Many professional writers and some how-to-get-published books will tell you that you should make your first sale yourself, and only then, contract in hand, go looking for an agent to close the deal. But things have changed. Many of those older publishers survive only as imprints of huge conglomerates. The staff downsizing that has accompanied the mergers has resulted in fewer editors, even as publishers churn out an ever-increasing number of books.
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. Dishonest Agents 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.
They may refer writers to crooked critique services or pay-to-play publishers, receiving a kickback for their trouble. Requiring a reading fee with a submission. Reading fees are relatively uncommon these days.
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.
Referrals to an editing service owned by the agency, without disclosing the connection. Again, a conflict of interest. Some dishonest agencies are no more than fronts for editing schemes.
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. Good agents only deal with publishers that pay their writers. 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. Amateur, Marginal, and Incompetent Agents There are no licensing requirements or competency standards for literary agents. 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. People who come to agenting without this kind of professional background are at a significant disadvantage.
Amateur agents may be genuinely well-intentioned. This is a mistake. Editors and their assistants are well aware of how many bad agents there are. For more on bad agents and the damage they can do to your career, see this blog post from Jessica Faust an excellent agent. Telling Questionable From Reputable Overwhelmed?
The tips below will help. 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.
Just having a track record is not enough. It also needs to be the right track record. 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, for instance, an agent who has sold mostly to smaller presses is not the best fit. But at a minimum, any reputable agent should be willing to provide a list of recently-published books that she has sold.
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. A new agent in business less than a year should have a relevant professional background.
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 indeed they ever do. Be sure also that an agent who claims to be new really is new. As a general rule of thumb, a new agent should begin making regular sales within a year of starting up.
Non-membership is by no means an indication that an agent is questionable. Nor is membership an infallible guarantee of quality. Professional memberships do, however, suggest a basic level of competence. An agent should not charge an upfront fee. Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: An agent who makes money prior to a sale substantially diminishes his incentive to pursue legitimate publication. 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 on a recurring basis.
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. The end result is the same: With most business done electronically these days, these amounts are usually minimal. That may be so, but do you really want an agent who penalizes you for being new?
As always, track record is the bottom line. Sometimes this is a sign of inexperience, but often the lower commission rate is being offered to sweeten the impact of an upfront fee. Be wary if an agent refers you to an outside service for which you have to pay. 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.
There may be a kickback arrangement—if an agent tells you your manuscript needs work and then recommends a specific editing service, the editing service may have promised to give the agent a percentage of whatever you wind up paying.
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 potential clients.
Serious potential conflicts of interest arise 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? 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. 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. This may sound obvious. Be alert for unprofessional practice. 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: Other things that turn editors off: Any of these will immediately identify a submission as coming from an unprofessional source.
Be wary of an agent who claims to specialize in new writers. Such agents are often fee-chargers looking to collect from inexperienced beginners. 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. 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. 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. Any agent you encounter through such avenues is probably a scammer. Be wary of an agent who solicits you.