Paul Shackelford, 37, tends the boiler at a military school in Culver, Ind., and fantasizes about becoming a writer. A few years ago, he contacted the Deering Literary Agency in Nicholasville, Ky., to help him sell "Haunting Memories," the novel he wrote in his spare time about a double murder. The agency accepted his manuscript and said that another of its companies, Sovereign Publications, would publish it.
Several thousand dollars and a lot of hurt later, Shackelford has zip to show for it -- no book, no life savings, no nothing.
"They snowballed me," he says.
This month Charles and Dorothy Deering, owners of the Deering Literary Agency and several other publication companies, were indicted on mail fraud and conspiracy charges by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Lexington, Ky. They pleaded not guilty.
According to Patrick Nash, Charles Deering's lawyer, the couple "engaged in a legitimate business, and that's what our proof will be in the criminal trial." Beyond that, the attorneys for the Deerings would not comment on the case.
But Eric Evans, Shackelford's attorney, has filed a civil suit claiming that the Deerings cheated more than 500 aspiring authors -- including his client -- out of more than $3 million.
And that is just the nib of the pen.
In the past two years, courts have awarded more than $19 million in restitution to more than 4,000 writers who have filed suits against con artists posing as publishers and literary agents. The problem is pandemic, says James Fisher, a former FBI agent and criminal justice professor at Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa., who has made a specialty of investigating literary scams.
He estimates that more than 10,000 gullible writers fork over more than $50 million a year to dishonest literary agents. It's one of the dark, ugly secrets of the American publishing industry.
"This is the scam of the '90s," Fisher says. "Everybody's expressing themselves."
"I'm horrified," says Vicky Bijur, a literary agent in New York and president of the Association of Authors' Representatives. Bijur says she had no idea that this vast underworld exists. "I know the legit agents. I don't know these people who operate like that."
Though Melanie Rigney, editor of Writer's Digest, a trade journal for independent writers, does not blame the Internet for the increased hornswoggling of writers, she says the proliferation of online activity "does make it easier to find victims."
She adds, "We're seeing an increasing number of people who are interested in writing." She attributes the writing explosion to aging baby boomers who have more money, more education and more leisure time to indulge in weekend creativity.
There are honest vanity-press publishers. Many publishers who advertise their services in the backs of magazines such as Writer's Digest actually do what they say they will do. A writer pays the publisher to print the book and winds up with a garage full of tomes to sell at flea markets or to hand out to grandchildren and very, very good friends.
Predatory posers, however, make their money not by selling the manuscript to a publisher but by charging writers exorbitant flat fees and then not delivering anything.
Dreams of being a writer have driven folks to do rash and irresponsible things over the years. Wannabe wordsmiths have quit jobs, forsaken families and gone waist-deep into debt in hopes of getting their books into print.
Paul Shackelford, for instance.
Here's Shackelford's side of the story: He sent a copy of "Haunting Memories" to the Deering agency in 1996. Charles Deering himself phoned Shackelford. "He said, like, this is a really good manuscript, yadda yadda yadda," Shackelford recalls. "And he sent me a contract."
Deering offered to be Shackelford's agent and try to sell the book to publishers. He charged Shackelford $500. Shackelford worked out a way to pay Deering over time.
The agency then told Shackelford that one of its staff members had evaluated the manuscript and that it had received a grade of B. "Like in school," Shackelford says. "They told me it was a good book. The story line was great. They said they were going to try to contact somebody."
Shackelford also received a newsletter from the agency that said the firm was considering opening its own publishing company, Sovereign Publications, to publish some of the best authors it had discovered. "We are going to publicize each and every author we publish as if they were a Norman Mailer or Daniel [sic] Steele [sic]," wrote Dorothy Deering.
Shackelford prayed that he would be one of the chosen few. Sure enough, he says, he got a letter from Sovereign, announcing that it wanted to publish his manuscript. "I was all excited," he says.
The project would be a joint venture, Shackelford says the letter explained. Shackelford would have to pony up $4,675. But the rest of his $500 representation fee would be waived.
From supportive family members, Shackelford borrowed money, which he sent to the Deerings. He was given a publication date of March 1998. As the big day approached, he grew concerned that he had not received any galleys or correspondence from Sovereign. He got another newsletter that said there had been a tragedy in the Deering family and a letter saying that the publication date had been pushed back six months.
In March, the company sent a letter to all Sovereign authors telling them to stop calling to inquire about the status of their manuscripts. "Your phone calls and correspondence, the letter says, "will only slow" the publication of all books.
"This abuse of your publisher has to stop," the letter says.
In August, Shackelford says, he called the agency. The telephone answering-machine message said that the company had filed for bankruptcy. "They didn't send me a letter or nothing," he says.
One of the problems, says Fisher, author of a 1999 cautionary guide for would-be scribes called "The Fisher Report," is that "there are too many writers and not enough publishers. So you sort of have a bottleneck. The agent is the gatekeeper. All aspiring writers are told, `You have to have an agent,' and there's a massive nationwide quest by unpublished writers for literary representation."
There are also honest agents. For $7 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, the Association of Authors' Representatives will provide writers with a list of member agents who follow the group's canon of ethics. "At our Web site" -- www.bookwire.com/AAR -- "there is a list of any questions that any writer should ask an agent," Bijur says, "or that any reputable agent would be able to answer."
Most legitimate agents do not charge a writer any fees -- for reading or editing -- until the book is sold. The standard commission for representation is 15 percent. But unscrupulous agents milk writers from the very beginning, and in many cases continue to milk them. "Many of them make their money by not telling the whole truth," Fisher says. "The truth they don't tell is: They've never sold a manuscript."
Why do people fall for such schemes? Many novelists and poets and historians and memoirists, says Fisher, "are rejection-weary. The first `praise' that some agent gives them is intoxicating. They let their vanity or their hopes or their dreams interfere with their thinking. In the end, they're devastated."
From her home in Charles County, author A.C. Crispin, vice president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, wants to help hopeful writers find good agents. She has written some 20 science fiction tales, many based on characters from "Star Trek" and "Star Wars." Her extremely popular "Han Solo Trilogy" -- the third volume came out last year -- told the tale of the most famous con man in sci-fi history.
Crispin is waging a war against literary scoundrels. Her organization's Web site lists various "Scams in Action" at www.sfwa.org/beware/warnings.html. She's added the Deering Literary Agency to her list.
"It is a growing problem," says Kenneth Taylor, the assistant U.S. attorney who is prosecuting the Deering case. The trial date is set for Nov. 15.
For the writers in such cases, Taylor says, "it's an emotional roller coaster. They wondered if they were good writers. They find somebody who says they're a good writer. They start pumping themselves up. They get a publication date. They tell all their friends. They go out and schedule book signings."
Then the sky falls in.
Shackelford wasn't alone, says his attorney, Evans. "They picked on a vulnerable group of people whose interests and concerns were primarily with the publication of their manuscripts," Evans says, "and for that reason became careless. Based on everything I have read -- the contracts and correspondence -- the primary interest of the Sovereign interest was to get contracts, get money, and not publish."
It was a plot, he says, "that was orchestrated very well."