by Rachael Phillips, with appreciation for help from Jenna Glatzer and Daniel Stevens, "Testing the Agent Waters" in Writers Digest
Given today's publishing climate, most of us find it advisable to procure an agent, a business and literary advocate who will help sell our work, manage our careers, and when nobody seems to appreciate our literary genius, hold our hands.
However, we do not need someone handing us an anvil disguised as an agent contract. The agent industry is largely unregulated, so a plumber with no other qualifications other than he reads Reader's Digest and resembles Charles Dickens can hang up an agent shingle, establish a Web site, and sign unwary authors unless they heed the red flags listed below:
The agent charges fees for reading/representing your work. She can tout these as reading fees, retainers, set-up fees, evaluation, editing, or you-breathe-therefore-you-will-pay-me fees. If you are unpublished, she may say she'll refund your money when your manuscript sells. Run away screaming if you encounter such a person. Good agents make money from selling manuscripts, not inventing fees.
Disclaimer: Some legitimate agents include minimal charges for copying, mailing and/or travel expenses in your contract. They supply you with itemized statements. Never sign with an agent who expects you to foot all the bills.
The agent writes/speaks/presents poorly. Warning signs include typos in correspondence, bad editing, poor phone skills, powder blue leisure suits and picking his nose. Even if this person appears legitimate, do you really want him to represent you to the industry?
The agent conceals his selling history. A new agent should evidence experience as an editor, sales director, author, agent's assistant, publicist, or book packager. A seasoned one should be able to name books she has sold and authors she has worked with. There is no ethical problem with divulging this information. If the agent says, "My client list is confidential," it's probably nonexistent.
The agent displays overall industry ignorance/lack of skill. If you know more than the agent, don't sign with her.
The agent presents an unprofessional Web site and/or e-mail. Freebie sites indicate the agent is not making enough money by sales. Stay away from agents with Homestead, AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo Web sites with long URLs and banner ads. No cutesey e-mails, either. Do you want someone with loveskitties@cybernet to represent you to editors?
The agent tries to re-create clients in his image: "Always keep in mind that although an agent may possess the map to get you to your destination, the car still belongs to you." Christina Hamlett.
The agent makes it difficult to break off the relationship. Do not sign away your life to an agent; We're talking business here, not wedding bells. Most legitimate agent contracts allow either party to send a 60-day notice if she/he wants out.
A good agent (and I'm incredibly blessed to have one) can help make your career. A bad one, representing your work poorly, may cause repercussions long after you've fired him. Editors may dislike your work simply because of the bad agent. And you may find it difficult to persuade a good agent to accept your work, since it's already been shopped in the industry by the loser.
Bottom line: do your homework before you sign on the dotted line!