Questionable Practices by Literary Agents

ShadyThis isn’t one of those posts that I’m excited about, but a few things have come to my attention recently that made me want to remind you all to beware of certain practices by literary agents that may be unethical, questionable, or represent a conflict of interest. Of course, every case is different, and just because an agent is doing one of these things doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unscrupulous. Just keep your eyes open for any red flags, and if you think your agent (or prospective agent) is engaging in any of these practices, don’t be afraid to ask them about it and get it explained to your satisfaction.

Here are some things that may raise a red flag:

Asking clients to help pay for the agent’s travel expenses. Many agents spend a good deal of money traveling to meet with editors and pitch their clients’ projects. To me, this is overhead—a reasonable cost of doing business, which the agent should plan and budget for. However, I’ve heard that some agents ask their clients to contribute several hundred dollars towards these business trips, justifying it by saying that the reason they’re going is to pitch that client’s work, so the client should help pay for it. I personally don’t agree with the practice and I’d never do it.

Charging you to edit your book. If your book needs editing prior to submission to publishers, a reputable agent will refer you to a list of good editors who are not connected financially with the agent (the agent doesn’t own the editorial service, nor are they getting a kickback). Then you can choose with whom to work and arrange financial details directly with them. In some cases, the agent will do the editing themselves, but the agent should not charge you an editing fee. This would be a huge red flag.

Asking clients to help with the agent’s workload. I’ve heard of agents asking their clients to do editing work for them on other clients’ manuscripts. Typically, some kind of compensation is promised, usually on a contingency, such as “if the project sells to a publisher.” In my mind, this is not a fair arrangement because the writer who’s being asked for a “favor” from their agent may not feel free to decline (without risking the agent relationship) which means there’s a power differential, which makes this a potentially predatory practice on the agent’s part. This situation is, in my mind, only okay if the client is free to say no without damaging their agent/client relationship, and if there is fair compensation regardless of whether the project sells or not.

Charging any kind of upfront fee. The agent shouldn’t charge you fees. Agents typically make a 15% commission on sales of your book (this means 15% of your advances, royalties, sub-rights sales, etc.) They shouldn’t be trying to make extra money by charging office fees, submission fees, or anything like that. However, it’s legitimate for the agent to reserve the right to pass along some costs which might be considered extraordinary. For example, if your manuscript required $100 worth of color-copying and/or postage; or the agent was needing to send 30-page faxes to Tokyo.

Failing to have the appropriate level of experience to be an agent. When you consider signing with an agent, you should check their track record of actual book sales to traditional, royalty-paying publishers. Ask them for references and check with some of their current clients (and consider it a red flag if the agent acts offended by this request, or refuses to give you names and contact information). If the agent hasn’t made any sales yet because they’re new, they’ll still need to prove their legitimacy to you by having a verifiable track record of experience in other areas of publishing, or showing that they’ve been working at a reputable literary agency in a different role while learning the ropes.

There are more unprofessional practices (sadly!) but these are the ones I’ve been hearing about most often lately.

If you’re looking for an agent, you should make sure you stay up to date on these things by bookmarking these sites:

Writer Beware 
Preditors and Editors
Absolute Write Water Cooler

P.S. The recent trend of literary agents opening side-businesses as publishers, or helping authors self-publish, is being seen as a conflict-of-interest by many. I am NOT addressing that in this post as it’s a whole other can of worms. But I’ll give you my thoughts on it eventually!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  5. Annonymous on August 14, 2011 at 3:47 AM

    Recently left an agency that charged me fees to create a PDF of my proposals. I offered to create the PDFs myself, but no, that was not allowed – something to do with a watermark image the agency uses in their proposals and the fact that they couldn’t pass that image on to me. This was a BIG agency with a very legit agent who has been in the publishing industry since the 1980s. He was owner of a publishing house for several years before he sold it to one of the big 6 and became an agent. As an agent he has several books that have appeared on the NY Times list.

    I guess I say this to let people know that even some agents who’ve sold big projects have questionable practices.

    Frustrating for writers to finally get picked up by what they think is a good agency, only to get shafted in the end.

  6. Donna K. Weaver on August 13, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    A welcome post indeed!

  7. Traci Kenworth on August 13, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    I just wanted to thank you for taking your time to point out predatory (or potential) practices.

  8. Nancy Sagui on August 10, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Great info to know. I thought the fact that I can fly free and get free buddy passes every quarter would be a positive selling point in my query. Perhaps I’ll hold off on that info until after an agent comes calling!

  9. joan Cimyotte on August 9, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    It’s good to be reminded of the things to look for. We can be so gullible.

  10. Linda Randall on August 9, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    susan vittitow mark posted your blog on facebook and RTd it

  11. Linda Randall on August 9, 2011 at 1:44 AM

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  12. Alan Kurland on August 9, 2011 at 12:06 AM

    Rachelle, great tips, especially for the new writer. I just wish you worked with my genre; historical fiction/thriller! Thanks.

  13. Lisa Jordan on August 8, 2011 at 11:08 PM

    There are so many new writers out there who are dying to be published that they jump on opportunities and later realized they’ve connected with an unethical agent. Always take your time to research agents and don’t be in such a hurry!

  14. Abby on August 8, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    This is a wonderful article, especially for those who are new to the biz, like me. I appreciate your willingness to share.

  15. Anne R. Allen on August 8, 2011 at 7:52 PM

    Most of these have indeed been going on for decades, and I’ve blogged a lot of warnings about fee-charging agents and the “copying and mailing” scam that kept bogus agencies going for years with 1000s of “clients” charged $250 a quarter for years, but no manuscripts were ever submitted. (A little harder to pull that off these days when everything is electronic.)

    Most scam agencies give themselves away by overplaying their hand. If they advertise and send out slick brochures with testimonials from clients, that’s a red flag. Ditto if they initiate contact and you’re not a bestseller on Kindle. Their “satisfied clients” are probably all published by vanity presses owned by the “agency.”

    But asking a client to provide free editing services is a new one on me. Amazing.

  16. Brian Lux on August 8, 2011 at 7:35 PM

    I knew that an agent should not charge a reading fee, but the others are pearls of wisdom. At the moment I do not have an agent simply because my book was published as a result of being a regional winner in a national competition in the UK. However, as the publishers have now gone to wall,like so many these days, I guess I shall be looking for one in the future, so the warnings are appreciated.

  17. Kristin Laughtin on August 8, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    Nice. Simple. Useful. Thanks!

  18. Beth MacKinney on August 8, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    Thanks again for more good info, Rachelle. The thing is, being an agent isn’t synonymous with having good character. Just like any profession, there are unscrupulous people out there, and we have to be careful, even if we as writers really really really want someone to represent us. Better no agent than a poor agent.

  19. Caroline Starr Rose on August 8, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    These requests are out of line. Stay away, writers!

  20. Kathryn Barker on August 8, 2011 at 12:05 PM


    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I really appreciate knowing what isn’t “professional agent” conduct. A “newbie” (like myself) might think certain practices are just part of the deal. The other links are very helpful too….have a great day!

  21. Jaime Wright on August 8, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    Fantastic clarification … it’s a bit scary to research agents. So appreciate your insights!

  22. Marla Taviano on August 8, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    Looking forward to your post about agents/self-publishing.

  23. Victoria Strauss on August 8, 2011 at 11:05 AM

    Thanks for a great post, and for the link to Writer Beware. These kinds of warnings can’t be given too often.

    June said: “The worsening economy seems to be inspiring some questionable practices.” Unfortunately, the bad practices highlighted in this post have been around for a long time. For the most part, they aren’t about trying to survive in a bad economy: they’re about reaching into clients’ pockets to support a dishonest or clueless business.

    • Rachelle Gardner on August 8, 2011 at 11:18 AM

      Thanks, Victoria, for chiming in. After I read the previous comments but before I even read your comment, I was already going to interject and let people know that none of these practices are new and they have nothing to do with the recent poor economy!

      Thanks for being an ongoing source of wisdom and warnings for all of us.

  24. Reba J. Hoffman on August 8, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    Thank you so much for this information, Rachelle. As with any relationship, I believe that the one between agent/author must be founded upon trust. If that foundation is not solid, there is nothing upon which to build.
    Outstanding insight!

  25. Marcy Kennedy on August 8, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    I’d heard that an agent shouldn’t charge an upfront fee, but I’d never heard of the other practices before. I appreciate you opening my eyes and also helping me prepare what I would say should I encounter these practices.

    Although I haven’t had this happen with an agent, I have had experience with people asking me to do work for a percentage of whatever profit it brings in. I just want to second the advice not to enter into this kind of agreement. Remember that the project isn’t yours. You won’t have control over the final decisions, and you’ll be stuck waiting for compensation that might never appear.

  26. Beth K. Vogt on August 8, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    I hadn’t even thought of an agent asking, Would you pick up my baggage fee for me” kind of question.

  27. Kathryn Elliott on August 8, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    Desperation breeds the worst behavior. Great advice!

  28. susan swiderski on August 8, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Thank you once again, dear lady, for looking out for our interests. I’ll try to restrain myself from jumping at the first agent who makes an offer. (unless her name is Rachelle, of course)

  29. April on August 8, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Thanks for the warnings! One day, I may have to actually worry about it! LOL

  30. Debbie Baskin on August 8, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    Thanks for this information. One of the agencies that contacted my husband a while back had several of these questionable practices in the contract they sent us. We turned it down because it didn’t feel right. I am glad to see that we were probably correct in doing that action.

  31. otin on August 8, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    I have totally relied on P&E when looking for agents. I noticed that they usually red flag the agencies that also act as editors.

  32. Peter DeHaan on August 8, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    Thank you for this list.

    In the rush to find an agent, these practices — which would otherwise cause an alarm — could easily be dismissed or overlooked.

  33. Richard Mabry on August 8, 2011 at 7:11 AM

    Thanks for the warning. Perhaps I’m naive, but I’d neither heard of nor considered agents engaging in some of these practices. The industry is a-changin’.

  34. Rosemary Gemmell on August 8, 2011 at 5:11 AM

    Thanks for the reminder, Rachelle – the final point is the one I hadn’t thought about so much!

  35. Jeanne on August 8, 2011 at 3:47 AM

    Rachelle, as always, I appreciate the wisdom you share here. As a newcomer in the world of writing, I am still on the learning curve for knowing what to look for with finding an agent. Your comments are enlightening, and very helpful coming from one as experienced as yourself in this business. Thank you!

  36. mark williams international on August 8, 2011 at 3:30 AM

    A most welcome post, Rachelle!

    Sadly as the realities of the new digital era hit home more and more agents, it seems, are adopting practices that ill-serve the writer.

    And many seem keen to seek out successful indie writers and try muscle in and get a piece of the action after the author has already taken the risk, done the editing and design, and proven the market. Of course these agents still want their full percentage…

    We’ve been put in the interesting position where a seriously major New York agency approached us seeking to represent us on the strength of nothing more than our chart position on Amazon. (In itself a warning sign, perhaps?)

    We engaged in some preliminary discussions, at which stage we mentioned we had been approached by a foreign agent also interested in our work. The next thing we knew this major NY agency, with whom we had agreed and signed nothing, had told the foreign agent they (NY) were representing us.

    When I emailed said NY agency asking for clarification as to exactly what they might do for us, and why they were dealing with our foreign rights when we had not agreed representation they emailed back saying they would not answer my queries in email, only by telephone. No written record…

    Several months on this major NY agency’s foreign rights department still appear to believe said agency represents our book. However the agent herself decided the book she originally contacted us about (she sought to represent us never having read it, only because we were a top five Amazon player) was too long (the word-length is clearly stated on Amazon) and she couldn’t sell it after all.

    That in itself is a sad indictment of her abilities, given we have sold close to 100,000 copies in six months in the UK alone.

    Despite this, said major NY agent desperately wanted to represent our next book, at that stage still unwritten. But she insists we mustn’t e-publish anything else ourselves. Let her see it all first, and maybe she would get us a contract six months down the line.

    This from an agent with whom we have signed precisely nothing. A major NY player reduced to skimming the Amazon charts to pick up clients.

    A major NY agent who understands so little about e-books that she would see us abandon our plans to e-publish our next book on the momentum of a best-seller, on the off-chance she might get us a deal.

    Thankfully not all agents are like this. But when an agent of this repute is reduced to acting in this manner it does make one worry for the future.

    • Michael Seese on August 9, 2011 at 7:50 AM

      One word: WOW!

    • Maureen St. Charles on August 9, 2011 at 9:37 PM

      So true.

      I signed (and remained) with an agent for nearly a year, but had to leave as nagging bits/pieces hinted towards his lack of skill/experience/connections. I had researched him to the best of my ability – he was legit and had some (small) sales. Note that I discovered this info on my own, and he did not provide past sales when asked. But as time went on I could see that he was not really invested, and not even keeping track of the halfhearted pitches he had out there, sometimes even mixing up responses with another (similar) author he repped. When I did cut ties he was rather unprofessional, and I suppose (as a result), chose not to follow up on outstanding submissions, leaving me in a frustrating bind. Imagine knowing that your “baby” may or may not have been read by certain editors at certain houses! Parting ways was the right thing to do, but now I had a manuscript that had been halfheartedly shopped (I could not even be sure which editors/houses had seen it and accepted or rejected!), and that does not make for an enticing query letter (I knew I had to be honest about the situation when on my hunt for a new agent). Most agents I queried stated that whether the work was something they wanted to rep or not, they did not want to pick up something that was now considered “used goods”.

      Most suggested that (as they liked my writing) it was time to move on – shelve that project and write a new work, and several were wonderful enough to leave me with an open door policy, based on what they had seen – something I am insanely thankful for. I finally did move on (admittedly, I tried to shop it for a while longer because it just didn’t seem fair that the agent I left had managed to dictate the future of that work simply by his lackluster work ethic) – he seems to have no new sales since then, and I am not the only client who chose to leave.

      Trust me, this was not about my being in any rush – I would have stayed for much longer with the “right agent” – one I felt truly comfortable with and who showed genuine interest in and effort towards selling my work.

      So let that be a lesson as well when it comes to “signing too soon” (not being fully comfortable with the agent when you choose to sign on) – that choice could end up being the death of that particular project if the agent shops it in any capacity and then you part ways.

      I am extremely lucky that a fluke introduction has recently allowed me to pass the manu I have been speaking of to an AMAZING agent (one I would LOVE to be with), so my fingers are crossed! But I really had shelved the work (and am writing something entirely different), so it’s an odd place to be. We shall see…

      That being said, maybe I need to chat with Mark Williams International about how to do it on my own! (An avenue I hadn’t really considered…)

  37. June on August 8, 2011 at 3:11 AM

    The worsening economy seems to be inspiring some questionable practices. I’m looking forward to your next post on literary agent as publisher. Thanks for your continuing concerns and informing us about them!

  38. Laraqua on August 8, 2011 at 2:30 AM

    This is a very good overview of things to look out for and a good reminder. Thanks!