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!