Avoiding literary agency scams
By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, firstwriter.com
firstwriter.com – Friday October 27, 2006
For as long as there have been writers eager to get published, there have been con artists ready to prey upon them for a quick buck. Nowadays, the internet is rife with phony literary agencies offering writers false hope in return for a small (or not-so-small) sum of money. In this article I'll look at some of the ways you can spot a dodgy agency, and avoid your time, money, and aspirations being abused. While none of the points below guarantee by themselves that an agency is dubious, together they can make a compelling case, and they should all make you tread a little more cautiously.
The first thing to look out for is up-front fees. Most agents work on a commission basis: once they have sold your book they will take a percentage of the proceeds. That means they don't get anything unless they make a success of your book. If you're being asked to pay money before publication, then slow down and take stock. The fees you can be asked for can take a number of forms:
- Reading Fees: Traditionally, some agents have charged reading fees. This was based on the perfectly reasonable notion that if an agent was to expend a lot of their valuable time reading your manuscript then they ought to get paid for it (after all, lawyers get paid for their time, don't they?). The only problem was that con artists quickly cottoned onto this as a way to make a fast buck. They didn't bother reading the manuscripts and they never accepted any – they just charged a "reading fee" for sending out rejection letters. Because of this, the industry associations for literary agencies (the AAR in the United States and the AAA in the United Kingdom) require in their codes of ethics that no reading fee is charged. There are respectable agents who charge reading fees (sometimes as a way of discouraging unwanted submissions) but you should always proceed with extreme caution when approaching any agent who charges reading fees.
- Fees for representation: In an effort to try and evade the stigma of reading fees, some scams will proudly pronounce that they don't charge them – but when the contract comes through you find you're asked to pay a fee for your representation. Unlike the previous scams, these ones do accept manuscripts – in fact they accept everything. The results for the writer are even worse: the prices are usually higher, and you will have to sign a contract that will tie up your book with an agent who will do nothing to sell it.
- Contributions towards postal/admin costs: This is the really tricky one, as lots of perfectly reputable agents will ask for authors to cover some costs, such as photocopying and posting of manuscripts. Unfortunately, it can also be used by scams to milk authors for small amounts of money over a long period of time, asking for contributions towards costs of manuscripts that they never actually send anywhere. It's very hard to pick this one out in advance (other than by using some of the other tips below), but if you're in a situation where you're paying an agent to send out submissions you should ensure that you're receiving a regular, detailed report of who they are being sent to. If it doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, follow up these reports and make sure that the people listed really have received your manuscript (and that the people even exist – which is not always the case!).
- Editorial services: This is the latest trick from scam agencies that want to appear reputable. They don't charge any fees themselves, but tell you that your work will be accepted as long as you pay to have it edited – then refer you to a specific editor who is, of course, working in partnership with the "agency" and shares the proceeds with them. It's perfectly reasonable for an agency to ask you to get your work edited if they feel it needs it, but if they try and force you to use a specific editor then be wary. Even be cautious if they offer you a range of editors to choose from – they may all be in cahoots with the "agent", or they may even be the same person operating under different aliases. See how your potential agent reacts if you find and suggest an editor yourself. They may insist you use an editor they suggest because they know and trust them – and this again my be entirely genuine – but you should definitely proceed with caution.
If you're searching for agents on firstwriter.com you can tick the "No Fees" box, and this will remove all the agents known to charge up-front fees from your results. If you are ever asked for money from an agent not listed as a fee-charger, please let us know immediately so we can update the listing accordingly.
You can tell a lot about an agency's intent by what their focus is. A genuine agency will be focused on its current list of clients and their books (that's how they make their money) – submissions from wannabe writers will usually be an unwelcome distraction. Scam agencies, however, will be focused on unpublished authors and receiving submissions.
- Advertising for submissions: If an agency is actively advertising for submissions (often they will do this through Google Adwords, which may appear as text ads on Google itself or other sites affiliated with Google) then this should ring alarm bells. Author submissions are for most agents a nuisance – so why is this agency willing to pay for advertising in an effort to receive more? There are some legitimate reasons – if the agency is new, or expanding into new areas, then they may wish to advertise for submissions, but these instances are few and far between, and usually for limited periods only. The trouble, of course, is that such rare legitimate instances offer an unusually rich opportunity for wannabe writers. To judge whether such an opportunity could be your big break or break your bank you'll need to bear in mind the other tips in this article – but always proceed with caution.
