Beware of Sharks
by Tina Morgan
Now that you've finished that novel and you've decided to try to get published, how do you go about it? You start by doing a lot of research.
There are many sites on the web that list literary agents and markets. There are also several books on the market that list agents and publishing companies.
Use these sites and books as an aid, but do not rely on them to be 100% accurate. Double check the agents you want to query. Just because they are listed in a book does not mean they are on the level. There might not be anything out-right illegal in their business practices but you need to be aware of any fees or out of pocket expenses they charge.
If you find an agent with a slick web site that makes promises to get you published when no one else could, BEWARE. 'If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.' This saying holds true for literary agents as well.
The AAR's (Association of Author's Representatives)canon of ethics prohibits its members from charging a reading fee. If a literary agent charges a fee, this does not make them automatically disreputable. But it does mean that you should make certain you understand exactly what that reading fee will buy you. Many legitimate agents charge a fee. A reading fee should be nominal, $10 to $100. A reading fee does not guarantee you representation.
Many suspect agents will tell you that they do not charge a reading fee. They will call and ask to see more of your manuscript, knowing the unsuspecting writer will be delighted to get a personal call. Once they have received the first few chapters they often call back and tell you they think your novel has potential. For a low fee of XXX number of dollars, they will give you a plot edit (or whatever they choose to call it). Once you have paid the fee and sent your manuscript, you may or may not hear from them again.
If the agent thinks they have a sucker on the hook, they will come back asking for more money to help make your book publish-able. They may call it an appraisal fee or a market analysis. They may tell you that they have extensive experience in your genre and they know a book like yours can sell. For a few thousand dollars, they will take you on as a client. Your fee will (of course) be refunded upon publication of the novel. Your novel may never see publication. Do you want to shell out a serious amount of money with no guarantee? There are no lemon laws for literary agents.
Another tactic of disreputable agents is to charge fees for office expenses: copying, mailing costs, misc. items. One agency has a standard clause in their contract that they will contact the author for expenses over $200.00 a month. Then they use the contract as a blank check up to $199.00 a month. Hopeful writers can find themselves owing thousands of dollars to an agent who will never sell their book.
Now that you've heard the horror stories, you probably want to know how to avoid being eaten alive in the publishing pond. How do you avoid the sharks when an inexperienced writer might as well be wearing bait around their neck? Do your homework.
Read and Research! Ask questions. Are you a member of a workshop? Ask the other members if they've had a bad experience with an agent. Ask the agent questions if they call you. What are you paying for? What are their qualifications to provide the service they are offering to sell you?
If they are offering editing services, find out if they have editing experience. You don't want to pay an inexperienced editor to do something you can do on your own. You can always hire a local college student to double check your grammar and spelling, and for far less than a questionable agents will charge you.
If they are offering book doctor services find out what books they've worked on in the past. Ask for a list of titles they've sold. Ask how many titles they've sold in the past year. If they tell you that is confidential information, run, do not walk, the other direction. An agent that sells manuscripts is proud of their track record and not afraid to tell you about their accomplishments. What is confidential is the amount of any advance or the details of an individual author's publishing contract, not the sale itself.
How do you find a reputable agent? Use the books and the web sites as a guideline. If more than one web site is listing an agency as questionable, you should probably avoid that agency. Check the AAR's web site. Is the agent a member? This isn't an automatic assurance of their legitimacy or their success rate in selling novels, but it does mean that they are supposed to uphold the AAR's canon of ethics. Look at the acknowledgements in your favorite books. If a writer likes their agent and has a good relationship with them, they will often thank them.
Just as there are questionable agents, there are services that offer to help you find an agent. Once again, make sure you know what you are paying for. Are you about to pay for something you can find out for free on your own?
What genre are you writing in? There are many different organizations for each genre that offer free information about agents. You want to find an agent that represents your particular genre.
Keep in mind, if an agent has not sold a novel yet, this does not necessarily make them dishonest. If an agent says they haven't sold any yet, ask how long they've been in business. If they've been around for more than two years without a sale then they have to be getting the money to operate from someplace and it's not from the sale of books. An agent makes 10 to 20% commission from the sale of your books. That is how they make their living. If they aren't selling books, then they're selling services. That is an editing agency, a book doctor, not a literary agent.
Here are some web sites that list agents, good and bad. There are many others as well.
Preditors and Editors
Association of Authors' Representatives
Always remember: Money flows TO the author, never the other way around.
© Copyright 2000 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved
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