Looking for the Perfect Literary Agent? Warning Signs That Should Make You Run for the Hills

Your search for the perfect literary agent is on! When you find the right match, that means you’re another step closer to having your book traditionally published — so while the process might be a little stressful, you’re also bound to be excited and ready to move to the next stage. Debut authors might, because of this, look for reasons to say yes to the literary agents they are getting offers from. You should also, on the other hand, be aware of the reasons to turn a literary agent down. 

What are the red flags that should make you run for the hills, the signs that the agent you’re considering is a so-called schmagent?

First things first: What qualities should a literary agent have?

Literary agents don’t need formal qualifications or a professional license — and that alone makes it easy for anyone to prey on new authors by claiming to be an excellent literary agent, when they either don’t have what it takes or have gone down an even more sinister, scammy, path. The literary agent you ultimately choose to work with will have proven themselves by successfully representing similar authors. They should be trustworthy, offering constructive criticism as well as genuinely believing your book is promising, have the right industry connections to actually sell your book, and be strong negotiators with excellent communication skills. 

The literary agent asks for money upfront

Literary agents need to pay their bills just like anyone else, but they do that by taking a commission (typically 15 percent, and almost never more) once your book is published. Prospective literary agents who ask for money upfront, even just to read your pages or your synopsis, fall into the shady category and should be avoided. 

 The literary agent has many more clients than sales

Agents who claim to have a few years’ experience under their belts — as evidenced by their online profile — but who have very few good sales represent another major warning sign. Although your literary agent can help authors out in a number of different ways, when you sign with a literary agent, your top priority would be to get your book published by a reputable traditional publisher. Those agents who have shown that they can’t do that, either because they make very few sales or because they are only able to partner with small houses or digital publishers, may lack the connections or experience to get you what you want. A literary agent’s sales history speaks louder than anything they’ll tell you, so make sure to investigate it. 

Other clients don’t give the agent glowing reviews

It’s important for your literary agent to have a history of satisfied customers. A surface-level approach would be simply to do an internet search; you never you what you’re able to dig up this way, and you would not want to miss out on this open-source intelligence. Once you are getting close to signing with an agent, however, you will also want to contact some of their other clients directly. Reputable literary agents will make that easy for you, while sketchy ones may try to prevent you from talking to their existing clients.

The literary agent’s work history isn’t clear

Signing with a talented new literary agent may be a fantastic career choice — but in this case, it’s crucial to know more. Where did the agent do their internship(s), what steps did they take to become a literary agent, and who is mentoring them? If their connections are apparent, the new agent is working for a reputable agency, and their mentor is helping them (and therewith, you) take their career to the next level, you might have a winner. If not, well, you could be dealing with a schmagent. 

The literary agent doesn’t offer a contract — or the contract is shady

Once a literary agent makes an offer, they should send a blank contract for you to review alone or with your lawyer. Literary agents that either don’t offer a contract at all, or who produce contracts with fine print that simply doesn’t work in your favor should be avoided. Always take a very close look at what it would take to sever the contract. 

Knowing what to avoid in a literary agent will not just help you dodge a bullet, but it will also get you closer to signing with the agent who will help you get your book published! Good luck!

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