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Warning Signs: How To Spot A Bad Literary Agent: Part One

“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.

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 underqualified 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.

Read Part Two.

13 Responses to Warning Signs: How To Spot A Bad Literary Agent: Part One

  1. Get a hold of a Writer’s Market book. You can find these at most major book stores (i.e. Barnes and Noble). There’s one that’s specifically for anything considered YA or younger. Also, Google “MSWL” or “manuscript wishlist.” There are quite a few agents who seek specific subject matter this way in the world of social media.

  2. So, I’m very young (17) and I’m looking to get my book published but people were saying I should find a literacy agent before hand, well, I’m a minor and I don’t quite understand how this whole system works. Does anyone have any tips on how or even where to find a good literacy agent and how to get them to look at my book?

  3. Yes, Mare, this is a standard request for a nonfiction book. Congratulations on getting an agent request!

  4. Is it usual to get a response to a query for a nonfiction book from an agent to want “a full proposal that includes a marketing plan, bio, competitive analysis, sample chapter, etc.”? Thanks!

  5. Guess what. Literary conferences are the worst place to find agents. Do not go to them, all they want is your money. No conference should cost anything but they cost too a lot. Even a little is too much. Avoid them and people that tell you to go.

  6. A great place to search for legitimate agents is at the literary conferences that occur throughout the country, throughout the year. Agents and editors take pitches for books at these events, and those agents are typically fully screened by the conference. Legitimate conferences have legitimate agents. Additionally, there are fantastic opportunities for networking and learning the ins and outs of the industry. It’s an investment, but what business doesn’t need some investment? The payoff from these conferences more than makes up for the fees. Personally, I attend the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in July at SeaTac, and the Willamette Writers conference in August in Portland.

  7. Marie, thanks for commenting! The link has since been repaired. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  8. Thanks so much for this article! The process of searching for an agent can definitely be daunting because there is always the fear of being scammed. Even though there are probably many more honest, legitimate agents, the shady ones can give them a bad name at times. Having these easy red flags to look for is so important. Knowledge is power!!

  9. I have written three books through as print on demand company. They had done great work, including step by step marketing. I am working on my fourth novel and I feel I have gone beyond the POD publishing which has a tendancy to nickel and dime me to death to get what an agent can do.

    My mind is flooded with ideas and I tend to be snubbed for POD Publications, even though they are doing well.

  10. I have been scammed once. I really thought that it was friendliest website to get me the book that I want but nothing had arrived. I need to cut my card so as not to be charged again by them. When they asked money from you before they tell you to share something about, most of them are scam. so beware! Some agents tend to hook you with their alluring words to get your manuscript done with this and that. Watch out for it.

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