Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Finding Legitimate Agents

It turns out that my hairstylist did vanish off the face of the earth. Apparently, she left that salon soon after my last haircut, and they have no idea where she went. But a salon just opened practically across the street from me, so I wandered over there to check it out yesterday, and now I have freshly done hair. They also have full day spa type facilities and do facials and massages, so that could be cool to have nearby. The place is run by an Indian woman who's very into natural stuff and doing things that fit your body's energy, which I admit sounded kind of weird, but that's how she matched my haircolor perfectly, so I guess it works. The vibe was sort of an Indian Steel Magnolias. My hair's maybe a little shorter than I expected, but it was way, way too long, so I think I'm just reacting to the difference and this is the length it really should be. It's still well past my shoulders, but it was down almost to my waist. And I got my eyebrows threaded for the first time, which was quite the experience. It was fascinating to watch them do that on other people, so when they offered to do it for free, I said why not. In general, I love the idea of going to neighborhood businesses I can walk to.

I'm dealing with a reader question in this week's writing post. How do you know whether a publisher or agent is legitimate?

On the one hand, the Internet has made answering that question a lot easier because you can do so much research about agents and publishers and even, in some cases, submit online. On the other hand, the Internet has made it easier than ever for people to go into the publishing and agenting business and promote themselves, and it's introduced some new business models. That means there are more agents and publishers out there, and not all of them are competent or honest, and that makes it harder to tell which ones are for real.

This is an epic topic, so I'll split it in two. This week, I'll talk about agents. Next time, we'll get into publishers.

When it comes to agents, one thing to remember is that a web presence or lack thereof doesn't say anything about how legitimate that agent is. Some of the biggest, most respected agents in the business have no web presence at all because they don't need it. Meanwhile, plenty of scammers have gorgeous web sites. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that you shouldn't have to pay an agent, period. The agent makes money by selling your work, and gets a commission based on that. If the agent sells nothing, she makes no money from you. Some agents do charge for expenses, but that money is taken out of sales, and, again, the agent eats the cost if the book doesn't sell. Avoid agents who charge any kind of up-front fees for reading, representation, marketing, etc. An agent should be making money by selling books, period. If she makes money in other ways, then she has less incentive to sell books.

When checking out a prospective agent, look at the client list. Have you heard of the authors? Are the authors published by legitimate publishers? If you go to a bookstore (and not just Amazon -- anyone can get a book listed on Amazon), do you find those books? Check the acknowledgments page. Authors often thank their agents and editors. Is the agent thanked the same one who lists that author as a client? Google both the client name and the agent name, and see if those names come up together anywhere other than on the agent's web site. Have they done panels together at writing conferences? Does the author talk about her agent on her blog or have a link to her agent's web site on her site? (Yeah, I know, it sounds paranoid, but I have heard of scam agents listing authors as clients when they weren't.)

What are the agent's credentials? The agent doesn't need to have been in business long to be legitimate (when I signed with my agent, she'd only been in business a short time), but she should have experience in the publishing world from working either as an agent in a larger agency or in a publishing company in some capacity. This is a business based on personal connections, and you want an agent who knows the publishing houses and their personnel.

I would suggest doing this research before you query. Why waste your time on someone you aren't sure about? You certainly don't want to put your work (or your contact information) in front of a scam artist. A good place to check before you contact an agent is Writer Beware. If an agent does offer you representation, take a little time to do even more homework. Ask for some client references. A legitimate agent should be willing to give you a list of clients you can contact. Be worried if she acts like that's a state secret.

You shouldn't have to pay a service to find agents for you or submit for you. From what I've heard from agents, that's a huge waste of money. You can do better research and get better results on your own. Most of these people just spam every agent around with a generic query, and the agents simply delete them. Likewise, you shouldn't pay someone to put your work on a web site for agents and publishers to look at. Agents are buried in queries, so why would they go searching the web to find material? I would be leery of any agent who advertises in writing publications. Again, good agents are swamped with material, so why would they spend money to advertise to get even more?

In two weeks, I'll look at how you can tell if a publisher is legitimate.

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