Page updated/links checked: 8/21/23
The Scammer: Dishonest Agents
The Schmagent: Amateur, Marginal, and Incompetent Agents
Telling Questionable From Reputable
**A Special Warning: Fake Literary Agency Scams**
Agents Who Are Also Publishers
One Last, Very Important Thing
Do you need a literary agent in order to find a publisher?
If you’re planning on submitting to small presses, probably not. Many small presses are willing work directly with authors–no agent required. (For more information on small presses, see the Small Presses page.)
But if your goal is selling book-length fiction or general nonfiction to a Big 5 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 traditional publishing industry. Many large publishers’ imprints are entirely closed to unagented work, and those that do accept unagented submissions give them extremely low priority.
An agent’s job goes far beyond the sale of manuscripts.
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, such as translation, audio, and film rights. They handle clients’ writing income and make sure that publishers’ payment and reporting is on track. Just as important, agents serve as writers’ advocates in the 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 can 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 what follows includes plenty of information about the good guys as well.
Dishonest agents prey on writers by charging upfront 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.
Agent scams are less common than they used to be (though see A Special Warning, below). The expansion of publishing options over the last two decades (small presses, self-publishing) where agents aren’t a requirement has made it much harder for scam agents to find victims. But they’re still out there.
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, but if you encounter an agent who requires them, it’s a major warning sign.
- Requiring an upfront “marketing” or “submission” or other fee on contract signing. This is the most common kind of upfront fee. Reputable agents do expect writers to reimburse some of the expense of submitting manuscripts, but they don’t charge anything upfront.
- Requiring potential clients to buy a critique or manuscript assessment. Reputable agents don’t make the purchase of services a condition of representation.
- Selling adjunct services to clients: marketing, publishing, website design, illustrations, and more. It’s a conflict of interest: if the agent can make money by recommending services, how can you trust that the recommendation is in your best interest? Plus, the more money an agent makes this way, the less they are going to care about earning a commission by selling your book. Some so-called agencies are merely fronts for paid services.
- Editing bait-and-switch. You query the agent for representation, but instead they offer to edit your book for a fee, or refer you to a self-owned editing service. Again, a conflict of interest (and, if they don’t disclose their ownership of the service, dishonest). Some self-styled agencies are actually editing schemes in disguise.
- Running a contest that funnels writers into paid services, such as a editing or vanity publishing.
- Placing clients with fee-charging publishers. A kickback may be involved–some fee-based publishers pay finders’ fees–or the agent may have a financial interest in the publisher. Good agents only deal with publishers that pay their writers.
- Placing clients with self-owned publishers. Yet another conflict of interest.
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. The number of amateur, incompetent, and marginal agents has always far exceeded the number of outright scammers.
Amateur and unqualified agents (or schmagents, as they’re known in the writing community) are often motivated by odd and unrealistic assumptions, such as the notion that agenting is an easy home business or a way to get rich. 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 rejections. Some simply love books and authors, and want to be part of that world.
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. (For more on this very important issue, see my article on the value of experience.)
Many schmagents are well-intentioned, and make good-faith efforts to place their clients’ work. However, their low skill level means there are steep odds against them ever selling anything–or if they do, that they’ll ever manage to move beyond marginal status. A poor sales record can be an incentive to charge fees or sell services in order to stay afloat, and they may have peculiar or nonstandard business practices (for instance, using clients’ own query letters or asking clients to research submission opportunities).
Amateur and inexperienced agents are also likely to place their clients with questionable publishers or publishers with poor contracts and business practices–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 schmagents 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 submitting multiple manuscripts at once–it’s likely they will simply be ignored.
For more on schmagents and the damage they can do to your career, see this blog post from Kristin Nelson (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.
Established literary agents (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, and who has experience selling books in your own subject or genre.
Just having a track record is not enough. An agent’s track record tells the story not just of where they have placed books, but where they are capable of placing books: where an agent has sold, in other words, is a good predictor of where they will sell. You want an agent whose track record is a good match for your own goals as a writer. If your dream is publication with one of the Big 5 publishers, for example, an agent who has sold mostly to smaller presses is probably 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 is true if you want to publish with larger houses, but the second is a myth–and a pernicious one, because it motivates many writers to settle for marginal or incompetent agents. Having previous publishing credits when you’re querying may be a plus, but it’s 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 regularly report their sales to industry venues like Publishers Marketplace and Publisher’s Weekly. Others don’t, or do so only sporadically. And not all agents disclose full client rosters. But at a minimum, any reputable agent’s or agency’s website should include a list of books that the agent or agency has recently sold. (You may be able to expand this information with a websearch, or by checking agent directories such as QueryTracker–see the Resources section for more resources).
