In my last post, I talked about a writer who knew better, but still paid $8,500 to an agent with no track record. I've gotten a number of comments, mostly from people who find it hard to believe that anyone could get so desperate. Why would this writer think that an agent with no track record could help her? Why would she keep trying to sell a manuscript that, given the number of rejections she'd received, was obviously unmarketable? How could anyone--whether or not they knew you shouldn't pay for representation--possibly rationalize handing over such a huge amount of money?
Actually, that aspect of the story boggled me too. It really is an enormous amount of money. Most bad agents ask for a few hundred, not thousands. But if even a few people can manage to rationalize $8,500, imagine how many are able to rationalize $150 or $300 or even $550. Especially when the agent who's asking for the fee is the first person to say good things about their work, to confirm what they've known all along, despite all those other agents who ignored them or told them different--that their manuscript is publishable.
But why would a writer think that an agent with no track record could sell her book? That's an interesting question, which I'll discuss in a future post (the short answer is that many people, who wouldn't consider hiring an accountant without asking for a CV or employing a building contractor without checking references, are willing to accept a literary agent on the basis of promises and a good attitude). In this case, the agent lied about his credentials, with a bio on his website that presented an impressive list of accomplishments.
Of course, his claims of books and scripts sold to major publishers and production companies weren't supported by any verifiable detail--no book or film titles, no publishers' or producers' names. But while it's easy to say that writers should always do their own research to make sure such claims are true, really, how many of us are that suspicious? Sure, I am. And maybe you are. But plenty of us are not. The agent is a professional. He, or she, is the expert. Who are we to dispute what he or she says? If an agent who has expressed enthusiasm for our work tells us that he's sold six books to Random House in the past year, how many of us will ask for titles and authors so we can check up on him, and how many of us will say, "Random House! That's great!"
Also, unless you have quite a bit of experience in tracking these things down, it's not so easy to find out about an agent's track record if he doesn't list specifics on his website or at a venue like Publishers Marketplace. Especially when you're desperate, it's a whole lot easier to take the agent's claims at face value.
How desperate do you have to be, though, to keep trying with a manuscript that has been rejected and rejected and rejected? Why (especially in preference to handing over a huge sum of money) wouldn't you put your rejected manuscript in a drawer and try again with a new one? To put it another way...at what point do you trade belief in your work--your brainchild, your lifeblood, the sweat of your brow--for an acceptance of failure?
Belief in one's work is essential to the process of seeking publication. Without it, we couldn't endure rejection at all, let alone keep submitting. But what divides a true certainty of one's own talent, as in those inspiring stories of writers who persevered through years of rejection and then went on to make it big, from self-deception? How can we know the difference? Should we know the difference? And how seductive is it when an agent--any agent, even a fee-charging one--confirms our belief in ourselves with enthusiastic praise and an offer of representation? At that point, especially if we've been turned down again and again, the line between belief and desperation is very thin indeed.
Desperation is insidious. It twists our perceptions, often in ways we don't consciously recognize. It makes us do things we shouldn't--even things we know we shouldn't. It encourages us to compromise, to settle for less. Maybe we wouldn't pay $8,500. But would we pay $100? Maybe we wouldn't sign with an agent who'd never sold a book. But would we sign with a marginal agent? Maybe we wouldn't seek out a book doctor. But would we pay editing fees to an apparently professional agent who promised she could make our manuscript publishable? Those of us who are well-educated about the publication process, who understand the warning signs and have the research skills, are better defended--but we shouldn't become complacent, because in this bruising business, all of us are vulnerable.