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 tag “query”

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 Two: “Hey, baby, how you doin?”

The PG-13 Adventures of Debbie Agent

Debbie Agent never goes to the club planning to hook up, or even wanting to. She is already juggling more men and women in her life than she should. People think she’s a little slutty, but that’s not it. Even if she won’t admit it to herself, she is a romantic. Debbie glances at the door every time someone walks in – feigning annoyance but secretly hoping for love.

The guy at the door catches her eye for a second, but then he shouts over the noise in the room, “Ladies, the Ricker is here and he’s open for business.” Her annoyance is no longer feigned. Eleven of his fraternity brothers pile in and start pounding Jäger Bombs.

“I’ve had it with this shit,” she says to herself, reaching for her wallet.

“I was that young once.” The voice startles Debbie; somehow, it calms her, too.

Debbie sizes up her new companion. “I have a feeling you didn’t refer to yourself in the third-person, as an adjective.” She slides the wallet back onto her lap.

“True.” A smile flashes in her companion’s eyes. “I did things far worse than that.”

That voice – what is it about that voice? Less than fifteen words and that voice is teasing her, making her crave more. “I don’t mean to sound forward,” Debbie lies, meaning to sound forward as hell, “but give me fifty pages.”

As far as I can tell, querying agents is no different from hooking up in a bar, with a willing, if somewhat jaded and leery, partner. To look at the first part of the dance, we need to leave the perspective I just gave you (third-person limited, Debbie) and start looking through the eyes of the mysterious stranger. That’s us, and we have been secretly stalking Debbie for months. Not in the creepy, restraining order way, but almost as obsessively.

How to Pick Whom You will Stalk This, like everything else, was much harder in the days before teh interwebs. Now, at least initially, it is easy to come up with a list of agents you want to hit on. Start by looking at your favorite, currently-publishing authors. Not only favorites, but also those most similar to you in terms of genre, tone, and style. This will take some work, possibly even requiring you to read several novels you did not plan on reading. Well, good. You should be doing that anyway.

Stalkers Can’t be Slackers  If you are serious about wanting to be a commercially viable, published author, you need to have a clue what is happening in the world of commercial publishing. I am not encouraging you to spend time learning about the intricacies of the industry itself, but you should have a decent idea what other people are writing about and how they are writing it. The only way to accomplish that is to read – a lot. The fact that you are writing a book is no excuse for not reading more than one. To make this work, you have to. At least some of those books should be the very best books in your area/ topic/ genre. The people who buy those books are likely to be your target audience as well.

How does this relate to Debbie? One of Debbie’s old clients happens to be an author who appeals to the same sensibilities as our mysterious stranger. Our mysterious stranger knows that for any number of reasons:

  • Simply Googling the author’s name and the phrase “literary agent” will usually get you there (agents love to brag about their successful clients)
  • AgentQuery and QueryTracker both allow you to look up agent names by author. You wrote the next Godfather? Mario Puzo’s agent is listed.
  • If Mario Puzo’s agency turns you down, you can still search by genre at either of those sites (not my favorite, because the results are not as specific).
  • Last but not least, PublishersMarketplace provides current details on deals as they go down. Knowing Penguin laid out six figures in a three-book deal for a choose-your-own-adventure erotica series is key if you happen to write choose-your-own-adventure erotica. Even though that particular agent may consider it a conflict, you can use that as a starting point to find agents with similar tastes.

[Note here, PublishersMarketplace has both free and paid access, and the free is extremely limited compared to the other sites and, being cheep, I have no idea how functional or useful the paid portion is]

The point here is: the stranger sitting next to Debbie was no accident. There may be a dozen other attractive agents in the club, but our stranger did not shout to all of them at once. Debbie finding our stranger attractive was no accident, either. The stranger knows who Debbie has gone home with before – and the stranger is her type.

What if I think half the agents in the club are my type? For starters, don’t pull a Ricker and yell to them all at once. Pay attention to Debbie’s needs. Go to her website and make sure you are giving her those 50 pages just the way she wants them. Make her feel like she is the only agent in the world – until she’s gone. Then find another agent whose needs need you can attend to, and do the same. The Ricker may have been yelling at thirty agents when he walked in, but he was not communicating with any of them. Ten may represent nonfiction, five only deal with children’s and YA and five specialize in Christian publishing, not exactly a hotbed of choose-your-own-adventure erotica. The other five could have been maybes, but going after more than one at a time killed his chances with those as well.

Query in batches. I would recommend small batches, at that. In the first place, don’t be desperate – at least not until you have thirty rejections on your wall. It takes some serious time and effort to locate agents who are good fits who have solid track records of sales and represent a number of quality clients. The websites I cited above are a good starting point, but you need to go to the agent websites as well, look at their client lists, check the notes on the bulletin boards (including absolutewrite.com, which has a very active bulletin board). Tailoring each query so the agent knows it is not a generic e-mail to a thousand agents helps immensely – nothing too ass-kissy, just “You mentioned in an interview last month that you wished you saw more choose-your-own-adventure erotica…” That is time consuming. And worth it.

So, if you’re in a hurry, think of querying in small batches as the fastest way to do it. You do not need to wait until you have a dozen agents scoped out if you are sure you know who your top one or two choices are. Send out one or two queries.

Another reason to query in batches is that you may receive some input from your first few. Five queries all received form rejections? Maybe that query needs a little work. That straggler beta finally read your manuscript three months late but found a typo everyone else missed on the third page? (Believe me, that happens) It’s nice to know that you are sending out a few with pages that do not include the typo.

The biggest reason to query in batches is something I have said before. You get one shot at each agent. If you get a fistful of personalized rejections telling you the fatal flaw in your novel, you do not get to requery those agents after you fix it (“Oh my fucking god, this isn’t even the post about revising anymore, and I am revising again.”) If you query every agent who has ever represented anything like your book on the first day, there is nobody left to send it to after you fix the problem. You may get lucky and have one of those agents tell you to redraft and resubmit, but you may not. The entire point behind this blog is to reduce the importance of luck in this process.

Double-Bonus Tuesday: Extra reasons batch querying is good. Apart from the strategic reasons for doing it, there are some psychological benefits as well.

1)    You are going to get rejections, and rejection sucks. Having a few agents queued up with the query drafted and the submission materials just the way she wants them provides a nice morale boost when they come in. I’ve got two on deck right now (and, to be honest, one of them may be a better fit for me than most of the agents I am waiting to hear from). The next rejection I get is permission for me to send that out. Within ten minutes of receiving my next rejection, I will be back to a dozen queries or manuscripts out.

2)    You are going to get MS requests, hopefully, and I would not want to try to respond to three of those on the same day, either. In the first place, it is hard to type a brief and professional cover letter to an agent you thought was an urban myth while your hands are trembling on the heels of having just shit yourself. Sometimes, they will ask for something you don’t have. For example one agent asked me for a “10 page or less outline.” I had an outline that was functional when I was writing (incomplete sentences transient thoughts, arrows, two-word memory triggers that I knew how to turn into a chapter, etc.). I did not have something another human could understand, let alone something that would look professional. Creating that outline was a full day’s work.

Because our mysterious stranger did everything right, Debbie was intrigued. Picking the right agent (and walking past the girls walking the curb outside the club, offering the same thing but asking for money), knowing why she was the right agent, and offering her just enough to make her want more (which will be the subject of its own post), lead to the inevitable outcome, “give me fifty pages.”

If our stranger does things right, the next thing Debbie will say is “I need you to give it all to me. Give me your full.”

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