Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Ultimate #agentfail - the J.A. Hitchcock Story


So I hear the Tweeters and bloggers responded to the first ever #queryfail day on Twitter with a turning of the tables. The code #agentfail preceded tales of horror as viewed from other pairs of eyes - insensitive replies to queries, lost submissions, etc. To be honest, #agentfail came so quickly I didn't have time to process it, and as I haven't queried an agent in ten years I really had no war scars to share.

Last rejection I received came from somebody at Kensington who is no longer there. She met me at RT in Daytona thinking I was an Ellora's Cave author (guess she was making the rounds at the big signing) and gave me her card. A few months later, I received word my story didn't "turn her on." To be fair, looking back I don't feel I sent my best work. Other experiences with agents haven't been too bad - many rejected nicely, telling me they loved my characters and dialogue, etc. There was just something missing, something needed to tip the scales. They wouldn't tell me what, however. Here am I thinking there is some mystical canister of Austin Powers glitter mojo I need for dusting the manuscript to make things work. Can I get it on eBay?

Worst experience? I sent a query for a mystery novel to one agent. The letter came back - my own letter - with the word PASS written on it in bold black Sharpie ink. No card, no signature, nothing else. I don't know if this was procedure for that particular agent, or if his secretary simply forgot to send a form R in place of this letter, but I thought that response was quite rude. I'll take the form R postcard over something like that.

This, of course, is not the ultimate #agentfail. I wouldn't wish the ultimate #agentfail on my worst critics. Those who did chime in for these threads ought to be thankful they haven't experienced it. Nicholas Cage, at his oiliest and most buff, might have staggered a bit.

This ultimate fail threatened an online acquaintance name J.A. Hitchcock. I met Jayne through a call for writing for a now-defunct webzine I managed for a Macintosh enthusiast. We hit it off, and soon traveled the same online circles, mainly the USENET group misc.writing. Before ePublishing really took off, we'd scour the listings for magazine calls and agent news. Jayne specialized in non-fiction, children's books, and humor.

One day somebody representing the Woodside Literary Agency posted to the group, looking for writers. Many people on the group thought this odd, considering the fact that agents at the time didn't usually make active calls like this. Curious, Jayne queried and soon learned after a few e-mail exchanges that this agency didn't appear to be reputable. They requested reading fees from authors, and if a writer actually paid they requested more money for a variety of bogus reasons. After posting her findings on USENET, Jayne received a few more anonymous tips about Woodside, further putting their legitimacy into question.

Long story short (and it is a very long and interesting one, worth the read), the people behind Woodside turned to spam tactics, then countered Jayne's warnings with online harassment, then direct mail harassment, then threats of bodily harm. Woodside posted Jayne's personal information on the Internet, claiming she was interested in phone sex. People actually called her house wanting to talk dirty. In my memory, I recount her receiving a collect call from Germany to this effect.

She received notices in the mail from places like the Franklin Mint saying the Civil War plates she had ordered were on their way, along with the bill. Stuff like this might seem like minor annoyances, if you consider mail fraud an annoyance, but it gets worse. A Dateline segment on Jayne showed a clip of her checking the peephole of her front door with a loaded gun in hand. True, that may have been staged for the camera's benefit, but this was how Jayne had to live while Woodside extracted its bizarre revenge. One might think an agency like this, thinking their scam cover had been blown, would fade away and regroup for a different scheme. These people were not literary agents, just unbalanced people who ultimately encouraged a writer to become a crusader against online harassment.

Yet, there was a price to pay for her willingness to take a stand. Jayne had to move, had to change phone numbers and other personal information. Luckily for her, the prepretrators of her misery proved to be easily found. With the evidence mounting against them - from Jayne and other writers scammed by WLA - the two guilty parties involved were arrested. One served jail time, while the other - due to age and frail health - managed only probation. That person later died. Sad aftermath for these folks, but Jayne survived, wrote a book about her experiences, and now heads a great advocacy group against online stalking.

Now that I think of it, I don't mind that big PASS scrawled on my query letter so much.