Bill's Blog

Literary Agents – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sep 23, 2010

Yesterday morning started with a phone call from a client.

“Great news!” blurted the voice at the other end of the line. “I’ve found an agent!”

The caller was Bethany, a young woman who sent her mystery novel to me for an evaluation a few weeks ago. Bethany is a good writer, and her novel has real potential. I could see that the plot needed some minor tweaking, and it was clear that Bethany had the necessary skills to do the work herself with some guidance. So I told her what needed to be done, and I sent her a list of literary agents who would be right for her book.

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed, almost as excited as she was. “Who is it?”

She told me.

I winced. Then I frowned, confused. “Was he on that list I gave you?”

“Well . . . no,” she admitted. “I found him on the Internet.”

I had to give Bethany the bad news: The agent who had agreed to handle her book was a crook. She was crushed. I felt like a jerk by the time we ended our conversation. Bethany’s day had started with sunshine and gladness, and I had rained on her parade.

And all before my morning coffee.


If you hope to sell your book to a large commercial publisher, your first task is to find a competent, ethical literary agent. The agent will know which publishers are most likely to want a book like yours, and he or she will know how to negotiate the best publishing contract for you – i.e., the agent will make sure you get a fair advance while holding onto important subsidiary rights. Many large commercial publishers won’t even accept manuscripts directly from authors, insisting that manuscript submissions come through literary agents.

Thus we come to your first major hurdle: the need to convince a literary agent to represent your book. It can be a real challenge, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that there are a lot of so-called “agents” who seem to be obsessed with finding new and clever ways to scam writers.

So how can you tell if the literary agent offering to represent your book is legit? Glad you asked. Here are a few red flags:

1. The agent offers to represent your book without reading it. No legitimate agent would ever do that.

2. The agent says he or she likes your book but wants you to have someone else evaluate it before making a final decision. Does that really make sense? No, but I know of an agency who has fleeced hundreds (probably thousands) of writers using that scam.

3. The agent won’t give you his or her phone number for direct communications. Real agents make themselves available to their clients and talk to them frequently.

4. The agent won’t agree to forward responses from publishers who have made a decision about your manuscript. Agents who aren’t legit rarely receive responses from publishers, and often don’t even submit manuscripts to publishers. A real agent will get responses from publishers, whether positive or negative, and forward those responses to their clients.

5. The agent charges up-front fees. Unlike independent writers and editors, literary agents work on commission. They get paid when they sell your book. If an agent asks for money up front, no matter what they call it (management fee, reading fee, reimbursement for expenses), don’t fall for it. Cross the agent off your list and move on to the next one.

For a more in-depth discussion of literary agents, visit

Questions about this topic? Call me at (505) 401-1021 or send me an email at I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.

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