If you can’t find sales, or most of the agent’s clients are unpublished, be cautious. (An exception: a brand-new agency, but see the caution below). And be suspicious if an agent claims that client and/or sales information is confidential. The agent may be trying to hide the fact that they have a poor success rate, or that they deal with disreputable publishers. There’s no reason for an agent to keep their track record secret: it’s a form of advertising, after all.
Be sure also to check that claimed sales are real sales. Questionable agents may lie about their track records, claiming sales made by others or citing nonexistent authors and titles. Alternatively, the titles may be genuine, but the books may have been placed with disreputable 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.
New literary agents (in business less than a year) should have relevant professional backgrounds.
The one circumstance in which it’s OK for an agent not to have a track record is if they are 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 and subsidiary rights sales–an agent needs a solid knowledge of the publishing industry and contacts within it, 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 article on why new agents need relevant professional experience.
Be wary if the agent’s website doesn’t offer a biography, or if the agency doesn’t reveal its agents and their experience–and and also if the biographies are vague and lack verifiable specifics. 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 be making regular sales within a year of starting up.
It’s advantageous for agents to maintain membership in a professional literary agents’ organization.
The USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and France all have professional agents’ trade organizations (for the organizations’ websites, see the Resources section, below), most of which require members to adhere to codes of ethics that help to ensure fair practice. In some cases, members must also demonstrate a degree of professional achievement before they’re allowed to join, such as having made a minimum number of sales or worked at an agency for a certain number of years.
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.
To make themselves look more reputable, questionable agents sometimes cite membership in other groups, such as the Independent Book Publishers 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.
Literary agents should not charge upfront fees.
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 their incentive to pursue legitimate publication.
Writer Beware defines a fee as any charge–excluding commissions and certain submission-related costs–that’s a requirement for submission or representation, that must be paid by every client or potential client, and that is due upfront (before service is rendered) or billed on a recurring basis. For example, a reading or evaluation fee that accompanies submission, a critique fee as a condition of representation, a retainer or representation or administrative 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, overseas phone calls, ARCs and finished books to send to foreign agents, and the like. Standard practice, however, is to allow these expenses to accrue and deduct them from the author’s income, or to bill them after they’re incurred. Before the internet, these expenses could really mount up, but with most business done electronically now, such costs 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.
Literary agents should not bait-and-switch.
For example, you query for representation but instead are steered toward the agent’s own (paid) editing services (a conflict of interest: more on that below). Or you’re offered representation but discover that there’s some sort of expensive service you have to buy in order for publishers to be interested in you (there’s a whole category of scams that specialize in that kind of bait-and-switch–see A Special Warning, below).
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 a literary agent refers you to an outside company for paid services.
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 can be 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 and Editing page.)
But questionable editing schemes do exist, and receiving an editing referral should always prompt further research, especially if a particular editor or editing service is recommended. The agent or agency may own the editing service, running it under another name or at a different address in order to conceal the connection. Or 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 referrals to fee-charging publishers and assisted self-publishing services, which sometimes provide finder’s fees to agents who send clients their way.
Right now, also, there are large numbers of fake literary agencies that are no more than schemes for selling marketing, editing, and publishing services. These “agencies” may claim to offer commission-only representation, but there will always be some good or service you have to purchase in order for that to happen, with the “agency” conveniently able to provide it, or referring you to a “trusted company” it works with (in reality, the scam for which the fake agency is a front).
For more on this extremely common type of scam, see A Special Warning, below.
Be cautious if a literary agent doubles as a paid editor or as a publisher–especially if those services are offered to clients or prospective clients.
There’s serious potential conflict of interest 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 becoming your publisher, where’s the incentive to offer your manuscript to other publishers, 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 blurred.
A growing number of successful agents have associated editing, consulting, or publishing businesses, and agents’ trade associations are acknowledging this with changing codes of conduct. For example, the Association of American Literary Agents recently revised its Canon of Ethics to address the question of how agents can ethically offer paid editing services.
Ideally, the agent will maintain a wall between these different functions: clients of the agency will never be offered editing or publication, and those who are edited or published will never be 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 consider 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.
Literary agents’ 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. English-language errors are a frequent marker for the fake literary agency scams that are so prevalent right now (see A Special Warning, below).
Be alert for unprofessional practice.
