Just back from a few days in New York City, staying with my mom. We had a great time--did some shopping (is anyone else out there addicted to Peter Fox shoes? Just call me Imelda), saw a movie (Brokeback Mountain--very subtle and artful, beautifully acted, heartbreaking at the end, but overall rather slow), saw an off-Broadway play (the Red Bull Theater's exuberant, no-holds-barred interpretation of The Revenger's Tragedy--I adore classical theater, which is too rarely produced in this country), ate lots of delicious food (oof. Time to exercise). It was a welcome, if temporary, respite from the family health troubles that have occupied a lot of my time since Thanksgiving. And for once, the train from NY to Springfield wasn't three hours late.
Since Ann has so thoroughly covered what real agents do, I'm going to spend a little time on some things that real agents DON'T do--practices and procedures that, if you encounter them, should make you very, very wary. Ann's already mentioned some of what follows, but I thought it'd be helpful to have it all listed in one place. Note that these aren't necessarily signs of a scam--they may just indicate that the agent doesn't know what he or she is doing. Inexpert agents are often sincere and well-intentioned, but their low level of expertise means that they aren't any more likely to place a book than a dishonest agent. So scammer or incompetent, the bottom line for writers is the same: no sale.
Blitz submitting. Blitz agents submit your work simultaneously to a laundry list of publishers (this is also called shotgun submission)--15, 20, even 30 at a time. The submission usually consists of a synopsis and partial, plus a generic cover letter. Since agents who blitz often aren't very good at matching publishers to the subject or genre of your work, it's possible that many of these submissions won't be appropriate--something that really annoys editors, who also can usually tell when they're getting a form letter. So if your agent tells you that he's going to submit to 30 publishers at once, or asks you to provide 25 sets of submission materials, beware.
A set number of submissions every month. Some agents say they'll send out three submissions each and every month, come rain or shine. This is really just a time-release version of blitzing. A good agent sends your ms. to the one or two or three editors she feels are most likely to be interested, and waits for a response before approaching anyone else.
One from column A, two from column B. An agent may promise to submit to six editors if you sign one version of his contract, and to twelve editors if you sign another. Since this kind of agent is usually a fee-charger, you should already have given him the heave-ho, but in case you didn't, this is an unprofessional practice for the same reason as sending out monthly submissions. A good agent submits to exactly as many, or as few, publishers as are needed to sell your book.
Bundled submissions. The reverse of blitzing. Instead of sending one writer's work to 20 publishers at the same time, bundlers send 20 writers' work to one publisher in a single envelope. Even if all the submissions are appropriate for the publisher (and since bundlers, like blitzers, tend not to be very competent, they often aren't), this is a Bad Idea, because editors hate it. Unfortunately, it's not easy to find out if your agent bundles; few will admit to the practice. Bundling is especially galling if your agent is billing you for postage.
Extras. Did your agent agent ask you to provide a photo? Testimonials from your friends and family? Is she billing you for portfolio covers, personalized manuscript boxes, color copies of the agency's logo? Editors don't want all this extra stuff. They just want the writing--which means you shouldn't have to give your agent anything other than your manuscript and synopsis, and perhaps a bio. Tarting up a submission with fancy extras will immediately mark it as coming from an unprofessional source--plus, some unscrupulous agents use this as a way to make a profit by overcharging clients, or by billing for things they don't actually provide.
A marketing plan for a novel. Marketing plans are standard for nonfiction, where niche audiences are important (and relatively straightforward to identify). But the audience for fiction is far more amorphous, and no matter what you may have heard, commercial publishers--publishers capable of effectively marketing and distributing their books--don't want a marketing plan with a novel. For one thing, the publisher has far more experience with marketing than you do. For another, writers don't have access to the marketing channels of the book trade (which focus on selling the book long before its release). There are many things that writers can do to help publicize their books, from readings/signings to conference appearances to websites--but those strategies are only effective if the book is already widely available, and do little on their own to create volume sales. An agent who asks you for a marketing plan for your novel doesn't know much about publishers' requirements or the way publishing actually works.
(Whenever I say this, I nearly always hear from writers who say, "But my publisher wanted a marketing plan." Well, I'm sorry, but if your publisher asked for a marketing plan for your novel, it probably intends to rely on you to sell it, and that is not a good thing. Did I mention that writers don't have access to the marketing channels of the book trade, and that the publicity that writers can manage for themselves does little to create volume sales? It's your job to do all you can to increase your visibility to readers--but it's your publisher's job to sell your book into bookstores. If your publisher relies on its authors as an unpaid sales force, your book probably won't sell many more copies than a book from a POD vanity publisher.)
Using your own query letter. Do I need to explain why this is unprofessional? Besides, if the agent uses your query letter, what do you need the agent for? If an agent asks for a query letter, move on. Fast.
Claiming to do everything by email. While most agents are located in or near the centers of publishing (New York and to a lesser extent LA), location isn't an issue as long as the agent makes regular business trips to New York. One of the few things about publishing that hasn't totally changed over the past three decades is that it's still a person-to-person, deals-over-lunch business. Face time is essential. If an agent says she can do everything by fax or email and doesn't have to travel, beware.
A contract that's shorter than six months. I actually think that a six-month contract should prompt at least some caution. Many questionable agents use short contract terms as an excuse to charge fees twice a year; also, six-month contracts don't make a lot of industry sense, since it can take way longer than six months to sell a book--and even if it doesn't, it'll then be a year or more before the book comes to market, during which time the agent ought to be negotiating your contract, interceding with the publisher, and selling your subsidiary rights. Some reasonably well-established agents do use six-month contracts, however, so it's not an infallible warning sign. But anything less than six months should prompt serious suspicion. As far as I know, only fee-chargers or total incompetents use a shorter term (including one notorious fee charger/vanity publisher whose contract is just four months).
Anything that strikes you as bizarre. I know of one agent who requires writers to present a copyright registration certificate (Ann's copyright posts explain why it's not necessary to register unpublished work). Another recommends that writers register their manuscripts with the WGA (important for scripts, meaningless for book-length manuscripts). Another wants writers to donate a percentage of their income, if their book is sold, to a charity the agent is involved with. Another requires clients to agree to critique other clients' work. If something seems strange to you, don't let the thrill of an agent's interest overrule your judgment--do some extra research. You may well be glad you did.
If you've encountered unprofessional agent practices, we'd love to hear about them. Post them to the comments section--or email me, and I'll post them here.