Well, yes. You do have to get in the tank. The thing is, with the right knowledge and some common sense, you can build yourself a boat. Or, to continue the jungle analogy, a zip line.
The first thing to recall, if you're feeling overwhelmed by warnings of scammers and incompetents, is that there are plenty of excellent, reputable literary agents and publishers. They may be outnumbered by the questionable folks (I'm not sure that questionable publishers outnumber reputable ones, but I know for a fact that there are way more bad than good agents), but that doesn't mean they aren't out there in substantial numbers.
Remember also that the world of scam and incompetent agents, of dishonest vanity presses and clueless hobby publishers, has no connection with the real publishing industry apart from you, the writer. Strictly speaking, the literary world is not full of sharks, because the sharks are part of an entirely different realm. The denizens of this realm are a distorted reflection of their counterparts on the other side of the mirror.
Which leads me to my third and most important point: common scams, bad business practices, and incompetence are actually very easy to recognize, once you know what to look for. There's no subtle masquerade or clever camouflage; scammers and incompetents do not operate like real agents and publishers, and if you know how real agents and publishers do operate, the scammers and incompetents will stick out like sore thumbs. That's what the Writer Beware website, and this blog, are intended to do--not overwhelm you with scam tales, but arm you with the knowledge you need to identify the bad actors.
Here are two simple rules. Commit them to memory. Write them out and tape them to your computer. Repeat them like a mantra every time you consider sending out a query letter.
- Confine your queries to agents who have verifiable track records of book sales to commercial publishers (this is not as hard to determine as you might think; this article of mine provides some tips).
- Limit your submissions to publishers that are able to get their books into bookstores and libraries (this is easy: just check the shelves).
For the remaining 10%--such as judging which new agents are worth querying, or the subtle art of recognizing a marginal agent--knowledge is your first line of defense, and research is your friend. Read books on publishing. Get in the habit of paying attention to industry publications such as Publishers Weekly and the Publishers Lunch electronic newsletter. Check out the links in the sidebar here: there are some great resources, including the blogs of agents and editors. In other words: don't plunge into the submission process blind, hoping you'll figure it out as you go along. First educate yourself about the publishing industry; then start submitting. I am constantly amazed by the number of writers who don't do this. Simple ignorance of the publishing process accounts for better than 50% of the questions and complaints Writer Beware receives.
And don't yield to desperation. I've blogged about this before. As tempting as it may seem, after scores of rejections, to settle for that nice agent with no industry background and zero sales, I urge you to resist. It will not do you one bit of good. "Everyone has to start somewhere" are the five worst words you can ever say to yourself.
Finally, to my anonymous blogger, who wonders how many great books never see the light of day because they fall prey to bad agents or publishers: the answer is, not many. There aren't all that many great books out there (harsh, perhaps, but true). More important, as I've outlined above--it's not difficult to stay out of the scammers' clutches. Really.