Unfortunately, unscrupulous people exist in any industry, and the literary world is no exception. Anyone can call himself a literary agent, buy business cards, accept writer submissions, and take advantage of unsuspecting authors. When you have an understanding of how legitimate literary agents operate you will be more able to protect yourself from predators. It pays to be knowledgeable and stay aware.
Here is a list of “agent” practices to avoid:
- Inappropriate fees. Legitimate literary agents do not charge fees to read writers’ proposals. Nor do they charge critiquing fees, retainers, or upfront office administrative or marketing fees.
- Referrals to editing or book doctoring services. A fake literary agent may tell you she likes your book idea but that it just needs some work and for a fee she can edit it for you or refer you to a book doctor. In reality, this is a scam to collect your money without improving the work. If a so-called “agent” offers this service, move on to another agent.
- No sales record. Professional literary agents will discuss their recent sales with a prospective client. They should be able to tell you how many books they’ve sold, what types of books they sold, and to whom they were sold.
- Refusing to answer questions. A good agent will respectfully answer your inquiries and allow you to make the final decision concerning their offer of representation. Stay away from an “agent” who refuses to answer your questions, is rude or bullying, or pressures you in any way.
- Sending a generic acceptance form letter. When a legitimate agent offers to represent a client, she takes the time to make a personal telephone call or send a note to the author. A professional agent would never remit a representation offer using a generic form letter containing wording that could apply to any book - only con artists do that.
- Unprofessional contract terms. Avoid agents with contracts that include perpetual agency clauses, claims on client’s future commissions if the agency has no part in selling the property, billing clients for normal business expenses, provisions that ask for upfront payments, clauses for publishing through print-on-demand, or contracts that offer no advance.
- Promises of publication. A literary agent, regardless of how well established he is, can never guarantee he will sell your book. Unsavory “agents” use promises of publication to entice trusting writers.
- Lack of contacts. If an agent lacks publishing contacts, that is a red warning flag. Obviously, established agents have extensive networks of contacts, but even new agents are not new to publishing and have lists of contacts. Research an agent’s background and experience. Consider asking the agent to list a few editors he thinks may be interested in your work and why he selected those particular contacts. If he cannot answer that question, find another agent.
If you have been a victim of a scam or were misrepresented by an unscrupulous agent, consider contacting the following resources for assistance:
- The Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection investigates fraud. You may file a complaint on their website at ftc.gov.
- Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (vlany.org) offers guidance and answers to your legal questions.
- The Better Business Bureau’s website (bbb.org) allows you to search for information on a business as well as file a complaint.
- Contact your state’s attorney general via usa.gov/state-attorney-general.