Amateur, Marginal, and Incompetent Agents
Telling Questionable From Reputable
**A Special Warning: Literary Agent Impersonators**
Agents Who Are Also Publishers
One Last, Very Important Thing
Does a first-time writer need a literary agent?
If you’re planning on self-publishing, or on submitting to small presses, probably not. But if your goal is selling book-length fiction or general nonfiction to a big publishing house or a larger independent, the answer is yes. Sifting through manuscript submissions was once the job of editors, but these days it’s literary agents who are the first line of gatekeeping for much of the publishing industry. Many large publishers’ imprints are entirely closed to unagented work, and those that do accept unagented submissions give them minimal priority.
An agent’s job doesn’t end with the first sale, either. Reputable agents have industry contacts and inside knowledge that most writers don’t possess. They keep current with editors’ tastes and needs, know when new imprints are starting up and when established ones are downsizing, stay abreast of changing corporate policies, keep track of who’s newly hired and who just got fired or laid off. They negotiate advances and publishing contracts to their clients’ advantage, and are experienced in marketing subsidiary rights. Just as important, agents serve as writers’ advocates in the increasingly complex and competitive world of publishing.
There are many successful literary agents who provide excellent service to their clients. Unfortunately, there are also many dishonest or incompetent agents who relieve writers of money, waste their time, and sometimes damage their careers. This page is mostly devoted to information and warnings about the latter. But to recognize bad practice you need to be familiar with good practice–so there’s plenty of information about the good guys as well.
Dishonest agents prey on writers by charging fees, promoting their own paid services, engaging in kickback schemes, shilling for vanity publishers, and misrepresenting their knowledge and expertise. These agents’ income doesn’t derive from selling manuscripts to publishers, but from extracting money from clients.
Dishonest agents may “represent” hundreds of writers, turning them over twice a year with a six-month contract that requires an upfront fee (reputable agents work on commission–they get paid only if you do). They may be fronts for editing services, charging inflated prices for substandard work and never attempting to sell the “edited” manuscripts.
They may run fee-charging publishers (possibly under different names, to conceal the connections), into which clients are funneled once they’ve racked up enough rejections to become desperate. They may refer writers to crooked critique services or pay-to-play publishers, receiving a kickback for their trouble.
Some examples of dishonest agenting practice, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:
- Requiring a reading fee with a submission. In the distant past, some reputable agents did charge reading fees–but this practice was so extensively abused that most professional agents’ trade groups prohibit it for members. (For more on reading fees and their abuse, see The Case Against Reading Fees, from Writer Beware’s blog.) Reading fees are uncommon these days.
- Requiring an upfront “marketing” or “submission” or other fee on contract signing. This is the most common kind of upfront fee. Reputable agents do not charge anything upfront.
- Requiring writers to buy a critique or manuscript assessment. Reputable agents don’t make the purchase of services a condition of representation.
- Referrals to an editing service owned by the agency, without disclosing the connection. Not only is this deceptive, it’s a conflict of interest–if the agent can make money by recommending editing, how can you trust that the recommendation is being made for your benefit?
- Pressure to use the agent’s own paid editing services. Again, a conflict of interest. Some dishonest agencies are no more than fronts for editing schemes.
- Running a contest that’s a scheme for funneling writers into a pay-to-play scheme, such as a paid editing service or a vanity publisher.
- Pressuring clients to buy “adjunct” services–website design, catalog space, book cover mockups, illustrations, presence at book fairs, and more. The more money an agent makes this way, the less he or she is going to care about earning a commission by selling your book.
- Placing clients with fee-charging publishers. A kickback may be involved–some fee-based publishers pay finders’ fees–or the agent himself may own the publisher. Good agents only deal with publishers that pay their writers.
The explosion of small presses and self-publishing options since the turn of the century has sharply reduced the number of dishonest agents. Many authors no longer see agents as the be-all and end-all of a writing career, and that has diminished the potential client pool and made it harder for a scammer to make a killing. But scam agents are still out there, ready to entrap the unwary writer–as are their close cousins, amateur and marginal agents.
There are no licensing requirements or competency standards for literary agents. Anyone who feels like it can set up an agency, whether or not they’re qualified to represent manuscripts to publishers. And many do. In fact, the number of amateur, incompetent, and marginal agents far exceeds the number of outright scammers.
Amateur agents are often motivated by odd and unrealistic assumptions, such as the notion that agenting is an easy home business. Some believe they can transfer skills from a career in advertising, sales, or academia. Many are frustrated writers who think they can do a better job than all the heartless people who ignored their submissions or sent them form rejection letters.
But agenting is not an entry-level position. It requires a range of specialized expertise–such as the ability to judge marketable manuscripts (not as easy as you might think) and a knowledge of publishing contract terminology (much of which is unlike other contract terminology)–as well as contacts within the publishing industry (publishing is still very much a back-room, schmooze-over-lunch business). Nor are skills acquired in other professions necessarily helpful. Agenting does involve selling, for instance, but it’s a very different sort of selling, and done in a very different context, from corporate or commercial sales.
Agents are most likely to become successful if they’ve actually worked in publishing, or trained at a reputable literary agency. People who come to agenting without that kind of professional background are at a significant disadvantage.
Amateur agents may be genuinely well-intentioned. Many make a good-faith effort to place their clients’ work. However, their low skill level makes it unlikely that they’ll sell anything–or if they do, that they’ll ever manage to move beyond marginal status. Their poor sales records are a major incentive to charge fees in order to keep their businesses afloat, and they may have peculiar or nonstandard business practices (for instance, using clients’ own query letters). Amateur agents are also likely to place their clients with questionable publishers–not just because they don’t know better, but because these are often the only publishers that are willing to deal with them.
A growing number of marginal agents specialize in placing books with non-advance-paying small presses that mostly accept submissions directly from authors. There’s nothing wrong with placing books with solid small presses–but the real test of an agent’s skill is opening doors an author can’t. Why pay an agent 15% of your royalties for a book you probably could have placed yourself?
Given large publishers’ “agented only” policies, many writers feel it’s acceptable to settle for a less-than-qualified agent, on the theory that any agent is better than none. This is a mistake.
Editors and their assistants are well aware of how many bad agents there are. It’s one reason they prefer to work with agents they know, either personally or by reputation. The word “Agent” on a letterhead or in a signature line guarantees no special attention if the editor doesn’t recognize the agent’s name. And if the agent is obviously unprofessional–submitting work that doesn’t fit the publisher’s guidelines, for instance, or addressing their cover letter to “Dear Editor”–it’s likely they will simply be ignored.
For more on bad agents and the damage they can do to your career, see this blog post from Jessica Faust (an excellent agent).
Overwhelmed? I don’t blame you. But in reality, it’s not difficult to tell a good agent from a bad one. The tips below will help.
Standard agenting practice is pretty much the same from country to country, genre to genre, and industry to industry–so these guidelines apply no matter where you’re from or what sort of books you write.
An established agent (one who has been in business for a year or more) should have a verifiable track record of sales to advance-paying publishers, and be willing to disclose it.
A robust history of selling books to advance-paying publishers is the single best indication of an agent’s effectiveness and expertise. You want an agent who is selling regularly to a variety of reputable publishers (a reasonable minimum standard is the AALA’s’ requirement for new members–the sale of at least 10 literary properties within the past 18 months), and who has experience selling books in your own subject or genre.
Just having a track record is not enough. It also needs to be the right track record. An agent’s track record tells the story not just of where s/he has placed books, but where s/he is capable of placing books: where an agent has sold, in other words, is a good predictor of where s/he will sell. You want an agent whose track record fits your own goals as a writer. If your dream is publication with one of the Big 5 publishers, an agent who has sold mostly to smaller presses is not the best fit.
You may have heard that “you can’t get published without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve been published.” The first, sadly, is increasingly true, but the second is a myth–and a pernicious one, because it pushes many writers into the arms of dishonest and incompetent agents. Previous publication credits will certainly make you stand out in an agent’s slush pile, but they’re not a requirement. No successful agent will refuse to consider a promising manuscript just because its author hasn’t published before.
Agencies’ policies on track record disclosure vary. Some agents won’t reveal books that are under contract but not yet released, and some don’t provide complete client lists. And few agents will disclose clients’ contact information, so it’s not worthwhile to ask for references. But at a minimum, any reputable agent should be willing to provide a list of recently-published books that she has sold. Look for this information on the agent’s website (and be suspicious if it’s missing). You may also find it by doing a websearch on the agent, or checking agent directories such as Publishers Marketplace. (See the Links section for more resources).
If an agent refuses to answer questions about sales, or tells you that sales information is confidential, be wary. She may be trying to hide the fact that the agency has a poor success rate, or deals with disreputable publishers.
Be sure also to check that sales are real sales. Questionable agents may lie about their track records, claiming sales they haven’t made or citing nonexistent authors and titles. Alternatively, the titles may be genuine, but the books may have been placed with bad publishers (for an example, see Faking a Track Record, from Writer Beware’s blog) or with small publishers that don’t typically work with agents.
A new agent (in business less than a year) should have a relevant professional background.
The one circumstance in which it’s OK for an agent not to have a track record is if s/he’s just starting out. A new agent who is actively building a client list can be a good prospect for a new writer.
However, not all new agents are created equal. In order to target manuscripts appropriately and get attention from editors–not to mention identify salable properties and effectively negotiate contracts–an agent needs personal contacts and a thorough knowledge of the publishing industry, both of which are best acquired by actually working in publishing or training at another reputable agency. Someone coming to agenting from a non-publishing-related background is unlikely to have these skills, and may take a very long time to get up to speed–if they ever do.
