Kathy Cunningham was an aspiring children's author with nothing but rejection slips for "Frumpy's Grumpy Day" when Martha Ivery's publishing company offered to print it -- for a price.

The North Charleston, S.C., resident and her husband sent $2,000 for a share of publishing costs and waited. And waited.

Uneasy feelings crystallized about nine months later when illustrations for her book came back from Ivery's Press-TIGE Publishing Co. They were "badly done" copies from a "Berenstain Bears" book, Cunningham said.

"When I opened that, I said, 'Does she think we're stupid?' " she said.

Cunningham is not the only aspiring author claiming to have lost money to Ivery, who's accused of cheating others by dangling false promises to publish their books.

A federal indictment last month charged Ivery with defrauding 15 writers from 1997 through 2002. Advocates for writers say such operations prey on would-be authors.

"So often the worst aspect of these scams is that they're not just stealing the money, they're stealing the dreams," said C.E. Petit, an Urbana, Ill., lawyer representing people who claim they were defrauded by Ivery.

Ivery, 56, is accused of defrauding writers as both an agent and a publisher. Ivery not only ran Press-TIGE out of the sleepy town of Catskill, N.Y., but also posed as a literary agent named Kelly O'Donnell, federal prosecutors say.

Clients worked with both O'Donnell and Ivery without being told they were the same person. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Ivery told writers that O'Donnell died in the World Trade Center and O'Donnell said Ivery died there, according to A.C. Crispin, a science fiction writer who co-founded the scam-busting Writer Beware Web site.

Writers who sent manuscripts to O'Donnell/Ivery were promised such perks as book signings and TV talk show appearances. But they had to pay fees for representation and editing. Writers inquiring about publication delays were told there were problems with illustrations, printers or computer viruses, according to prosecutors.

"This is a vulnerable population that is vulnerable to hearing what they want to hear," Petit said. "And what they want to hear is, 'Yes, I'll publish your book.' "

With millions of aspiring writers and only limited capacity or desire to publish them, scammers proliferate. Some set up as literary agents who promise to get manuscripts published for an upfront fee. Then there are fly-by-night publishing houses that charge fees for services never rendered.

Ivery, whose own author credits include "Make Millions From Your Kitchen Table," said her attorney, Richard Mott, advised her not to comment. Mott did not return calls Wednesday and yesterday seeking comment.

Writer Beware co-founder Victoria Strauss keeps a database of almost 400 questionable literary agents and 200 questionable publishers.

Strauss said the FBI investigated Ivery after she and Crispin collected information from 100 victims, who together lost more than $100,000.

By 2002, Press-TIGE had filed for bankruptcy. The criminal indictment against Ivery includes 15 counts of mail fraud, a related fraud count and one count of bankruptcy fraud for allegedly making a false statement under oath. Prosecutors said that if convicted, Ivery faces as much as 20 years in prison on the mail fraud charges, 10 years on the related fraud count and five years on the bankruptcy fraud charge. She also could be ordered to pay as much as $250,000 in fines.