Tag Archives: literary agents

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.

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Query Letter No-nos

I touched on some of these in my last post, but I thought it would be nice to have them all in one tidy list.  These are a few of things you absolutely cannot do in your query letter.

“What do you mean, cannot?” you say. “What, am I gonna get arrested?”

Let me assure you: yes.  You will be arrested and fired into the sun.  Tread lightly, friend.

What Not to Do in a Query Letter
1. “I’m the next big thing, baby!”
Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t; it’s not your determination to make.  Confidence is great up to the point where it shades into megalomania.  Knowing writers as I do, I suspect this kind of self-flattery is an effort to conceal deep-seated self-loathing.  We hate ourselves, we writers.  Every one of us.  Agents and publishers know this, so any declarations of greatness (or assurances that you’re going to make the publisher like, so much money) are going to come across as really phony.  And also obnoxious.

2. “My mom read this story and she loves it!”
Slow down there, Motherboy.  Your mom has to like your writing, just as she has to like you.  Mothers are not the most objective audience, so their opinions don’t track much with publishing professionals.  You shouldn’t use your mother as a reference.  Similarly, you should avoid mentioning commendations by your father, sister, brother, grandma, best friend, or parole officer.  In fact, you should probably reconsider including the opinions of any of your “first readers.”  A publishing professional will either be interested in reading your manuscript, or they won’t, and it doesn’t really matter what a complete stranger thinks of it.

3. “I’m an aspiring writer.  Maybe this manuscript isn’t that good, but I tried my best.”
Ho boy, you went in the complete opposite direction, didn’t you?  Come on, kiddo, there’s hundreds of degrees between self-eulogy and telling the agent you hate yourself.  I definitely understand the urge to self-deprecate–I’m from the Midwest, after all–but your query letter isn’t the place to do it.  Don’t talk yourself down.  Don’t describe yourself as an “aspiring” writer.  You wrote a book, didn’t you?  You’re not just “aspiring;” you’re the real deal.  Chin up!

4. “Have you read my manuscript yet?  I sent it to you like, five weeks ago!”
No one likes a pushy pain in the butt.  Slush piles reach mammoth proportions, and it can take months for yours to rise to the top.  Agents and publishers are people too.  They don’t want to do business with a diva any more than you would.

5. *stuffs glitter into query letter envelope*
I wouldn’t even mention this, except that I’ve heard horror stories from multiple literary professionals.  Shockingly, this is something people actually do.  You want your manuscript to stand-out, but preferably in a “this is some really solid writing” way, rather than a “Lisa Frank just sneezed all over my hands” way.