For a stronger discussion of this very important issue, see the section on amateur and incompetent agents above, as well as this post from Writer Beware’s blog on why new agents need relevant professional experience.
If a new agent doesn’t say at least something about her background on her website, be wary, and if she refuses to reveal it on request, walk away. Be sure also that an agent who claims to be new really is new. Some questionable agents/agencies try to excuse a wretched track record by saying that they’re new, when in fact they’ve been in business for years.
As a general rule of thumb, a new agent should begin making regular sales within a year of starting up.
It’s advantageous for an agent to maintain membership in a professional literary agents’ organization.
The USA, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and France all have professional agents’ trade organizations (for the organizations’ websites, see the Links section, below), most of which require members to adhere to codes of ethics that help to ensure fair practice. Just as important, members must demonstrate some degree of professional achievement before they’re allowed to join.
Non-membership is by no means an indication that an agent is questionable. Many successful agents choose not to join trade groups, or haven’t been in business long enough to qualify. Nor is membership a guarantee of quality. Writer Beware has received serious complaints about some members of the Association of American Literary Agents (formerly the Association of Authors Representatives), the trade group for US-based agents.
Professional memberships do, however, suggest a basic level of competence.
To make themselves look more reputable, questionable agents sometimes cite membership in other groups, such as the Publishers’ Marketing Association, the Better Business Bureau, or local writers’ clubs. None of these are relevant to agenting, and they indicate absolutely nothing about an agent’s success, skill, or honesty. (There’s more information on irrelevant memberships at Writer Beware’s blog.)
A note about the Writers’ Guild of America: for film agents, membership in the WGA is important, not just because WGA signatories agree to ethical practice, but because production companies prefer to deal with them. However, WGA signatory rules don’t protect book authors. WGA members aren’t allowed to charge reading or editing fees for scripts, but they can charge them for other kinds of literary properties. Also, WGA signatories don’t have to prove professional competence.
An agent should not charge an upfront fee.
An agent’s income should derive from commissions on sales, not from fees charged to clients.
Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript. An agent who makes money only when the author does is not only highly motivated to sell the author’s work, but to make the most lucrative possible deal. An agent who makes money prior to a sale substantially diminishes his incentive to pursue legitimate publication.
Writer Beware defines a fee as any charge–excluding commissions–that’s a requirement for either submission or representation, that must be paid by every client or potential client, and that is due upfront (before service is rendered) or on a recurring basis. For instance, a reading or evaluation fee the accompanies submission, a critique fee as a condition of representation, a retainer or representation fee due on contract signing, a submission or materials fee billed in advance of expenditure or as an ongoing regular charge.
It isn’t only your bank account that’s at risk. There’s an overwhelming correlation between fee-charging and a lousy track record of sales. Writer Beware has collected documentation on hundreds of agents who charge fees or engage in the abuses identified on this page, and of these, only a handful have anything approaching a genuine track record. Not all fee-charging, non-selling agents are dishonest–many are just inept, unable to keep their businesses going without reaching into their clients’ pockets. For writers, though, there’s little difference between a scam agent and an incompetent one. The end result is the same: a lighter wallet and no sale.
Note that most successful agents do expect their clients to bear some of the cost of submission–usually, expenses the agent wouldn’t otherwise incur, such as photocopying, postage, long-distance phone calls, galleys and finished books to send to agents overseas, and the like. Standard practice, however, is to allow these expenses to accrue and deduct them from the author’s advance, or to bill them after they’re incurred. With most business done electronically, these amounts are usually minimal.
For an extended discussion of the kinds of fees you may encounter and the rationales that go with them, see The Truth About Literary Agents’ Fees.
For book agents, commissions should not be more than 15% for domestic sales and 20-30% for co-agented or foreign sales.
Some agents–mostly questionable, but a few legitimate ones as well–justify domestic commissions (commissions on sales made in the agent’s home country) of 18% or 20% or even more by claiming that it’s more costly to represent new writers. Do you really want an agent who penalizes you for being new?
Conversely, you may run across a book agent who charges a lower-than-standard commission. Sometimes this is a sign of inexperience, but a lower commission rate may be intended to sweeten the impact of an upfront fee.
For script agents, commissions should not be more than 10%.
The WGA’s Minimum Basic Agreement (a collective bargaining agreement that sets the terms under which WGA writers work with studios, agencies, and others) requires that agents charge a commission of not more than 10%. There’s nothing to compel agents to comply with the MBA–but major studios don’t generally deal with agents who don’t.
Be wary if an agent refers you to an outside service for which you have to pay.
