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Monday, February 05, 2007


Another kind of scam

Miss Snark's website, which as you can tell I've been reading a lot this week (see previous post, y'see) had a query that sounds to me like a new kind of scam, which I'd call to your attention. I won't quote the whole thing, as you can find it on her site, but the question was:

I recently ran across a literary agency that offers consulting services as a sideline: contact negotiation, general editorial commentary and line editing (three separate services). They are upfront about stating explicitly that if you submit to them and are rejected, using their paid services will not necessarily get you a second look (though they do say that it might), and they charge an upfront retainer for those services.

Ring the alarm bells and add it to your list of things to be careful of, because this sounds to me like an agent-style variation of vanity publishing scams.

Miss Snark's answer, basically, was that if you want editing go to an editor, and she added, perceptively:

The elephant in the foyer here is that people believe, no matter what we say, that if we just read their work we'll want to represent it. They'll pay for editorial consultation to get it read. There is no amount of "warning" that will dissuade them.

This is the nastiness of that particular scam.

(If you read the comments, you'll see one I've made; this is a longer version of the same argument.)

There are two things going on in this agency which should make you disinclined to want their representation. First:

They evidently feel that the money they make from selling their clients' work isn't enough to support them. Think about it. JK Rowling's agent turns up on richest-people lists. Agents take fifteen per cent of their clients' earnings; if their clients are earning money, then the agents are earning as well. A good agent is a successful agent, who has lots of clients getting published with profitable deals. If they're having to make extra money by selling editorial services out of the back door, that tells you that they aren't getting good deals for their clients.

(If they defend themselves on the grounds that they don't have enough clients to support themselves, don't believe them. Agencies are indundated with applications, and there are bound to be some good ones. The only way they'd keep good writers away is by offering a bad deal, which means that writers with enough talent and sense to write a good book exercise that sense and choose to go elsewhere.)

Money-making on the side suggests, at best, a failing agency. You don't want to nail your flag to a sinking ship.

But I don't think it's a failing agency, because of the second point:

They aren't spending all their time looking after their clients' interests. Instead, they're giving a lot of editorial feedback to people who are not now and may never be their clients.

Agenting doesn't stop when the book is accepted: agents work full days every day sending stuff out, negotiating, promoting and generally fighting their clients' corners. All of this takes time. The trouble is, so does giving editorial feedback. Reading a book is one thing, but reading it, giving line notes, structural overhauls, full reports and all the rest of it is liable to take days. Imagine yourself being represented by an agent. Would you feel comfortable if that agent was spending all that time on editorial services for non-clients? (Much though every writer would like to think so, the fact does remain that you aren't your agent's only client and they may spend some of that precious time on other people that they're representing rather than you, but there's a difference. For one thing, it makes you look good if your agent gets lots of good deals, but it's also a question of professional priorities. Once an agent commits to a client, the client is their responsibility, but if they aren't committed to a client, why are they neglecting the people they do have a commitment to in favour of them?)

All of this adds up to one conclusion: this is a cunningly disguised scam. As Miss Snark points out, people are willing to pay to get their stuff read if there's a chance it'll get representation. Hence, a rogue editor can get a sweet deal going: promise representation for some lucky people if they'll pay to get their stuff read. It's a far better advert than the usual 'Let me improve your work and that'll increase your chances of getting representation'; instead, it's 'Let me improve your work and then I'll represent you'; a one-stop shop for the hopeful, in fact. But let's remember something. They don't promise representation. Even if they offered it, this representation is highly unlikely to be anything other than, well, half-assed. Agencies depend on reputation, and this is not a reputable thing to do; they depend on energy and commitment, and the energies of this 'agency' are scattered. But in fact, it's perfectly possible that they never represent anyone. Why would they need to, if the money keeps coming in from hopeful writers?

Do not fall for this line.

Thanks for posting this. We can't do enough to help people become aware of these types of scams. Thanks too for Ms. Snark, and people like Writer Beware who devote so much time to saving us from our own ignorance.
Kit, can I suggest something? Have you thought about maybe, when you next revamp your site, having a "Scams" tab at the top, or something similar? It's just that these things keep cropping up over time, and it might be good if there was one place on this site where newbies could find yet more of your sound advice like that in the "Other Side".

Although as Josh says, there are other places that also deal with this stuff, I don't think the advice you've given in past blogs should be tucked quite so far away for any of your visitors (fans?) who have written a book themselves and who come to your site maybe looking for how to get started... Anyway, just an idea! :-)
That's a good suggestion. I don't know when the next revamp will be, but I'll certainly try to do it... Thanks for the advice. :-)
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