Warning Signs: How To Spot A Bad Literary Agent

Since we’ve been on the topic of literary agents the last few days, I figured we would continue with a little more “literary agent education” for whomever might need it. I found this article at http://writersrelief.com/. Let’s face it, there are all kinds of scams out there. Money scams, puppy and kitten scams, internet scams, you name it. Unfortunately, there can be just as many scams in the writing industry if you don’t know what red flags to look for. It can be overwhelming, especially for new writers coming in to the business, to know a legit agent or agency compared to a non-legit one.

Hopefully, this article will help some of you understand what to look for when you’re ready to seek representation:

“How can you tell if a literary agent or agency is legitimate?” New novelists and veteran writers can fall prey to literary agency schemes—hidden tricks that literary agents use to fake legitimacy or make a quick buck on a book. Writers should be wary of questionable companies when approaching literary agencies or individual agents.

What steps can you take to help determine if an agency is legitimate?

Query only established agents. Not a writer and editor/agent or a PR person/publisher/agent. Some agents do write and agent, but it’s important that agenting is his or her first priority. A good agent will have more than he or she can handle wearing one hat and one hat only.

Check track record/sales. The number one indication of a successful agent will be their track record, and they should be eager to share this with you. If they claim their recent sales are confidential, this is a red flag. Feel free to ask for recent sales, published works, recommendations from satisfied clients, etc. Or look up your agent on www.publishersmarketplace.com, a Web site that chronicles publishing deals. However, there is a fee for this site.

Note: There’s a difference between an agency that doesn’t want to share their track record and an agency that has a minimal number of sales. Many quality agencies start out small, and sometimes this can translate into more personal attention. They may not have a long track record yet; check for quality versus quantity.

Look for professionalism across the board. Is the agency’s Web site or correspondence with you full of typos and/or grammatical errors? Does the agent get defensive or angry when you ask questions about fees and contract issues? Are your calls ignored for weeks? In general, look for professionalism and general courtesy when dealing with an agent.

Note: Again, don’t necessarily dismiss an agency that is operated out of the agent’s home, or that doesn’t have a full staff or a Web site. (In fact, some of the big agencies don’t have Web sites.) Many good agents start off small and keep their costs down, and they may be more willing to represent a new writer. They may also have more time to work harder for their clients.

Watch for “recommended services.” If your agent gives your work high praise…and then suggests that it will only sell if it is professionally edited, you should immediately go on high alert, especially if the agent already has an editor for you. This is usually the sign of a kickback referral scheme that preys on the hopes and dreams of new writers, and it is highly unethical. The same goes for illustrators. A good agent knows that publishers prefer to do the matching of authors and illustrators, and they should not push you to hire one they recommend.

Beware of agents who are looking for poets and short story writers. Most legitimate agents do not make any money off poetry and short fiction—unless the writer is already very strongly established.

Beware of agents who shower you with excessive flattery and praise or who make grand promises. (Good agents don’t make promises they can’t keep.)

Beware of signs of incompetence. There are plenty of mediocre agents out there who engage in unprofessional practices such as using the client’s own query letters, employing random submission strategies, and insisting the client pay for 8×10 photos, fancy binders, and marketing plans (all of which are unnecessary and off-putting to editors).

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do your homework. Google potential agents, search writers’ forums, and check for references. Writers are a close-knit group and good about protecting each other. When a naughty agent is lurking, chances are there are savvy writers putting out the word to others. You have the power not to get caught in a literary agent scheme!

The way that a reputable literary agent should make money is by selling books. That’s it. If an agent is asking for any fees (reading, evaluations, marketing, or retainer fees), let the red flags unfurl.

Reading fees at agencies weren’t always a red flag, but because several agencies began abusing the system—charging fees without having any genuine interest in the material itself—the practice was abolished by the Association of Authors’ Representatives or AAR (the trade group for US literary agents).

The same goes for evaluation fees. If an agency offers an evaluation of your manuscript, it should be free. Disreputable agencies will sometimes charge the writer for a “critique,” which is generic, widely applicable, or performed by an under qualified staff member. The AAR frowns upon this practice and so should you.

Other dubious fees fall under the category of administration, marketing, or submission costs. A good agent will only charge the client for expenses that are above and beyond normal and reasonable expenses, such as long-distance phone calls and shipping costs. These are usually deducted from the client’s royalties and should not be up-front costs. Watch out for agents who demand money up-front, especially for such vague reasons; if in doubt, request an itemized list of any charges—you should not be billed for every Post-it your agent uses.

Sometimes an agent is not dishonest, but merely inept. This is an agent who uses questionable methods to submit your work to editors—sending your work to editors who aren’t looking for what you are trying to sell; bundling several queries into one package; using shotgun types of submission methods; and not doing their homework. These agents quickly develop a reputation among editors, and their clients can expect their work to be ignored. Some writers feel that any agent is better than none at all, but this simply is not the case.

Reputable agents do not need to advertise in magazines or search for clients online, and they never send spam. If you are approached by an agent without ever having contacted them, beware. Dishonest agents often troll online writers’ forums or purchase subscription lists from writers’ magazines to beef up their client list.

Note: Once in a great while, an agent will read your work in a magazine and contact you directly; this is a legitimate practice, and you should be able to tell that it is not a generic form letter, that the agent actually read your work and admired it.

Hope this helps everyone!! Thank you again for reading and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to post them!

Happy Writing Ya’ll!

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