Today is a good time for me to touch on one important aspect of agent hunting that is often only briefly touched on in loops and groups: SCAM AVOIDANCE.
This post is for all of those aspiring authors who are seeking representation. It's a sad fact of life that there are people out there who make their money by scamming aspiring authors. The most unfortunate part is that a scammer can give every appearance of being a legitimate agent. They might have a great website, have advertising and even appear at conferences to listen to pitches. But there are no entrance exams necessary, no state or federal regulatory bodies overseeing literary and artistic agents, so they operate with general success unless revealed. But even after revealed, how does the word get out to authors? Well, you're in luck, because there are a number of ways to educate yourself about the scams out there so you can look for solid representation to get your book sold!
Our first stop is the Writer Beware website. Writer Beware is a free service of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Run by literary watchdogs and multi-published, bestselling fantasy authors A.C. Crispin and Victoria Strauss, they regularly expose the incompetent, dishonest and outright bad agents in the writing world. Here you'll learn what makes a bad agent . . . well, bad. There's a vast difference between an agent who is unable to sell a manuscript and one who has NO INTENTION of selling the manuscript.
"But wait!", you say. Why would an agent accept a manuscript with no intention to sell it? How would they earn any money? Often, it's with fees to the author. As a society, we're accustomed to fees---per page copy costs, postage, processing, handling, shipping, etc. It's logical and even acceptable to us to expect to pay out of pocket costs to a service provider. The confusion comes because many legitimate, selling agents also want to be reimbursed for certain expenses. The difference between scammers and legitimate agents is that the legitimate agents (if they charge expenses at all, and many don't)take these reimbursements out of COMMISSIONS . . . AFTER THE BOOK IS SOLD. Scammers, on the other hand, take the expenses out of the author's pocket by billing them or requesting advance "reading fees" or "escrows against expenses."
Why is this significant? Well, think about it. If you charge a small fee to read a manuscript or $10 or $20 a month for "postage" to a whole list of authors, but never actually do the work involved---how much free money can a scammer earn in a year? Yeah, you guessed it: a surprising amount. And it might not be until YEARS later that an author learns of the deception. They can say all the right things, and an author might already have had a history of rejection, so it's no surprise if a scammer tells the author the very same thing.
So, after you've read through the Writer Beware website, your next stop should be the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) The AAR is an organization of selling agents. In fact, in order to become a member, an applicant must have sold 10 different "literary properties" in an 18 month period. Since an author's whole purpose for hiring an agent is to sell the book, starting the search with agents who have already demonstrated sales is a good first step. The link above is to the AAR's Frequently Asked Questions page, which is a really good introduction to agencies and even gives a list of questions to talk to your agent about after you've been offered representation. It should be mentioned that not all selling agents belong to AAR. It is, after all, like any other organization. But many do, and many others subscribe to the Canon of Ethics that forbid cheating authors and artists.
You can also learn about which agents have sold what (thereby knowing if the agent you're approaching has actually ever sold a book in your genre, despite requesting them in guidelines) at Publisher's Marketplace. The only trick with this particular link is that the "Deals" section of the site is a paid-only site. It costs $20 per month to belong (billed to a credit card), but even a single month is well worth the price, IMO, because you have unlimited search abilities for multiple years and agents.
Our final stop (in the interest of blog space) is Preditors & Editors . The founder of this site has exhaustively researched and exposed scammers---to the point that he's been sued by negatively reported agents and publishers for various reasons. But that hasn't stopped him from doing is best to help YOU, the aspiring author, discover who is a good, selling agent and who isn't. You can search by company or individual name and also read up on his rating scale at this link.
Remember that just like publishers, the golden rule of hiring an agent is simple: Gold flows TO the author.
I hope this little primer will be useful to all you out there. You know those old sayings: "Forewarned is forearmed" and "Knowledge is Power." Here's your chance for both!