Chip MacGregor

January 26, 2009

New Talk About Agents


Recently I've had a number of questions come to me about literary agents…

Diane wrote to ask, "Where can an author find out about good and bad agents?"

I can suggest an author do several things, Diane. Check out the information at You'll find facts and details about agents, as well as good writer resources. The folks at TheWritersWorkshop and the blog at are also helpful, and try to keep writers up to date on problem literary agencies. Every year Chuck Sambuchino does his Guide to Literary Agents with Writers Digest Books, and the 2009 version is filled with great information (including an article I wrote on the new directions in Christian fiction). There are several books that list agents by genre, and the online "Publishers Marketplace" tracks which agents are actually doing deals. That should give you some real-world perspective. Finally, Bill Martin runs, which tries to track agents, deals, and any insider information he can find.

One site you really should visit is Preditors & Editors (you'll find them at prededitors) . I'm always surprised to discover writers don't know about this site, but it tracks the scam artists in this business. A second site that tries to weed out the bad agents is Write Beware (go to Both of these grew out of speculative fiction authors getting scammed, and both do a good job of naming names and offering real world advice. And, of course, you can always go to a writing conference and ask around. You can glean a lot of information by talking with an editor about who they do repeat business with, and who they have decided to not pursue.

Randall sent this: "I sent in a proposal to a literary agency I had met at a conference. I got back a letter stating that my proposal 'isn't ready for representation,' but the letter also encouraged me to go to a particular editorial service. I checked into it, and the editorial service is owned by the agent. Is this a scam?"

I love this question. By now you should know that legitimate agents don't require an up-front fee to work with them, or charge a marketing or submission fee, or try to sell you a detailed critique for a fee. However, a legitimate agent also doesn't try to sell you an adjunct service like an editorial critique. A legitimate agent doesn't constantly try to steer authors toward an editorial service which pays the agent a kickback. To do so is to defraud an author… and I point this out because there are currently several supposedly reputable literary agents who are doing this very thing.

Take a look at the Association of Author Representatives canon of ethics on the AAR website. Two phrases speak to this clearly: "Members may not receive a secret profit in any transaction involving a client" and "members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works, and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity." That's pretty clear. So the agent who says to you, "You know, Randall, you're a pretty good writer, but I don't think this manuscript is quite ready for prime time… Tell you what, let me suggest you speak to one of our editors, who can help you get this into shape," and then makes money because he earns something from the editing process is violating the agent's code of ethics. When you hear those words, stand up and walk away.

Do you see the problem with this practice? Even if the agent means well, it creates a situation that can easily be abused. If an agent has an agreement where he secretly profits by steering authors toward a particular editor, there's a temptation to steer everybody to that editor, in order to generate more cash flow for the agent. And if the agent openly says, "We do agenting, but we also run this editorial service," where's the protection for the author? Isn't there a temptation to send everyone to your editorial service, in order to make a pile of money? Look, I have worked with a wonderful editor, Marie Prys, for years. When authors ask for an editor to assist in evaluating their work, I'll often encourage them to call Marie. But I don't get a kickback for doing so. Marie and I are not business partners — she doesn't send me any of the money she makes. And I've sent several novelists to Susan May Warren's "My Book Therapy," which is a fine manuscript evaluation service, but Susan doesn't pay me a finders' fee for encouraging writers to work with her. To do so would be a clear violation of ethics. Agents who do this could never be members of AAR — so don't play along with it.

(And I should clarify one thing: Some agents have a part-time job doing editorial work for publishers. That's a different kettle of fish. For example, my business partner, Sandra Bishop, still takes on an occasional editorial or writing task for a company. But she isn't charging her clients to edit their book, nor is she getting a kickback from another editor for sending the author their way. Instead, she's being paid by a publisher for some independent work. The AAR says it's fine for an agent to get paid for critiquing manuscripts at a writers' conference, or for speaking at a workshop. But he or she shouldn't be bleeding authors and prospective authors for extra income by sending them to in-house editors. I don't own an editorial service and send authors to it as a way to make extra money from unpublished writers. That would be a clear violation of the AAR, and you need to be aware of the practice.)

I've had five different people send me a form of this question: "My agent has a clause that says they will get a piece of any book I talk with them about. So even if I fire the agent, he claims he is still due his 15%."

I took some time to get to this question because I have some friends who have that in their agency clause. I have to say that I find it unconscionable. Look, if an author comes to me to discuss an idea, and I help her refine it, and maybe give her some advice on how best to shape the book, then I suppose it's fair to say I should receive compensation when the book is contracted. (That said, I don't practice that. If an author wants to leave my company, they leave, and that's the end. Why would I want to entangle myself with a bunch of ideas I didn't sell? Seems like a headache-in-waiting, and something that's sure to create a fight.) However, I've recently seen two different agencies tell authors that the agency would receive a 15% commission on ANY PROJECT THEY HAD EVER DISCUSSED. So even if the author and agent just grazed over a dozen ideas while sitting at Starbucks one day, the agent expects his or her "input" to be worth 15% of all future deals. Even if the author fires the agent because there was a relationship problem, the agent expects a commission for nothing more than a couple sentences over coffee.  Amazing.  I can't believe any author would agree to this, but in both cases the authors I spoke to had this in their written agreement with their former agents. And the fact I've received so many questions about this matter means the idea is spreading.

Look, this is simple: Read your agency agreement. If you're asked to sign something that says every thought is to be held captive by your agent, there's a problem. Suggest different wording. Sometimes author/agent relationships don't work out, and you don't want to be locked into this type of unfair practice. If your agent helps you create your idea, that's one thing. But to simply say that any idea you've ever discussed somehow "belongs" to your agent… I'm sorry, but I just can't reconcile that.

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