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.

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?  

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