Novice writers often assume that if any agent agrees to review or represent their work, they have automatically entered the harrowing yet rewarding world of publication. In fact, however, there are many unscrupulous agents who seek to take advantage of unwary writers or who simply aren’t familiar enough with the publishing world to do justice to a writer’s work. Every writer should be familiar with these warning signs to avoid agents that may put their work six feet under instead of in a publisher’s hands.
Red Flag #1: No References
Before a writer approaches an agent, they should be familiar with who that agent has successfully represented. Reputable agents will provide a client list to substantiate their work, and prospective clients should consider contacting those references to ask about their satisfaction with the agent’s performance. An agent who cannot or will not provide this information may not have suitable experience or may have unsatisfied customers.
Red Flag #2: Reading Fees
Charging reading, review, or evaluation fees is one of the most prominent scams perpetrated by less-than-desirable agents. When an agent reviews a potential client’s work, that is, in essence, an interview for both parties. The agent should be satisfied that the work is publishable and within their expertise, and the writer should be satisfied that the agent is knowledgeable and will thoroughly represent their work. Agents who charge reading fees can often make more money by reading manuscripts rather than ever representing them appropriately.
Red Flag #3: No Progress Reports
Once an agent agrees to represent a particular work, the author should be kept apprised of their progress. An agent who refuses or is unable to provide documentation about whom they’ve spoken with and what steps have been taken may not be effectively representing the work at all. A clue for this problem is an agent who fails to return e-mails or telephone calls: in this case, the writer should seek a new agent who is willing to communicate more consistently.
Red Flag #4: Unfamiliar with the Book
When a writer contacts his or her agent, the agent should not need extensive reminders about the book’s plot, characters, potential market, or other discriminating details. While anyone can be momentarily forgetful, an agent who is consistently unfamiliar with the material may not be effectively marketing it to interested and suitable publishers.
Red Flag #5: Too Big a Cut
Typical agents’ fees range from 10-20 percent of an author’s advance depending on the type of book, size of the advance, and the author-agent contract. Agents who ask for a larger percentage have less incentive to seek better payment for the writer. If the writer is helping pay for postage, copies, and other expenses, the agent should have a lower commission rather than a higher one.
Every literary agent runs their business differently, just as every writer has a different voice and style. While not every red flag necessarily means an agent is disreputable, they can provide clues for writers to investigate more thoroughly before agreeing to representation. Publishers carefully evaluate every manuscript before extending a contract, and savvy writers will carefully evaluate potential agents before putting those future contracts in their hands.
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Melissa Mayntz is a Utah-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Byline Magazine, Senior Living, and Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, as well as on LoveToKnow.com and in numerous writing newsletters. She can be reached at MayntzMail – at – gmail.com.