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Beware of Scammers


How do I tell a reputable literary agent from a questionable one?

Legitimate literary agents make their professional livelihoods from the commissions they earn through the sale of their clients' books to publishers. Reputable agents do not charge fees to review manuscripts, they do not refer writers to fee-charging editorial services, and they do not charge their clients up-front fees to cover the costs of doing business. Reputable agents earn their money through a 10-20% commission of the sale of book rights to domestic and foreign book publishers. Real literary agents with real book sales have real publishing contacts. They know editors. They know what editors like to read. And most importantly, literary agents know what specific editors want to buy.

Veteran agents have solid track records of making book sales to major publishing houses. Newer agents have less sales under their belts, but often have previous experience in the publishing industry as former editors or marketing directors, or have a history of working in established literary agencies as associate agents or assistants. Regardless of their experience level, legitimate literary agents know the trade and handle a number of important business issues for their clients such as negotiating publishing contracts, tracking advances and royalties, selling foreign rights, brokering book-to-film deals, and managing all other copyright permissions. 10-15% is the standard commission fee for domestic sales. 20% is the standard for the sale of foreign rights. Good literary agents are worth every penny.

What is AAR?

AAR stands for The Association of Authors' Representatives. Its members are agents who abide by its membership criteria and code of ethics. AAR membership ensures that a literary agent makes real sales to major publishers, and does not charge up-front fees to its clients. However, many legitimate agents, even mega-über agents, choose not to be AAR members. Furthermore, many newer agents who are actively building client lists, do not immediately qualify for AAR membership. Agencies often operate in accordance with the provisions of AAR's Canon of Ethics, even though all their agents are not AAR members.

Bottom line: AAR membership is always a good sign, but it’s not a 24K gold star guarantee. Don’t discount the agents listed in our database who are not AAR members. We pre-screen all the agents in our database—AAR members or not—and feel confident that 99.9% of the literary agents listed in our AQ database are the real-deal. If you'd like to read more about our opinion about AAR membership and agents, check out our official AQ diatribe.




Are Literary Agents Based Outside of New York City Legit?

Let’s face it. New York is the center of the publishing universe. However, this fact does not mandate that only legitimate agents live and work in New York, especially with the popularity of cyber-communication. Sure, reputable agents residing within NYC have an advantage; their proximity to editors and publishing houses undeniably facilitates invaluable networking opportunities. But snagging a New York agent does not guarantee anything. There are many top-tier literary agents on the West Coast, East Coast and everywhere in between. If they’re in our AQ database, they are legit—whether in Idaho or San Francisco. For this reason, we hope you will not limit yourself to searching for a NYC agent. Just limit your search to the agents who sound right for your book.

Are All Literary Agents in the AQ Database Legit?

To the best of our knowledge: all of the literary agents in our AQ database are the real deal. We have spent countless hours researching each agent, and feel confident that the agents in our database have been around the block. They know their stuff. Many are former editors. Many have worked in the publishing industry for 20+ years or more. The younger, hungrier ones have spent time in established agencies before moving up the food chain or moving on to start their own agencies. If we have any doubts about the legitimacy of an agent, you won’t find him or her in our database—period. Does this mean will we accidentally leave out a few reputable agents? Sure. Our AQ database is a continual work-in-process. But we’ll eventually catch all the goods ones in our nets.

Industry Red Flags:

Be wary of any literary agent that contacts you out of the blue, especially if you have not queried that specific agent and do not have a public platform or presence. Fiction writers should be particularly cautious unless the agent has a logical reason to contact you, like you've recently won a prestigious writing contest, or they've seen your blog or read your published stories, etc. Beware of agents that offer representation for a fixed fee, offer representation only if you pay them money to edit your manuscript, or charge you up-front fees in the range of thousands of dollars to off-set the cost of submitting your manuscript to publishers. These are all warning signs—unethical behavior from an unprofessional scammer. Scammers will tempt you, especially if you are desperate and inundated with rejections. They will tell you how fabulous your manuscript is and you will want to believe them. Don’t be tempted. A bite from their fruit can sting your pocket book and your writing reputation.

Do Any Legitimate Literary Agents Charge Up-Front Fees?

Agent Query is noticing a trend: more and more reputable literary agents—ones you'll find in our AQ database with sales records—have contract clauses that allow them to charge their clients up-front fees in the range of $200-500 for reimbursement of expenses such as postage and submission copies. This causes consternation and controversy amongst writers for obvious reasons. Fee=scammer. We wish it was that simple.

It should be noted that we have seen this "up-front reimbursement of expenses" clause in several legitimate agency-client contracts, but FORTUNATELY, it's usually in conjunction with another clause that states that NO additional up-front fees can be charged WITHOUT the writer's express knowledge or written consent. In case you've lost score: this is a good thing.

So, do reputable literary agents who charge up-front fees muddy the waters and confuse the dickens out of anxious, paranoid writers? Yes.

Does this mean you should dismiss a legitimate agent as a fee-charging scammer if said legitimate agent has an "up-front reimbursement of expense" clause in their contract? No.

Huh? Why? Because the fact of the matter is that more and more reputable literary agents are listing "up-front reimbursement of expenses" clauses in their contracts. Does this mean the agent will always ask you for the money up-front? No. In fact, many of these agents never even bother to collect the up-front fee—up-front. If they don't sell your book, they might collect it, they might not. And if they DO sell your book, they'll collect it after the sale, just like every other reputable agent.

Confused? Yeah, so are we. But the point is that although we don't always like to see an "up-front reimbursement of expenses" clause in the agency contract of a reputable agency, it's also not the automactic sign of a scammer. The key here is reputable agent. So if you're considering an offer of representation by a literary agent in our AQ database, and their client-agency contract states that the agency may charge the writer an up-front fee of $250-$500 for reimbursement of expenses (postage, submission copies, etc.), then here's what we say: NEGOTIATE.


Why No Agent is Better than a Bad Agent:

Think of your book like a wide-eyed teenage girl who has just transferred into a new high school. Naive, insecure, and desperate for attention. She dates the first guy who offers to take her out on a date. Then she dates another. And another. And another, until finally she’s been passed around the whole football team. Crude, we know, but the publishing world operates on the same juvenile credo.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that an inexperienced agent indiscriminately shoots out your book to all the editors of all the publishing houses. Mr. Bad Agent has no real publishing contacts. No relationship with editors. No track record of sales. No reputation. No way to follow up on his submission of your book. Thus, your manuscript lingers a painful death in the purgatory of the slush pile. Months pass, no word from Mr. Bad Agent. You wise up, and dump Mr. Bad Agent in order to search for Mr. Bad-Ass Agent. Guess what: you’re damaged goods.

Your book has already been submitted to publishers—agents won’t touch your book. They may pity you—a little—but then they’ll reject you. You’re tainted. And "used" is less appealing than new.

If this is your current situation, don’t despair too much. Just despair a little. Agents have been known to turn a blind eye to almost anything if they love the book enough. Shopping a book with a previous submission history is simply one more obstacle to overcome as you try to convince a reputable agent to represent your book.

But if this isn’t your torch song, don’t learn the lyrics. Take it from us: no agent is always better than a bad one.