Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Picking an Agent, Step One: Avoiding Scammers

This week, I’ll discuss how to choose which agents you want to approach when you are ready to start querying. Before covering how to pick good agents that you want to approach, we need to spend a little time looking atlowlife scum that you abso-fuckign-lutely do not want to go anywhere near.

A little bit of background:

What it takes to become a literary agent: I’ve covered this before, so I will try to be brief. Not a fucking thing.

There, I was brief. I will elaborate, but, if you’re willing to just take my word for the fact that what I said is true, you can just scroll down until you see bold again. Those four words fully summarize the standards, testing requirements, professional credentialing, and everything else involved in becoming a literary agent (in name). I could have done it in one word (“nothing”), but the F-bomb is mandatory.

AAR: Part of the Solution. This is a problem for legitimate agents as much as it is for us. They have set up a voluntary program (the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or “AAR”) as a clearinghouse for separating legitimate agents from bogus agents. Agents must have a certain number of sales under their belts to be members, they are required to abide by a code of conduct, and, generally, some decent professional standards and protections for authors’ best interests are required of them.  Most legitimate agents are AAR members. You can find all of the details on their websitehttp://aaronline.org/.

Yay, AAR. 

There are a few problems, though:

1.     The AAR database sucks balls. Here, for example, is a search to see if Otto Maduro is an AAR member:


OK, so that guy is not a member, big deal. Except Otto is a member and was the fucking president of AAR last year.

So AAR is not a place to start your search. It isn’t even a decent place to look at whether the agent you are looking at is an AAR member

2.     Not all good agents are AAR members. I’ll say right out that most good agents are AAR members. But, to become an AAR member, the agent needs to have been agenting for a certain amount of time, had a required level of sales over an eighteen month period, etc. Aside from legitimate reasons for not joining AAR, even a newer agent who wants to become an AAR agent won’t be one yet. One of the agents at the very top of my wish list right now, who is reading my full manuscript (and, I like to think, is falling in love with both it and me as I type this) is not an AAR member. I would be one of her first clients – but she is transitioning to taking on clients after being an assistant to one of the true SuperAgents. Landing her would be a coup. If she calls, I will not say, “Sorry honey, call me back in eighteen months.” On top of that, some of the best agents in the business are not AAR members (even though they have Nobel and/or Pulitzer prize winning clients). There are a thousand reasons they could choose not to be members, but I can guarantee the only reason they are not is that they have simply chosen not to.

3.     Not all AAR members are good agents. They probably aren’t scammers, but that does not mean they are particularly good at their jobs. Also, a good agent for selling cookbooks might not be a very good agent for your space opera or that choose-your-own-adventure erotica you’ve been writing. The difference between a good agent and a bad agent is what I will primarily be talking about this week, so I won’t belabor the point here.

AAR’s Bottom Line: It’s better than nothing. If you use the QueryTracker, AgentQuery, or PublishersMarketplace databases, which seem to keep track of AAR members better than AAR does, you will find that most legit agents are AAR members. If the agent is looking at you (“Saw your twitter…”) and she isn’t on AAR, you’ll need to vet the hell out of her for yourself.

A bigger part of the solution: Don’t be a dubmass. There are a lot of lists of questions to ask an agent before agreeing to representation and things to look out for when agents approach, all of which are unnecessary at this stage. To avoid the flat-out scammers, you only need to follow one piece of advice:

You pick them, they don’t pick you.

That’s it. Period. How do decide which agents you’ll approach is a huge question (that I’ll probably spend the week trying to answer). How to avoid landing with a shady agent who will rip you off, however, is a question with a very concise answer in two parts: (1) Approach legitimate agents who have solid track records selling books to real publishers; and (2) Assume anyone approaching you is shady as fuck.

There could be exceptions to this rule, but they are going to be rare enough that 99.99% of us don’t need to worry about them. If this section doesn’t apply to you (i.e., if you are a Navy SEAL with a congressional medal of honor for rescuing puppies from an Al Qaeda dog fighting ring, who does work for Doctors Without Borders removing shrapnel from Oprah’s ass while on leave) skip ahead. Schmucks like me (i.e., people who wrote good books and are looking for agents) will not be approached, out of the blue, by legitimate agents.

