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Get Published: Guerilla Guidance for Your Writing Adventure
This Month: “I Love Your Book, But…” How to Tell Legitimate Agent Recommendations From Scams
When an agent sees potential in your work but thinks it needs improvement, what does she usually do? Unfortunately, she usually rejects it. This leaves many authors vulnerable to offers of editorial services to improve their work that provide financial kickbacks to illegitimate agents rather than advancing the author’s publishing goals.
A way to avoid this scenario from the get-go is to get a professional to help you polish your work before sending it to an agent, then identify legitimate agents with track records of selling work like yours for the kind of money you think your work can command. Or, hire a professional agent search service to identify and query those agents for you. This way you avoid having to deal with this scenario entirely. If you’re past that point, consider the rest of this article.
A minority of agents will take the time to work directly with the manuscripts or proposals of those authors whom they believe have potential, or else refer those authors to legitimate consultants who can help polish work, with the intention of representing the author’s improved work. How can a writer distinguish between those legitimate agents who go the extra mile, and scammers who take their money (or whose colleagues take their money) without helping them get published?
Agents who charge reading fees receive nearly universal disdain throughout the publishing world. The idea is that agents should make their money from commissions on selling books, not from author fees. Similarly, though new ones can and do crop up at any time, literary “agencies” exposed as fronts for paid editing services have been disbanded for fraud.
If an agent puts you in touch with two or more publishing professionals, and leaves you to make your own decision, chances are she’s not running a scam. I’ve received contracts this way, and sent the authors on to publication. However, I’ve never paid, and wouldn’t pay, an agent any kind of fee for sending me clients. This doesn’t mean agents who do garner such a fee are running scams—the fee might simply represent a professional courtesy among colleagues. Ask the editor she recommends if you aren’t sure. Personally, as an author, I’m much more comfortable with an agent who relies exclusively on royalties for their income.
If an agent insists you enlist the services of a particular editor, this would raise a red flag in my mind. In that case, research carefully that agent’s operation, and ask for the agent for author references.
Perhaps a newer agent wants a reliable editor to whom to refer new authors with potential, freeing her to sell books. However, always ask a newer agent if she has the necessary connections in the publishing industry to effectively sell your work. This depends on whether agents starting on their own carry clients -— and their reputations -— with them from a larger agency. Again, when in doubt, ask!
One thing to keep in mind is that even a legitimate agent cannot guarantee that once you improve your work, she’ll still be interested enough to commit to representing it. If she’s not, this doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on either her, or the publishing professional who helped you.. Or, for that matter, your work!
A successful agent-author partnership should be based on the agent’s confidence in her own ability to sell your work in the marketplace she knows. If the agent has enough doubt about this to pass on representing your work, she’s really done you both a favor. If she has sincere doubts about her ability to sell your work, saying “no thanks” at this stage may be more of a sign of professionalism than taking it on. Chin up, and keep looking.
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The founder and principal of GetPublished.com, Jill Nagle has been helping other authors get published for the last ten years. She also manages to find time to do her own work. Her most recent book is How to Find An Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar: Jill’s Guerilla Tips and Tricks, from which this article was adapted. See www.FindTheRightAgent.com for more information. Her books have been acclaimed in the alternative press, and her essays, book reviews, fiction, poetry and articles have appeared in dozens of anthologies and periodicals. Her first book, Whores and Other Feminists (Routledge, 1997) still earns royalties.
Agent Research Resources:
A free site that compiles author-supplied information on agents:
An irreverent and occasionally patently offensive public record of one person’s dealings with most of the publishing world, including the email addresses of hundreds of agents:
A long-established agent search service with its own database:
GetPublished’s agent search service:
The National Writer’s Union maintains its own agent database and offers legal assistance included with membership fee. The author belongs, and highly recommends joining: