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November 27, 1997

Queens Company Bilked Writers on Internet, State Suit Says


NEW YORK -- The New York state attorney general's office has filed a lawsuit against a Queens company that it said used the Internet to portray itself falsely as a literary agency to bilk aspiring writers out of thousands of dollars.

The civil lawsuit accuses the Woodside Literary Agency, based in Woodside, Queens, of fraud, deceptive business practices, false advertising and harassment. At least 10 writers from the United States, Canada and Great Britain lost more than $2,000 in the scheme, the suit contends, and the state wants Woodside not only to repay those writers, but also to pay another $2,000 or more in damages and establish a reserve fund for future claims.

The lawsuit, which caps a six-month investigation into the company, names three people: John Lawrence, James Leonard and Ursula Sprachmann, all of Woodside.

Stephen A. Weingrad, a lawyer representing the agency, said the lawsuit was without foundation and was just the product of disgruntled clients.

"They are going to fight this," Weingrad said. "They are not guilty. When the facts are bared, the claim will get dismissed."

While the lawsuit is based on more than 15 complaints, there may be dozens of people who have been duped by the Queens company, according to the state.

"This may be the tip of the iceberg," said the attorney general, Dennis C. Vacco, whose office filed the lawsuit on Monday. "This is yet another outrageous instance of using the anonymity of cyberspace to prey on the unknowing."

In 1995, Tom Tuley, retired as editor and president of The Evansville Courier in Indiana, moved to a log cabin in Nashville and wrote a nonfiction book about Hurricane Emily, which lashed the Carolinas in 1993. After he had trouble finding a publisher, a friend mentioned a listing on a Usenet news group by the Woodside Literary Agency.

Tuley followed the agency's directions, sending two checks totaling $400 in early 1997 -- made out to John Lawrence. But after a few months, when he had not heard from the agency, he became suspicious and called directory information for the company's phone number.

There was no listing.

"I knew I had been had," said Tuley, who later cooperated with the attorney general's office. "I felt pretty frustrated and pretty dumb."

According to the lawsuit, Woodside advertised itself as an international literary agency with offices in New York City, Adirondack, N.Y., and Marco Island, Fla. It invited writers to submit excerpts of manuscripts of novels, short stories and poetry for evaluation.

Those who submitted excerpts received what the lawsuit said was tantamount to a form letter, praising the writer's work and requesting up to $150 to pay for an agent's "reading and market research fee." Those who submitted the manuscript plus the $150 were then asked to mail another $250 for a "contract fee."

The attorney general's office said it was uncommon for a literary agency to charge a fee to review a writer's work. And the Association of Authors' Representatives prohibits its members from charging reading fees to prospective clients.

Jayne A. Hitchcock of Crofton, Md., submitted a book proposal to Woodside in January 1996 after reading the company's advertisement. But when Woodside asked for a $75 reading fee, she balked and became one of many writers to post warnings about the company on the Internet.

In a $10 million harassment suit Ms. Hitchcock filed against the company in January in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Queens, she said Woodside began sending threatening electronic mail and gave her home phone number and address to more than 100 sex-related news groups. Ms. Hitchcock's case became part of the state attorney general's lawsuit.

Weingrad denied her charges.

In its lawsuit, the attorney general's office said that Woodside had become such a pariah that a group of writers decided to send it a purposefully purplish proposal.

The manuscript, called "Even Hitler Got the Blues," included this sentence, grammatical and spelling errors included: "Now that Im grown up I look back at some of the things I thought and said and did when I was a kid and I just laugh all embarassed because I did really dumb things but when I was that age I didnt realize it they were dumb."

And this, according to the lawsuit, was Woodside's response: "The agent I assigned your submission is very interested in reading the entire manuscript. Along with your manuscript, kindly include a check for $150 made out to Mr. John Lawrence."

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