Publishers don’t want fancy packaging–author photos, lengthy bios, cover mockups–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 make you create your own submission package, or tell you that you need to get reviews or blurbs to accompany your submission (and especially, they should not try to make you pay for such things).
If your agent does any of the above, be wary: they may not be dishonest, but they probably aren’t very competent.
Other things that turn editors off: emails to “Dear Editor” (your agent may not know the editor personally, but they should at least know the editor’s name, or take the trouble to find out), bundled queries or submissions (several manuscripts pitched or submitted at the same time), shotgun submissions (submissions that have obviously been sent to a laundry list of publishers), poorly-targeted submissions that aren’t a match for the publisher’s focus. Any of these will immediately identify a submission as coming from an unprofessional source.
Be wary of literary agents who claim to specialize in new writers.
Such agents may be fee-chargers looking to collect from inexperienced beginners, or amateur agents with good intentions but few skills. Successful agents’ lists usually contain only a small percentage of new writers.
Be wary of literary agents who are 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 lack knowledge of the realities of the industry.
Be wary of literary agents who claim they can sell your unpublished manuscript or self-published book to Hollywood.
The prospect of a Hollywood sale is usually a pipe dream offered to gullible writers by unscrupulous fee-chargers. 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–even very successful ones–never do sell those rights).
Many of the fake agencies mentioned above target self-published authors with promises of Hollywood glory (sometimes even claiming to already have major movie studios interested). But as with their offers of publisher representation, this is merely a scheme for selling something: a screenplay, a treatment, a pitch deck, a “cinematic trailer”–all falsely pitched as required by film producers.
Be wary of literary agents who advertise.
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 sponsored links, or solicit submissions on Craigslist, or call for clients in classified ads in writers’ magazines or local free papers. Any agent you encounter through such avenues is probably a scammer.
Be wary of literary agents who solicit you.
Reputable agents do sometimes contact writers whose work they’ve seen and liked. However, this is rare.
Questionable and fake agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from direct solicitation. 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.
You may also be a target if you’ve self-published. As mentioned above, there are many fake literary agencies that aggressively solicit self-published authors, claiming to be able to transition them to traditional publishing or sell their movie rights (here’s an example, from Writer Beware’s blog). In reality, their only interest is in selling services, such as editing, re-publishing, marketing, or the creation of a screenplay.
For more on fake agency scams–for which solicitation is one of the main markers–see A Special Warning, below.
There are also various other types of solicitation scams you may encounter. This article takes a look at several of these.
Be wary of literary agents who offer extravagant praise or inflated promises, and of their opposite, agents who paint 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 they feel 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 agents and agencies.
Based overseas (primarily in the Philippines), these scams employ spoofed phone numbers and false addresses (virtual offices, PO Boxes, randomly-selected residential addresses) to convince authors that they are located in the USA or Canada. They claim to work on commission–no upfront fees!–yet somehow you will always have to pay for something: editing, a social media marketing campaign, having your book turned into a movie script.
These “services,” it’s claimed, are required by traditional publishers or major film studios in order to consider working with you. Often it’s claimed that whatever you’re buying is provided by an unrelated company, but in reality, the “agency” is just a front for the paid services. The money goes directly into the scammer’s pocket.
This post from Writer Beware’s blog takes a detailed look at one such fraudster: Anatomy of a Fake Literary Agency Scam.
Some scammers go even farther, impersonating real, reputable literary agents and film companies and movie directors to hoodwink writers into handing over cash. One scammer invented an entire stable of imaginary agents (complete with websites), who shilled equally bogus publishing and film “offers” that require writers to make large outlays of cash.
The main targets for these scams 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 for services that were never delivered, or, if delivered, were substandard. Writers are subjected to intense pressure to spend more money, or targeted for fraudulent publishing or film rights offers requiring huge upfront fees. Once the writer starts asking questions, or the scammer judges that they are tapped out, the scammer ghosts them, leaving them 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 out of the blue is a scammer. Real, reputable agents only rarely reach out to authors they don’t represent. For scammers, on the other hand, it’s their main way of acquiring clients.
Approaches typically include flattery (your book has been recommended by Amazon! Spotted by an anonymous literary scout! Highly praised by a conveniently unnamed expert!) and too-good-to-be-true claims (Two Big 5 publishers are interested! A major film production company wants to acquire rights!). As mentioned, the scammers are based overseas, so phone solicitors frequently have foreign accents, and email solicitations often include the kind of ESL grammar errors and typos you don’t expect an agent to make (although the advent of ChatGPT is changing that–see below).