A reputable agent may occasionally suggest that a writer hire an independent editor–for instance, for a salable project that needs developmental work that the author, in the agent’s judgment, can’t provide. Such recommendations are perfectly legitimate, though you should do some careful thinking before choosing this often very expensive option. (For more on the pros and cons of independent editing, see the Editors page.)
But questionable editing schemes do exist, and receiving an editing referral should always prompt further research, especially if a particular editor or service is recommended. There may be a kickback arrangement, with the editor or service giving the agent a percentage of whatever you wind up paying. The same goes for fee-charging publishers and self-publishing services, which sometimes provide finder’s fees to agents who send clients their way.
Alternatively, the agent or agency may own the editing service or publisher, running it under another name or at another address in order to conceal the connection. Some agencies are no more than fronts for editing or fee-based publishing businesses.
Be wary if an agent doubles as a paid editor or as a publisher–especially if those services are offered to clients or prospective clients.
There’s serious conflict of interest potential here. If an agent can make money from editing your manuscript, how can you be sure that the recommendation to edit is in your best interest? (Many agents do work with clients to edit and polish their manuscripts for submission, but they don’t charge for this–it’s part of the service covered by their eventual commission). If an agent can profit from publishing your book himself, where’s the incentive to offer your manuscript to another publisher, or to keep sending out your manuscript after a number of rejections?
This is a complicated issue, because in today’s highly competitive publishing environment, everyone is looking for new revenue streams, and the lines between agents, publishers, editors, and publicists–once sharply separate–have become increasingly blurred. A growing number of successful agents have associated editing, consulting, or publishing businesses.
Ideally, the agent will maintain a wall between these different functions–i.e., clients of the agency are never offered the editing or publication, and those who are edited or published are never offered representation. But not always. So while an agent who offers adjunct services or has an associated business of some sort may not be disreputable, you do need to weigh his or her success against the possibility that your best interests may not be served.
See the Agents Who Are Also Publishers section, below, for a more detailed discussion of this important issue.
An agent’s correspondence and/or website should be free of grammatical errors and typos.
This may sound obvious. But you’d be surprised how many questionable agents produce error-ridden documents or maintain inadequately proofread websites.
Be alert for unprofessional practice.
Editors don’t want to see author photos or long, separate author bios–and no matter what you’ve heard, a novel submitted to a major publisher should not be accompanied by a “marketing plan.” (Some smaller publishers, which rely on their authors to do much of the promotional work, do want to see marketing plans–but the bigger publishers don’t, and those are the ones your agent should be approaching.) Nor should an agent use your query letter, or insist on packaging submissions in fancy binders that you have to pay for (most business these days is done electronically, anyway).
If your agent does any of the above, be wary: he may not be dishonest, but he probably isn’t very competent.
Other things that turn editors off: form letters to “Dear Editor,” postcards with boxes to check off and send back to indicate interest, “bundled” queries (several queries in the same envelope or email), shotgun submissions (submissions that have obviously been sent to a laundry list of not-necessarily-appropriate publishers), inclusion of cover mockups or sample illustrations. Any of these will immediately identify a submission as coming from an unprofessional source.
Writer Beware’s blog provides lots more detail on unprofessional submission practices.
Be wary of an agent who claims to specialize in new writers.
Such agents are often fee-chargers looking to collect from inexperienced beginners. Successful agents’ lists usually contain only a small percentage of new writers.
Be wary of an agent who is looking for poets.
Apart from celebrity projects and writers who are already well-known, successful literary agents rarely represent poets. Even in the best of circumstances, poetry collections are a tough sell, and the poetry market, which is dominated by small presses, simply isn’t lucrative enough to make it worth most agents’ while. Literary agents who claim to represent poets are nearly always either dishonest operators looking to charge a fee, or amateurs who know nothing about the realities of the industry.
Be wary of an agent who claims to want to sell your book idea to Hollywood.
Sales of dramatic rights for unpublished manuscripts are extremely rare. When film or dramatic rights do sell, it’s almost always after the book is published or under contract (and most published books never do sell those rights). The prospect of a Hollywood sale is usually a pipe dream offered to gullible writers by unscrupulous fee-chargers.
Be wary of an agent who advertises.
Most reputable agents have websites, and many have entries in popular writers’ guides or online directories. But reputable agents don’t buy Google ads, or solicit submissions on Craigslist, or call for clients in writers’ magazines or local free papers. Any agent you encounter through such avenues is probably a scammer.
Be wary of an agent who solicits you.
Reputable agents do sometimes contact writers whose work they’ve seen and liked. This used to be extremely rare, but blogs and social media have made it more common. However, it’s not the norm.
Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from direct solicitation (here’s an example, from Writer Beware’s blog). If you subscribe to writers’ magazines or register your copyright, you may be a target–fee-charging agents sometimes purchase lists of names and addresses from these sources.
