Yesterday, I raised the red flag about the kind of “agency” that exists primarily not to sell its clients’ books to publishers, but to profit on writers’ frustration with the difficulty of landing an agent. There are many self-described agencies out there that apparently operate as fronts for high-priced editing services, tell writers that their work has promise, but that promise can only be fulfilled by enlisting the services of a specific outrageously expensive editing firm – which, of course, pays a kickback to the agency.
Sometimes, these kinds of agencies can be tough to spot, because it’s actually not unheard-of for perfectly credible agents to tell authors, “Gee, this could really use some professional editing,” and recommend a couple of good freelancers. I’ve gotten clients this way, in fact.
However, there’s a big difference between an agent’s giving a general piece of advice after reading a manuscript and agencies that either sell their query lists to editing companies (yes, it happens) or who include an editor’s brochure as part of their rejection packet in exchange for a commission.
This is a more subtle way to profit from querying writers, but to my mind, it’s just as ethically questionable as a specific referral + kickback. It’s using the power of rejection to make a sales pitch. Often, such agencies will have asked the writer to send an entire manuscript before suggesting the book doctor, which can make the referral seem very credible. The implication is, of course, that if the author hires that specific editor, the agent will offer representation at a later date, but these agencies seldom put that in writing.
No matter how complimentary a referring agent is about your work, such a referral is still a rejection, and you should regard it as such. Don’t assume that anything that’s typed on letterhead featuring the word “agency” is necessarily good advice on how to succeed as a writer.
Why should you be a tad incredulous? Well, when such a recommendation is made by an agent who allegedly knows the market, about a manuscript that he has ostensibly read carefully, it sounds like well-informed advice, but think about it: how do you know that the agent DID read the manuscript carefully — indeed at all, before recommending that you seek out a particular editor? Perhaps the agent automatically refers EVERY manuscript he rejects to that editing agency. Perhaps he gets a nice, juicy referral fee for each writer he refers.
Other soi-disant agencies take the scam even farther, demanding that writers obtain a so-called objective evaluation (with a price tag that can run upwards of $100) of their manuscripts before even considering them for representation – and the fees just keep mounting after that. Typically, these “agencies” rush at writers with too-eager offers of representation, then after a contract is signed, billing the writer for every so-called necessary service the agency provides.
Rule of thumb: legitimate agencies don’t ask for your credit card information.
To add insult to injury, these pseudo-agencies typically do not send out their clients’ work at all. However, they have been known to sign a writer to a long-term contract that grants the agency 15% of any future sales of the book in question — without having done any actual agenting work on its behalf.
Obviously, such agencies should be avoided like the plague that they are, but unfortunately, they specifically prey upon writers unfamiliar with how the industry works — ones who do not know, for instance, that the Association of Authors’ Representatives will not admit agencies that charge such fees, and are always happy to tell a curious author whether they’ve had complaints about a particular agency. Or ones who do not know that the standard agency guides (Writer’s Digest’s yearly GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS, also updated yearly), don’t list this sort of agency at all. Or ones who do not know that Preditors and Editors routinely lists all of the agents and agencies in the country, along with indications of whether they are reputable or not. Or ones who are unaware that in a legitimate agency, novels are virtually NEVER accepted for representation until the agent has read the entire book. (The fake agencies are notorious for asking to see a few chapters, then offering representation right way.)
These unscrupulous agencies, in short, prey upon the ignorance and hope of nice people new to the biz, and there is no pit of hell deep enough for those who prey on the innocent.
The moral: do your homework. Any reputable agency worth its salt should be willing to show you its client list before you sign, for instance, and it’s perfectly legitimate to ask if they ever charge their clients for services. Ask the offering agent point-blank if s/he is a member of the AAR, and request a schedule of any fees he charges.
It’s also a good idea to limit your search to recognized agencies. Check the agency guides. If you are absolutely committed to finding an agent online, be wary of an agency that seems only to have a website, without being listed in any agency guides. If you feel absolutely compelled to answer an ad (not a good idea, as established agencies simply don’t advertise), triple-check with independent sources before you sign ANYTHING.
There are some things for which reputable agencies do charge, however; I shall go into some of these tomorrow. In the meantime, remember that this is an extremely competitive business, the odds of which are not all that different per capita than getting admitted to an Ivy League school. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if someone on the street offered you admission to Harvard, if you paid him a fee, even if he is wearing a crimson sweatshirt?
Think about it: should you really be any less suspicious of an agency that offers to sell you your dreams on a similar basis?
Keep up the good work, my friends!