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Twenty Tips from Jim Fisher

Beware of agents who:

  1. offer you a contract for representation shortly after receiving your manuscript. This suggests that the agent, particularly if a fee is involved, is more interested in your money than your work. Ask questions to determine if the agent is familiar with your manuscript. Remember, real agents, when accepting a manuscript, don’t use form letters.

  2. solicit your manuscript for representation out of the blue. Some agents get your name from copyright registration files. This kind of manuscript-chasing is not the way real agents obtain clients. Again, beware of the form letter.

  3. refuse to disclose whom they represent and what books they have recently sold. Why would an agent want to keep this type of information a secret? Maybe they have no sales to report.

  4. offer wild but general praise for your manuscript. Agents who are fast-buck artists don’t have time to read manuscripts. Ones who charge big reading fees won’t look at your work until you’ve paid them to read the manuscripts. Even if you have paid a reading fee, that doesn’t mean that the agent has read your work. These agents are entreprenuers who pay others to read and evaluate the manuscripts that come to them. Take praise from fee-charges with a grain of salt.

  5. brag about how successful they have been as literary representatives. Truly big-time agents do not boast to unpublished authors; it’s the other way around. The aspiring writer must impress the agent. When it comes to fee-charging agents, do not believe everything you read or hear – especially when it comes from the agent.

  6. issue fancy, expensive brochures advertising their agency. The agent might be selling you a costly service that will not help you find a publisher. Do not forget why you wanted an agent in the first place. You don’t need a friend, you don’t need a coach or a cheerleader – you need a royalty-paying publisher. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Remember, a costly agent who can’t find you a publisher is worse than no agent.

  7. are difficult to reach personally by telephone. Agents hiding behind answering machines and services might be avoiding former clients. Some fee-charging agents, once they realize they can’t get any more money out of you, vanish into the night, Don’t be a pest, but don’t be afraid to talk to your agent when you need to.

  8. write poorly. Some of the fee-chargers, even ones who sell editing services, are borderline illiterate. Run from any agent who can’t spell, write a solid sentence or use proper grammar. If writers would quit paying these people fees, they might go back to selling used cars.

  9. are hazy about their professional backgrounds. Most successful, commission-based agents were either writers, editors or publishers. Beware of former real estate agents operating fee-based literary agencies out of Bluegrass, Kentucky.

  10. change their business trade names and/or business addresses frequently. Some fee-based agencies have had five addresses in the past ten years. What are they running from? If the agent you’re considering has been around awhile, check old publishing directories to see if they had ants in their business pants.

  11. advertise for fee-paying clients on-line, in newspapers, and in magazines aimed at aspiring writers. Some of these agents are in the reading fee business rather than in the business of selling manuscripts. Notice that many of these firms, rather than bearing the names of literary agents, have catchy trade names.

  12. place their clients regularly with subsidy publishers. Such agents might be taking kickbacks from these vanity publishers. Some of these agents are nothing more than branch sales offices for these publishers. This is a conflict of interest and should be outlawed. Remember, one does not need an agent to get subsidy-published. Also remember this – in the literary world, the publisher pays you, it’s not the other way around.

  13. own or have a financial interest beyond mere kickbacks in a subsidy (vanity) publishing company. This includes publishers that require authors to purchase a number of their own books. If you seriously want to have a career as a commercial author, stay away from any kind of subsidy publisher. It’s a bad deal.

  14. make what seem, on their face, outlandish claims of success. Some agents who have never sold a manuscript have claimed to represent Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare all in the same year. One such agent claimed kinship to a famous publishing empire, while another said she was Rosie O’Donnell’s half-sister. Neither statement was true. A couple of agents, when under attack by a number of clients who had caught onto their lies and demanded their money back, suddenly became seriously ill, only to quickly recover when the pressure was off.

  15. have no record of sales with Bill Martin’s Agent Research and Evaluation (AR&E) database. If Bill Martin (http://www.agentresearch.com) has never heard of the agent you are considering, think twice before signing a contract, especially if the agent wants up-front money.

  16. seem more interested in line-editing your manuscript than submitting it to a publisher. Book doctoring is big business, often at $3 to $5 per page – substantially less than a professional copyeditor would charge for extensive revision. Do you want a book doctor or a publisher? Who can edit your book better than you? Is the agent you are considering really a book doctor in disguise?

  17. are not located in or near the East or West Coast publishing centers. New York City is the hub of the publishing world. Most successful commission-based literary agents have offices in the New York area. Close proximity to editors is vital in the agent business. Other publishing centers include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC. Although modern communications, including the fax machine and the Internet, have made having an office actually in one of these locations less necessary, an agent from outside these areas still needs to take regular trips for face-to-face contact with acquiring editors.

  18. were not part of the writing/editing industry before becoming agents. Don’t be afraid to ask agents to outline their professional credentials for the job. If they clam up or become indignant, look for another one. This is especially true for fee-charging agents.

  19. use form letters to correspond with you. This is a sign that the agent is not actually giving your manuscript individual attention. Some of the worst agents package up several manuscripts and with a single form cover letter, drop them over the publisher’s transom. This is just going through the motions. If this is the case, you are better off writing a good pitch letter and sending the manuscript yourself.

  20. are rude, disrespectful or downright hostile. Some of the fee-chargers, once they get their money, don’t want anything more to do with you. An agent who has no respect for you as a writer is not going to be a good salesperson for your work. Look for an agent who truly enjoys working with new writers.

This page was last updated on: Sunday, January 13, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com