- Agency website: If the agency has a website (and most scams will have) this can provide clues about what their real interests are. Any agency will give priority to whatever makes it money. In the case of respectable agencies this will be their current clients and their books. The website will concentrate on published titles and encouraging you to buy them, and may have a section on submission guidelines somewhere down the list. In the case of scams, however, the main focus will probably be author submissions. They will spend a lot of time telling you how focused they are on authors, and promoting new talent. There may even be a page of testimonials from satisfied clients – but a true agency wouldn't really have any motivation to include such a page. The only reason for such a page is to try and ensnare more authors – it doesn't sell books. Of course, if an agency is just starting out and doesn't have a client base then it may also have a website with no books to promote, and a concentration on author submissions. Again, you need to weigh this up with the other factors outlined in this article.
- Agency scope: If you're searching for agents on firstwriter.com you'll notice that under their name on the results page there is a string of keywords describing the kind of work they handle. For most agencies this is two or three lines long, as most agents restrict their activities to areas they know and are specialised in. However, sometimes you will see listings with what looks like an entire paragraph of keywords. This can often be a bad sign. While there are large agencies that have lots of agents covering a very broad scope, the hungry scammer who wants to lure as many authors as possible will often say they are willing to consider absolutely anything.
User feedback comments
The user feedback feature in firstwriter.com's database of literary agents can be a great way of picking out bad agents, but it's not as simple as just weighing up the number of positive comments versus the number of negative ones. Sometimes bad agencies will have more positive comments than negative ones, but it's the kind of positive comments that can give these agencies away, or at least arouse your suspicions. Here's how to get the most out of the feedback that's left:
- Read all the comments: Don't just take the number of positive or negative comments as an assessment of the agency. Often, positive comments can be every bit as damning as negative ones. For instance, I once saw a happy client leave a positive comment for an agency, reporting how, after paying the agent hundreds of pounds for representation, he was told he would never get his book published by a traditional publisher and was therefore asked to pay even more money to have it published by a vanity publisher. An absolutely ludicrous situation, but one which he was apparently pleased with. Anyone who read the comment, however, would have known to run a mile.
- Read between the lines: Scam agents will sometimes have lots of positive feedback from writers who are delighted with them simply because they have accepted their manuscript. If you see a listing with an unusually high number of writers reporting acceptance then be cautious. Why is this agency accepting so many people? Even if they're not a scam, it suggests their standards aren't very high. Will they really be able to represent your work properly and give it the attention it deserves if they have so many other new authors on their books? Check the dates of the comments and think about the frequency of them, bearing in mind that only a minority of people will probably take the time to leave feedback at all. Finally, remember that it's in the interests of scammers to respond quickly and be courteous and accommodating towards writers. They want your money, after all.
- Negative comments count double!: As we've seen above, there can be a number of reasons for not taking positive comments at face value, but negative comments are often more straightforward. If you see an agency with 20+ positive comments from writers who have been accepted, and one negative comment from someone saying the agency charges fees and is disreputable, then the negative comment is the one to concentrate on. The positive comments are still giving you important information, but they're actually backing up the negative one, not contradicting it.
The more they want you, the less you should want them...
The frustrating general rule which emerges from all this is that the more interested an agency seems to be in new authors, the more cautious you should be. A new author is a huge risk for a literary agency, so why would anyone want to seek them out or specialise in them? If an agency looks like it's trying to sell itself to new writers, beware. New writers looking for an agent often make the mistake of seeking out those most eager to receive submissions, and most open to unsolicited MSS and approaches by email, when in fact you are probably safer submitting to the curmudgeonly old dinosaur of an agent, who might begrudgingly accept a hard copy synopsis before scrawling "not for me" on it six months down the line. Golden opportunities do sometimes emerge, and you certainly shouldn't ignore them, but bear in mind the warning signs above when considering whether or not to approach them. All too often, the old adage sticks: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Next month I'll continue this article from the opposite perspective, outlining good practices for seeking out respectable agents (click here).
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