Study Potential Literary Agents As Thoroughly As You Believe They’re Studying You By Damaria Senne

Study Potential Literary Agents As Thoroughly As You Believe They’re Studying You By Damaria Senne

Fifteen years after I first began to work as a writer, I decided that it was time I looked for an agent to sell my work to overseas publishers. At first I emailed writer friends, asking them to suggest agents who would be receptive to new clients. When nothing came of that, I visited my favorite writing websites and followed their market links. As expected, there were links to agents’ websites in some of them. I followed the links to the sites, where I read about their business philosophy, the kind of works they represent and submission guidelines.

One agency stood out among the rest. They encouraged international writers to submit their works, made it clear that they welcomed email submissions and had a short response time. Ten days after submitting a complete manuscript as per the submission guidelines provided by the agency, they sent an email acknowledging receipt of my manuscript.

I was miffed when they wrote a few weeks later to say that my work “showed potential”, as I have very good credentials. But I had to get over myself: as far as American agents and publishers are concerned, I am an unknown.

For the next couple of weeks, the agency and I discussed my writing background, the kind of work I would like them to represent and some of the projects I’m working on. I spent hours in the evenings filling in their questionnaire and selecting suitable works to demonstrate the breadth of my experience.

I could hardly wait for them to send a contract. In my more giddy moments, I dreamt that they would place my book with a publisher within the next couple of months.

“You fit the profile of the kind of writer we have successfully worked with,” the last email from the agency said. The writer explained that there was one last detail to take care of before they sent the contract: I needed to provide a “third party independent critique” for my manuscript. The critique would serve as a selling tool for editors and would also define what changes would help make my manuscript “excellent.”

She said that I could line up the critique myself but I if I needed assistance, they would be happy to refer me one of their sister companies, as it provides such a service. The critique was inexpensive at $50 – $100 and would be a valuable asset in selling my work, she said.

For a moment there, I was stumped. Was this standard practice from agencies when they work with unknown writers? My problem was not whether I could get a reputable editor to provide a critique along the guidelines they provided. One of my closest friends worked as an editor for Macmillan SA for years. She later joined Heinemann SA as a publisher, and she would happily do the critique for me (her objectivity was questionable, of course, because of our friendship).

However, I had to ask myself: why would the editor approached to publish my work take the word of an unknown individual on whether my manuscript was good enough to publish? Shouldn’t he/she respect the agent well enough to trust her assessment of my work? Secondly, why would a reputable agent ask me to pay money for an assessment of my work, when it’s her job to do that?

I didn’t want to believe that someone was trying to con me, so I wrote to Angela Hoy at to ask her what a third party independent critique was. But something was beginning to bug me about the whole deal. For example, I didn’t know the full name and contact details of the person I was dealing with (she signed her name as Julie and that was it). I live in South Africa, so if our contractual agreement went sour, I would not be in a position to enforce it. So while I waited to Angela to reply, I decided to google the name of the agency.

The response was incredible! Writers and editors alike recommended against working with that agency. In fact, another author had even decided to go to the address they listed as their premises and they were not there! Had I sent the money as requested, I suspect that would have been the last I heard from that company!

The big lesson I learned here is not to be lazy and to evaluate the agent as much as he/she evaluates me. Most of the work should have been done before I even sent my manuscript for consideration. If I had done that, I would not have wasted so many hours developing an information pack and answering endless queries from people who had no real interest in representing my work.

Damaria Senne is a writer based in Johannesburg. Read some of her articles at She can be reached by email at dsenne – at –