Sure, there were those dodgy “Authors: publish your book!” ads in the pages of literary and writing magazines, and we were warned about vanity publishing, but there wasn’t the level of misinformation then that there is now; because, for really powerful misinformation, we had to wait for the Internet to arrive.
Online, it’s much harder to work out who has the authority and who to trust, especially for new writers, who tend to be a timid, nervous breed to begin with. The highest places in Google’s search results go not to the best sources of information, but to those who shout the loudest, and the loudest people aren’t always the most honest.
One scam that has come increasingly to my attention in the last few weeks is what you might call the “fake agent” scam. They’re not exactly fake agents, because anybody can call themselves a literary agent and have it be technically true. You or I could hang up our sign tomorrow and start taking clients. We wouldn’t be breaking the law; we just wouldn’t be any good at agenting, and we’d let our clients down.
But the problem with these particular “fake agents” isn’t that they aren’t going to sell your book. It’s that they’re going to fleece you first, and then they aren’t going to sell your book.
Here, very briefly, is how a reputable agent works:
The agent sees your book, and likes it. Based on their knowledge of the market, they believe that they can sell it. They may make suggestions for improvements and alterations, and may chat with you about proposed changes, but they won’t charge you for that. In fact, they won’t charge you a penny for anything. They make their money by taking a commission when they sell your book.
So, the important point here is that you don’t part with a penny; with a reputable agent, the money flows towards you, not away from you. They just take their cut of the cake.
Now, here’s how these “fake agent” scams work:
The “agent” sees your book and offers to represent you. They don’t care whether it’s any good, and they don’t need to know about the market, because they have no intention of actually selling the thing. Instead, they suggest that you could benefit from a little editing—you know, on your way to the crock of gold—and, as luck would have it, they can recommend a great editor. Just a little critique, say $50, $60. So, dizzy with the excitement of having found an agent, you fork over the cash and get your edit. Then, the agent says that it looks like further work is required. Again, they know just the guy, and would be happy to refer you. In for a penny, in for a pound, you think… only you’re handing over a great deal more than a pound. The editing continues to rack up, the prices rise from tens to hundreds to thousands, and you’re no closer to getting published. Eventually, once they’ve bled you dry, the agent tells you that the book’s no good after all, nobody wants to buy it, and that they’re finished with you. So you’re back where you started, and you’re out a fortune for usually sub-standard, and possibly unnecessary, editing.
The point is, of course, that the editor the “fake agent” kept referring you to was in fact themselves, under another name.
I’m getting enquiries every week from people who are in the process of falling for this scam, and they’re comparison shopping before going with the editor that the “fake agent” recommends.* I do my best to set them straight, although it usually costs me the contract (they’re not so keen to shell out on editing when they discover their agent isn’t real), but I’m getting more and more worried about the sheer volume of victims. If I’m hearing from at least one a week, how many must there be altogether? One trick these companies use is to monitor the U.S. copyright office, and write to everybody who registers their novel. Another is to take obvious Internet domains so that they show up for Google searches related to agencies, or to purchase Adwords advertising on the relevant terms, so that unsuspecting victims see them before they even see the legitimate companies.
The difficult question is, what can be done about this? As literary agents aren’t regulated, these guys probably aren’t breaking the law. However, they are taking advantage of inexperienced writers and charging them a lot of money based on a deliberate piece of misinformation; the writer believes the “fake agent” is going to try to sell their book, while the “fake agent” knows that they’re just going to bleed the writer dry, and then get rid of them.
For now, all we can really do is make sure that people know about what’s going on, and about how to find a good, legitimate agency.
You can find a list of reputable literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (in the UK) or in the latest Writer’s Market (in the USA). And before signing with any agent, remember that the Internet has its uses: you can Google up the name of the agency, and see what other writers are saying about them.
*When this post was written in 2008, The Fiction Desk provided paid critique and editing services. We stopped that not long after, when we decided to start publishing.