Be wary of an agent who provides extravagant praise or inflated promises, and of her opposite, an agent who paints a dismal picture of your chances of success.
Reputable agents know better than to promise what can’t be guaranteed, such as lucrative book contracts, movie deals, bestsellerdom, and the like.
On the other hand, a reputable agent isn’t going to take you on unless she feels there’s a good chance of placing your manuscript. Excessive negativism is often a marginal or incompetent agent’s way of rationalizing a poor track record. Watch out for agents whose contracts contains clauses absolving the agency of responsibility if your book doesn’t sell.
The past few years have seen a rise of a particularly pernicious fraud: scammers posing as literary agencies.
Based in the Philippines, these scams employ spoofed phone numbers and fake addresses (virtual offices, PO Boxes, randomly-selected residential addresses) to convince authors that they are located in the USA. They claim to work on commission–no upfront fees!–yet somehow you will always have to pay: for editing, or a social media marketing campaign, or to have your book turned into a script. Often it’s claimed that whatever you’re buying is provided by an unrelated company or required by a publisher or major motion picture studio that is supposedly interested in your book, but in reality, the “agency” is just a front for the paid services, and the money goes directly into the scammer’s pocket.
Some fraudsters go even farther, impersonating real, reputable literary agents to hoodwink writers into handing over cash. One scammer has invented an entire stable of fake agents (complete with websites), who shill equally fake publishing and film “offers” that require writers to make large outlays of money.
The main targets for these frauds are self- and small press-published writers, as well as vulnerable groups such as the elderly. Writer Beware has heard from writers who’ve paid thousands, or even tens of thousands for services that were never delivered, or if delivered, were substandard. Once the writer starts asking questions, or the scammer judges that the writer is tapped out, they ghost, leaving the writer high and dry.
Fortunately, these scams share a cluster of characteristics that make them reasonably easy to identify and avoid.
1. Solicitation. This is the number one sign that the agent or agency that has just emailed or phoned you is a scammer. Real, reputable agents only very rarely reach out to authors they don’t represent; for scammers, on the other hand, out-of-the-blue solicitation is their main way of recruiting victims. Approaches typically include flattery (your book has been recommended by Amazon! Spotted by a literary scout! Highly praised by a conveniently unnamed expert!) and too-good-to-be-true representations (Two Big 5 publishers are interested! A major film production company wants to make an offer!). As mentioned, the scammers are based in the Philippines, so phone solicitors frequently have foreign accents, and email solicitations often include the kind of grammar errors and typos you don’t expect an agent to make.
2. Claims of skills and experience that can’t be verified or don’t check out. A scammer’s website may claim it’s been in business for many years, but if you check its domain name registration, you’ll find it was filed only a few months ago. It may claim to be staffed by publishing and literary experts with years or even decades of experience, but provide no names or bios to enable you to check that the claims are true. And though it may promise it’s able to wrangle you a Big 5 publishing contract or a major film offer, it won’t share any evidence that this has ever actually happened. A real agency, by contrast, will disclose its staff and track record on its website, and you’ll be able to verify these things from other sources as well, such as sales reports in Publishers Weekly.
3. Poor or tortured English. English is a second language for the scammers, and that often shows. Websites and solicitation emails typically contain numerous (and sometimes laughable) grammar and syntax errors–the kinds of errors that a reputable agent or agency website absolutely should not make. I’m always surprised by how many writers overlook this major clue.
4. Money. As sure as night follows day, the scammers’ promises and flattery are followed by demands for money. You may be told that the Big 5 publisher that’s interested in your book wants you to pay for a content edit (no reputable publisher requires authors to pay for editing), or that you must re-publish your book so that it loses the “stigma” of self-publishing (re-publishing an already-published book in order to interest another publisher in publishing it a third time makes no sense, and is not the way the publishing industry works in any case). You may be informed that the major film studio that loves your work requires you to provide a script or a treatment; of course the scammer can “recommend” someone to perform this service. You may be told you need to pay for a social media campaign or a glitzy new website to raise your profile as an author, or to buy “book insurance” or “book licensing” to avoid some vague legal liability (there’s no such thing).
The variations are endless, but they all involve money (yours). As described in other sections of this page, reputable literary agents don’t charge fees, or push their clients into paying for services.
5. Junk marketing. Junk marketing is marketing that’s cheap to provide, sold at a huge markup, and of dubious value at any price. Most of the scammers offer it, if not in their solicitations, then on their websites: press releases, paid book reviews, paid radio interviews, advertising in their own proprietary magazines, book trailers, social media management, Hollywood book-to-screen packages, and more. If they’re provided at all (and often they aren’t), these services are likely to be of substandard quality. Regardless, reputable literary agents/agencies do not sell marketing services to their clients.
