The medium has changed, but the scam remains the same, according to a lawsuit filed by New York attorney general Dennis C. Vacco. Vacco charges that the Woodside Literary Agency is using the Internet to bilk would-be writers out of hundreds of dollars each in "marketing fees," promising to peddle their work to major publishers.
The suit was filed jointly by the New York Attorney General's Internet and Computer Unit and its Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection. It charges that Woodside's scheme worked much like the old poetry book scams, whereby frustrated poets would pay a fee to be included in "literary collections" which would never see the inside of a bookstore or library. In this case, the suit charges, Woodside sent out solicitations for work on literary newsgroups and chat rooms.
Writers were invited to send in manuscripts along with a $150 "reading fee." This inevitably led to a $250 "contract fee," supposedly the price the agency would charge to market the manuscript to publishers. The problem with this proposition is that real literary agencies don’t charge reading fees, only a percentage of the royalties when a book is actually sold.
Vacco charged that Woodside took advantage of the camaraderie between people who take part in such chat groups and bulletin boards.
"In a scheme that would have made even Harold Robbins blush, these literary carpetbaggers invited undiscovered writers to submit brief excerpts from manuscripts of novels, short stories, and poetry for evaluation," Vacco said in a statement. "In reality, they were more concerned with the copy on the face of their checks than that included in the writers' manuscripts."
According to Vacco, the scheme came to light when a group of writers got together online and came up with a story to test Woodside’s claim that it accepted only 5 percent of the manuscripts it received. The story, entitled "Even Hitler Gets the Blues," was intentionally written so badly that no publisher would have ever accepted it. Woodside took the badly misspelled manuscript and invited the authors to send in the marketing fee.
The suit also alleges that Woodside attacked and insulted the writers who warned others of the scam, evening threatening a libel suit.
In August, James Leonard, who heads Woodside, posted a message in the newsgroup misc.writing about Jack Mingo, one of the writers who charged that Woodside was a scam.
"His manuscript has been rejected by all literary agencies," Leonard wrote. "He now attacks all agencies and tries blocking all aspiring writers from seeking out any agency's help. If you don't listen attentively to what he has to say, he will try stepping on you like a bug. Stay clear."
In January, another writer involved in discrediting Woodside, Jayne Hitchcock, filed a $10 million lawsuit against the company, charging that someone there has been stalking her online for months. Hitchcock had been receiving threatening e-mail for months. The culprit also posted her name, address, and phone number online.
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