“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.