How to Protect Yourself From Questionable Agents
by Marg Gilks

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I recently received a letter from a literary agency soliciting a manuscript submission from me. Did I congratulate myself on my good fortune? Did I consider my quest for an agent ended? No! That letter went straight into the garbage.

Writers work isolated; many keep going on only hope and a dream. Unfortunately, there are people out there who know this, who prey on those who would rather dream than do the research necessary to protect themselves.

We all dream of seeing our hard work come to fruition, of holding a book with our name on it in our hands. But remember this, if nothing else, while you search for an agent or publisher: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Why did I throw that agent's letter away? I normally run a check on any agent expressing an interest in seeing my manuscript, but for this one, I didn't have to. I hadn't contacted him; he contacted me. So I asked myself: if this agent knew his stuff, if he did a good job for his clients, would he be out looking for authors? No. They'd be coming to him -- in droves. Even if this agent had proven reputable, I know that having an ineffectual agent is often worse than having no agent at all.

Several months ago I queried several agents in Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, as well as a number of agents I found on the Internet, all of whom claimed not to charge a reading fee. Surprise! Every one of the agents who responded favorably to my query failed my "reputable agents check" in at least one instance. Many who claimed not to charge a reading fee were reported to charge "evaluation fees," "contract fees," or "processing fees." Still others ran their own editing service or subsidy publishing on the side. The bottom line? No matter what it's called, be wary of any agent who asks you for money. Even if they seem legitimate, ask yourself this: how hard will this agent work to sell my book and earn his percentage, if he's already making easy money in fees? Or: is this an agent or an editor? Will he be working to sell my book to publishers, or making money from authors for another service altogether?

Ask yourself these questions with publishers, as well. If a publisher wants money from you, you've probably found a vanity press. They won't promote your book. Many don't even edit the manuscripts they take on. Why should they? They've made their money from the author; who cares if the book is unsellable in its present form? They lose nothing; the author loses both money and credibility.

Protecting yourself from scams can be as easy as doing a few minutes' research on the Internet. Here are a dozen tips to get you started:

You can also stay abreast of news in your field and recognize the names of good agents by reading the trade news magazines -- Locus and the SFWA Bulletin are two. Note the names of agents who sell work similar to yours, and who they represent and deal with. Another way to learn about agents is to read the forewords and dedication pages of books similar to yours -- some authors thank their agents there. And of course, every library carries Literary Market Place in their reference section!

Find Out More...

Ask an Agent: Four Agents Answer Your Questions - Natalie R. Collins

How to Play the Agent Game - Chris Gavaler

How to Pitch Your Book at a Writing Conference - Cynthia Gallagher

The Perfect Pitch: Pitching to Agents at a Writing Conference - Sue Fagalde Lick

What Agents Really Want - Natalie R. Collins's Links to Finding an Agent

Copyright © 2001 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business:


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