Look BEFORE you leap

The most powerful words in the industry are “What have you heard?” Whether it’s about a book, an agent, or a publisher, there is always SOMEONE who knows something and can offer an opinion. So there’s no excuse for jumping into something before you know the score, right?

Word of mouth is the breakfast of champions.

But what drives me a bit loony is when I hear this: “I queried a publisher/agent and they asked for pages. Anyone know anything about them?”


My first question is why on earth are you querying ANYONE you haven’t researched? It’s like being on an operating table and asking the nurses what they’ve heard about the surgeon. Yikes! You’d never allow someone to jumble about your innards without knowing whether they knew the difference between a scalpel and a butter knife, so why would you do any differently with a book that took you ages to write?

And yet I see this time and time again – on writer’s boards and at conferences. Writers will ask me what I’ve heard about Publisher ABC or Agent XYZ because they sent them their full manuscript. It always takes me aback because I worry about their blind trust. Trust must be earned. Just because someone calls herself an agent or editor doesn’t mean she knows what she’s doing. I’ve seen way too many writers burned this way because they figured that person was “someone important.”

And they might not be. They might be a scam, or someone who’s only been in business for five minutes. My point is that you don’t know until you’ve checked them out. So please, dear authors – in the interests of a brand new year and fresh starts – look BEFORE you leap. It’s the difference between making a terrible mistake and a knowledgeable decision. After all, you’d hate to make the beagle cry, right?

17 Responses to Look BEFORE you leap

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    No, definitely don’t want to make a beagle cry. Or myself, really.

    In this day and age, finding information is not that hard!

  2. Exactly my point, Marisa. Information is EVERYWHERE! However, the pull to be published is far more alluring, and I’ve seen too many authors metaphorically cover their eyes and hope for the best. It’s literary Russian Roulette.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    Check, verify, check again. P&E is a great resource, although it’s always worth remembering that they rely on people telling them who the problems are.

    Developing a good personal scam sense helps a lot.

    The red flags I watch for are:

    1. Spelling and grammar mistakes on the editor/agent’s page. One typo, sure. We all make typos. But if they can’t spell or punctuate, they probably can’t edit.
    2. ‘We’re a traditional publisher’. I think that red flags me as badly as ‘fiction novel’ red flags Lynn. A legitimate publisher never calls themselves traditional. (And also watch for the term ‘independent publisher’ which is horribly misused…some publishers that call themselves that really are just very small publishers, but vanity publishers use it a lot).
    3. ‘Our distributor is Ingram’. That’s not distribution.
    4. ‘I’d love to take you on, but this manuscript needs professional editing’. I suppose in some cases this might be legitimate, but most of the time its followed by a ‘recommendation’ of an editor they ‘know is good’. Some scammy editing firms bribe unsuccessful agents (successful ones don’t need the money) to channel clients to them or even set up fake agencies themselves.
    5. Any language about ‘We know how hard it is to get published’ is also a red flag, especially from a publisher (I do know legitimate agents who put up something like ‘We really do take on new writers’). When a publisher says something like that and then ‘we’re different’, they are almost certainly a thinly-veiled vanity press.

    Information is out there, but also learning the red flags helps. A lot.

  4. Great stuff, Ninjie. I’ll add that trade presses’ websites are geared to readers, not writers. If you come across a website that talks about how they’re giving new writers the “chance they deserve,” “We’re geared toward the new writer,” or some dietary version of, “publishing is broken,” you know you’re dealing with someone who is either non-standard and probably isn’t working toward your best interests.

  5. NinjaFingers says:

    Right. Whilst agency websites ARE geared towards writers and you will see advice on how to get published on many of them. So language about giving new writers a chance from an AGENT is a bit different from when it comes from a ‘publisher’.

  6. Bill Webb says:

    Before IO posted thi, I researched the local police blotter for Beagle and only got three hits. Not bad.

  7. True again, Ninjie. Crap agents fly under the radar for longer periods of time because they can easily hide their ineptitude. That’s why it’s important to ask around and know their background.

    I’ve seen many queries from these types that make me feel sorry for the author. It’s frustrating not to be able to contact the author and tell them to RUN.

    Bill: only three hits? Wow, she’s slowed down a bit. Wait ’til this weekend…

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    And the majority of crap agents, too, are not scammers.

    The majority of bad agents are people who want to be agents but don’t actually have the background and training. Look for established agencies OR new agencies started by somebody who has worked at another agency or in acquisitions.

    Avoid ‘I tried to be a writer for years and it didn’t work, so I’m going to try and help keep the same thing from happening to you’. These agents have their heart in the right place, but they don’t know what they’re doing.

  9. On a message board the other day, a writer mentioned that she’d gotten an offer from an e-pub and then decided it wasn’t the way she wanted to go. What? Then why did you sub to them? Why did you waste their time?

    Research first. Research well. Query wisely.

  10. Melissa, I’ve seen this as well and what I’ve found is these types are sometimes looking for verification their writing is publication-worthy. It’s maddening because it wastes everyone’s time.

    I had this done to me years ago. The author very flippantly rebuffed my contract offer, stating that she had only queried me to see if her writing was good. WTF? So not happy.

  11. NinjaFingers says:

    On the other hand, there may well be legitimate reasons for withdrawing.

    One that comes to mind is the publisher developing financial difficulties between your initial query and any negotiations.

  12. Yes, that makes perfect sense, but most contract offers come through after an average of three months – sometime sooner. How strong is a company if they suffer major breakdown in that short a time?

  13. NinjaFingers says:

    It was the Dorchester situation that was coming to mind. I know I might want to pull out if when I queried it was to a print publisher and the contract offered was ebook only…

  14. Ah yes, Dorchester. Sadly, their financial concerns were no secret among the industry for quite a few years, but authors probably had no clue. I’d heard stories from agents several years ago about how their authors didn’t get paid their advances because Dorchester didn’t have the money.

  15. Querying is simple and fast, particularly with email, so many don’t consider it a leap worthy of research until the query is responded to in a positive manner.

    I know some who don’t consider it a leap worthy of research until the whole manuscript has been requested and “the call” comes.

    Personally, having dealt with so many authors with horror stories over the years where they leapt into the jaws of a bad, crooked, or inept publisher/agent, I am pathetically happy that the author/writer looks at any time during the process.

    Just today, I get an email from some poor writer who was contracted to PublishAmerica and had suddenly realized she’d been scammed. I had the unhappy task of telling her it was too late to escape, and she needed to accept that that book and money were lost and get on with her career.

  16. PA…Lord love a duck. Those guys are abusive, corrupt pond scum. I remember what they did to me all those years ago like it was yesterday. I can’t complain too much – that’s how Behler was born. That’s why I’m so vocal about avoiding the pitfalls. Been there, done that.

  17. There is so much information out there . . .
    I wonder whether writers are bragging instead? Or simply fishing for compliments? LOL!

    ‘Oh, this agent Andrew Wylie asked for extra pages, anyone know anything about him’.

    Marilynn, oh that’s awful!
    There has never been more information more widely available. It takes two minutes to google a place and get some feedback.

    It must come down to writers being impatient and doing the ‘scatter gun’ approach to finding an agent/publisher. Which is never a good way to find the right agent.

    Publish America . . . I’m down here in Melbourne Australia and even I’ve heard of PA.

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