Hold On To Your Wallet

VITAL information for any writing newbie searching for an agent.
PLEASE read carefully. Moira Allen (www.writing-world.com) and I teamed up to provide information to a trusting soul with an open wallet. Ms. Allen's detailed response covers all the basics that you MUST know to protect yourself from the scams rampant in the writing world (and now more easily marketed via the Internet).

Dear Ms. Allen,
I am a first time, unpublished author.  I wrote a fantasy fiction novel and sent out quite a few query letters. Lynda Lotman gave me your name and told me to e-mail you about my experiences so far in this venture. I am considering her to edit my manuscript, but as I related my tale of agency shenanigans to her she became increasingly alarmed and told me to contact you.

First of all, I have signed a six month contract with ___ of ___ Literary Agency.  She charged me $175 up front, but explained her reasoning and I felt, if she fully represented me, the charge was justified. Lynda thinks I have made a big mistake and that ___ will not properly represent my work. I'll chalk up the $175 to hard earned experience, but my obligation to this agency is until Sept. 13, 2002 and that concerns me the most. 

Lynda also wanted me to tell you the experiences I have had so far, they are full of red flags.  I have had a total of five agents respond favorably to my query letters.  The first was ___  of ___ Agency.  My query e-mail was responded to within hours of being received and I was told to submit my manuscript according to the guidelines posted on their website. To my chagrin, they wanted $150 along with the submission, however, there was a 'no fee' option and that is the one I chose. About two weeks later a secretary called me and said that ___ wanted to talk with me.  She asked me to call back the next day at an appointed time, which I did and we talked for an hour, on my dime.  She told me the novel was some of the best writing to come across her desk in a long time, but the structure was killing her and she didn't like my protagonist being an 18-year-old girl.  She was not interested in my reasoning, that two sequels were planned in which quite a bit of time passes and the girl grows up. She had her own ideas and wanted to 'consult' with me for a fee of $9500, after which I would have a suitable manuscript to submit to other agents. She would not guarantee representation!  I was floored, to say the least. I told her I would take a few of her editing suggestions and make the corrections myself. Three days later my manuscript was returned to me with a terse letter telling me that if I resubmitted the novel it would cost me $95.

Then I heard from __ of __ Literary Agency and  __, a Canadian agent.  __ requested the manuscript without a reading fee, I was thrilled.  __ wanted $175 and the manuscript.

Then two weeks ago I received a card from __ asking me to send the entire manuscript.  I have not responded to them yet. Are they reputable?  And two days ago I got a phone call from __ at __ Agency.  She said she would represent me, but the manuscript needs work and if I got it edited, she would take it on, however, she only had the first 10 pages and these were from before I did a three week edit myself. She had an editing service in mind, which charges $6.50 per 250 words at a cost of $3,450.  She even went so far as to give me their website, however the website said they charged $6.00 per page at a cost of $3,180.  Is this agent reputable? I just received the sample edit back.  I agree with 90% of the changes, however __ wrote the cover letter to the fax!  I thought this editing service was not associated with her, I guess I was wrong.

Not wanting to be pushed into anything, I finally did some research on my own and found that _____, ______, ______, and ______ are all poorly rated by Agentresearch.com.  (I could find nothing constructive on ___).  I further found Lynda Lotman and liked what I read.  I contacted her and have spoken with her on the phone.  She will charge me ___ cents per word to edit my manuscript at a cost of $ ____. 

If ___ were really working for me, as an agent should, would a publisher be willing to edit a manuscript or should I proceed with hiring someone?  I do have a potential editor who lives close to me.  She is a retired English professor who taught for 35 years. She said she would look at the manuscript and let me know if she could help me. She doesn't need the money, is bored, and thought the project sounded intriguing.

I've given you a blow-by-blow of my experiences since the end of Jan.  Could you help me with a little information on __ and if you have time, some information on ___,  ___ and ___.  If nothing else, perhaps you could post a warning about _____.  First time authors are quite vulnerable and easy prey for literary sharks.

Thank-you very much,

Dear Lisa,
Thanks for contacting me.  As I told Lynda (and I'm sure she told you), I don't have information on specific literary agents, and I'm not personally involved in tracking disreputable or unethical agents--primarily because there are already a number of excellent sites that have this information.  In fact, I came across such a list just today--and, indeed, most of the names you listed were on the "warning" list.  The only one I didn't see was ___ . It may be that she is legitimate -- or perhaps, as a Canadian agent, she hasn't made it to too many warning sites as yet.

Since you've already discovered, and concluded, that most of these agents are, in fact, not ethical, I don't think I need to address this point further. I think the real question here is how one can avoid this type of mistake--and what one can do to secure a legitimate agent.

The quick-and-dirty answer is: Be informed.  I know that sounds terse, and it isn't meant as such.  However, if you are writing in a particular field (such as fantasy), it's worth the time and effort to find out what resources are available in that field.  Perhaps the biggest resource available to science fiction and fantasy writers is the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), which you can locate at http://www.sfwa.org  This site is also the location of the excellent "Writer Beware" site hosted by fantasy writer Victoria Strauss (http://www.sfwa.org/beware).  Another good reference (which was hosted by sfwa but has moved to another location) is "Preditors and Editors," which has a number of warning pages.

I highly recommend joining the SFWA as an associate member (or whatever it is they call you if you're not published). I have such a membership myself; I'm not a published sf/fantasy author yet, so I'm not eligible for full membership. But this gives me their quarterly magazine, which has lots of good industry information, and I think when signing up one could also buy a book they put out for sf/fantasy writers that is absolutely PACKED with good info. This organization focuses on the BUSINESS of sf/fantasy writing--publishers, agents, conferences, etc.--rather than on "how to write."

