scam works and why writers are such an irresistible mark. In his words, fee-agents and the vanity presses and subsidy scheme that surround them are a "genteel racket."

Fisher isn’t new to either investigative reporting or the book industry. For years, he published a free newsletter about literary scams, The Fisher Report, vestiges of which are now online. Fisher’s previous books freed an innocent man, led to the arrest of a suspected pedophile and, incidentally, won Fisher two Edgar nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Recently, Fisher discussed how Deering and her associates were able to con millions from writers and offered some advice to those looking to break in to the field.

The Deerings don’t strike me as being very competent or, even, literate. Why do you think their scams worked so well?

Writers are so weary of rejection and in extreme need of positive reinforcement that they allow people like the Deerings -- unsophisticated rubes -- to victimize them. Dorothy Deering was simply selling writers to themselves.

In most confidence games, practitioners are very slick impersonators and accomplished actors. The victims are usually incredibly stupid or dishonest themselves. In the "genteel racket," the practitioners are not particularly clever or accomplished and the victims are all quite intelligent and talented. It’s just a matter of being somewhat naive regarding the existence of criminal literary agents. People are on guard against car salesman, insurance salesmen and people like that, but really don’t see it coming from someone who holds himself out as a literary agent. They’re blindsided.

Was it difficult to get Deering and her victims to talk to you?

There were so many victims that the ones that came to my attention were the most vocal ones on the Internet. These people were not shrinking violets. These are the ones that I started with. They were dealing with their victimization by attempting to expose. Rather than be ashamed, they were angry and were quite willing to cooperate. That wasn’t a problem. I just simply couldn’t use all of the stories. I tried to pick stories that represented various aspects of the Deering schemes to show how thorough they were with their activities. They were involved in virtually every publishing scam known to man.

Dorothy spoke to me because, like most sociopaths, she felt she could charm me into seeing things her way. This is how you get over on a sociopath -- you simply allow them to think that indeed they are smarter than you and that they will be able to manipulate you. So I manipulated her instead.

The thing that I learned about Dorothy is that she absolutely doesn’t have a clue about what she did wrong. You talk to a person like that about conflicts of interest -- to her mind there is only one interest -- hers. Therefore, there can be no conflict. These people are so egocentric that writers existed simply to provide them with the good life. Writers are algae on the food chain. Dorothy Deering viewed aspiring writers with contempt -- and all true swindlers actually enjoy bilking.

What was your background in FBI?

I was in the FBI long ago [1966-1972]. When I got out of law school, I didn’t want to practice law. I was in the Bureau six years, then started writing and teaching, which was more suitable for me. I have no memory of my FBI cases. Really.

What attracted me to the Deering case is -- number one, my other great interest is in writing and publishing -- the literary life. I find success stories and failure stories of all of these writers interesting. My library is filled with literary stories: biographies, collections of letters, collections of interviews, anthologies, critical essays. I love to read book reviews. This is basically what I read. This [case] combined to interests: crime and literature.

I like writers. I like creative people. I find them very interesting. In the other books I’ve written, you have a demarcation between the evil doer and the victim. The killers are very bad. The victims are totally innocent.

In this case, you have perpetrators who are very bad -- they haven’t killed anyone -- but there’s nothing more cold-blooded than swindling. Swindles don’t happen by accident. They aren’t some sort of negligence. It’s a cold-blooded, premeditated crime committed by people who are not mentally ill. While no one is murdered, the perpetrators are quite evil.

The victims are not totally innocent from the victimology point of view, they are extremely vulnerable. That was the relationship I found most interesting. Unlike most investigators, I had great empathy for the victims because I am a writer myself. I know the sting of rejection. I know what it means and how devastating it is to have a manuscript rejected -- how disheartening it is for these people. Their life only has meaning if they are writers. If you steal that dream, in a way, these people are being destroyed.

Moreover, they’re not rich. Some of them lost thousands of dollars. The money’s bad enough, but killing that literary dream is a form of homicide.

I made the transition quite easily. I was motivated essentially by anger. That’s what gets me through writing these books. It gives me my voice.

What is your advice to writers who want to be published?

The core dishonesty of the genteel racket is this: that there are many different ways to become a commercial writer other than through a traditional royalty-based publisher and that you can promote your own book. You can’t. The only book that you can promote is one that a royalty-based publisher thinks is promotable. Then you can cooperate, like I’m doing today. I’m doing this interview. I can’t make you interview me. I can’t get Bookslut interested in my book. I could send ten copies and if no one is interested in opening it up or if they read it and don’t like it, you wouldn’t be doing this interview. I am not really promoting myself -- we’re helping each other. That’s how it works. I think aspiring writers, perhaps, don’t take the time to learn the nuts and bolts of publishing.

Another thing -- a lot of these aspiring writers were successful in other fields: doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists. They forget how hard they worked, the apprenticeship they put in to achieve success in their jobs. They don’t want to apply that same methodology to writing. So they think, "Well, I’m a very successful orthodontist. I’ve got a lot of ideas for some really neat novels." They knock something out, without regard to learning craft and the conventions of writing and technique. They don’t really rewrite it. They send it off. And they’re absolutely shocked.

There wasn’t one aspiring writer that I spoke to while researching that hadn’t been totally convinced they’d written a bestseller. It’s not just that they fully expected to get published -- but that they had written a bestseller. They think that their manuscript is so good that a third-rate agent will be able to sell it. The myth here is that a fee agent is better than no agent. Of course, even a bad agent is worse than no agent. The more unknown a writer is, the more known they need their agent to be. An aspiring agent pairing up with an aspiring writer is not a good team.

What has been the response to Ten Percent of Nothing been so far?

Response has been very positive. That’s a relief because, really, I couldn’t get any real agents interested in handling the manuscript. When agents reject you, it’s generally because they don’t think they can make any money -- although several agents just didn’t like the book and said so. It could be that they just didn’t like the book or it could be that even though the Deerings aren’t literary practitioners, real agents really don’t want to be reminded that these kinds of people are out there impersonating them. I think it makes them uneasy. I don’t think a doctor would like to read about bad doctors.

Clearly, there are still fee-based agents operating. Is the scam evolving at all or is it still the same?

The problem, in my view, is a consumer problem rather than a criminal problem. You’re always going to have criminals among the dilettantes and people who are just basically selling more than they can offer. I think that this racket exists because of an inability on the part of many aspiring writers to respond correctly to rejection.

Writers who make it -- writers who get published -- deal with rejection head on. They say "Why am I being rejected?" and then they correct it. They do what they have to do in order to become successful -- or they quit writing.

Aspiring writers who don’t do that say "Gee, I’m being rejected so I am going to find some alternative way to see my name in print." Meaning -- I’ve been rejected by every commission-based agent I queried, so now I’m going to get a fee-charging agent. If it goes another step, then the fee-charging agent leads them to vanity publishing. I wouldn’t write if the end result is self-publishing or vanity publishing. I personally don’t see the point. If I can’t break through the rejection wall, I’m not going around it.

[Vanity publishing] is a massive problem involving thousands of people and millions of dollars a year. I believe that very few people ever receive satisfaction from alternative publishing. They make the assumption that alternative publishing is sort of the minor leagues, that you start here then you get called up to the majors. In reality, alternative publishing and royalty-based publishing are parallel universes. One will not get you to the other. You’ll be floating around in space forever until you deal with rejection.