A good literary agent is swamped with submissions – literally thousands or tens of thousands for every one that may become a client – if she is even accepting unsolicited submissions. Hell, mediocre agents and bad agents are swamped with submissions. They don’t have time to get through their in-boxes, let alone troll Twitter, Tumblr, and WordPress looking for new clients.

Here is the normal path to legitimate agentship (yes, a made-up word). The aspiring agent goes to work for a legit agency as an assistant to a real agent. Eventually, the mentoring agent lets him take on a few of his own clients, often things the in the slushpile that the agent isn’t quite willing to take on but would have earlier in her career. After a few sales, the assistant is paying his bills with his cut of our royalties, and they both need a new assistant. Then the old agent retires or dies, the young assistant-cum-agent is the old agent, and his assistant wants to take on some clients, and everyone joins hands and sings The Circle of Life.

Notice the part that was missing. The part where the new agent trolls the internet scouring blogs and message boards for clients. That’s because that part never happens in the legitimate agent world.

Why is this post even necessary? Because, before we can even discuss finding good agents or avoiding bad agents, we need to cut away the flat-out con artists posing as agents who prey on aspiring writers. Fortunately, they are easy to spot:

Dead Giveaway 1: They want money. There is no reason an agent should ask you for money. For anything. I don’t care if it’s a cup of coffee or to borrow five bucks for cab fare home. There isn’t usually much money in this business, but what there is only flows one direction. Raise your hand and repeat after meMoney only flows to the author, never away. I could list a thousand ways money can be asked for (reading fees, agency fees, retainer fees, copy charges), it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what label they put on the money – if it is flowing from you to someone else, you are being ripped off. 

[Note: Legit agencies may charge some expenses to clients, which are deducted from royalties, but the author is not asked to pony up cash for those, they are minimal, and we’ll cover them in detail later].

Dead Giveaway 2: They want you to give someone else money. A thinly veiled version of No. 1, this con can also take many forms. A typical example is an agency saying, “Your manuscript is close, but it isn’t quite polished enough for us to consider representation.” Oh, man, I was so close. Then (in the same e-mail or sometimes a few days later or the agent’s assistant sends you a “psst, over here,” e-mail) you find out that there is a great editor who can really polish up your work just the way they like it. So you hire the editor (who is not editing it FOR FREE like your crit partner should). You spend a few hundred bucks, they run the thing through grammar check, take out half of the uses of the word “that” in the manuscript and you resubmit. Then the agent usually pretends to take you on as a client (worse than not having them as your agent) or just ignores you (which is actually the best thing that can happen to you at this point). How can you possibly avoid this scam? I’ve got an idea, Raise your hand and repeat after meMoney only flows to the author, never away. That’s it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re being told to give the money to someone else – if you’re being told to hand over money, you’re being ripped off.

[Note: There are legitimate editors who work freelance, but an agent should never refer you to one, and certainly not by name. Although an editor can even help you polish your manuscript, you will almost certainly spend more money for the editing than you will make from your book.]

[New Note: I’m updating the day after I posted this to add that a tweet from a “freelance editor” was just forwarded to me. It contained two hyphenation errors in nine words. I realize it’s twitter, but that does not excuse hyphenating after the prefix “re” or not hyphenating a compound adjective — especially if you are on there promoting your editorial skills.]

Giveaway that isn’t dead but is in intensive care: The hostage manuscript scenario. This is easy to avoid on the front end, by picking a good agent who will rep your book well (what we’ll cover in other posts this week). But there is no clear-cut line separating what a real agent legitimately asks for (exclusive permission to represent your book) and what a scammer asks for (the same thing, with no intention of really doing it). The difference is in what they do when they have that exclusive. A legit agent uses it to represent your book to publishers (yay). A scammer uses it to keep anyone, including you, from doing anything with your book until you pay some kind of “overhead” or “handling” or other charge. In other words, he uses the exclusive to hostage your manuscript until you pay the ransom. If there is a good way to avoid this after you’ve picked an agent, I don’t know what it is. There is a great way to avoid this on the front end, though. Pick a solid, legit agent who makes all of her money selling her clients’ books to publishers. How to do that is what we will cover in detail for the rest of this week.

IN SUMMARY:   Although there are no legal requirements for becoming a literary agent, two easy steps that will help you avoid being ripped off by a scammer posing as one: (1) You approach them, they don’t approach you; and (2) money always flows from the publisher toward the author, never from the author to anyone else.

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