For a full list of the scams that Writer Beware has identified to date, see this post at the Writer Beware blog: From the Philippines, Not With Love: A Plague of Publishing, Marketing, and Fake Literary Agency Scams
Until relatively recently, if you found an agency and a publisher co-existing under the same roof, you could automatically cross them both off your query list. Reputable agents did not double as publishers; agents who did double as publishers typically were running deceptive vanity operations, often making money off their clients by charging agency as well as publishing fees.
Today, however, the popularity of ebooks and the ease and cheapness of digital publishing have blurred these formerly clear-cut lines. Reputable agencies are increasingly branching out into publishing and self-publishing assistance.
Some of these ventures focus on re-publishing clients’ backlists–books that have gone out of print and to which the authors have reverted rights. Others are a mix of backlist and original publishing for both clients and non-clients. Still others offer assistance to writers wishing to self-publish–in some cases limiting this to clients only, in other cases opening the service to the public.
From agents’ perspective, all of this makes good business sense. Most successful agencies are sitting on deep catalogs of backlist books, which, thanks to digital publishing, can be cheaply and profitably be brought back into circulation. And if a wonderful manuscript won’t sell despite diligent effort, why let it languish? Why not publish it, or help the client to self-publish?
Unfortunately, some troubling potential conflicts of interest arise here. If an agency has the ability to publish a client’s book itself, will it try as hard to market the book to traditional publishers? Will it give up sooner on a book that doesn’t sell quickly? Also, how much might running a publishing division distract from the agency’s core activity of representing manuscripts to publishers? Your agent is supposed to be your advocate in publishing contract negotiations–but who advocates for you when it’s your agent offering the publishing contract?
To make things even more confusing, schemes and scams are still alive and well and fleecing victims–from “agencies” that are nothing more than fronts for vanity publishers, to agents who are publishing their clients’ books because they’re too incompetent to sell them to real publishers.
How to protect yourself? First and foremost, use the guidelines in the section above to make sure that you only submit to reputable agencies with verifiable track records. That will take care of much of the risk in one step.
If the agency has a publishing division or an assisted self-publishing service, be aware of it, and think about how to respond if you’re offered or steered toward something other than straightforward representation. Think also about how you’d feel if the agency decided at some point that it had made enough submissions for you, and that publishing you itself was a better option.
Is there a wall between the different branches of the business? I.e., the agency doesn’t represent publishing clients, and agency clients aren’t offered publication. This is rare, but if it exists, it indicates that the agency is aware of the potential conflicts of interest and is taking steps to avoid them.
If the agency skips over representation entirely and offers you publication right off the bat, pause and take a breath. Is this really what you want? Just as important–if this agency likes your book enough to publish it, might another agency like it enough to represent it?
Warning bells should start ringing if you’re asked to pay. Some of the assisted self-publishing services offered by reputable agencies are fee-based (as opposed to commission-based), but since vanity publishing is a hallmark of an agency/publisher scam, any request for money should make you cautious.
Also a red flag: pressure. If the agent seems mostly interested in pushing you toward the associated publisher, with representation as an afterthought, ask yourself whose best interest is actually being served.
And if you’re thinking of accepting a publication offer from an agency, either as a first-timer or for your backlist, find someone qualified–and unaffiliated–to vet the contract for you. Don’t assume, just because it’s “your” agent, that you’re being offered the best deal.
Manuscript display sites/electronic slushpiles
Manuscript display sites and electronic slushpiles promise to bring you to the attention of literary agents and/or publishers and/or movie producers by displaying an excerpt of your book or screenplay, sometimes with a synopsis, biography or other information. A fee may or may not be required.
The theory is that editors, literary agents, and producers will be eager to visit a website where pre-screened, searchable work is available for their perusal, thus enabling them to reduce the number of inappropriate queries and their vast volumes of email. This concept seems to be at least somewhat effective for screenplay writers–but for book writers, evidence that agents and editors make much use of display sites is slim. Worse, a display site can be a ready-made recruiting ground for literary sharks.
A submission service promises, for a fee, to approach publishers or agents on your behalf. Some simply send off your query and/or sample material; others offer editorial services to get your submission into shape, or create those materials for you, or create a catalog or pitch book that you must pay to be part of. Sometimes part of the service is the “packaging” of your submission with a picture of you, a bio, a sample marketing plan, and the like.
However, publishers aren’t interested in fancy extras. Including these will identify your submission as coming from an unprofessional source. And submission services aren’t necessarily run by qualified people, and may not be skilled at writing queries or targeting appropriate editors and publishers (I’ve heard from many authors who’ve been contacted by vanity publishers after using submission services). This is especially true of the email query blast services, which essentially are spam. For the most part, submission services are a waste of money.
Many writers’ conferences host manuscript pitch sessions, which are billed as a way to get your work in front of a literary agent without the hassle of querying. You may get useful advice from participating in one of these sessions, but don’t go into it hoping for an offer of representation; generally speaking, the best you can expect is an invitation to submit.
