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Agent Red Flags: Agents Authors Should Avoid

Authors want to have an agent.

After all, with a cheerleader and professional by an author's side, they can break past those gates and slush piles right into the inboxes of the editors at the larger houses.

There's a great need for them. And whenever a circular gap exists, those who are square-shaped (i.e. scammers or those ill-equipped for the job) will try to squeeze into that. Here's a peek at some red-flag agents authors should avoid.

Before diving into the following agents, here are a few tips from some other writing websites on selecting an agent. According to Writer's Digest's (scholarly source) article "5 Tips for Querying & Choosing a Literary Agent" don't be afraid to ask the literary agent questions and make sure to reach out to their clients to see how they like the agent-author relationship.

Another article by Book Writing Coach Lisa Tenner titled, "How to Choose a Literary Agent Red Flags" advises to weigh your options before entering a contracted relationship. Some agents have tricky clauses or very long terms on the contract.

OK, now for the Red Flag agents:

1. Pay-to-Play

We've seen advertisements for agents who can get our books in front of publishers ... for a price.

Never, never, never, never, never sign with an agent who charges you to shop around your work. Agents are not supposed to be paid until the author receives an advance or royalties.

2. Spammers

These agents don't do their research on the publishers before sending manuscripts to them. They may shot-gun forty submissions for one manuscript without considering the individual needs of a house.

Authors do this when starting out and immediately get their work thrown into the Trash Folder (or a folder with a list of red-flag authors). If an agent won't consider spammed submissions, neither will a publisher: even if the manuscript comes from an agent.

3. Secret Agents

No, most agents don't wear trench coats or hum a James Bond tune on their way to checking their submissions folders every day.

(Or do we?)

What do I mean by this?

Agents who withhold:

  • Their client lists from potential clients

  • Where clients have signed

  • Who they submit manuscripts to during the submissions process (this is more for the client than potential clients)

That sort of thing. Agents are supposed to be transparent with clients. Yes, not all agents send every single email that comes their way to a client or potential client. But they should keep all parties in the loop about updates and just what they have accomplished in the literary world.

If they withhold this, they probably aren't accomplishing much.

4. The Go-Getters

(Who aren't going or getting)

As a newer agent, this one is particularly intimidating for me because within a few years, I will be measured on how well I did in book sales.

Technically anyone can set up shop and call themselves a literary agent, but it takes an agent who is willing to go to conferences, establish connections with editors at large houses, and stay well-versed on market trends who will prove themselves to be a green-flag agent (instead of red).

What are some other red flags you know of/have experienced in the agenting or publishing world?

As always, my articles are not comprehensive, but here are some other good resources to check out on the subject:

Writer's Relief Staff, "Awkward Moment Or Red Flag? 11 Literary Agent Practices Worth Questioning," Writer's Relief, 2015.

Writer's Relief Staff, "Literary Agents You Should Avoid: 3 Major Red Flags," Writer's Relief, 2012.


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