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Analyze the Agent: Signs of a Bad One
by Kelly James-Enger

You’ve written a novel, a children's book, or a nonfiction book proposal. Now comes the next challenge—finding an agent. Who should you choose? There are thousands of agents out there, after all, and it can be hard to select the one who will the best fit. I suggest you start with a guide like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, which is updated annually, and make a master list of possibilities.

You'll want to consider factors like the types of books the agent represents, how long the agent has been in business, and how many clients he or she has. You'll also want to separate the wheat (the good agents) from the chaff (the not-so-good, questionable, and downright unethical ones.)

While it's exciting to receive an offer of representation for your book project, the sad truth is that not every agent is legit. A bad agent can waste your time and hurt your chances of selling your book, so here are a few warning signs of an agent to avoid:

  • Your agent has no specific plan for selling your book. A competent, experienced agent will have an idea of which publishing houses and editors to approach and should share that with you. An agent who says who loves your book but doesn't know how to sell it will only waste your time.
  • Your agent doesn't seem to know what's happening in the book publishing industry. A good agent knows who the editors are, who’s acquiring what types of books, what’s “hot” now, and what type of advance or deal you can expect for your project.
  • Your agent doesn't communicate with you regularly. When she's pitching a project, she should keep you in the loop. (Particularly bad sign? When your agent never returns your calls or emails.)
  • Your agent tries to talk you into a deal you have reservations about. He should always be on your side—that's his job. If he tries to force you into a contract, it's time to find a new agent.
  • Your agent hasn’t sold a book recently—or ever. There are many new, inexperienced agents out there who may be more willing to take on new clients than more seasoned ones. But do you want them making rookie mistakes with your project?
  • Your agent won't take the time to answer your questions about the publishing process or your book contract. Again, your agent is working for you, not the other way around.
  • Your agent tells you your book needs editing or reworking, and insists that you use a particular editor to do it. This is an old scam—the editor is a friend or colleague of the agent's, and is getting a kickback on the deal.
  • Your agent charges a reading fee. You shouldn't have to pay an agent to take on your manuscript; he will make his 15% when he sells your book. That's why it's smart to look for agents who are members of AAR, the Association of Author’s Representatives. Members of AAR are expected to adhere to its Canon of Ethics, which provides, among other things, that agents will not charge reading fees for potential clients. (Many writers have been duped by less than reputable “agents” who agree to evaluate and/or market a manuscript—for a fee of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.)
  • If you have questions about the language in your book contract or the terms of the deal, your agent should explain it to you. He's working for you, remember?

Ideally, your agent should take an interest in your overall career—and partner with you to meet your overall goals. Agents are busy, and it’s not necessarily a bad sign if yours takes a day or two to get back to you. But there’s no excuse for ignoring you for weeks, failing to give you relevant information about the status of your book project, or for thinking more about her 15% commission than about what you want from this particular book.

If you start seeing those kinds of red flags, it may be time to look for a new agent. Don’t' feel bad about dumping someone who's not working for you. A bad agent is often worse than none at all.

© Copyright 2006, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

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