Outside of that, there are of course dozens of excellent sites for writers of all types and genres, and on all of them, you'll hear the same, all-important line: MONEY FLOWS *TO* THE WRITER, NOT *FROM* THE  WRITER.  In legitimate publishing ventures -- including dealings with agents -- money comes TO the writer; the writer does not PAY money to others to achieve publication, representation, etc.  Keeping that one simple rule in mind will basically be all you need to avoid shady agents in the future.

What is a shady agent?  It is an agent who asks you to put up money, up front, for ANY reason, to secure that agent's representation.  Why is this shady?  Don't agents have expenses, after all?  Isn't a reading fee "reasonable?"  It's shady because the JOB of an agent is to sell your work -- and to earn a commission by doing so. If an agent doesn't feel that he or she can successfully market your work to a publisher, a reputable agent just says "no."  It's that simple. If an agent says "give me money and I'll see," that agent is NOT acting on YOUR behalf; she or he is simply using you to bring in revenue, whether or not you are actually being SERVED by that agency. After all, what incentive does an agent have to actually go out and  try to sell your book to publishers -- when the agent can get the money straight from YOU?  You know an agent is working for you only when you know that the agent won't make a dime off of you UNLESS that  agent manages to sell your book and earn a commission.

Unfortunately, many "guides" to literary agents list both fee-charging and non-fee-charging agents.  This gives the former an impression of respectability.  And new authors, who are desperate to get published, find it ever so much easier to get a "yes" from an agent who charges a fee -- so this business keeps on thriving.

The "I will edit your book for a fee" or "I know someone who can edit your book for a fee" is a HUGE scam, and has in fact resulted in a well-known lawsuit that put the business called "Edit Ink" OUT of  business. But some agents are still working this scam.  Again, there's an easy way to tell what's up: An agent is NOT an editor.  An agent may say that your book needs editing--but the agent should not be involved in editing it herself.  Now, some agents may indeed know good editors, but if an agent gives you only ONE recommendation, and/or implies that once the book has been edited (for a huge fee),  she might consider it for representation, run as fast as you can.

Unfortunately, to answer your other question, no, publishers do NOT edit your book for you.  If you are fortunate, and your book really catches an editor's attention (meaning, in this case, an ACQUISITIONS editor working for a publishing house), that editor may indeed work with you on developing the book if she feels it needs more work. However, this is increasingly becoming a thing of the past;  publishers are less and less inclined to consider books that need work.  I'm not saying it can't happen; I'm just saying that you should not rely on a publishing house editor to "edit" your book into shape.

There ARE reputable editors and book doctors out there, and Lynda  Lotman is certainly one of them. Unfortunately, this type of editing is expensive.  If you choose to use such a service, you must be aware  that it is at YOUR cost, and you should make this choice yourself, NOT because an agent tempts you with representation if you accept a referral.

Before you go the route of book editing, I recommend participating in some online critique and discussion groups, and getting some feedback from other writers and readers of sf/fantasy on the quality of your book.  I have found online groups to be much more helpful than most "real-time" writing groups, as they tend to have a larger number of actually published, professional writers- and they have a higher level of diversity, since there are no geographic boundaries on such groups. A critique group can help you identify issues of possible plot problems, character problems, dialogue, story flow, and of course, general grammar issues- and it won't cost you anything. You WILL be expected to reciprocate by critiquing the work of others, and you may often be asked to provide two or three critiques before you can post your own work for review.

If you then choose to obtain editing, Lynda can give you a good idea of what is "reasonable."  To give you my limited knowledge, in the past I've charged $5 per page for basic copy-editing and proofreading, and I've heard that this can actually be a bit on the low side.  (I've generally worked with nonfiction material.)  If you're looking for editing that covers not only issues of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and to a certain extent, "flow," but also issues of plot, character development, etc., you can quite possibly expect to pay more.  As I said, this IS an expensive option.  If you choose it, be sure that you are working with an editor who understands the type of material you are writing--don't work with an editor who does "everything."  Some editors charge by the hour  rather than the page--e.g., anywhere from $25 to $75 an hour--but I myself have found that whether I charge by the hour or the page, the rate works out to be almost the same.

As for protecting yourself in the future, the most important step you can take is to simply check an agent's listing first to see whether a "reading fee" is charged.  If an agent is charging any sort of  up-front fee, don't send a query. And keep in mind that you CAN still contact some publishers without an agent, so there is no harm in trying to market your book yourself AT THE SAME TIME that you seek representation.

The final thing that you can do is remind yourself that this can be a slow, difficult, frustrating process.  Many authors NEVER sell their FIRST book.  The worst thing you can do to yourself is to allow yourself to feel so "desperate" for publication that you'll "do anything" to achieve it.  I don't know anything about your book; it may be wonderful, or it may need lots of work.  I do know that it takes time and patience to break in.  While you're shopping this book, I'd recommend that you start work on the next book, rather than working endlessly to repolish this one. (Sometimes, too much polishing and revision can actually make a book worse rather than better; eventually, you can polish the original spark right out of it.)  Think of yourself, not as an author of A book --but as an author of MANY books, of which this is just the first.  You will find, as you move forward, that your skill continues to increase--in fact, you're likely to hit an epiphany (Ah ha!) moment when you realize that you've crossed to a new level of writing--and that only happens when you just keep writing and writing and writing.  Ray Bradbury suggested that it happened around the million word point, and I think that's a fairly reasonable estimate.

I'm not saying that you should give up hope on this book--again, I haven't seen it. I'm saying that you can get into a bad situation if you pin ALL your hopes and energies on getting THIS book published -- or if you're desperate to have it published SOON. Accept the fact that it could take several years, and keep on with your writing. It sounds to me as if you're a dedicated writer with the gumption to stick to it until you succeed.  I wish you the best of luck with it.
Moira Allen