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IN Her Own Write
Part I: Real Life Agent Hunt
By Anne R. Allen
October, 2006, 15:40

N
ot every novelist needs an agent. Just the ones who want to get paid. I've got the wallet-gouges and soul-calluses to prove that negotiating a publishing contract is up there with open-heart surgery on the list of things you really want to leave to professionals.

As I've been shopping my new comic mystery around to U.S. agents, I've discovered the industry has changed since I left my last agent in 2002. I've also learned that publishing a few novels outside the U.S., even to good reviews, impresses the American agenting world about as much as that penmanship award you won in third grade.
 
It's heartbreaking to be back at square one after decades of clawing my way up the first few rungs of the professional ladder. But I'm here querying away, probably more from habit than hope. At least I can entertain readers with tales of this real-life game of chutes and ladders, while relaying bits of useful information I glean along the climb.
 
I belong to the generation of women who were told we would more likely be shot by terrorists than find husbands. Twenty years later, we're all writing books about our fabulous single lives—as desperate now for literary representation as we once were for the white dress and gold ring thing.
 
I haven't seen statistics about the comparative likelihood of being shot by a terrorist vs. finding a literary agent, but given the global political climate, I'd say odds heavily favor the terrorists. But I can fantasize that someday I'll be shot by a terrorist who works for Curtis Brown.
 
We can't blame agents. We're in this situation because there are less than 400 members of the Association of Authors' Representatives and approximately 194.7 gazillion of us pounding out novels on our laptops. If as many Americans bought novels as wrote them, our situation wouldn't be so dire.
 
With such vast herds of writers overpopulating the planet, it's inevitable that we've attracted our share of predators. So here are six pointers to help you hang onto your dwindling cash reserves during this soul-crushing process.
 
1. Never Pay An Agent A "Reading Fee"
 
Any agent who charges money to read your manuscript isn't going to help your career. Publishers consider it unethical and won't do business with them.
 
If you have to pay somebody to read your book, it's not ready for publication. If you're a newbie, do pay a qualified freelance editor or book doctor, but never with a promise of publication attached. They simply can't deliver.
 
2. Never Pay "Mailing" Charges Up Front
 
A popular scam. Bogus agencies sign thousands of clients and charge them each $250 or more per quarter for "copying and mailing." But they never make a sale. I've seen heartbreaking letters from writers who've lost as much as $3,000 before they caught on.
 
Small agencies may legitimately ask for copying and mailing fees after they've sent out your work, but they'll provide proof they're sending out your manuscript.
 
3. Avoid Agencies That Advertise
 
A librarian friend recently forwarded me an intriguing ad from an agency advertising for submissions. I visited their refreshingly positive website and almost fell into the trap until I googled them.
 
They appeared on Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agencies List: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/twentyworst.html
 
Do the math; agents don't have to advertise.
 
4. Check Out Client Lists
 
If there's no client page on their website, run. Agents don't keep client lists "confidential." If they represent a literary star, they'll pound their chests and bellow about it.
 
5. Check Recent Sales
 
Even if somebody in the agency can claim to have represented Stephen King, if it happened in King's pre-Carrie days and the agent hasn't sold anything since, don't go there.
 
6. Ask How Often They Forward Rejection Letters
 
A good agent will always send on your rejections, usually every quarter. Some scammers do send manuscripts to publishing houses, but only in mass mailings addressed to no particular editor. Those go into recycling without a response.
 
Other sites that can alert you to bogus agents:
 
For Networking: Writers Forums http://www.writers.net/forum/
 
Scam Alert Central: Preditors and Editors http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/
 
Recently reborn after a vindictive scam agent killed their site. Wounded Heroes: Absolute Write Water Cooler http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/
 
An agent list compiled by a much-rejected writer with some axes to grind, but a great resource: Weirdest http://everyonewhosanyone.com/press.html
 
A blog by an anonymous N.Y.C. agent. Guaranteed to make you feel like an outsider/wannabe/no-count ignoramus, but she's got the skinny on the scamsters.
Funniest: Miss Snark http://misssnark.blogspot.com/
 
And don't forget: Google is your friend. Check 'em out.
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Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk analan2@yahoo.com


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