E-Book as Query Part 2: 10 Tips for Spotting Bogus and Predatory Agents.

As I reported last month, the self-published e-book is fast becoming the query of choice for many New York literary agencies.

Rather than slog through mountains of slush, agents are closing their offices to queries and shopping for new clients in the Kindle bestseller lists.

Why not? That’s where they’ll find unrepresented authors with proven sales numbers, which is what more and more publishers require. Successful indie authors know how to write what sells, plus they’re savvy marketers—a win/win for agents and editors alike.

Whether it’s a win for writers remains to be seen.

Big name, prestigious agencies have taken to Kindle-trolling. Noah Lukeman (author of The First Five Pages) made deals for two formerly self-pubbed first-time authors last month, although he’s been closed to queries for some time. And über-agency Trident Media Group has signed at least five indies this year.

These agencies seem especially interested in the international bestseller lists—probably hoping to reel in the next Steig Larsson or J. K. Rowling. (And it helps that UK agents are showing little interest in Kindle sales—UK publishing apparently lives in some time-warp Dickensian reality.)

So it’s a heady time for successful indie authors.

Imagine: here’s you, first-time author, who no doubt self-pubbed after years of rejection—having a nice cuppa at home in Claxby Pluckacre, Firozabad, or even here in San Luis Obispo, CA—when the phone rings and it’s someone from NEW YORK. It’s that call: the offer of a contract and soon-to-come book deal (with maybe a tantalizing hint of a film option.) Opportunity has knocked: fame and fortune and glory to follow. Your dream has come true.

Only thing is: this person may not actually be an agent. Not the kind who sells books to real publishers.

Just the way agents see gold in them thar Kindle hills, so do the scammers.  

The words “I’m calling from New York” are dazzling, and most international writers don’t know the difference between a prestigious agency in Manhattan or some con-person calling from the 24-hour Denny’s in Rochester (New York is a big state.) And even a lot of North Americans can be temporarily blinded by the idea of a New York agent.

So beware. There’s a big chance this call will never lead to seeing that dreamed-of print book sitting in your local bookstore window.

It might be best to go back and finish your tea before making any decisions.

Here are some tips to keep yourself grounded if/when you get that call.

1) Be skeptical if your Amazon sales are not huge. Real agents are looking for superstars, but scammers are just going down the list looking for pigeons.

2) Ask what they like about the book. Agents read books before they make offers. A scammer will only quote blurb copy.

3) Ask where they plan to submit your work. If they are unable to name names and particular imprints, be wary. They may not be crooks, but they’re also not likely to be good agents. An effective agent will personally know editors that are looking for your type of book.

4) Find out how long they’ve been in the business. Nothing wrong with new agents—in fact they’re often the best—because they need clients and they’re hungry. But you want to make sure they’re well-connected. If they never interned or worked at an established agency or publishing house, they probably aren’t going to be able to sell your book.

5) NEVER agree to pay up-front fees, even if the fees are just for “copying and mailing.” This is a recycled scam from the 1990s. Bogus agencies would sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for “copying and mailing.” But they never made a sale. Some unsuspecting writers lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.

NB: In the old days, some smaller agencies did legitimately charge “mailing fees” or “copying/processing fees,” (after they put your book out on submission) but everything’s done electronically now, so this is 100% bogus in the electronic age, at least on this side of the pond.

6) Be wary of agency websites with “testimonials” from happy clients. This isn’t done in the publishing business. Agencies do not advertise for clients. A good agency’s “testimonials” are their sales. (And if you see obvious grammatical mistakes on the website, run. Some bogus agencies seem to use bad grammar on purpose, maybe to weed out the savvier writers.) 

7) Check client lists. If there’s no client page on their website, you know you're in scammer-land. Agents don’t keep client lists “confidential.”  If they represent a literary star, they’ll scream it from the rooftops.

8) Check recent sales. Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Stephen King or Nora Roberts, if they haven’t made a sale in the past few years, they won’t have the contacts to sell your book today. There's a fast turn-over in editorial departments.

9) Pay attention to where their clients have been published. If they’re all at the same handful of presses—none of which you’ve ever heard of—this is very likely a vanity publishing outfit. This is a common publishing scam these days: the agent “sells” your book to one of several “imprints” of a publishing company—which he owns—charging an agent’s cut of 15%. Then (his) press will charge you to print the book, or require you to buy a certain number of copies at inflated prices.

10) Check them out with respected writers’ watchdog groups:


However, as I said above, not all agents who contact a successful indie author will be bogus. They may very well be big-time, big-name industry superstars.

So you can put down the tea and pop open the champagne, right?

Uh, maybe not.

Some Kindle-trolling agents are asking that indie e-publishers take their books off Amazon as soon as they sign--that’s ALL of your books, not just the one the agent wants to rep.

This means you have to give up your income and remove your briskly-selling, successful books from the marketplace while the agent shops your new manuscript around.

And that may take years.

If you’ve ever talked to an author whose work is on submission, you’ll know this can be a soul-crushingly long, slow, and miserable process, with no guarantees. I’ve been through it with three different agents. And not one of them made a sale.

Meanwhile, you’ve lost all your sales momentum and brand recognition. If you finally do get a contract with a Big 6 publisher, your marketing plan will have to start over at square one when your book comes out—two to four years from now. (Yes, the publishing industry still moves at a horse-and-buggy pace.) Plus you’ll have a much more expensive product to sell.

And chances are there will be no bookstore window to put it in. Bookstores are dying off  faster than any of us expected.

The marketing thing is no big deal for the agent or publisher: writers are expected to do all our own marketing these days—or so they keep telling us.

But it’s going to be a big deal for you.

So even if an agent is for real, I strongly suggest you resist any requests to remove all your inventory from the marketplace. Maybe some agents can make a hiatus in your career worthwhile, but be aware they’re asking you to take a huge gamble.

Most of us are stuck in the old paradigm of “I need an agent to be a REAL writer.” (I’ve got to admit I still send off the occasional query myself after I’ve polished up a new ms--ever the deluded optimist.)  But this is a whole new publishing universe, and agents are still trying to figure out how they fit into it.

But if you’re an indie author with good sales, you fit in just fine, and you might want to stay right where you are. As exciting as it feels to be wooed by the people who once spurned you, don’t welcome all comers with hugs and kisses.

When former Big Six editor Ruth Harris guest blogged here a couple of weeks ago, she advised all authors to have a lawyer look at any agency contract before signing. I was surprised at her lack of trust, but since then, I've discovered that many of today’s agency contracts have become downright predatory. They can leave you destitute and enslaved, while the agent owns your book and even your characters--for lifetimes to come. Scary stuff.

I’ll be blogging more on the subject of some of the dangerous new agent practices over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

Do any of you know Kindle writers who have been approached by agents? How would you react if it happened to you? Do you have any scam-agent horror stories?

Announcement: My friend and mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward and so many other fantastic, award-winning books, is offering one of her limited intensive workshops on the weekend of June 25th at her home in Cambria CA. It will concentrate on dialogue. This is a fantastic chance to work one-on-one with a great American author (which looks great in your query letter!) Contact her at ryanhyde (at) cryanhyde (dot) com.

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