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A Guide to Agents
To Be Avoided:
A Website Case Study of [Name Withheld] Agency
Let people know:
Sometimes you'll come across the website of an agency you haven't heard of before, and can't find in the standard references. It might be a new agency. Or it might be an agency you should avoid--one that gets its income from fees of various kinds, not by placing manuscripts with publishers. How can you tell which it is? Take a careful look at the site. Disreputable agencies do not present themselves in the same way reputable ones do. Here are some things to look for. This study is based on one site in particular, but I've seen these things on the sites of other similar agencies. I'm not giving their name, as I do not wish to give them any publicity.
Impressions: One of the first things that is likely to strike you is that these sites make an effort to sell themselves. They proclaim their willingness to work with authors to make their work better, or make statements about the difficulty of getting published. Reputable agencies don't need to do this. They just provide information about themselves--see the other case studies.
Some, but not all, of these agencies don't give their address and phone number. The ones that don't may give reasons why, such as being overwhelmed with phone calls, that you would think would be a problem for real agencies. How is it that those agencies don't have that problem? It's also difficult, if not impossible, to find the names of the people who work for the agency on these sites, giving them a faceless appearance. Text on the site uses "we" to refer to the agency, but who, really, is the "we"?
Qualifications: In addition to not giving the names of their agents, these agencies typically say very little about their qualifications, or make only general statements about experience. An agent should have prior experience at a publisher or at an established literary agency. If they don't, they are no better able to make submissions to and negotiate with publishers than you are. Any other experience just isn't relevant, which of course is why such agencies are silent on this subject.
Clients: Since these agencies do not make sales to publishers, they typically give no specifics about their current clients or the books they've placed. They may post quotes from satisfied clients, but these thank them for the help they've given, express gratitude for a good and inexpensive critique, or otherwise focus on the good relationship between the agency and the client and not on the deals that the agency has made and the books that have resulted.
Watch out too for slippery language. If an agent lists "publishers our authors have worked with," does that necessarily mean that that agent made a deal with that publisher? No, and that's why they used that language. Look for straightforward information about an agency's clients and the deals they have made with publishers. You'll find very little of this at the fee-charging agencies.
Some agencies may tout a recent deal or a particular client who has published books. Having a few credits of this type helps them to conceal the fact that the vast majority of their clients are not going to get a publishing deal. So be suspicious of an agency that makes a lot out of a little; even a one-person agency needs to make a steady stream of deals, perhaps 30-40 per year, to stay in business. An agency that doesn't make many deals is not living on commissions. It's living on fees.
Terms: These agencies typically say little about their terms. You'll find out more about them only when they offer to represent you. On the site, they may deny that they charge fees (these agencies often refer people to a seemingly independent editing service that in fact is tied to the agency, so that they can maintain this claim). Other agents don't need to say this.
Conclusions: Once you know what to look for, the websites of shady agents become easy to spot. These websites are strikingly different from the agencies that don't charge fees, because they have to serve a very different purpose. Reputable agencies just need to present information about themselves in a business-like way. The shady agencies have to reel in new victims. Until you develop an eye for the differences, though, double-check any agent you are interested in by using one or more of the resources in Finding and Choosing Literary Agents.
A Cautionary Tale: Do you find it hard to believe that people would fall for setups like the one I describe above? People do, and have for years. To better understand how cons like these work, and to learn more about what to watch for, read about Dorothy L. Deering, a sham agent who lived for years on the reading and marketing "fees" she charged her clients, in Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell. Her techniques are still in use today....
Adams Literary study | Writer's House study
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