Always research participating agents/editors before you sign up for one of these sessions; not all conferences do enough vetting. And think twice–or three times–before signing up for a pitch session that costs extra. These are not just moneymakers for the conference, but also, sometimes, for the agents, who get a cut (very similar to a reading fee).
Twitter pitchfests, such as #pitmad and #pitchmas, have become increasingly popular over the past few years. Reputable and successful agents do participate–but so do marginal and amateur ones. Make sure to research any agent who expresses interest in your pitch. (For more on Twitter pitching, see this helpful guide from agent Carly Watters.)
Print market guides
Market guides such as Writer’s Market or Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook are good sources of information. But an agent’s inclusion in a market guide isn’t a guarantee of reputability. Many guides are compiled by questionnaire, and the information is only cursorily checked, if at all. Questionable agents are often listed in these publications (Literary Marketplace, once the standard for the US publishing industry, is a particular offender). Don’t take a listing at face value; always do more research.
Online agent directories, listings, and databases
There are also listings and directories that are much less helpful. Some have been created by individuals with little knowledge of publishing, bizarre personal agendas, or something to sell. Others are databases where anyone can enter unscreened information. They’re likely to include large numbers of questionable agents, to omit large numbers of successful agents, and to be seriously out of date. Beware of “top” or “best” lists; even if they aren’t just clickbait, they’re bound to be subjective, since, due to experience or interest or temperament or any number of factors, the best agent for one writer might be the worst agent for another.
Last but not least, there are the outright scams, such as SearchingForPublishers.com or FindPublishingHelp.com, sites that claim to match you with the best publishing resources, but are really designed to steer you into the clutches of dodgy self-publishing companies. For more information, see How Predatory Companies Are Trying to Hijack Your Publisher Search, from Writer Beware’s blog.
If I could only give one piece of advice to new writers, it would be this: EDUCATE YOURSELF!
In the search for an agent, knowledge is both your most useful tool and your best defense. The more you know about publishing, the less likely it is that you’ll be taken advantage of, and the more likely it is that you’ll be able to submit your work effectively and appropriately.
If more writers took the time to build a store of publishing knowledge before beginning the quest for an agent or a publisher–rather than trying to learn while they search–Writer Beware’s work would be much diminished. I hear every day from authors who’ve made mistakes they could easily have avoided if they’d only done some research ahead of time.
Even if you’re on fire to get your manuscript out there, take a breath, step back, and do some reading…and not online, where misinformation abounds. The internet is an invaluable research tool, but only if you know how to filter what you find, and it’s hard to do that unless you already have a decent knowledge base.
Go to a bookstore (yes, I know, very old school), and spend some time in the section where books on writing are shelved. There are many excellent how-to-get-published books that will help you learn the basics. Please don’t skip this step; it really is one of the best investments in your future career that you will ever make.
See this post from Writer Beware’s blog for more suggestions for reading, researching, and learning about the publishing industry.
Tools to Help You Evaluate Agents
- E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled an archive of documentation on hundreds of agents who engage in the practices we warn about above. Send us the names of agents you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information on an agent, we’ll let you know that too.
- A great place to ask questions about agents (and publishers) and find comments and warnings: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler message board. (Absolute Write is an aggressively moderated writers’ community, and as such has generated a fair amount of resentment and negative comment–but the Bewares forum is a treasure trove of info.)
- Querytracker, a large and very active agent directory, allows comments on its agent listings. These can often be enlightening.
- Trying to discover whether an agent has a track record can seem like a daunting task, but there are a number of ways to go about it. My article, Researching an Agent’s Track Record, suggests a procedure that incorporates a number of the resources listed above–plus some you may not know about.
Resources for Agent Hunting
- How to Find a (Real!) Literary Agent: a complete tutorial from Writer Beware co-founder Ann Crispin based on her popular writers’ workshops, including researching literary agents, creating a synopsis, writing a query letter, and managing your submissions.
- My article The Safest Way to Search for an Agent recommends a procedure for agent-hunting that’s designed to weed incompetent and dishonest agents out of your query list, and provides tips on querying and suggestions on how to use the resources below.
- How to Find a Literary Agent For Your Book, a step-by-step guide from author and editor Jane Friedman.
- How (and why) to find a literary agent, from Jericho Writers.
- The Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) (formerly the Association of Authors Representatives/AAR) is open to agents who’ve been in business for at least two years, and satisfy minimum sales criteria. Its website includes a list of member agents, suggested questions for authors to ask prospective agents, and a Canon of Ethics that excludes reading and evaluation fees, secret profits, and referral fees.
- The Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents writers in the motion picture and TV business, maintains a list of signatory agents.
