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How to Protect Yourself from Questionable Agents

© Marg Gilks (updated May/09)

I once received a letter from a literary agency soliciting a manuscript submission from me. Did I congratulate myself on my good fortune? Did I consider my quest for an agent ended? No! That letter went straight into the garbage.

Writers work isolated; many keep going on only hope and a dream. Unfortunately, there are people out there who know this, who prey on those who would rather dream than do the research necessary to protect themselves.

We all dream of seeing our hard work come to fruition, of holding a book with our name on it in our hands. But remember this, if nothing else, while you search for an agent or publisher: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Why did I throw that agent's letter away? I normally run a check on any agent expressing an interest in seeing my manuscript, but for this one, I didn't have to. I hadn't contacted him; he contacted me. So I asked myself: if this agent knew his stuff, if he did a good job for his clients, would he be out looking for authors? No. They'd be coming to him — in droves. Even if this agent had proven reputable, I know that having an ineffectual agent is often worse than having no agent at all.

A few years ago I queried several agents in Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, as well as a number of agents I found on the Internet, all of whom claimed not to charge a reading fee. Surprise! Every one of the agents who responded favorably to my query failed my "reputable agents check" in at least one instance. Many who claimed not to charge a reading fee were reported to charge "evaluation fees," "contract fees," or "processing fees." Still others ran their own editing service or subsidy publishing on the side. The bottom line? No matter what it's called, be wary of any agent who asks you for money. Even if they seem legitimate, ask yourself this: how hard will this agent work to sell my book and earn his percentage, if he's already making easy money in fees? Or: is this an agent or an editor? Will he be working to sell my book to publishers, or making money from authors for another service altogether?

Ask yourself these questions with publishers, as well. If a publisher wants money from you, you've probably found a vanity press. They won't promote your book. Many don't even edit the manuscripts they take on. Why should they? They've made their money from the author; who cares if the book is unsellable in its present form? They lose nothing; the author loses both money and credibility.

If you're connected to the Internet, protecting yourself from scams can be as easy as doing a few minutes' research. Here are some tips to get you started:

Visit Preditors & Editors Warnings to Writers and the SFWA Writer Beware page. (You don't have to write science fiction or fantasy to find this information helpful.) See the worst agencies and tips on avoiding agents like them at Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agency List.

There is even Writer Beware Blogs, with up-to-date news from the best watchdogs in the business, Victoria Strauss, A.C. Crispin, and Richard White.

Query or join writers' groups and organizations. For a list of writers' groups complete with links, visit Join Twitter and find other writers and writers' resources using wefollow. Other writers are a writer's greatest resource.

Join and then search a writers' forum such as The Writers' BBS, the Absolute Write forums (look at the Bewares and Background Checks board), or the forums (their Whispers and Warnings board). If the forum doesn't have a separate board for warnings, but has a Search box, enter "name of agent" (e.g., "John Doe" in quotes); this should turn up any references to that agent. If the forum's search engine is more basic, simply entering "agent" in the search subject field will likely turn up valuable information.

You can also post questions regarding specific publishers or agents to these forums, and participants will answer directly. Or join an email listserv such as WorkForWriters or the Freelance Mailing List to post messages or learn from other members' postings. Writers will always come through with whatever helpful advice they can — some of this advice for agent checks came from one of them.

Check the web site for the Association of Author's Representatives. It lists all members of its organization — if agents are listed here, they have to follow strict guidelines. They're legitimate.

The Guide to Literary Agents Editor's Blog provides a wealth of current information on agents.

This site will actually run a free check on an agent for you: Agent Research & Verification. In return, they send you a no-obligation information package about their newsletter — not a bad trade-off for a free report.

Educate yourself. Read Moira Allen's Watching Out for Web Scams, and Marcia Yudkin's How to Sniff Out Literary Scams!. Stay abreast of writing news and info in general by visiting such sites as and Writers' resource sites, packed with educational information, abound on the Internet.

Not on the Internet? That's no excuse! Stay abreast of news in your field and recognize the names of good agents by reading the trade news magazines — Locus and the SFWA Bulletin are two for science fiction/fantasy writers, and Publisher's Weekly is a definitive source of publishing news. Note the names of agents who sell work similar to yours, and who they deal with and represent.

And of course, every library carries Literary Market Place in their reference section!

Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.

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This article may be reprinted in its entirety (including bio) if you e-mail me for permission.

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