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.

Archive for the category “Shady Agents and Agencies”

Predators & Editors Will Survive Dave Kuzminski’s Passing

This is just a short informational note / update on P&E.

If you follow me, you know that P&E is an extremely valuable resource to querying writers, basically working as a free CSI Miami keeping track of predatory scum on behalf of all of us. No agent should be queried before you run him or her through P&E.

Sadly, Dave Kuzminski, the person behind P&E passed away recently. There was significant concern that P&E may not live on without him. I found out tonight (thank you Maia) that Andrew Burt from the Critters Writers’ Workshop has taken over, and will be running the site now. So P&E will live on.

Please Note:

The address for P&E will now be http://pred-ed.com/

My sincere thanks to Andrew Burt, and all of our thoughts go out to Dave’s family.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming…

Scary Agent Vetting Test (in real time)

Someone who has been around the block a time or two recently told me about an agent who sent him the dreaded:

“Your submission is intriguing, but your manuscript needs professional editing. I could refer you to a colleague of mine…” 

The incident occurred without any red flags (to him, anyway), which was discouraging, because this garbage (a) scares the crap out of me; and (b) pisses me off. But I thought it would allow for an interesting opportunity to test out the vetting process I’ve outlined before.

The catch? I’m going to do it as I write this post. Good or bad, I’m just going to go through the vetting process with this agent and agency’s name and post what I find. So, here goes:

Step 1: Google is your friend

Google result for [Agent Name] at [Agency Name]:

  • First result is AbsoluteWrite, which I’ll be going to in Step 2 anyway, so I’m disregarding for now.
  • Second result is his listing in the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. Not bad. It’s no indicia of quality, but there is a listing (which is better than no listing) showing two agents at the agency. Using the “look inside” feature, I discover:
    • Warning flag 1, they accept queries through e-mail (normal), but their e-mail address is a Gmail account (normal if your business is run out of a school bus).
    • Warning flag 2, they list 10 clients, 5 are new/unpublished. It says they’ve been around since 2009, with 2 agents, so (assuming this is true) they’re making around one sale per year between two agents.
    • Warning flag 3, which is related to the Gmail account for queries – they don’t appear to have a web page.
  • And that’s basically it. Which is not a good sign.

Google result for [Agency Name]:

  • OK, this is a weird one. I get a web page saying:

 In 1999 I inherited the literary agency you were referred from, [then it lists another agency I’ve never heard of] and while I no longer work in that business, I do still refer the occasional book to some of my friends at major publishing houses. I have helped secure a few major book deals over the years through my referrals, so it can’t hurt to get your book information to me. I do not charge any fees unless I am able to sell your book.

  •  We’ve had some warning flags prior to this, but this is our first full-on WTF moment
  • This web page listed under (and the letter is ostensibly from) the guy whose name is on the agency name (it’s his last name), but none of this information is the same as the agency information in the guide Google found us. Nor does he mention any other agents – like, for example, the two freaking agents operating out of the agency that bears his name.
  • Then it gets weirder, with his detailed instructions about how to contact him through his LinkedIn account, and he just asks you to “submit your book.”
  • This isn’t the dude I’m looking for, but I’m still trying to figure out this agency that closed, agency soliciting submissions, dude who wants books sent to his LinkedIn account thing, so I click on “Books,” on his web page. It will be interesting to see what books he’s repped, if nothing else.
    • OMFG. I am literally laughing as I type this. The dude has a pile of books by him on this page, ranging from a cookbook to spiritual self-help stuff to a freaking rhyming dictionary he wrote.
    • So, I just clicked on one and tried to look up the publisher. Never heard of it, so I tried AW and Google and still can’t find anything but the publisher’s web page, which is literally a static web page with the name on it. No tabs, no books for sale, no address or phone number, no links – nothing. Just “Publisher Name.”
    • I clicked his cookbook (because I’m hungry), but it isn’t finished yet. It literally just says that (and lists some tasty smoothie recipes).
    • OK, so here’ a Chicken Soup for the Soul book (the Magic of Mothers and Daughters). Don’t those CSS books have the same publisher? He can’t rep all of them, can he? So I click that, and nope. Doesn’t look like he did it. I just Googled around a little and he seems (or at least claims) to have an essay in one of the CSS books.
    • If you tell me you’ve repped bestsellers in major deals, you’d better have some books to back it up. I don’t really care if you have a heartwarming story about your Nana.
  • I seriously sidetracked myself, since I still don’t know what the relationship between this dude and the agency in question even is, but I got a smoothie and two sandwich recipes to show for it. Because you need a fucking recipe to make a sandwich.

Back on the hunt

Google result for [Agent Name Literary Agent]:

  • I get the same guide to literary agents, and a Writers’ Market for novels and short stories (produced by the same company) that list him. So basically the same listing.
  • OK, I’m feeling pretty good about our process, now. There’s a listing on the Writer Beware blog. OK, it’s just in the comments, so I’m not holding that too, too much against him at this point. No specific allegation of wrongdoing (may not even be the same dude).
  • But that’s all I’m getting (outside the sites we’ll specifically go to below, the hits all seem to be a literary agency with an author who has his last name or another combination that isn’t referring me to the right guy – except white pages listings and stuff like that.
  • We already know this isn’t looking very good from a quality standpoint, even if there isn’t an ethical issue. If your agent’s name doesn’t show up in some kind of agenting related context when you Google it, you’re probably not looking a superstar agent (or minor a league player with potential, for that matter).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

1.     Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but says “No valid sales to commercial publishers yet.” At this point, I’m done. Ignoring all the shenanigans and smoothie recipes and everything else, I’m not looking to be the first book some dude (not from New York, not in New York, and, as far as I can tell, not coming out of an agency or publishing house to start this agency up) sells. Editing conflict/scam/garbage aside, I’m not chasing this bait just based on quality of potential representation.
2.     AbsoluteWrite should be interesting. I just clicked on his entry and the only thing I’ve read so far is someone saying s/he received a request for a partial and wonders if anyone knows about the agency (the post is from March 2011).Before I go any further, are you serious here? You got that request for a partial because you sent a query. Why, in God’s name, would you be sending out queries to agents with no idea whether they are legit, and then start asking about them on message boards when you’ve received a partial request? In this querier’s defense, from later posts it appears he did look at the writing on the wall and run. I just don’t see why you’d wait to do due diligence until after you queried.
Interesting development – they have a web page. There was a link in AW.
                           i.      OMFG – they offer both literary services and in-home elder care. I shit you not.
                           ii.      Oh, wait, not really. The web page is the domain name seller, who has mocked it up to look like you are at a site at that address. Not much better, but less funny. (Sorry about that, but I promised to do this as I went through the process, not that it would be pretty).
So they had a web page once, but have taken it down, because people in the AW community are talking about their bios (which don’t include any prior experience in editing or publishing).
Oh, boy, here we go. An AW member was kind enough to include the text of a letter:

You possess good writing skills and sense of story. However, as you might know, placing fiction in today’s brutal market is extremely difficult. About the only way an unknown writer can get his or her manuscript picked up today is for the writing to be exceptional. I suggest you consider obtaining the services of an editor who can help raise your writing skills to the next level. Don’t be disappointed about my suggestion. All serious writers use editors. If you do not have any editing contacts, I will be glad to give you the name of a talented lady I’ve know for a number of years.


Just for the record, it’s officially –DING, DING, DING. The smoke that was too thick to see through has cleared enough to see the raging fire. Even if it weren’t for the prior misgivings, I’m running like hell now.

And another one, just for good measure. Same language, same offer to hook up with professional editing help. Still no sales.
3.     QueryTracker The dude doesn’t show up on the agent listing. Patrick at QT does quality control, and won’t list an agent with editing fees. I feel fairly confident calling this whole shady as fuck at best and possibly an outright scam at worst. Yes, I’m talking to you Jack Bollinger at the McGill Literary Agency, with no legitimate reported sales but plenty of referrals to for profit editing services.


At this point, we’re at least sufficiently up to speed to close the book on this agency. Sorry about the dead-ends and tangents, but they provided some good laughs. Bottom line, though, is we were able to know what the problems were going to be before we had any problems, so that part worked out well.

Happy querying.

An update on the Scammers Post and a Casestudy in Shadiness

I said in the scammers post that there were a thousand ways shady agents rip people off, but a new shady agency showed up on my radar (a couple of times in a couple of ways) and I thought I’d pass on what I learned. More particularly, I want to use this agency as a case study in how to look at an agency.

This one particularly bothers me because the agency is truly “shady,” meaning they seem to have a few legitimate sales mixed in with their business practices that rip people off. This agency scares the shit out of me.

Shady Practice No. 1: I’ve already warned you about this one – they have a for-profit editing service as part of their agency. 

Shady Practice No. 2: This one is new to me – they have a $2,500 minimum commission. This is a LOT worse than it sounds. Their justification for it is even worse. Per their participation on legitimate writers’ message boards (which they run around like hotshot fire crews, trying to justify their practices), they charge that minimum because so many new novelists get low advances that they need to have a minimum to justify the six months it may take to place a book with a publisher. At first glance, this may seem reasonable. But let me rephrase that for them. Their justification is essentially:

If we can’t sell books for enough money, which happens to us a lot, we need to make sure we get ours before the author sees a dime. We aren’t willing to wait for royalties to come in to get it from our percentage, either.

Shady as fuck, right? That just scratches the surface. For starters, they might as well be saying, “We can’t make a profit using the normal commission structure that every legitimate agency on the planet uses.”

Since they are offering for-hire editing services, they clearly aren’t adverse to conflicts of interest. This scheme sets up a couple of other conflicts that just make me sick. First, let’s do a little math. If they manage to sell your book for a $2,500 advance, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $10,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $15,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $17,000, they get an extra fifty bucks. So, unless you have a book that is likely to sell for a lot more than the average first-time advance, these shady-ass motherfuckers have no motivation to try to sell your book for a dime over $2,500.