- The professional association for literary agents in the UK is the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA). It’s open to agents who’ve been actively representing clients for three years or more, and who satisfy minimum income requirements. Its website includes a list of member agents and its Code of Practice, which excludes reading fees.
- The Association of Scottish Literary Agents represents the rights and interests of writers and illustrators in Scotland and across the world. Member agents are listed on its website.
- The Australian Literary Agents’ Association is open to agents of at least three years’ standing who satisfy minimum sales and/or income criteria. Its website includes a list of members and its Code of Practice, which excludes reading and editorial fees.
- The New Zealand Association of Literary Agents is a trade group established to maintain professional standards and represent the interests of members. Its website includes a list of members.
- In 2016, French literary agents banded together to form the Alliance des Agents Littéraires Français (AALF). The AALF’s website is in French, but this article on the association lists current membership.
- As far as I know, there’s no agents’ association in Canada. The Writers’ Union of Canada or the Canadian Authors Association may be able to help with agent information.
- Many successful agents are members of Publishers Marketplace, where they post information on their interests, submission requirements, and sales. There’s much useful information here, even more if you’re willing to pay for a subscription.
- QueryTracker is a large, searchable agent directory that provides information on interests, submission requirements, background, and sales. Authors can leave comments on the agent listings, and these can be very informative.
- AgentQuery provides a similar service, with similar safeguards.
- Publisher’s Lunch is a daily e-mail newsletter with all the latest news about publishing worldwide, including recent book deals and who agented them. A full subscription costs, but the “lite” version is still free.
- Also free is Shelf Awareness, a newsletter that covers the world of bookselling.
- Publishers Weekly covers the international publishing scene, with an emphasis on the US market. (Full content is available only to subscribers, but searches on an agent’s name will bring up “teaser” references if PW has reported a sale.)
- Another good source of US/international publishing news: the online version of Publishing Trends. Its archives contain many informative articles.
- The Bookseller.com is an excellent source of information on the UK market.
- Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews, includes an informative Deals section.
- Books & Publishing provides info on the Australian publishing market.
General Information on Agents and Agenting
- Agent Jessica Faust on Bad Agents: how to recognize marginal and incompetent agents, and why they’re as bad for your career as a dishonest agent.
- Joe Schmoo Agent, advice in a similar vein from agent Kristin Nelson.
- Why a mediocre agent can be just as damaging to your career as an outright scammer: The Not So Bad, Not So Great Agent.
- Is your agent a schmagent (someone who claims to be an agent but doesn’t actually have the skills)? From author and editor Jane Friedman, tips on how to tell if your agent is any good.
- Agent Jennifer Laughran provides some useful pointers to help you assess whether an agent is a schmagent.
- From agent Sarah LaPolla: when you should be wary of brand-new agents (and publishers)–and when you don’t need to be.
- Agents: A Guide by Harold C. Underdown. Geared to children’s book authors, but useful for everyone.
- Agent Carly Watters on why submitting to literary agents and small presses at the same time is a bad idea.
- From author and editor Jane Friedman, The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests. Good advice, and lots of links to resources.
- You’ve got a representation offer–now what? From Writer Beware’s blog, a roundup of expert advice on issues to consider and questions to ask.
- On the flip side: author and former agent Nathan Bransford explores how to know when it’s time to leave your agent.
- Author Karen Dionne offers advice on how to leave your agent.
- An author’s guide to author-agent agreements, from the Authors Guild.
- Agent Kristin Nelson’s detailed discussion of the anatomy of an agency agreement: Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten.
- Literary agent Rachelle Gardner on author-agent agreements.
- What to look for in a literary agency contract, from author and lawyer Susan Spann.
- The dangers of the interminable agency clause, a feature of some agents’ contracts, also from Writer Beware’s blog.
- Also from Writer Beware’s blog: why author-agent agreements should address the issue of self-publishing–which, at present, most don’t.
Up Close and Personal — Writers’ Experiences With Bad Agents
- Avalon Associates/Media Arts International: a case study of a literary agent and film producer who stole hundreds of thousands of pounds from clients.
- The Woodside Literary Agency: a case study of a fee-charging literary agency.
- Helping Hand Literary Services/Janet Kay & Associates: a case study of another fee-charging agency.
- Melanie Mills: a case study of a fee-charging agent who also happened to be a career con artist.
- The Deering Literary Agency: a case study of a fee-charging agency that also owned a vanity publishing company.
- Martha Ivery/Kelly O’Donnell: a case study of a fee-charging literary agent who funneled clients into the vanity publishing company she ran under an alias.
- Coverage from Writer Beware’s blog of the extremely strange tale of the Hill & Hill Literary Agency, whose owner charged very small fees for a very large scam. One of Hill’s victims blogged about her experience.
- Writer Charles Deemer has a close encounter with a fee-charger.
Links checked/Page updated: 12/11/20
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