Today I got an email of a kind I often receive. These emails go something like this:
I just got an offer of representation from a literary agency. When I plugged the name into Google, all I found was negative information. Then I noticed the agency was on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agency List. Should I avoid this agency?
(Pause to allow for forehead-slapping and cries of "Duh!")
People who write me with this kind of question are in deep denial. They aren’t really looking for the truth, or for an objective assessment. What they really want is for me to tell them that despite the warnings and complaints they’ve found online, despite Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down assessment, the agency is really okay, and it’s fine for them to sign the contract. I always feel a sense of frustration in answering such emails, because I know there are good odds my advice will be ignored.
Denial is a powerful and dangerous emotion for writers. It lets us convince ourselves that the publisher who promises to match our $4,000 investment with double that amount of its own resources is telling the truth, and will market our book even though it has already made money on us. It allows us to persuade ourselves that the agent who stops responding to our questions soon after we pay his upfront fee is just busy, and we should stick it out. It encourages us to tell ourselves that any agent is better than no agent. It drives us to ignore the warnings and the cautions, the complaints and the reports, the material we’ve read about how reputable publishers and agents work. It leads us into making really, really bad decisions based on desire rather than reason or good sense.
It’s easy to say “avoid denial,” but not so easy to do. Denial is the opportunistic first cousin of that equally treacherous emotion, desperation. The insidious double D's (sorry, guys, if you were thinking of something else) go hand in hand--the closer you get to desperation, the more tempting it is to surrender to denial. If that lousy agent whose name brings up three pages of negative comments in Google is the only one who has ever shown interest in your manuscript, then, yeah, the urge to deny is going to be pretty compelling.
The best way to avoid denial is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where denial is necessary. Here are some suggestions for that. To those of you who regularly visit this blog, they’ll look familiar, but this kind of basic advice can’t be repeated too often.
- Do your research ahead of time. Plug that agency’s or publisher’s name into Google before you query, not after you get an offer. Don’t approach an agency unless it has a legitimate track record, or, if it’s new, unless the agents involved have a professional background in agenting or publishing. Don’t consider a publisher unless you’re sure it’s capable of marketing and distributing--not to mention producing--its books. Don't target a publisher or an agency unless you're sure they are a good match for the book you've written. Many of the problems Writer Beware hears about could have been avoided if research had been done at the outset.
- Educate yourself about the publishing industry. Knowledge is your best tool and your most effective defense. Acquire some understanding of how publishing works before you begin to query. Learn how reputable agents do their jobs, and what is and isn’t standard practice. Knowing this stuff will enhance your ability to recognize and avoid disreputable people by orders of magnitude.
I can’t overstate the importance of this kind of self-education. Too many writers believe they can skip it, or simply don’t want to bother with it. If every writer made the effort to learn about the industry before diving headlong into it, Writer Beware’s correspondence would be cut in half.
- Pay attention to your gut feelings. If you’ve done enough research on an agency or publisher to start feeling something is wrong, you’re more likely to be correct than not. (And because you’ve done the research before querying, it won’t be so painful to let the agency or publisher go.)