Finding an Agent - Proceed with Caution
by Ann Harth
Scams within the writing profession seem to be the flavour of the month. This may be due to an
increase in actual 'stings' or it could simply be my own perception as I, too, have recently become a member of
a select group -- scam victims.
I am sharing my experience with burning cheeks and more than a touch of embarrassment (how could
I be so naïve?) but if I can help even one person avoid making the mistakes I did, it will be worth it.
Stacks of articles and entire books can be written about phoney writing conferences, fraudulent
advertising and scams executed by dishonest publishers. I was stung by a literary agent.
My favourite manuscript was polished, proofread and in my eyes, possibly perfect. Even so, I had
received encouraging but definite rejections from a publisher or four. I decided to look for an agent. Maybe I
would uncover some wise soul who would recognise me as a diamond in the rough, take me by the hand and help me
polish my work and my career until it sparkled.
I did some preliminary research and found an agent who looked promising. She was specifically
looking for new talent. The alarm bells should have started pealing then. They didn't.
With great hopes, I emailed my preliminary package to my soon-to-be new best friend and held my
breath. After two days passed, I received an email: Am intrigued by your work. Please send entire manuscript by
post and include a US$10 money order, in case I must return your manuscript.
I swallowed and grinned and sent my ten dollars and my ms. I settled in to wait at least a couple
of weeks, if not months. Six days later I received another email: Love your work. Would like to represent you.
Contract arriving shortly.
I was ecstatic. I finally had a real live agent who was willing to put time and expertise into
selling my manuscript. I envisioned long emails and weekly phone calls discussing the merits of my writing and
possible methods for improving it. Some of you may be shaking your heads and thinking, "You idiot! You haven't even
spoken to this person. She could be from another galaxy, sent here to collect writers for scientific experiments."
You'd be right, of course, but at that point, I didn't realise it. I hopped on the phone and rang husband,
children, Mum, Dad, brother and 7,452 friends (even some who had receded into my distant past).
Exactly one day later, I received an emailed contract. It explained that I must send US$75 to
cover photocopying, postage, phone calls to publishers, etc. The agreement also informed me that I would be
expected to pay up to US$45 per month for more of the same.
It didn't feel right. There had been very little contact, no discussion of my manuscript, no
proof that she had even read it. Now I was expected to fork out money each month? Finally, a couple of my lethargic
brain cells bumped into each other, startling themselves into a partially conscious state.
I started to do some research. The first place I looked was Preditors & Editors
http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/ . It took 3.7 seconds to find my agent.
The bright red letters following her name said 'not recommended'. Apparently this agent has no track record and
is known for collecting 'handling fees' from many authors without any success. She also heads a number of
different agencies, all with the same record.
Oof! I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. My mind skated over my family and the 7,452 friends
who mistakenly thought I was on my way to bestseller success. I thought, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and
make a pathetic attempt to save my pride. I emailed her immediately and asked for a list of authors she's
successfully represented or at least the titles of a few books she had sold. I was met with silence. I repeated my
request a number of times over the next few weeks and received no reply. Defeated, I staggered off to lick my
Three months later, I was nearly able to make eye contact with people in the street again when I
received another email. It was the same contract. A brief note accompanied the attachment: "Love your work would
like to represent you. Please sign contract and send first payment."
Hmmm… let me think.
With the memory of this experience tapping me on the shoulder, I have compiled a list of
suggestions that may help others to avoid the mistakes I made.
o Before submitting your work to an agency, get to know them. There are no licensing requirements
for a literary agent. Theoretically, anyone can call themselves an agent and charge money for his services. A
reputable agent has appropriate qualifications or extensive experience in the publishing field. He needs to be up
to date with the most current publishing trends and have an extensive network of contacts in the industry. Most
importantly, he will be able to distinguish an exceptional ms from merely a good one. This takes experience and a
solid understanding of the business of publishing. If they have a website, study it. Look for a list of published
books they have represented or a resume stating individual or combined experience with a publishing house or
Check them out. One of the best methods of finding out about the integrity of an agent is to plug
their names into Preditor & Editors or look them up at Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/. If
you find nothing on either website you can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for
information. They are prompt and knowledgeable.
Avoid agents who:
- Charge handling, submission or reading fees. This is no longer considered acceptable. Most
reputable and well-established agents will not expect any payment until your work is sold. Then it is
reasonable for postage and stationery costs to be requested from your royalties or advance (this should be set
out in your contract).
- Refer you to an independent editing service. These can be quite expensive and it isn't a
guarantee of acceptance by the agent. Some disreputable agents have been known to accept kickbacks from the
- Offer their services on a sliding scale. This means that the agent will basically tell you
that the more you pay, the more effort they will put into selling your manuscript. If a good agent believes in
your work, they will do their best to sell it. Their efforts are not based on the amount of money they
- Offer your work to vanity publishers or pay-to-publish companies. You don't need an agent
for this. You can do this on your own.
- Specialise in promoting new writers. Many reputable literary agents will represent a few new
writers with outstanding work, but they tend to stick with the authors they know, either personally or by
reputation. If an agent specialises in promoting new writers, that can mean that they are counting on new
writers to be eager and naïve enough to jump at their offers, even if they are a tad unscrupulous.
- Offer extravagant praise. Get some specifics. Exactly what did she like about your work?
What did she think of your characters? Did she feel that they interacted honestly? Etc.
- Offer predictions of dismal failure. If this is the case, why did she take you on in the
first place? This can be a way of avoiding blame if she can't sell your work. If you become convinced that your
writing isn't the best it can be, it's not her fault that it doesn't sell, is it? Just keep sending the postage
payments. She can only do her 'best'.
A good agent with a solid background can be the best friend you'll ever have. If you find a
professional who believes in your work as strongly as you do, you will never look back. There are plenty of them
out there. Find one you are comfortable with and work toward developing mutual respect. Do your homework, check out
the reputations of a prospective agent and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Please learn from my mistake. Don't allow yourself to be duped into short-lived ecstasy, only to
be dumped into the depths of disappointment. The disappointment lasts longer, trust me. I was lucky, I lost ten
dollars and 7,452 small dollops of pride. It could have been worse.
© copyright Ann Harth. Ann Harth is a freelance manuscript assessor, copyeditor,
proofreader and ghostwriter as well as a published author. She writes in all genres of children's fiction from
picture books to young adult novels as well as adult fiction and non-fiction. She has successfully completed
several text-editing projects for university students and authors, and is the assistant fiction editor of
www.moondance.com, a literary
on-line magazine. She is also on the creative writing staff of www.storydog.com, a website for