5 Signs You Have a Bad Literary Agent

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Finding a literary agent to pitch your book to publishing houses is a major step forward in getting your book into print. Many publishers will not accept unsolicited queries from authors without an agent. So, finding a reputable agent is extremely important.

This agent becomes your book’s advocate. Not only that, but if your book is accepted by a publishing house, that advance will be paid to your agent. The agent will then take his or her “cut” then pass the rest on to you. So, you definitely want to get an agent that you trust with not only the money, but with anything having to do with your book.

Be aware that the terms and conditions of literary agency and literary agent contracts are not in any way standardized. These contracts can vary widely and must be read very carefully. Sometimes, there are some red flags mentioned in the fine print that should leave you wary of signing the contract at all.

Believe it or not, the wrong literary agent really can be worse than having no agent at all. There are plenty of shady people out there calling themselves agents who you should avoid at all costs. Here are five red flags that can be warning signs that will allow you to spot bad literary agents you should avoid. If you end up with an agent who appears to do one or more of these things, you should seek a new one as soon as possible.

Avoid Agents Who Charge Authors Fees Up Front

If you run into an agent who charges authors a fee up front for you to be accepted as a client, stay away. These are often called a “reading fee” or a monthly “office expenses” charge. Good, successful agents only charge a percentage out of the royalties an author earns. This fee is typically around 15 percent of royalties.

A literary agent who charges an upfront fee is like having a realtor who charges you just to come over and tour your home before you can even get a listing. Some people are desperate enough to think that they need to pay a fee upfront to get an agent. Don’t be fooled by this trick that shady literary agents and agencies use. Otherwise, you will find yourself paying many entirely unnecessary fees.

Avoid Literary Agents Who Charge You to Send Out Your Work

The second major warning sign is a literary agent who charges you for sending out your work. There are shady agencies out there charging “Shipping and Handling” for every submission they make to a publisher. This charge can often be somewhere in the range of $10. Usually, this means that the agency is profiting more from fees than actual successful book sales. You could end up broke really quickly if they decide to submit your query to a lot of places.

Sending a letter and sample chapters of your book certainly costs nowhere near that much. Check the fine print of the agent or agency contract to see if these fees exist there. If they are that high, turn the other way. While it is possible that an author may have to cover some costs, it should be reasonable. But, most good agents will already know who to contact already about your book, so selling your book should be enough to cover those costs.

Avoid Agents Who Direct Authors Toward Specific Editors 

Agents will often have editing services that they work with on a regular basis. This can also apply to book cover designers. While it’s not unusual for an agent to suggest services that they prefer, some agencies make a lot of their income with referral fees. Sometimes, they will even give author’s names to these services as “leads.” Some agencies even own the editing service or other book related service they are pushing authors towards using.

Don’t feel pressured to use one specific service. If you are talking to an agent, and suddenly find yourself receiving a lot of unsolicited emails, that’s a red flag. Agents can suggest particular editing or cover design service services. But, he or she should never push you to use them. That’s especially because they are likely making money off of referring you. If you’re required to use specific services by an agent, steer clear and find your own editing service. 

Avoid Agents Who Appear to Contact Publishers at Random

A good literary agent already has connections in the publishing industry. They will know which publishers might well be interested in your book. So, if a publisher rejects an agent, the response they receive may be more personal. Otherwise, you’ll see the form letter response that many unsolicited queries get.

Make sure that your agent is actually contacting publishers with whom they already have a relationship. Ask to see copies of rejection letters that come back from publishers. They don’t have to give you the actual contact information, but you should be able to see what’s said.

If an agent picks up your book to market, it’s likely that he or she has certain publishers in mind to query about your book already. But, if you’re seeing a lot of form rejection letters, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your book isn’t good to publish. It more likely means that they are picking publishers off of a list, rather than dealing with relationships that they already have.

Why are agents so picky? They can only afford to spend time on books they feel have a strong chance at succeeding in getting a successful book deal. That’s where literary agents make their money after all – or at least, that’s where they’re supposed to make it. Agents who are just emailing every publisher in a particular genre are really just wasting your time.

Avoid Agents Who May Give Up On Your Book Project Too Quickly

Unfortunately, in many cases an author gets an agent only to have their project dropped after a few months. Worse, some agency businesses will spam social media with information about your book, copy you on a few emails to publishing services, then simply drop your project unless you want to pay them more money. 

Up front, you have a right to know how active and attentive your agent will be with your book. You should know how many publishers will be contacts and what follow up, if any, there will be. Also, you should also have periodic reports about who’s been contacted and their responses. There are agencies out there who take on far more clients than they can possibly give fair attention, sometimes on purpose just to rack up service fees. However, the best agents only market a few books at a time, giving each book an equal and fair amount of attention.

Of course, dropped projects can happen with legitimate agents, too, if the book end up seeming to not be marketable. You may hear “I could have sold this a few years ago, but not today.” That’s a legitimate thing that happens. But, a good agent won’t give up a book after a few months. If they do, they will give you specific reasons and ways you may make your project more marketable, if possible. 

Good agents will keep pitching a book as long as they feel it’s worth it, even if it ends up being picked up by a very small independent press. Sales are as important to an agent as they are for you. Any sale is better than none if it means the book will get published. If not, good agents will give you advice on who may be able to give your book a better shot or advise you on self-publishing.

~ Amelia <3

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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