Anyone can claim to be a literary agent, there is no special training, certification, or licensing. That’s why it is so hard to spot the phonies. It is also true that anyone can write, and only a few who do ever get published. That's why there are so many agents taking advantage of so many writers. While there is no single way to get published, paying up-front money to someone who claims to be a literary agent isn't one of them. Thousands of writers who don't know this, and many who do, are paying millions of dollars to hundreds of literary pretenders. This has become a serious problem for aspiring writers, and it's tainting the publishing industry.
The words “genteel” good taste and refinement in polite society and “racket” a dishonest scheme or practice is an unusual if not contradictory pairing of terms. However, when the “racketeers” are literary agents, book doctors, and vanity presses and the victims are aspiring writers, the marriage of these words is a good one. Publishing isn't as genteel as it once was, but the false belief that it is helps make the racketeering a reality. Because of cold-blooded greed, economic good times, ego, and the desire of self-expression, the genteel racket has become the confidence game of the nineties.
In the legitimate world of publishing, literary agents earn commissions when they sell their clients' manuscripts to publishers who pay advances and royalties. Instead of selling manuscripts to royalty paying publishers, phony agents charge writers up-front fees for various literary services; accept kickbacks from free-lance editors-for-profit (book doctors) and subsidy (vanity) presses; and in the worst cases, vanity publish their own clients.
A literary agent who charges an up-front fee is a literary agent who is at best on the margins of the publishing industry. Therefore, the single most important thing a writer needs to know about a literary agent is whether that agent is a fee-charger. There are about 300 agents charging fees, most of whom are not to be trusted. And that's what the writer writer-agent relationship is all about trust. The writer trusts that the agent will act solely in his best interest. It is therefore important that the writer and the agent share the same interest, that is, selling the writers manuscript to a royalty paying publisher. If the agent had made his money already, through an up-front fee, the agent's interest had been served but the writer's hasn't. This is where the problem lies.
The Association of Author's Representatives (AAR), the trade association comprised of about 275 literary and dramatic agents, prohibits members from charging fees. According to the AAR, “the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial of complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession . . . .”
When it comes to morality, ethics, and professionalism, not all fee-charging literary agents are in the same boat. At best, some of these agents are a waste of a writer's time and money, at worst they are scoundrels and frauds who financially and spiritually break the people they profess to help.
Among fee-charging agents, the least offensive are the well-meaning novices and dilettantes who charge relatively small fees and honestly try to find publishers for their clients. These agents either latch onto a talented prospect who lifts them to legitimacy, quit the business, or find a way to stay in the profession without doing what agents are supposed to do sell manuscripts to publishers willing to pay for the privilege of bringing out the client’s book. The unsuccessful agents who stay in the field become part of the genteel racket.
Some of the more successful fee-charging agents, literary entrepreneurs who make substantial money as book doctors, delude themselves into thinking they are playing a useful role in the publishing industry. They tell themselves they are helping novice writers break into publishing. Book doctors masquerading as literary agents must eventually realize that their clients' chances of getting published are not enhanced by their expensive editing jobs. Knowing that the editing-for-profit business is not about getting writers published, these agents provide the service anyway. They simply don't want to stop making the money. If they told the truth about the reality of their business, they would have no business. To continue exploiting the unrealistic dreams of aspiring writers they produce glossy brochures and fancy web sites to create the illusion of legitimacy and success. The nature of the agent/book doctor business is based on deceit, false advertising, and conflict of interest. To the victimized writer, whether or not this activity is criminal is irrelevant.
The worst of the worst in the genteel racket are those “agents” who have gotten into the business for the sole purpose of fleecing writers. These agents don’t have clients, the have marks. These are the fast-buck artists, con men, and thieves. Folks like this belong in prison instead of on the Internet, in the back of writer's magazines, and in publishing directories aimed at aspiring writers.
So, within the genteel racket, not all practitioners are equally dangerous or bad. It depends on what they do, how they do it, how much they charge, and why they got into the business in the first place.
There are six basic ways an agent can stay in the business with out placing clients' manuscripts with royalty paying publishers. If the agent us sufficiently aggressive, and clever, he or she can make a comfortable living employing one or more of the following money making schemes.