PublishAmerica, Literary Agent: An Inside Look

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

A little while back, I blogged about yet another of the ways in which PublishAmerica was attempting to extract cash from its authors: a fee-charging “literary agency.”

In the announcement that introduced this brand-new “service,” PA claimed that its Literary Agency Department would “market your book to big ticket publishers such as Random House, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, the new Amazon publishing company, but also university presses and independent publishers, and to a host of foreign publishers all over the world. We also work with Hollywood studios and producers…”

Needless to say, many people were skeptical (to put it mildly) of this venture (see, for instance, the comments thread on my post), especially since there were so few details of the literary agency’s inner workings, apart from a bunch of agents with no last names (here’s Agent Emily). What would PA do to earn the $199 fee? Would they be marketing new manuscripts, their own books, or both? Would they even send out submissions at all?


In a recent post on his company’s blog, the editor-in-chief of Divertir Publishing, Ken Tupper, provided answers to some of these questions. He’s given me permission to reproduce his post here.

The story you are about to read is true. Some names have been changed to protect the less-than-innocent…

In May, 2011, Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware wrote an excellent blog about how a certain “traditional publisher” had started a fee-charging literary agency. I’ve recently started to receive queries from this agency (along with other fee-charging agencies), and I thought it was important to write this blog and share my views on the quality of the queries from the fee-charging agencies that contact us.

In the case of the publisher-turned-agency, we received a query that contained a list of 22 manuscripts (none in genres we publish) that included nothing more than the title, author’s name, and a link to the product page for each book.

I sent a reply noting how unprofessional the query was and suggesting that no publisher would take the time to click through a list of 22 links to find out what each book in a query letter was about. The response: another query that included 5 manuscripts with a 1-2 sentence description of each title (taken directly from the product page) in addition to the product page link.

That’s right. For the $199 fee this agency-turned-publisher charges, the links to your manuscript’s product page and the pages for 5 to 20 of its “closest book friends” are being sent like spam to publishers, with inadequate descriptions of the titles and no discussion of the merits of the individual works or why they would be a good fit for the publisher. The publisher-turned-agency couldn’t even be bothered to send separate query letters for each manuscript.

In general I’ve noticed three common trends for queries from fee-charging agencies. First, it is usually apparent that the agent has not taken the time to learn much about Divertir Publishing and what we publish.

Second, almost none of the queries follow our submissions guidelines – which is an automatic rejection.

Finally, the query letters are much like the one from the agency above, with no discussion of the merit of the manuscript or why I should even be interested in reviewing it.

The simple truth is that most fee-charging agencies make their money off the authors they represent, selling everything from representation to critiques to editing services. Selling the rights to your book is often an afterthought. If you decide to consider this type of agency (which I do not recommend), ask the agent a simple question before sending your first payment: Where has the agency placed works for the authors they represented in the past? If the only answer they can give is that they have placed manuscripts with a “sister company” of the agency, you might be better off investing your money elsewhere.

For this publisher-turned-agency, the real question is the one you need to ask yourself – is a query letter containing 22 manuscripts with no descriptions really the best representation for your manuscript, and should you be paying for this type of representation?

Caveat Emptor.

Indeed.

Over the past year, I’ve heard from a couple of other small presses (but no “big ticket publishers”) that received submissions from PA “agents.” Some were like the blitz submission Dr. Tupper describes above; others were queries for single books, and actually made an effort to follow the publisher’s guidelines. All were for books currently published by PA.

When one of the presses asked how exactly how things would work, given that PA still held the publishing rights, they were told that PA would “happily” transfer all rights for $1. 

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