2. Claims of skills and experience that can’t be verified or don’t check out. A fake agency’s website may claim that it has been in business for many years, but if you check its domain name and/or business registration, you’ll find it was filed much more recently. 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 verify that the claims are true. It may claim that it has worked with bestselling authors, but offer no list of these supposed sales (or, alternatively, falsely claim to have sold books represented by real agents).
A real agency, by contrast, will provide fully verifiable staff biographies on its website, along with recent sales. You’ll be able to find corroborating information in 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. Phone solicitors frequently have foreign accents, and may get writers’ names or book titles wrong. Websites and solicitation emails may be poorly written, with multiple grammar and syntax errors–the kinds of errors you absolutely should not see from a reputable agent or on an agency website.
Unfortunately, this is changing. When I began tracking fake agency scams a few years ago, English-language errors were pretty much a universal identifying marker. Now, with ChatGPT and other AI-assisted writing tools easily available, that is much less true, particularly with initial solicitation emails, many of which now read smoothly (if oddly formally). Still, not every scammer has jumped on board the AI wave. Bad English is still a 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).
You may be informed that the major film studio that loooooves your work requires you to provide a script or a treatment; of course the scammer can “recommend” someone to perform this service, at a substantial cost. You may be asked 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 (neither is real).
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 require their clients to pay for services as a condition of representation.
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 fake agency 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, book fair display, 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 resource at the Writer Beware blog.
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.
Those kinds of ripoff operations are still around. But the popularity of ebooks and easy access to digital publishing have blurred formerly clear-cut lines. Some reputable agencies have branched out into publishing, self-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 manuscript 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?
Around 2010, it looked as if the reputable-agency-as-publisher was going to become a trend, prompting concern among writers’ advocacy organizations like the Authors Guild (see this 2011 post from Writer Beware’s blog for a look at the issue and the reaction to it). That actually hasn’t happened: it’s still fairly unusual for a reputable agency to also be a publisher or to have an associated or spinoff publishing or self-publishing division, or to provide publishing services in-house. But such ventures do exist (an example: Diversion Books, founded and headed by Waxman Literary Agency founder Scott Waxman). So it’s an issue that’s worth being aware of, in case you encounter it.
If you do, 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 associated publisher or 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? Inn other words, 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 vanity publishing (often described as “hybrid publishing” to sanitize it) is a completely different matter, and a 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.
This somewhat uncomplimentary term describes online resources where writers can display query letters, synopses, excerpts, biographies, and other information about themselves and their work, in hopes of attracting the interest of a literary agent or publisher. The appeal for agents and publishers, supposedly, is having everything categorized, searchable, and in one place, as an alternative to the chaotic flood of regular queries and submissions.
But electronic slushpiles have been around since the early 2000s, and there’s never been evidence that reputable agents and editors make much use of them (especially if there are subscription fees involved). Over the last 20 years, Writer Beware has seen dozens of them come and go. Worse, an electronic slushpile can be a ready-made recruiting ground for literary sharks.
If the electronic slushpile is free, there’s probably no harm in signing up (though research any request you get, and don’t use this as a substitute for regular querying). If you have to pay, it’s probably not worth bothering.
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 list that you must pay to be part of.
However, submission services aren’t necessarily run by qualified people, and may not be skilled at creating 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. (There’s more detail on this on the Writers Services page.)
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; for the most part, the best you can expect is an invitation to submit (which you might have gotten if you queried the regular way).
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).
X (formerly 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 or editor who expresses interest in your pitch. (For more on social media pitching, see this helpful guide from author Eva Langston.)
Print market guides
Market guides such as Writer’s Market and 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. Avoid it). 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, to be seriously out of date, or all three. 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.
Some supposed directories or matching services are outright scams, such as SearchingForPublishers.com or FindPublishingHelp.com, which 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 (and for a publisher), knowledge is both your most useful tool and your best defense. The more you know about publishing, the better able you’ll be to spot a scam, 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 publisher–rather than just diving in and trying to learn on the fly–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 enough 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 it is also an ocean of bad, ignorant, and just plain crazy information and advice–not to mention scammers buying sponsored links on Google–and it is safe to use for your agent search 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 or library (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 Literary Agents
- E-mail Writer Beware. Over the past 20+ years, Writer Beware has assembled an enormous archive of information on agents and agent practice, including the bad 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, and we’ll take a look at what information can be found online and let you know what we think.
- 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.
- AgentQuery is another large, searchable agent directory. User comments aren’t allowed, but the agent profiles can be very detailed.
