Agents of Chaos: Researching Agencies and Avoiding Scams

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a more heartbreaking scenario.

A writer spends two years crafting the best novel she’s capable of writing.  After much toil and travail, her abstract transhumanist coming-of-age young adult police procedural is polished and ready for submission.  She queries agent after agent, only to receive form rejections in return.

Then, one day, someone says yes.

Dear Ms Kamarajian, the agent writes, I read your manuscript, Super Robot Cops, with interest.  I believe you’ve written the next Great American Novel.  It is my pleasure to offer you representation.  Welcome to the Not-a-Scam Literary family.

In my opinion, your manuscript needs no further polishing and is ready to move to market as is.  Please submit the nominal administrative fee of $2000 so we can get the ball rolling.

Our hypothetical author is over the moon.  Someone wants to publish her work!  And really, what’s two-thousand dollars here or there, if it means she can make her writing dream come true?  She takes out a second mortgage, calls in some debts, and sells her guinea pig into slavery.  She submits the “administrative fee” and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

Untold eons pass.  The sun grows cold.  Humanity moves underground, sliding slowly into degeneracy as social order breaks down.  Ms Kamarajian is still waiting for word on her novel.  She will wait forever.  Ms Kamarajian has been had.


How Do I Avoid This Scenario?
In the Internet age, scam artists lurk around every corner, waiting to ensnare the gullible, the desperate, and your grandma.  (Mostly your grandma.  How many “tool bars” is she going to download before she figures it out?  Christ, Nana.)  Most of us know to cast a wary eye on Craigslist ads and YouTube comments.  Yet when it comes to finding representation for our novels, we are strangely deferential to perceived authority.  Part of it, I think, is that we just want to get published so bad.  The other part is straight-up failure to research.

Here are some sites to help you do just that.

1. AgentQuery
A lot of professionals have profiles on AgentQuery, a massively convenient database of literary agents.  You can sort your search results by genre, or by multiple genres, which makes finding someone who represents Christian Horror Espionage manuscripts that much easier.  Individual agent profiles range from bare bones to exhaustive.  At a minimum, they include the agent’s name, agency, AAR membership or lack thereof, and contact information.

Regardless of whether the agent also lists works they’ve represented in the past and specific guidelines for what they’d like to represent in the future, you should do further research.  The biggest problem I’ve had with AgentQuery is that some of their profiles are outdated.  Visit the agent’s website–indeed, make sure the individual is still at that agency..  Read books they’ve represented previously.  Find out if they’re still in the literary agent game, or if they’ve retired to focus on teaching deaf children to parasail.  Get the whole picture.

2. Writer Beware
I can’t say enough good things about this site.  If there’s a scam agent or fake publisher out there, the folks at Writer Beware have probably written about them.  Not only does Writer Beware feature comprehensive lists of shady publishing “professionals,” they also have handy primers on how to spot a phony agent/publisher in their native habitat.  The #1 red flag is fee-charging–reading fees, marketing fees, administrative fees.  Reputable professionals don’t make money from your manuscript unless they sell it.  Too bad Ms Kamarajian didn’t get the memo on that one.

3. Preditors and Editors
Let’s start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: the Preditors and Editors website looks like it came straight out of 1997.  Indeed, it was founded in ’97 and appears never to have undergone a single design update.  Please do not let that mislead you.  This site ain’t slick, but it’s useful.

Their Listings of Agents and Other Representatives are one of the best places to double-check the legitimacy of the agent you want to submit to.  P&E will tell you when an agent is “Not Recommended” or when there’s a potential conflict of interest.  They’ll also tell you when an agent is “Highly Recommended,” the criteria for which designation are listed on the site.

Not every agent will be listed on P&E.  Some agents decline to be listed because they find P&E too negative.  If you look up an agent and he or she isn’t there, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a scam artist on your hands.

In Conclusion
These are the web-based resources I’ve used to find legitimate agents.  Do you know of any others?  What do you like or dislike about them?  Leave a comment with the details!


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