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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Doin' the math

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The other day I saw a comment on another blog stating that it's not illegal to be a scam agent.

Let's set aside the fact that "scam" means "fraudulent act" (Check your dictionary) and concentrate on exactly what is a scam agent. If you want to know what a scam agent is, read the indictment against Martha Ivery. She was recently sentenced to 65 months in a Federal prison for her misdeeds. So yes, it's illegal to be a scam literary agent.

The agent that was the subject in the above-referenced blog conversation may or may not be acting outside of the law. That, in fact, is for the law to decide. But the question remains, what is best for the writer? How do you know the agent who wants to represent you has your best interests in mind? Do you know what your best interests are, outside of getting that manuscript published?

It's as simple to remember as Yog's Law: Money flows towards the writer.

That's it.

Most literary agents live off of commissions. They get 15% of the deals they arrange for their clients. You get a $5,000 advance, they get $750 of that. This means two things: One, you're not going to be their only client. Two, it's in their best interests to negotiate the best advance for you.

Yes, agents are allowed to charge for a few things, and that's where the confusion comes in. Your guide here should be the AAR Canon of Ethics. Not all agents belong to the Association of Author's Representatives, but many who don't will adhere to the Canon of Ethics because it's well, ethical.

Let's talk about two hypothetical agents. Agent A is a member of the AAR (or follows the Canon of Ethics). Agent Z (you thought I was going with the next letter of the alphabet, didn't you?) charges fees up front. Why does Agent Z charge fees? Let's be charitable. Perhaps Agent Z is just getting started. Perhaps Agent Z doesn't know the difference. Yes, there are more nefarious reasons, but we'll stick with charity. After all, Easter was yesterday.

Agent A takes your novel and flogs it around to big publishing houses. The wheels of the publishing business are greased with treacle, and these things take time. You start to get antsy. Careful with that treacle. There's no guarantee Agent A will place your book. But should you ever ask, Agent A should be able to show you a record of submissions and rejections (if any have come in). It may take Agent A a year, but he/she places your book. The best Agent A can negotiate is $5,000 (we're keeping the math simple). The agency takes 15% and you get the rest. There's probably more, and we'll discuss that later. For now, let's look in on our other agent.

Agent Z wants you to pay a retainer fee. Or, Agent Z wants to charge you monthly for submission costs. Or both. Funny how you authorize charges of up to $50 a month for copying and postage and they manage to spend $45. After a year, Agent Z sighs to you that it's hard to sell a new author, but he's finally found a small press that will pay you an advance of $500. So Agent Z has soaked you for $540 in postage over the year, plus $75 in commissions. oops.To add insult to injury, you discover that the small press accepts unagented submissions.

Did agent Z rip you off? We're being charitable, so technically speaking, no. You signed a contract and you presumably knew exactly what you were getting into.

You paid more to Agent A, but look at what you made. You lost money with Agent Z.

Agent A, in the meantime, is looking out for you - and his bottom line. He's negotiated you a multi-book deal, and if this first book sells well you stand to make a better advance on the next book. Agent Z is happy to stay under retainer and try to place your next book for you.

Now Agent Z might remain clueless, or might gain enough experience or business that he can drop the fees and operate like Agent A. We can always hope for the latter. The fear is that Agent Z realized that he can make more money by taking on more clients and continuing to charge fees. In this case there's no incentive for Agent Z to get out and hustle for you because he's making money whatever he does.

Yes, I'm still being charitable, because there are plenty of those types - the clueless, the people who had higher aspirations but settled for the easy money instead. They're not criminals if they provide the services laid out in their contracts.

Still, they're not good for you.

It's easy to get lured by the "it's so tough for new writers" mantra. Yes, it IS tough for new writers. Yes, we do wonder how some crap makes it out of the slush pile. I suppose a lot of it is a matter of taste. I'm not into Hip-Hop, but I know there are a lot of fans of that type of music which means there is a lot of money to be made. Not everyone should share my tastes in music or books. If they did, it would be a dull world indeed. (But not Rimmerworld. Definitely not Rimmerworld.)

Persistence pays off. If you can't get an established agent to look at your work, then try submitting to publishers that don't require agented submissions. The print runs (and advances) may be smaller, but you'll be getting publication credit, which makes your work more attractive.

So who are the good guys? Who do you stay away from? Check out some of the links on the left of the main journal page. But they're just a place to start. You have to do your homework. And don't ever be afraid to ask. This is definitely one of those cases where there is no such thing as a stupid question.

And don't forget Yog's Law.

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Filed under: Writing            
4/9/2007 3:18:22 PM
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