“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!


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’.”


There are a couple of reasons literary agents are still a go-to force in publishing–and not only because they tend to be the gatekeepers to large publishing houses. Beyond helping get you a publishing deal, agents can help you negotiate a contract once have a deal.

Of course you don’t always have to get an agent to get a book published. Neither of my books coming out this summer were sold with help of an agent. There are some good things about that, should you choose to go agent-less (namely, not having to give an agent a cut of your earnings) but then, what are you going to do about the contract? After all, a bad contract can seriously hurt you in the future.

Many people I know of suggest going to a lawyer to look over a contract. Of course you can always do that, but at least for me, I don’t find that necessary (I never have/I don’t know anyone who has personally). Of course I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but from my personal experience, it’s possible to keep from getting into a bad situation by just fully reading your contract and having a good head on your shoulders.

As someone with experience on both sides of publishing contracts, here are a few tips I would give authors going it alone.

1) Unless you chose to work with a vanity publisher, never sign a contract that says you will pay the publisher for services. Be them editing services, start-up costs, or anything else, legitimate publishers won’t ask for you to pay to have your book published. The general rule you can keep in mind is: Money flows to the author. Not from. Publishers make their money by selling your book. Big or small, traditional publishers won’t make you pay for them to edit, layout, get a cover artist, or market your book. They also won’t require you to purchase a set number of books. There are a few “back-end” vanity publishers out there that are flying under the radar of fledgling authors by not asking for money up front but asking questions like “How many books are you planning on buying?” with the intent of putting a nonstandard clause in a contract requiring the author to buy at least 75 (if not more) copies of their book once it’s published. They don’t ask for fees, but they’re making their money by having at least that many sales and making it the author’s duty to sell those copies under the guise of “normal author promotion” Yes, authors can buy their own book (generally at a sharp discount from the publisher) but they won’t require you to buy a certain amount of copies to agree to publish you, much less write it in to your contract.

2) Don’t jump at just any contract. You’ve gotten lord knows how many rejections, and finally you’ve gotten a yes! That’s always an exciting feeling, but especially if it’s your first sale. One of the biggest mistakes you can make, however is to sign that contract and sent it straight back. As with any contract read it throughly. Maybe you’ve found a less-than-honest publisher that has some nonstandard clause in it that will hurt you later on. You won’t know if you don’t read it.

Furthermore, even if the contract is completely legitimate, you might find something you want to negotiate. Negotiating is something your agent would do normally, but if you are selling your book yourself, you are your own agent, so it’s up to you to negotiate any points in your contract you are unhappy with. You don’t want to be difficult or argumentative, but if you feel there’s something you’d like to discuss before signing bring it up. By myself, I have negotiated e-book/print releases and higher royalties. Just because you aren’t a professional agent doesn’t mean you should let a publisher do whatever they want without question.

3) Know what you want. Maybe you just want to get your book out there. It doesn’t really matter who publishes it, or how much you make. If you are happy going with an untested publisher, or are fine with only having someone produce an e-book, that’s fine. Everyone wants something different from publisher. If you aren’t happy with a contract, however, and they won’t negotiate you don’t have to settle. Know what you’re willing to take for your work, and if one offer isn’t that, you can always walk away and look for another publisher.

4) Never sign away your rights. A publisher may help you with the copyright office, but your contract should never sign over artistic rights of your book (unless you were specifically hired as a ghost writer). Publishers are contracting the right to exclusively distribute your book, not buying the copyright to it. The book will stay in your name, and once the contract period is up (generally a few years) the book is once again yours to do with what you wish. You can re-contract it with the same publisher (if they wish to as well) or you can move to someone else. They don’t own your book. Likewise, do not sign over movie rights, audiobook rights, or anything similar. If you see a clause like that, you’re likely not dealing with a legitimate publisher.

5) If something seems fishy, ask someone before signing. Never discount gut instinct when reading a contract. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it very well might not be. In that case, you can always look for some outside help. Search the publisher online. There are some great sites like Writers Beware, Preditors and Editors, and Absolute Write Water Cooler that talk about known scam publishers. Likewise, you can also often find known scam publishers by typing in the publisher’s name followed by “scam” in a search engine (e.g. Weird Contact Publishers Scam). You can also ask others who might be a little more well-versed in publishing than you are, or, of course, consult a lawyer.

As I stated before, I am not a lawyer, and so none of this is true legal device, but I am very willing to help anyone out there who has questions about something that seems a little strange in a publishing contract. Anyone who is agent-less (or just wants a second opinion) is free to contact me, I’m always happy to help.

For now, I will leave the name of some publishers that have been complied by sites such as Writers Beware and Preditors and Editors as some that might not be on the straight and narrow. Anyone thinking of working with them are strongly advised to look into their contracts/what is written online about them (I have not seen most’s contracts so I can’t speak personally):

  • AGoodBook.com
  • Algora Publishing
  • American Book Publishing
  • Archebooks Publishing
  • ASA Publishing Company
  • AuthorHouse (formerly 1st Books)
  • Black Rose Publishing
  • Black Wyrm Publishing (for more on Black Wyrm’s contract, see here).
  • BooksAmerica
  • Cambridge House Books
  • Dandelion Books
  • Dorrance Publishing Company
  • Diggory Press
  • Helm Publishing
  • Hilliard and Harris
  • Oak Tree Press
  • Park East Press (formerly Durban House and Oakley Press)
  • PD Publishing
  • PublishAmerica
  • Renaissance e-books
  • Royal Fireworks Press/Silk Label Books
  • SterlingHouse Publisher (imprints include, among others, Pemberton Mysteries, 8th Crow Books, Cambrian House Books, Blue Imp Books, Caroline House Books, Dove House Books, and PAJA Books)
  • SBPRA/Strategic Book Publishing/Eloquent Books (formerly known as The Literary Agency Group and AEG Publishing Group)
  • Tate Publishing
  • Whitmore Publishing Company
  • Zatz
  • Zeus Publications

Note: These are only a few. Always use caution when submitting.


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