“Craigslist Agents”

Note: Another short story of mine has been published, for those interested in reading it. You can find it online at http://20minutetales.com/ , or, if you happen to live in the DC Metro area, you can look for a paper copy of the new, local lit paper.

Note 2: Thank you Thomas Halvë (Writing with Water blogger) for the link on your site as a favorite blog (and thank you to all my new followers as a whole).

Now, on to the actual blog!

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Every once in a while I come across ads on Craigslist similar to this one today:

I’m looking for a reputable book/literary agent. I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer). I need an agent who has experience working with the top publishing companies in the country and knows how to pitch and markert it well.”

Now, the first thing I always want to say to these posters is, “A reputable agent isn’t going to be looking for clients on Craigslist” let alone one who has experience working with top publishing companies (especially the big six: Hachette, HaperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster). In all honesty, any agent worth their salt more than likely isn’t going to be looking/advertising for clients at all.

Having worked as both an author and a publisher (or at least as an employee at a publishers) I can speak first hand as to what a disadvantage authors are at when it comes to getting published traditionally. Part of this comes down to the relatively common complaint I hear from people who work on the editing/publishing side of creative writing, “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” Now, I talked earlier about my problem with people trying to separate novelists into writers and “real” writers, but I can understand the general sentiment for “Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” It takes a lot of work, but as a whole, it isn’t that hard to write a novel. Most people who have gone through grade school are capable of writing a generally understandable sentence in their native language (and perhaps non-native languages if they took those sorts of classes), so it’s just a matter of coming up with some idea for a plot and writing a bunch of those sentences over and over again, and sticking with it until you have a novel. The trick isn’t being able to write a novel, it’s about being able to write a good novel.

And one big problem in the writing community is the inability for authors to objectively judge their own novels. You put so much work into writing one, it’s your baby. Of course it’s amazing. You can see this in the Craigslist ad: “I have two book manuscripts that I believe are gold (but I’m also the writer).” I don’t blame the author at all for thinking that (lord knows I have some early manuscripts that are awful by my standards now that I thought were brilliant when I wrote them at sixteen), and hey, it’s even possible that they are amazing, even as a first novel (My former editing client, Allyson Marrs [@allymarrs] just recently got her first request for a full manuscript from an agent on her first novel, that’s further than my first novel ever got). It’s just really, really hard to judge your own work.

And so, there is a surplus of novels out there. Even taking out novels that I believe slush pile readers have every right to stop reading after a paragraph (my first novel, cough) authors still put out far more novels a year than even all the big and indie publishers combined could ever print. And thus, as authors, we are on the bum end of a supply vs. demand equation. Working in submissions, you can reject novels for a plot you aren’t interested in, typos, a writing style you don’t like, or even just because the author sounds like a diva in their cover letter. You don’t need more of a reason than any one of those. For every novel you reject there are three more that just landed in your inbox.

Now, that certainly doesn’t mean that you should just not try or bend over backwards for the first publisher or agent that sounds interested in your book. It does, however, mean that it’s important to understand where, as an author, you fall into the publishing hierarchy. You are the one who is going to be shopping your manuscript around. You are the one who is going to have to prove that your novel is better than the other hundred novels the agent/publisher got at the same time as yours. And that’s why you aren’t going to be able to advertise for an agent or publisher–at least not for one that’s any good. Sadly, authors are the ones applying for a job, not the ones hiring.

And so, for anyone just starting to look into trying to find an agent and/or publisher, here are some quick tips.

1. Don’t advertise for an agent/publisher. It might be tempting to save some time and have someone contact you rather than having to go around querying, but as I’ve stated above, reputable publishers and agents can have hundreds (if not thousands) of submissions each month from writers looking to be published/represented. There is no need for one of them to be browsing Craigslist or similar sites looking for clients. Advertising like that simply opens you up to getting contacted by people running vanity presses, people who are running scams, and “agents” with no experience/contacts in publishing.

1b. Not all agents are created equal. Simply having someone representing you isn’t a work around for a good lit agent. Working in submissions, every once in a while I would see a submission made by the author’s friend “working as their lit agent” who obviously had no more idea what they were doing than the author. “Agent” isn’t a magic word to get your submission ranked higher than other author-submitted manuscripts. If you aren’t working with an agent that is at least somewhat established, known to the press, or at least obviously is a professional with some experience in publishing, your submission is going into the slush pile with all the other submissions “agent” or not.

2. Be wary of “top agents” who are looking for clients on sites such as Craigslist. Now, there are some reputable agents/publishers who will let authors know they have an open submission period or are “actively growing their client base” (or something along those line). You don’t have to write someone off just because they have a post up saying they are accepting queries. What you should be wary of is agents who are looking for clients on general classified sites, especially ones that seem willing to accept any client (double points for any client without any sort of querying process).

3. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. If someone’s promising you something that seems too good to be true, be careful. No agent should promise they can get you published. Even top agents who do have a working relationship with the big six publishers can’t promise that those publishers will want your book. Sad fact is, even if you get an agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean your book is going to get published. It just means you have a much better chance than some other people in the slush pile. Pie in the sky promises should be a big red flag.

4. Always do your research. Big, well-established lit agencies are a good place to start when looking for a reputable agent. Also, agents which have a posted client list (especially one that lists books that have sold) are generally better than ones that have no track record of client sales. If something seems fishy about an agent’s website, be cautious. When in doubt, you can always look at sites such as Preditors and Editors which will list if the agent has any verified sales to publishers, if they are a member of a respected organization, and if other authors have not recommended them with a list of reasons (poor contract, unrealistic promises, etc.)

5. NEVER PAY SOMEONE TO REPRESENT/PUBLISH YOU. And, of course, the big one. Remember the general rule in publishing is money flows to the author, not from. Yes, authors are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding an agent/publisher, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to start shelling out big money to get one. No reputable agent will ask for money. They make their money by selling your story (generally around 15% of the final amount they get you from the publisher [e.g. $150 of a $1000 advance, etc.]) Likewise, reputable agents and publishers won’t ask for a “reading fee” (money to cover their time considering your query).

As author Holly Lisle puts it:

Here is the unspoken translation to the agent’s reason for requiring a reading fee. ‘I absolutely suck as an agent. I cannot make as much money off of my sales of books for my clients as I can by ripping off naive writers who don’t know that my job as an agent should be to sell books and make money for my clients, and that my search for new clients should be part of my cost for doing business, just as the writer’s investment of time, talent, office supplies and postage is part of his. Furthermore, I have the ethics of the scum you scrape off the underside of a dead tree, and I’ve found that P.T. Barnum was right: There is a sucker born every minute. I’m out to milk my share of them’.”

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