I wrote a few weeks ago about how evaluate a small publisher, and today I’d like to take a look at agents. Many authors feel that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all, so I would caution writers to watch for potential red flags before signing with anyone.
How can a bad agent be worse than no agent? Well, for example, a friend of mine once worked with an agent who turned down an offer of publication on the book because she thought the advance was too small… without telling the author. And I know many writers who have horror stories of unprofessional or downright clueless agents.
But what’s even worse than an incompetent agent is one who deliberately sets out to scam writers by charging fees and never selling (or, in some cases, even attempting to sell) the book. The truth is, anyone can call themselves an agent, despite a lack of industry experience, contacts, and professionalism. While I personally have had an incredibly positive experience with my own agent, I know too many good authors who had bad agents.
So, with the help of some author friends who shared their experiences with me, I’ve compiled a list of some red flags to watch for:
- They’re selling something
By now, I hope that most querying writers are aware that legitimate agents will never charge authors any kind of fee. But keep in mind that it’s not just outright fees they might ask for. If an agent tries to sell you any kind of service, their clients’ books, etc., that’s a major red flag. An agent shouldn’t ask you for money. They should never ask you to buy/purchase anything.
Now, to be clear, agents do sometimes recommend that their clients work with a freelance editor or other kind of editing service in order to revise their book. This is perfectly normal. In fact, as a freelance editor, I’ve worked with a few agents and their clients myself. The problem is when an agent is affiliated with a particular service and seems to be pushing you to use it. It’s one thing for an agent to suggest additional editing and offer a recommendation; it’s quite another for an agent to insist that you use a particular service, especially if it’s one they’re affiliated with.
- Lack of respect
I would hope that all writers know to expect professional courtesy and respect from their agent, but sadly that’s not always the case. Sometimes writers feel so fortunate to have found an agent that they ignore bad behavior. It’s true that agents are very busy and might not be able to respond as promptly as you might want, and it’s true that different agents have different communication styles. But you should never feel that your agent is ignoring you, and your agent shouldn’t disparage your work. An agent might ask you to revise something, or they might say that they’re not loving your newest MS, but feedback should be polite and professional. Your agent should never act as if you aren’t worth their time. Think of it this way: If your agent isn’t responding to you with professional courtesy, how might they be interacting with editors?
Your agent should have experience in the publishing industry. It’s true that all agents have to start somewhere, and new agents can be good agents. (My agent was new when I signed with her, and I’ve been incredibly happy with her.) But even new agents need to have some kind of experience in the industry before they start signing clients of their own. My agent, for example, worked as an assistant at a prominent agency for three years before she began signing her own clients. If your agent doesn’t have significant experience at an established agency, that’s a major red flag.
- No major sales history
A lack of sales history isn’t necessarily a problem if the agent is new, as long as, again, they’re at an established agency and have experience. Also, not all agents report all of their deals to Publisher’s Marketplace, so an agent might have some sales that you don’t know about. But sales history is still an important factor to look at.
It might also be a problem if an agent has only sold to very small publishing houses. I don’t say this to disparage small presses, of course; as I’ve said before, they can be a great option for some writers. But keep in mind that some smaller publishers don’t actually require submissions to be agented. Securing a deal at some of these presses is something the author could do themselves. And many times, the author has done it themselves. Some authors get an offer from a small press and then bring in an agent to negotiate the deal afterward. Which means that an agent with lots of sales to small presses might not have sold any of those books. For this reason, you might not want an agent whose entire sales history consists of small deals, even if you’re okay with selling to small publishers.
Generally speaking, exclusive requests while querying aren’t in an author’s best interest. You don’t want to delay the process by weeks/months at a time while you wait on a single agent. But some legitimate agents do ask for exclusives, so it’s not necessarily a red flag. What is a problem is when the request for an exclusive is for an unreasonable length of time. Generally, I’d say don’t grant an exclusive for longer than four weeks. If you tell an agent that you can’t grant an exclusive, they probably won’t withdraw their request to read your work anyway; if they do, I’d consider it a big red flag. Most agents will expect you to be querying other agents at the same time.
So, how can a querying writer avoid all of these issues? Research. I’ve written before about how to research potential agents, and I’d recommend taking a look at that post and making sure that you’ve done your research before you start to query. At the very least, check out Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors beforehand, and keep these red flags in mind while working with agents.
What do you think? What are your experiences with agents? Have any red flags to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!
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This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to literary agents, publishing houses, and more, check out other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts.