February 13 - 20, 1 9 9 7
[Caught in the Net]

Caught in the Net

Part 2

by Jack Mingo

If you're not a denizen of Usenet culture, you're missing out on watching a process akin to the populating of the Old West, as the wired world gradually shifts from a geek-cowboy frontier mentality to a gentle, kindly small-town culture. All over Usenet, virtual towns and neighborhoods have sprung up, and in a landscape where legal protections are still iffy, people are willing to stand up for their own. Part of this story is about a frightening aspect of the virtuality, the placelessness, of Internet culture: the way an unidentified person sitting at a keyboard anywhere in the world can terrorize the real life of almost anyone else. But another part is about a more heartening aspect of this placelessness: the fact that communities without borders really do exist, to the point where they can mobilize to defend a member under real attack. In a sense, it doesn't matter if you're in Somerville and your "neighbors" are in Chevy Chase and Watts. All stories become local.

Jayne Hitchcock first heard of the Woodside Literary Agency months earlier, on a Usenet group called misc.writing, where writers banter, discuss editors and font sizes, and add to the never-ending chronicles of misc.writingville, a metaphorical town with whimsical locations like Kate's Bar and Grille, "located in the Writer's Block at the intersection of Hope and Despair." The Woodside Literary Agency first appeared in misc.writing in January, 1996, when it cross-posted an ad to hundreds of diverse newsgroups, including rec.pet.cats, alt.business, sci.med.diseases.lyme, and even alt.binaries.pictures.lesbians. The ad read:

The Woodside Literary Agency of New York City is now accepting new authors for publication, re: fiction and non-fiction (all kinds), Advances from publishers as high as 50,000 dollars. . . . We also handle magazine articles. Publishers paying as high as 1,000 dollars. We have offices from New York City to Florida. Poems and screenplays are also in demand. . . .

The Woodside posts, says Usenet expert Chris Lewis, were way out of line for three reasons: "First of all, posting any message to that many groups is wrong, especially when its so far off-topic in most of them. It's called `spamming' and is viewed with contempt throughout Usenet. Secondly, most groups don't like any commercial messages, whether spammed or not. Finally, if Woodside is running a scam, it shouldn't be posting anywhere."

To misc.writing regulars, who knew something about publishing, the Woodside ad smelled like a sucker pitch. What kind of agent is looking for poems at a time when the poetry market is so lousy? And hadn't agents stopped handling magazine articles around the time of the Great Depression?

As in the Wild West, a sharpie will occasionally blow through the misc.writing newsgroup offering sure-bet publication, the literary equivalent of snake oil and swampland. The more experienced regulars will usually pepper someone claiming to be an agent with specific questions: "How many clients do you have? How many have gotten legitimate publishing contracts through you? Tell us the names of your best half-dozen book sales in the last year. Do you charge your clients any up-front fees of any kind?"

If they don't like what they hear, they do their best to warn their neighbors and ride the sharpie out of town. "Law enforcement and the courts can't move fast enough," says Marty Fouts, a misc.writing regular who lives in Silicon Valley. "Exposing a fraud is the best defense against it. This isn't vigilantism, it's merely warning your neighbors that a bogus door-to-door salesman is making the rounds."

A number of writers posted their questions on the newsgroup and e-mailed copies to the Woodside Agency, but no answers were forthcoming. However, the commotion did shake loose some reports from people who had answered the ads. They portrayed Woodside as a "love your work, send me money" shop. Fred Thompson of Ottawa, Canada, wrote ruefully:

Be warned! This does not sound like any legitimate business. I responded to a request to send in my mss to Woodside Literary Agency, James Leonard really, and was asked for a reading fee of $75 to be made out to James Leonard personally. I took the gamble even though realizing it was a possible come-on. Then I got a letter in three weeks saying that "welcome aboard" and asking for $250 for expenses while they promote your book to a publisher. Then if you sign this contract enclosed, another $250 if they haven't found a publisher in a year. . . .

This, of course, is a highly irregular request in the publishing world, where agents are usually paid for succeeding, not for failing.

Hitchcock had recently moved back to the United States after a stint in Japan with her Marine husband, and she needed an agent. She was new to the Internet, assumed Woodside was legitimate, and sent writing samples after seeing the first ads, which hadn't mentioned anything about charging fees. Woodside accepted her -- and then infuriated her by asking for money to represent her.

"I remember what it's like to be a hopeful writer. If I hadn't known better, I might've paid the money, too," Hitchcock says. "Legitimate agents don't ask for up-front fees; they make a percentage when they sell your writing. A phony agent is worse than no agent, because they don't just steal your money, they also steal your dreams."

Several writers, including Hitchcock, began issuing warnings and complaining to Woodside's Internet service provider (ISP). "We thought of it as a misc.writingville community-service project," jokes Hitchcock. It was hard work -- the agency posted over 8100 ads last year under a legion of bland names (John Lawrence, James Leonard, Dr. Susan Day, Alex Baker, Ted Denver). The writers had to hunt down the ads, post a response, and send a copy to the agency's ISP. As its accounts were canceled, Woodside would hop to new Internet companies, "spamming" ads as it went. "It was annoying," says Patrick Ziselberger, of Somerville, who in misc.writingville appears as the Hound of Cullen. "The Woodside guy would post all over the place, but would especially target misc.writing. So I might log on and find 45 messages had come into the group overnight, but half of them might consist of the same ad repeated over and over again from Woodside."

Introducing a bit of levity to the campaign, some writers held a competition. The goal was produce something so bad that even Woodside would reject it. They all did their worst, but Wendy Chatley Green of Austin, Texas, was the only contestant who "won," getting a hand-scrawled rejection from "Dr. Susan Day" for her unbearable cyberpoems. ("My love's like a bad, bad program/stored on magnetic tape,/sprinkled with chad and wrapped in perfs,/bound for my amusement," read one.)

Part 3

Jack Mingo is the author of The Couch Potato Handbook, The Whole Pop Catalog, and How the Cadillac Got Its Fins. His most recent book is The Juicy Parts (Perigee, 1996).

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