books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Do You Know How to Spot a Bogus Literary Agency? 8 Red Flags to Watch For

I’m working on a couple of new projects—watch this space for exciting developments—so I’m running a New! Improved! version of an oldie-but-goodie. The original post garnered a visit and an approving nod from agent Janet Reid—the Query Shark herownself.
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I belong to the generation of women who were told we were more likely be shot by terrorists than find husbands. Several decades later, we’re all writing books about our fabulous single lives—as desperate now for literary representation as we once were for the white dress/gold ring thing.

I haven’t seen statistics about the comparative likelihood of being shot by a terrorist vs. finding a literary agent, but given the global political climate, I’d say odds heavily favor the terrorists.

Maybe we can fantasize that someday we’ll be shot by a terrorist who works for Curtis Brown.

We can’t blame agents. We’re in this situation because there are less than 450 members of the Association of Author’s Representatives while most of the 230 million of us who own computers have at least one novel in progress in the files.

If as many Americans bought books as wrote them, our situation wouldn’t be so dire—so if you really want to increase your chances of publication, buy more books.

With such vast herds of us overpopulating the planet, it’s inevitable that we’ve attracted our share of predators.  

In order hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process, keep an eye out for these red flags:

1) The agency advertises aggressively. Be wary of agents who advertise. When I finished my first novel, a librarian friend forwarded me an intriguing ad from an agency soliciting submissions. He’d found it in a highly regarded literary magazine. I visited the agency’s charming, positive website and almost fell into the trap until I Googled them. They appeared on the “THUMBS DOWN AGENCY LIST” at Writer Beware. This agency refers unsuspecting writers to their own pricey editing service and sells books only to their own vanity publishing company. They’ve changed their name, but they’re still in business.

Do the math: agents don’t have to advertise. We’ll find them no matter where they hide.

2) They badmouth the publishing industry or other agencies, and claim to be “different.” Publishing is a business that relies on networking. Anybody can call herself a “literary agent,” but the successful ones generally learn their trade by interning for more established agents or working at a publishing company. Putting down their mentors would be just plain dumb. And if they haven’t worked with/for other agents—beware. They may mean well, but they probably won’t have the contacts needed to make sales.

3) They charge “mailing fees" up front. This has been a popular scam for decades. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never make a sale. I’ve seen heartbreaking letters from writers who’ve lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees AFTER they’ve sent out your manuscript—usually every quarter—but in the 21st century almost all submissions are done electronically, so I’d worry about any agency that’s still partying like it’s 1999.

4) They refuse to forward rejection letters. Most agents send on your rejections every quarter or so. Some scammers “submit” manuscripts to a publishing house in a mass mailing addressed to no particular editor. Those are not real submissions. They go into recycling without a response. You are not actually being represented. Move on.

5) No client list on the website.  If there’s no client page on their website, give them a pass. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.” If they represent a literary star, they’ll pound their chests and bellow about it.

6) You can find no record of recent sales. Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Steven King, if it happened in King’s pre-Carrie days and she hasn’t sold anything since, don’t go there.

7) You can’t find them listed at any of the commonly used databases for writers. If the agency isn’t listed with AgentQuery or QueryTracker, go check the forums at Absolute Write, the lists at Preditors and Editors, and the tireless watchdogs at Writer Beware for any reports of scamming or bad faith. All of these organizations volunteer their time to weed out the bad guys who are preying on fledgling writers.  Membership is free for all these sites.

You can also check the Association of Authors Representatives, but as Janet Reid pointed out—an agent does NOT have to be a member of AAR to be legitimate and even top-notch. New agents have to work for a certain number of years before they’re allowed to join—and it is the newer and hungrier agents who are reading queries from new writers and actively building their lists.

8) They charge a “reading fee.” You know this, right? It’s not just about the money. Unscrupulous agents can actually hurt your career, since publishers consider these tactics unethical and won’t do business with them. At best, they’ll sell you worthless editing advice. If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it’s not ready for publication.

If you’re a newbie, DO pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached.


Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware had a great guest post on February 11 about all things scammy in the literary world. from Marian Perera, in her review of Jenna Glatzer's new book, The Street-Smart Writer. 

