You've finished and polished your manuscript. You've assembled your submission package. You've compiled a list of agents or publishers. You're ready for the next step: sending out your work.
So you start submitting--via email if you can, via snail mail if you can't. And you wait. You try not to obsess, but you can't suppress that tingle of anticipation whenever you open your email program, every time you fetch the snail mail from the mailbox. And then--oh joy! Requests start coming in. Requests for partials. Requests for fulls. It's time to do some research to see if those agents or publishers are reputable.
Wait. What's wrong with this picture?
Here's another version of the story. You've finished and polished...etc. Requests come in...you mail off your material. And one day, the moment you've been dreaming of arrives: you get an offer of representation or publication. It's time to do some research to see if the agent or publisher is reputable.
Writers--the time to research agents and publishers is before you query, not after.
I know that many readers are rolling their eyes at this point and saying "Duh!" But if I had a dollar for every writer who has contacted me post-query to check reputation, I could go on vacation. Sometimes it's inexperience. Sometimes it's laziness. Sometimes it's just that querying by email is so easy. Once upon a time, the cost of paper and postage was a barrier to scattershot querying--but as the submission process increasingly moves online, more and more writers figure they have nothing to lose by firing off a barrage of equeries, and doing the research later.
In a way they're right. Email is free. But they're also wrong. Time isn't free, nor is emotional energy.
It's simply a waste of time to query an agent or publisher that isn't reputable. There's just no reason to do it. I mean, you're not going to sign with an agent who charges a $400 submission fee and has never sold a book, are you? You won't contract with a publisher that wants you to buy cover art and has been the subject of scathing complaints on industry blogs, will you? So why not avoid such agents and publishers right from the get-go? You'll have to spend that research time anyway, if you get a submission request--and you will get a submission request. That's the one thing you can count on with questionable agents and publishers: they'll ask for your work. Because it's not really your work they care about, just your money.
It's also a waste of emotional energy to query an agent or publisher that isn't reputable. Imagine your elation when you're asked to submit. They like you! They really like you! Now imagine the letdown when you discover that the publisher hasn't been paying its authors, or that the agent charges fees and has a sales record of exactly zero. Just like the invitation to submit, the letdown is a given if you approach non-reputable people. Why put yourself through it? Why not eliminate those people in advance?
Don't underestimate the power of desperation, either. Suppose you get all the way to the offer stage before you decide to research the agent's or publisher's reputation. Suppose you discover that there are problems. Suppose you've been querying for a while, and this is the first offer you've received. Will you do the right thing and say no? Maybe you think you will. But I've heard from too many writers who allowed the joy of validation, or the hope that they would be the one exception to a publisher's or agent's history of failure, to overcome their good sense. Saying "no" isn't easy, even when the warning signs are right before your eyes.
So don't waste your time. Don't squander your emotional energy. Don't risk putting yourself in a situation where desperation or frustration or just the need for recognition may drive you to make a bad choice. Research first. Query next.