Also, the best route for a first-time author may involve a low advance but decent support from a legitimate publisher who is willing to spend some money promoting the book. Like, for example, the recently departed Tom freaking Clancy and his debut novel The Hunt for Red October. Since this agency doesn’t give a shit about its authors in the long run (or the medium run, or even after the very first day of the short run), those offers are just rejected without response. How do I know this? Because small and medium-sized publishers also participate on writers’ forums, and they say things like “I made an offer on manuscript X and they just responded that the offer was insulting and not worth considering, now I understand why.”

We aren’t done yet:

Shady Practice No. 3: This is old news, but still a nice little window into their shady as fuck behavior. There are all sorts of legitimate sources on the internet writers can use to learn about agents. Databases are great: AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Predators & Editors, and WriterBeware are all excellent resources with unbiased information (they drive traffic to their sites by having good information, so their motivation is to provide just that). Obviously, people who are trying to rip you off are not big fans of accurate information, which tends to inform people that they are shady as fuck.

So some genius came up with the idea of creating a fake literary association to “protect” writers from things like, well, all of the above-listed websites. Then it listed the “Top 10 Literary Agencies” according to them. Not coincidentally, most of them were also on the “20 Worst” list from Writer Beware. It appears that one of the agents from this agency was formerly among the agencies on both lists.

Shady Practice No. 4:  This one is my personal favorite. Running through the new posts on a message board, I see one saying “Hey guys, I just found a new agent who is accepting queries [e-mail link] and this awesome agent is also taking queries, too [e-mail link to another agent at the same agency]. Here is their agency website [link number three]” Then I notice this happens to be the poster’s first ever post. I wouldn’t mind if they showed up and said, “We are accepting queries,” and, since it was the first post ever from that person I knew it was them, but pretending to be “one of the guys” (pardon the latent sexism, it was their word, not mine) just giving a “heads’ up” about a new agent is shady as fuck. You might as well post: “I am going to try to mislead you into going to my website and then enter into an important relationship with you before you realize that’s what I am doing.”

So, no, if you were the only literary agent on the planet, I would still not hire you. And your chummy post on a message board is not going to help that. But thank you for an opportunity to use you and your scummy-ass agency as a case study to help readers on my blog. We are starting at the end, knowing this is a shady-ass company that is not a clear-cut scam. They have some legitimate sales, but“even a blind pig finds an accord once in a while” is not a business model. So this one is technically a legitimate agency that I would never even think of using. Let’s to a walkthrough of how to vet an agency to see if we would get sucked in. In other words,

Let’s Pretend We Were Considering This Agency:

Step 1: Google is your friend. Googling the agency name, alone, yields the following results on the first page:

  1. Agency Website (doesn’t mean much, but if they didn’t have one it would be a nonstarter).
  2. A Publisher’s Marketplace listing with deals (at this point, I’m thinking ‘OK this person is legit.’ I’m mostly wrong, but that’s honestly what I would be thinking).
  3. A twitter account (that’s 4 years old. Again, it doesn’t count for much but it is one more indication they are legit).
  4. Two news stories about a book deal that didn’t go through, (no deal, but I’m impressed because this agent is in the media and appears to be a player. I have never looked into an agency that turned out to be shady that had this kind of legitimacy).
  5. A thread on one of the aforementioned bulletin boards (oops, I just found out about the $2,500 minimum commission and the editing conflict and, if you want to write non-fiction, they threw in a bonus ghostwriting conflict as well).
  6. Something I’ve never seen before, called ripoffreport.com (frankly, it looks like as much like a rant as a legitimate indictment of the agency, so I’m calling this one about as important as having a website and a twitter —i.e., not very, but worth noticing).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

  1. Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but also shows that this agent had an AAR membership revoked. Now I am pretty scared.
  2. AbsoluteWrite told me what I outlined above, and I would have gone there anyway if I hadn’t found it via Google. The most damning thing on here were the posts from the agency itself, misrepresenting what was being said about it in the prior posts (as though we cannot read them for ourselves) and providing BS justifications for business practices the other legitimate agencies seem to live without.
  3. QueryTracker Not much information here, except for links to AbsoluteWrite and the agency posing as a member (for one post) and pretending to give information about agents (themselves). In other words, it is the agency’s own conduct more than anything anyone else is saying or doing that makes them look sketchy as hell.
  4. Writer Beware Lists the scary, don’t go anywhere near these people, agents. Just because an agent or agency isn’t on this list does not mean you should go with that agent, but it an agent is on this list, stay far away. They aren’t on this list, but I’m still not going for the minimum commission or overlooking two conflicts, so this agent is not even a maybe for me.

The lesson to learn here is that you should invest a little bit of effort in vetting any agent before querying him or her. It doesn’t take much effort to weed out the flat-out scammers, but you might need to go three pages into a five-page thread on a bulletin board before you find out the real problems with a questionable agent. There are over 1,000 agents out there, so there is no reason to even look at one who is questionable. If you can’t get a decent response from the first 100 agents or so, the problem probably relates more to your query or your manuscript (or both) than the availability of solid agents.

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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