- Agent Match, a service from Jericho Writers, is a searchable database of over 1,500 agents from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. There’s a fee for membership, but you can try it for free.
- 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.
Resources for Literary Agent Hunting
- How to Find a Literary Agent For Your Book, a step-by-step guide from author and editor Jane Friedman. Jane’s website is a deep and fantastic resource on all aspects of publishing, self-publishing, and writing.
- My article The Safest Way to Search for a Literary Agent recommends a procedure for agent-hunting that’s designed to keep incompetent and dishonest agents off your query list, and provides tips on querying and suggestions on how to use the resources below.
- Former agent Nathan Bransford offers advice and resources on how to find a literary agent.
- 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. Its website includes a list of member agents and a Canon of Ethics that excludes reading and evaluation fees, secret profits, and referral fees.
- The website of the Professional Association of Canadian Literary Agents hosts a membership list. PACLA’s Code of Practice excludes reading and editorial fees.
- The professional association for literary agents in the UK is the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA). It’s open to agents are actively representing clients and can provide evidence of those activities. Its website includes a list of member agents and its Code of Practice, which identifies and excludes various conflicts of interest.
- 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 who satisfy minimum sales and/or income criteria. Its website includes a list of members and its Code of Practice, which excludes reading 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.
- The organization for French literary agents is the Syndicat Français des Agents Artistiques et Littéraires (SFAAL). Prospective members must be sponsored by a current member, and all members must abide by a Code of Conduct.
- 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.
- 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.)
- The Bookseller.com covers 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 Literary Agents and Agenting
- From author and editor Jane Friedman, The Complete Guide to Query Letters. Good advice, and lots of links to resources.
- Editor and former agent Mary Kole takes a look at the pros and cons of working with a new agent vs. one who’s more established.
- You’re about to get a call from an agent who’s interested in representing you. What questions should you ask? Suggestions from author Alexa Donne and agent Jim McCarthy
- From agent Jessica Faust, a look at how agents prepare an offer of representation.
- Literary agents are writers’ representatives…but writers often are reluctant to negotiate or speak up because they fear being too demanding. This interview with two established agents focuses on agent ethics, and what rights writers have in the author-agent relationship.
- From agent Kristin Nelson, the dangers of underqualified agents: Three Agent Types to Avoid…and the One You Won’t See.
- A look at warning signs, from author Hanna Holt, How to Spot a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Agent.
- Author and former agent Nathan Bransford explores how to know when it’s time to leave your agent.
- An author’s guide to agency agreements, from the Authors Guild.
- From Sidebar Saturdays, a blog about the profession of writing and the law, The Basics of Agent-Author Contracts.
- So-called handshake agreements–where there’s no written author-agent agreement, and the agent’s commission and other obligations are formalized in the Agent of Record clause of the publishing contract–used to be the norm, but not any more. From Writer Beware’s blog, why you should be wary if your agent doesn’t offer a written contract.
- 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 — Scammers, Schmagents, and Fakers
- From Writer Beware’s blog:
- Bait-and-switch at its finest: Anatomy of a Fake Literary Agency Scam
- Fictional staff biographies, stock photos, and reading fees: Pique Literary: Unmasking a Fake Literary Agency
- Attack of the Fake Literary Agencies: two “agencies” and the many red flags that identify them as scams
- More fiction than fact: Fact & Fiction Entertainment and Literary Agency
- AMS Literary Agency: a former vanity publishing scammer returns in a new guise
- Agenting as a role-playing game: Drewlie & Julia (or, the Case of the Aliased Literary Agent)
- A scam by three names is still a scam: Silver Ink Literary Agency/Editor’s Press and Media/Global Review Press
- If there were a dictionary definition of “schmagent”, this agent’s picture might be beside it: Beware: Pigeon House Literary
- A really elaborate scam: Chapters Media & Advertising and its Stable of Imaginary Literary Agents
- The extremely strange tale of the Hill & Hill Literary Agency, whose owner charged very small fees for a very large scam.
- Avalon Associates/Media Arts International: a case study of a literary agent and film producer who stole hundreds of thousands from clients.
- Helping Hand Literary Services/Janet Kay & Associates: a case study of another fee-charging agency.
- Melanie Mills aka Lisa Hackney: a case study of a fee-charging agent who also happened to be a career con artist and convicted felon. Truly one of the weirdest scam tales in Writer Beware’s archive.
- 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.
Except for graphics, and where specifically indicated, all Writer Beware® contents copyright © Victoria Strauss
MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION