Questionable Practices by Literary Agents
This 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:
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!