How to Spot a Bad Literary Agent: Five Warning Signs

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Can a Bad Literary Agent Be Worse Than No Agent At All?

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, a bad 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 warning signs of a bad literary agent. If you end up with an agent who appears to do one or more of these things, you should probably look for a different agent.

Avoid Agents Who Charge Fees to Authors Up Front

If you run into an agent who charges a fee up front 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 a lot of fees that are entirely unnecessary.

Avoid Literary Agents Who Charge You Back for Large “Shipping and Handling” Fees 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 making a lot of money off of fees. 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 Editing Services 

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 necessarily a bad thing for an agent to suggest services that they prefer, there are agents who make a lot of their income with referral fees. Sometimes, they will even give author’s names to these services as “leads.” Some agents 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. An agent 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 the agent is 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 agent in a particular genre are really just wasting your time.

Avoid Agents Who May Not Be Very Active With Your Book or May Give Up On Your Project Too Quickly

Unfortunately, there have been many cases where an author gets an agent, only to have their project dropped after a few months. But, you still have a right to know how active an agent will be with your book. You should know how many publishers will be contacts and what follow up, if any, there will be.

You should also have periodic reports about who’s been contacted and their responses. It’s important to know what time and attention an agent will really give you. There are agencies out there who take on far more clients than they can possibly give fair attention to. The best agents only market a few books at a time.

This can happen with legitimate agents, too, if the book seems to not be marketable. You may hear “I could have sold this a few years ago,” and that’s a legitimate thing that happens. But, a good agent won’t give up a book after a few months. 

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

Writing words, spreading love <3

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