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Are there any specific signs (singular or groups of) that I should pay attention to when it comes to agents?

I have read about agents who work for less reputable publishing houses, charging fees for representation and then just passing the submitted manuscript to their vanity publisher backer. What would be typical warning signs I should look out for, to avoid agents like this and other shady agents?

On the other hand, an agent that doesn't ask for money and have multiple publishing authors in her/his stable is probably a good choice, are there other signs of a good agent?

  • This is also true for agents: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/187/… - Thinking about that, I'm not sure if we should close this as duplicate. – John Smithers Nov 25 '10 at 12:22
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    I wasn't entirely sure before posting the question, but I suspect there's enough differences in "signals shady" that I thought it better to post this question as well (I am aware of the other question, being the one who posted it). – Vatine Nov 25 '10 at 14:29
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    I think this question is sufficiently different from the shady-publishers question. To further differentiate it, though, you could ask for signs of a reputable agent. – Neil Fein Nov 25 '10 at 17:19
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    @neilfein Good idea, done. – Vatine Nov 25 '10 at 17:22
  • Well, if you guys think so: answered :) – John Smithers Nov 25 '10 at 19:24
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The place to start when checking out agents is Absolute Write. In particular, I'd start with their Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum.

Another good resource is Preditors & Editor's list of Literary Agents.

If there's an agent that the folks there haven't heard of, it's likely that that person won't be able to be much help to you (or your work).

8

From my own experience to discover a black sheep:

  1. If you've found and agent, google him.
  2. Google harder!
  3. If you think, he is reputable, change your keywords and google again!

No, not kidding. I found an agent who was very promising. Professional homepage, listed all the things you look for (you have to pay no money, best publishers, etc.)

I googled him and found nothing. Nothing good, nothing bad. If you only seek for the established ones, the new guys never have a chance, so I thought I give it a try. But I always sleep one night, before making a final decision.

The next day his homepage was gone. Not accessible. So I googled again, this time harder. And then I found a forum discussion about this agent, demonstrating that he was a bad apple, with newspaper article and everything your cold heart wishes. So, yes, I'm serious about my three points above.

4

By far the best way to find an agent is to go to a writer's conference and pitch to as many of the agents in attendance as you can. This not only pretty much guarantees that the agents are legit (they have been vetted by the conference organizers) it also gets you to the top of their reading pile if they request material from you. From the agent's POV, writers who spend the time and money to attend conferences are much more serious about their craft than hundreds whose send their manuscripts in the mail.

A shady agent, on the other hand, will probably prefer to keep their victims at arms length. The last thing most frauds want to do is to meet you face to face. A fraud with the brass to con you to your face is probably going to go after bigger fish than aspiring writers. There is only so much money you can con out of gullible writers; it is a volume business and the last thing you would want to do is spend the time and money on attending a conference where you con only can a few marks and have to look them in the eye while you do it.

3

An immensely helpful resource on this topic is Writer Beware, a volunteer organization associated with the SFWA and MWA. Their essay on warning signs of questionable agents answers your question in great depth.

For completeness, I'll summarize the main points here - but do read the entire article...


A reputable agent charges NOTHING but a percentage

An agent earns his or her money by selling your work. For this reason, their fee is defined as a percentage of whatever contracts they find and/or negotiate for you. Nothing else.

Any other fees - an upfront fee, an editing fee, extra services they urge you to pay for, anything - are a huge danger sign. That's because they're prone to heavy abuse - and that's just what shady agents do: they sign up lots of author-wannabes, do little or nothing to sell their work, and get money from the author instead of getting money for the author.

A reputable agent has a track record

A reputable agent with any experience in the field should have a list of clients he or she has successfully represented. That's a great sign that an agent is legit - just check that he's been legit in the past. Also check the quality of that agent's work - if the agent only lists books printed in small, negligible presses, that probably means they're not a very successful agent.

This information should be available from the agent's website (if it's not, huge warning sign). Be sure to verify whatever information you find, because shady agents can simply make up a false history, as impressive as they like.

If an agent is brand-new, fresh in the field, then they won't have a track record. But in that case, they should have a relevant professional background – Writer Beware says "either working in publishing, or training at a reputable agency." Verify the background, and make sure the agent really is as new as he claims to be.

Sniff 'em out

As John Smithers writes, never be content that an agent "looks OK" - root out whatever you can find about an agent before you commit to anything. Search Preditors and Editors, use Absolute Write's background check forum, Google for [agent's name] scam OR rip off OR swindler OR blackgaurd, use every resource you can possibly find.


These are just the most fundamental tips. The more you familiarize yourself with industry practices and professional standards, the better you will be able to recognize shadiness and warning signs - as well as being able to spot the real McCoy when you find it.

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