Don’t forget: Google is your friend. Check ’em out.


How about you, fellow scriveners—anybody have a tale of agent scams to share?  

22 comments:

  1. When I was in the querying stage, Preditors & Editors and Publishers Marketplace were my best friends--P&E to get the lowdown on who to avoid and PM to get deal histories.

    Great post, Anne!

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  2. I knew about several of those things. Excellent checklist!

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  3. Great information! I had a bad experience a while back with this and learned a lot from it--much of which you outline here!!! Ah, we have to beware.

    Thanks for your great comment on my Twitter post. I've tried it, can't do it. But I feel relieved because my editor said Twitter isn't necessary, especially since I'm doing so well on Blogger. Probably because I love Blogger; love making friends this way.

    You're right. We do need to read more, and buy more books! I buy as many as my budget will allow--which is the problem, I think, for so many of us: tight budgets. We're living in such tough times right now. But we like to write, so we keep writing, and try to support each other as best we can.

    Thanks for your encouragement! Cheers!!!

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  4. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of doing our homework upfront!

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  5. A great post as always, Anne. We need to be reminded as often as possible to be smart and cautious. Thanks :)

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  6. I think someone should do the math -- is it harder to get an agent or easier to be shot by a terrorist. As a woman over 40, (way over 40) I think it's safe to assume, I'll get struck by lightning before I get married.

    Thanks for the list. My lucky break is that I'm too poor to pay for anything so I stay away from all those so-called agents anyway.

    Happy Valentine's Day!

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  7. If I was shot by a terrorist, I bet I could write a best-selling book about it. (And find that elusive agent.)
    Great post.

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  8. Great tips, Anne... maybe the literary agents ARE terrorists. After all, most of us have more than one job in this economy!

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  9. Liz--Publisher's Marketplace is the gold standard, and if you can afford a subscription--it's the first place to check. It used to be possible to check an individual agent entry at PM for free, but now you have to give a password. Sigh.

    Alex, Tressa, Jan and Florence, do pass the info on to newbies. The predators get smarter all the time.

    Ann, thanks for sharing that. It shows it doesn't matter how smart or talented you are. If you don't know the ins and outs of this business, you can fall into a trap.

    Anne--It's true. Poverty (and a native stinginess) has saved me too. I have heard way too many new writers say "I can afford it, and it's worth it because I really need help with my career"--not getting it that affordability wasn't the issue.

    Beth and Victoria--you should get together. A thriller about an agent/terrorist: sounds like a sure bestseller to me!

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  10. Great post, Anne! Read what you wrote very carefully, checked out your links. Thank you for being so up-front. Before we met, I posted "An Experience with an Agent" about how an agent almost suckered me in some years ago. She had a sterling reputation but intuition told me something wasn't quite right (as she kept going closer and closer to that line where she wanted money, big money.) So, I checked around and learned she'd come out of a nasty divorce and needed loot. I bailed without having forked over any loot.

    Maybe she got divorced from a terrorist!!

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  11. Kittie--how awful! I just checked out that blogpost, and I can't believe you didn't rant more. In just one or two sentences, you describe the writer's nightmare--

    First: Acceptance! In front of all those other writers! Float home!

    Then: Arrogance. Demands, and Show-me-the-money ($3000? Yikes!)

    And this was an agent who actually had once made real deals? That makes it so much creepier. A cautionary tale, fellow scriveners--watch your wallets!

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this!

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  12. Great advice as ever Anne, many thanks.

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  13. excellent article Anne! As always your advice is spot on!

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  14. Thanks for this excellent post, Anne. I had only heard that one must be super cautious if the agency is charging a reading fee, these are the agencies to be avoided at all costs. Your post is an eye opener.

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  15. Great post, Anne. Okay, it took me awhile to stop laughing after the terrorist part, but the rest of the info is extremely helpful. Thanks.

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  16. I was fortunate enough to have my novel taken by a small press without having an agent, so writers should not feel *too* discouraged by the statistics. Just keep persisting, and yes, do keep a wary eye out for any agent who sounds too good to be true. Great tips!

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  17. Great post, Anne! Super reminder for those of us who haven't queried an agent in a while...

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  18. Tx Anne! It's great to know about the websites for more information...

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