One of the first things writers seeking agency representation should learn is that legitimate agents DO NOT charge author fees. These include agents who charge reading fees simply to read your manuscript; evaluation fees to review your manuscript; agents who require writers to pre-purchase books; or pay some of the publication and/or marketing costs.
There are a host of agent scams preying on authors desperate to see their book in print. One of the absolute best resources on the Internet regarding questionable agent practices can be found on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) site under the section called “Writer Beware”. SFWA is constantly researching and updating the Writer Beware area to help educate authors to avoid the endless writer-related scams.
However, even writers who do their homework are not immune to unscrupulous agents. These two examples illustrate how even smart authors can get taken.
In the fall of 2003 I heard from an agency offering representation for my novel. The agent provided specific instructions on how the manuscript should be formatted for the best possible presentation. Before I signed anything, I researched the agency which I had found through a reputable author organization. Clearly, I didn’t do enough.
The agency included the six-month contract in their offer of representation, which I thought was odd. But it would get even worse. As I later learned from another author, legitimate agents don’t make representation offers through the mail electronic or otherwise, they call you personally.
The agency then explained they would need approximately 25 copies of the manuscript to send to publishers. I had two options: (a) I could make copies as the agency needed and pay for postage each time, or (b) pay the agency a flat-fee of $250 and let them make the copies. Knowing I should never have to pay an agent money up-front, my gut-reaction was to pass. However two author friends and several family members reminded me I had just paid $125.00 for three copies of the manuscript. This meant my final tally on 25 copies would be much larger than $250. They convinced me to change my mind and pay the fee.
Six months later I received a letter from the agency saying they were unable to find representation for my novel. Attached was a crooked, mimeographed list of the 25 publishers they had supposedly sent the manuscript to. When I contacted the organization where I had obtained the agent’s name, they asked an important question: Had I gotten copies of the rejection letter from every single publisher the agent had contacted? When I said no, the organization explained that’s how legitimate agents work and to ask the agency for those rejection letters. When I did, the agent told me those files had been destroyed at the end of the contract.
How The Scam Works:
Going back to the contract, the agent had already dated the contract for six months which meant I lost several weeks making the requested format changes. My attorney didn’t feel that was unusual, but I had reservations. Second, do the math. Two-hundred fifty dollars times a thousand “clients” is a cool $250,000. Most legitimate agents are inundated with thousands of authors seeking representation every year, so an unscrupulous agent can simply sit back and wait for their “clients” to send that $250 believing they have representation with a legitimate agent. I discovered later that the agency was on a list highlighting the 20 worst literary agents.
The second scam also seemed to start out as legitimate. Carl, a co-worker, announced at a staff meeting he’d obtained agency representation for his novel. When he mentioned the name of the agency, I recognized it as one who had recently rejected me. The agent had offered some suggestions on how to improve the story and mentioned she would be interested in taking another look after I’d made revisions.
Carl had also been told his manuscript needed work and had been offered suggestions for editing and revisions. But the agent went even further. She told Carl he could do the revisions or an editor she knew could do the polish for $1,500. In either case, she claimed with those tweaks she could “definitely sell this book”. Carl declined the editor’s services, and for the next several weeks worked on revising his novel during every free moment. When he submitted the completed manuscript, Carl was then told that because book marketing costs are so expensive, he would need to put up $25,000 to get the process started. The agent promised he would get that money back and much more once the book was published.
How The Scam Works:
This agent had multiple scams going. Had Carl agreed to let the agent’s “editor” associate polish the manuscript, he would have been out the $1,500. Usually the literary agent and editorial businesses are owned by the same company and make referrals to each other without the author having any idea of their relationship. They’re not interested in improving your work, such agents and editors are only concerned with the editorial fees. At this point Carl realized all of his writing and revising had been for naught. As foolish as Carl felt, at least he hadn’t parted with $25,000.
Finding a good agent can be a very tricky business. Even authors who know better aren’t immune to making serious mistakes when it comes to the “promise” of seeing your words in print. Along with the list of following tips, remember the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true , it probably is”.
The agents contained in the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) database must adhere to a Code of Ethics. This is a great starting point for your agent search and some authors contact only agents belonging to the AAR.
Research every potential agent you’re planning to contact. Start with a Google search of the agency and agent. You may have to look at several sites to gather the information you need to make a well-informed decision. Another excellent resource is Agent Query.
How many books has the agent actually sold to major publishers? What was the date of the last work they sold? I’ve found more than one agent still accepting submissions who haven’t sold a book in years.
Use sites such as the Writers Beware section on SFWA and Preditors and Editors who track agents who engage in questionable practices.
In the event that you are the victim of an unscrupulous literary agent, don’t keep quiet because you’re embarrassed by your mistake. That’s exactly what such agents want writers to do. Instead, approach organizations that are on the lookout for agent scams with your story. By coming forward you’ll help keep other authors from making the same mistake.