As many of you probably know, Jacky and I officially launched BookEnds as a book packaging company in 1999. It wasn't long before we knew we wanted more out of the business and that our real calling was agenting. When making the switch in 2001 we very carefully studied the AAR canon of ethics, as well as Writer Beware. It was important to us to start out right. That meant stopping some of the editorial work we were doing as packagers and making sure that we not only acted ethically but were perceived by the outside public (authors and publishers) as an ethical and respectable agency.
There are so many horrible scam artists in the world, and publishing is hardly immune. In fact, at times I think that publishing might have more than our fair share, and I think I speak for all ethical agents when I say that nothing makes me angrier than stories of authors getting burned.
Why do I think there are so many scammers in publishing and why do I think they continue to thrive? Unfortunately, they are given the power to do so. Despite the vast amount of information that is so easily accessible to authors—through books, writers' organizations, conferences, and the Internet—many people still feel that any agent is better than no agent at all.
If we really want to stop these people, then we, as a community, have to make the effort to do so. That means educating all writers and ourselves. You don't have to know who the scam artists are to identify them. In fact, new scammers pop up every day, so relying solely on a list of who's who in the world of publishing scammers isn't enough. Instead, you need to educate yourself on the signs of a scammer, which, truthfully, isn't hard to do.
Simple things that should make you run (paraphrased from Writer Beware) include the following:
Upfront fees—reading or evaluation fees, retainers, marketing or submission fees, or publishers who require you to buy a certain number of your books and pay up front. **What is acceptable: reasonable expense fees with a cap—to be paid out of your advance.
Editorial services—agents or publishers should never recommend that you use an editorial service linked to them that requires extensive payment by you. **What is acceptable: a general recommendation that you might want to consider an editor, and, if asked, a list of reputable editors that do not give kickbacks to any agent.
Outrageous contract terms—no agent should claim financial interest in all of your future work unless she sells it. In fact, the only way an agent has financial interest in your work is if she sells it.
Mass submissions—sending out a form query telling editors about your work or "submitting" solely through a posting on Publisher’s Marketplace. A reputable agent will have contacts and know which editors, not just which houses, she wants to submit to.
Lack of sales—any agent who's been in business for a year should at least have one sale to a reputable publisher.
Poor qualifications—watch out for an agent who sets up business without any sort of publishing background. While some people have succeeded, more have failed.
Failure to boast—an agent with good clients and reputable sales will love telling you about them. Watch out for any agent who keeps this information confidential. In all likelihood it doesn’t exist.
Remember, a bad agent is not better than no agent at all. A bad agent can be damaging to your career, and while it probably won't be permanent damage, why waste your time and money dealing with someone who is going to get you nowhere?
I applaud Victoria and Ann for the work they do, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, it's the first place you should go when thinking of finding an agent. In addition to a blog, Victoria and Ann host Writer Beware (www.sfwa.org/beware/), a volunteer Web site dedicated to ending fraud in publishing.