I've said here and elsewhere that when you're evaluating literary agents, track record is the bottom line. Even more than business practices, it's the most important indicator of an agent's legitimacy.
(I've gotten in trouble for saying this, by the way. Many people who keep an eye on the shadow-world of literary scams feel that it's fee-charging that's the bottom line--no ifs, ands, or buts. But nothing is black-and-white, even in the world of scams. There are successful agents who ask for some sort of upfront deposit or retainer, or who bill submission expenses out-of-pocket, or who expect writers to provide all full manuscripts [such agents do NOT represent the majority of established agents, but they do exist, and some of them have substantial track records]. There are agents who don't charge a penny upfront, but in years of trying have never made a sale [there are at least twenty or thirty of these in Writer Beware's files--it mystifies us how and why they remain in business]. Given these various shades of gray in regard to fees, it makes sense for an agent's track record to be the clincher.)
Questionable agents are aware of this. That's why so many of them say that their track records are confidential, or claim they've placed books with HarperCollins and Penguin but won't reveal book titles or authors' names, or refuse to answer questions about what they've sold. Or, sometimes, provide a fake track record.
I got an email the other day from a writer who'd signed with an agent in the fall of 2005, and was getting nervous because the agent wasn't responding to her attempts at contact. This agent offers to evaluate submissions for an "optional" fee of $250, and bills a flat $30 per submission. The writer was initially suspicious of the fees, but was won over when the agent sent her a list of books the agency had placed during the first months of 2005. Since the agent had a track record, the writer reasoned, maybe the fees were OK. Plus, they weren't being charged upfront, but only when a submission was actually made.
I already had a file on the agent, about whom I've gotten a number of reports and complaints. Since I've never been able to discover that the agent has ever sold anything, I was pretty surprised to hear about the track record. So I asked the writer to send me the list of books the agent had supposedly placed. Here it is:
So far this year, I've sold Tablets of Pegasus by Al Barnes to Cambrian House, The Next John Lennon by Michael Thompkins to Pemberton Mysteries, A Self Coaching Guide to the Next You by David Borchard to SterlingHouse Publisher, Finding Narcissus by Amy Benjamin to Dove House Books, and A Day in the Life of a Severed Head by Lan Yan to Broadmoor Books. In addition, I'm in the process of negotiating a true crime book with Barricade, a fantasy/inspirational book with Crossquarter, and a fiction book with Dafina.
Sounds OK, right? Five books sold, three books in negotiation--not a big track record, but not too bad, especially for a smaller agency, and also since it's only for part of 2005. Someone who pays attention to the book world would even recognize a couple of the publishers' names--Barricade, an independent publisher of edgy, offbeat books, and Dafina, an imprint of Kensington.
However, books in negotiation don't really count when you're assessing a track record, because negotiations could fall through--and anyway, anyone can make a claim like this, since there's no way to verify it. As for the five books supposedly sold...the clue is SterlingHouse Publisher. SterlingHouse is a vanity publisher that offers contracts requiring authors to buy large quantities of their own books. A trip to the SterlingHouse website reveals that the apparently separate publishers of all the "sold" books--Cambrian House, Pemberton Mysteries, Dove House Books, and Broadmoor Books--are "imprints" of SterlingHouse.
(Multiple imprints are a fairly common ploy by vanity publishers to make themselves look more legit, more like commercial publishers. This is a boon for questionable agents, who can place several books with the same "publisher" and acquire what sounds like a varied track record. Some vanity publishers encourage agents to steer clients into their clutches by paying kickbacks or finders' fees. I don't have any evidence that this is the case here, but it wouldn't surprise me. The owner of SterlingHouse also owns a fee-charging literary agency, which at one point worked with kickback-paying vanities Commonwealth Publications and Northwest Publishing.)
As a track record, therefore, this is as fake as fake can be. Unfortunately, the SterlingHouse website looks fairly professional, making it easy for an inexperienced writer to assume that it's a commercial publisher (gosh. Do you suppose SterlingHouse intended that??). Googling SterlingHouse brings up some of the negative information available online--but you don't find it unless you go many pages into the search, and most people probably won't be that persistent. You can also get the info you need by checking Preditors & Editors, or emailing Writer Beware--but probably many people won't do that either. I'm sure that the writer who contacted me today isn't the only one who was taken in by this agent's "sales."
So I guess the moral of this tale is that even though track record is the bottom line, you can't take an agent's track record at face value. If you don't recognize the publishers or book titles, research them--and not just online. Go to bookstores and see if you can find the books, or other books by those publishers. Check P&E. Write to Writer Beware.
Be careful out there!
Edited to add: Since the agency in question has been outed in the comments section of this post, and also included on Writer Beware's Thumbs Down Agent List, I'll go ahead and name it: Martin-McLean Literary Associates.