You’ve written a book . . .

You want to sell it . . .

You’re looking for a literary agent . . .

Good! You’re on the right track. You’ll have better luck selling your book to a major commercial publisher if you have a competent, well-respected agent on your side.

But how can you find the right agent? Anyone can claim to be a literary agent. There is no licensing agency or competency requirements. If an agent offers to represent your manuscript, it’s up to you to make sure he or she is competent and ethical. Many so-called “literary agents” are more interested in taking your money than selling your book. New writers are especially vulnerable.

When it comes to ethics and competence, there are three kinds of literary agents: Good, Bad, and downright Ugly.

Good Agents . . .

  • Do not charge up-front fees. They will get no money from you until they sell your book to a publisher. They receive a commission – usually fifteen percent – of your advance and royalties.
  • Can give you the titles of several books they have sold in the past few months and who published them. These sales will be to commercial book publishers, not subsidy or print-on-demand publishers who require that authors pay the publishing costs.
  • Are experienced professionals. They know what’s happening in the publishing business and which publishers are looking for the kind of book you’ve written. They’re on a first-name basis with most senior editors and often lunch with them to keep in touch.
  • Can get your foot in the door. Many major commercial publishers no longer accept unagented submissions.
  • Can negotiate the best book deal for you. They will make sure you receive an adequate advance from the publisher, and they’ll make sure you don’t give away movie rights, foreign rights, etc.
  • Will help you make the right choices for your writing career. They’ll make sure you know what’s selling and what isn’t, and whether or not you should consider changing to another genre.
  • Will keep you informed about submissions of your manuscript and responses from publishers. Solid communication between agent and writer is crucial.
  • Will not offer to edit or rewrite your manuscript. And they will not refer you to a book doctor who will edit or rewrite your manuscript. Good literary agents are too busy selling books and negotiating publishing contracts for their clients.
  • Is a member of AAR – the Association of Authors’ Representatives. This isn’t an absolute requirement. Some reputable agents choose not to join AAR. But non-membership in AAR is cause for concern.
  • Don’t troll for new business. Most of the top agents are always on the lookout for new talent, but they don’t spend their time figuring out ways to lure in new writers. Most of them already have as many clients as they can handle. Before committing any of their precious time to reading your manuscript, they’ll have to be absolutely convinced that you have real potential.

Bad Agents . . .

  • Are well-meaning amateurs. Many became literary agents after failed attempts at writing. They have little or no experience in book publishing, and they have no idea what publishers are buying. They wouldn’t recognize a senior editor at Random House if the editor sat next to them on a park bench.
  • Aren’t selling enough books to survive. To hide this failure, they’ll tell you that their client lists are confidential and they can’t point to any books currently on the market that they have sold for their clients.
  • Charge up-front fees. Since they aren’t selling books, they have to charge fees to stay afloat. No matter what these fees are called – handling fees, reading fees, marketing fees, or whatever – don’t fall for it. Agents who are successful at selling books for their clients don’t have to charge fees.
  • Don’t have the experience or expertise to recognize a manuscript’s potential. If your novel has bestseller potential, it needs to be published by a major publisher. If your agent sells it to a marginal publisher instead, then it will have marginal sales.

Ugly Agents . . .

  • Are not merely incompetent, but also dishonest. They have no interest in selling your book. Their only interest is in getting their hands on your money, either by offering their own editing and rewrite services or by referring you to a book doctor who (they claim) will turn your book into a bestseller. Often they operate under different names as both literary agent and book doctor. Some have been convicted of fraud only to set up business under yet another name in a different state.
  • Steal story ideas. Yes, some of them even stoop this low. Copyright laws don’t apply to story ideas. These so-called “agents” have no reputation to protect, so if they see a compelling story concept – yours, for example – they’ll give it to another writer who can turn it into a novel and split the profits with the agent.
  • Don’t bother to submit your manuscript to publishers after cashing your check. They’ll tell you they submitted your manuscript to ten publishers, but they have no documentation to prove it – not even rejection slips. Many of these agents simply take your money, hold your manuscript for six months, then return it and tell you they had no responses from publishers.
  • Misrepresent their knowledge, experience, and contacts. They lie about how long they’ve been in business and about book deals they have made in recent months.
  • Spend much of their time drumming up business. They place ads in writing magazines and design impressive-looking Web sites to lure in unsuspecting writers. They buy lists of names and addresses from writing magazines and organizations for writers. Many of them run writing contests to suck in new writers.
  • Are not respected by publishers. If your manuscript is submitted by an agent that publishers don’t respect, it will be returned unread.
  • Work with subsidy or print-on-demand publishers. These agents will tell you they’ve found a publisher for your book and have negotiated a terrific contract. The only catch is that you’ll have to pay the publishing costs. Reputable agents and publishers don’t work that way. Legitimate commercial publishers pay all the costs of publishing, including royalties to the author. They would never ask an author to pay some of the costs.

If you’re a new writer, finding the right literary agent for your book and convincing that agent to take you on as a client isn’t easy. Click here to find out how I can help.

Questions? Please call, email, or write. If you’re serious about your writing, I’m here to help.

William Greenleaf
Greenleaf Literary Services
6003 Redondo Sierra Vista NE
Rio Rancho, NM 87144

Phone: (505) 401-1021
Fax: (505) 435-9001
Email: william@wgreenleaf.com

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