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August 12, 2014

How Not to Seek a Literary Agent: The Perils of "Middleman" Services

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


I know I've written about this before. But I'm seeing an increasing number of these kinds of "services," and they are all worthless.

What am I talking about? Agent middleman services--services that, for a fee, purport to contact agents on your behalf with the aim of snagging representation and, hopefully, a publishing contract.

A particularly egregious example: Bookmarq.net's Finding a Publisher service. (All errors courtesy of the original.)
Agents in New York or London receive thousands of query letters a year in the first stage of the book-beauty-contest that is traditional publishing....

Publishing a new author represents a significant investment for any publishing house which goes far beyond the amount of advance. To reach the promise land it is absolutely vital for an author have all the links in the chain in place or they will not be successful in securing a publishing contract.
What are those all-important links? Read on.
Step One: The Critique

We begin with an honest critique of your work which will aim to sort out any problems. Nobody buys a book on a query letter and if you are to make a sale (as opposed to becoming an expert at writing query letters) you need to have a saleable product.
Your cost for this assessment: 1.5 cents per word. And who will be doing your critique? You'll be glad to know that they are "professional editors." No names, no credentials--but you don't need those, right? All that stuff about the huge numbers of unqualified editors doing business online--surely that's an exaggeration. Bookmarq wouldn't ask you to pay for editing unless it had made sure the editors were competent, would it?
Step Two: The Presentation

We will ensure that you present the work to the right people through the appropriate bookmarq.net office (in New York or London) in the form that they would wish to receive it. That means we sort out the query letter, the manuscript and the synopsis and deliver them with a covering letter from one of our editors – whom they probably already know – along with a personal letter of recommendation.
"Indicative costs" for this service: $199 for 10 agents, and $10 per agent thereafter.

Leaving aside the whole anonymous editor thing (and believe me, a freelance editor accomplished enough for her name to be recognizable to a reputable agent is not going to be doing this sort of work), let me remind you of the reaction of two real literary agents to this kind of approach:
Not only that, you have no way of knowing whether the Bookmarq folks are knowledgeable enough to screen out marginal and disreputable agents.
Step Three: The Negotiation

Subject to the level of interest we will liaise with the agent or publisher on your behalf and negotiate the best terms available. It remains for your agent to negotiate the best price for your book but we will negotiate the best terms possible with your agent.
Let's assume that the moon is blue and pigs are flapping overhead and steps One and Two actually bagged you an agent. Here's what Step Three boils down to: some outfit you found on the Internet will horn in on negotiations your agent expects to carry out on his/her own, unaided by third parties. It's hard to say who would be more annoyed: your agent or your potential publisher.
Step Four: The Contract

Our specialist legal team will comb through any details in any publishing contacts to eliminate unpleasant surprises or future pitfalls.
Bookmarq will once again interfere with your agent as s/he tries to do her/his job--an unwelcome prospect even if Bookmarq actually has a "specialist legal team." (On the other hand, if it's really just publishing "contacts" Bookmarq will be combing through, the effect might not be so deleterious.)

The fees for Steps Three and Four are speculative, since they're "related to value of contract and subject to negotiation." They're also imaginary, since Bookmarq will never get you past Step Two. But you'll still have thrown away whatever you paid for a critique of questionable value and some (probably) junk-style mailings to (possibly) not-very-well-screened agents.

Writers: don't fall for services like this. The only recognized middlemen in the publishing industry are literary agents, and they expect to hear directly from writers--not proxies. Do not pay a person or service to query agents for you (especially if that person or service wants to have a hand in how your agent does his/her job).

There's plenty more to debunk on the Bookmarq website. Author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran does an excellent job of that here.

5 comments :

Lori L MacLaughlin said...

Thank you for another great heads-up!

Creations By Mit said...

Great article. I didn't know such services existed, but can't imagine signing up for something like that!!!

Conrad Murray said...

Hi Victoria,

I'm publisher at bookmarq.net

If you want to run a story then the standard journalistic etiquette is you challenge us and we get the chance to respond. No questions were raised and you did not even have the courtesy to tell us the article was running.

I think we have a right to clarify why the agent service offers good value.

1. We won't rep a book unless it has merit. If a pitch comes in and has no chance we will just reject it - no charge for that.

2. We take in 3- 4 enquiries a week mostly from people who either believe they have agents and don't or people who have been kept dangling waiting for responses for years. On my desk at the moment is a triple submission for books from an author in Austin, Texas to a NY agent. The first is (c)2010,the second (c) 2011 and the third (c)2013. She had been led to believe the agent (who is well known) would no longer "represent" her if she submitted elsewhere and hence hasn't - and until she came to us was waiting for a response. The agent has had them on his shelf since the copyright dates - so the oldest dates back 4 years

We took the books in yesterday and it is clear that the first book - which is a story about Uganda - is not a New York publisher novel. It is much more likely to find a home in London. The book is well written and we sent it along to an agent friend who specialises in World Fiction with a note of recommendation.

Advances are not what they were but assuming he can place it I would expect she would get £5000, for which our fee of $199 I feel is entirely reasonable (and so does she incidentally).

3.We generally know where to pitch stuff - even specialist stuff - so when we were approached by a ghost-writer for a scientist this week we new where to place the book (direct to publisher) and had agreement in three days.


With respect to David Gaughran I have my own views which are well known and which is why he attacks me with a load of blatently false accusation on every occasion he feels able.

Frankly I think anyone selling a book which is predicated on a claimed understanding of Amazon's algorithms is the equivalent of a 21st Century Snake Oil salesman standing on the back of a medicine wagon.

And that he is pitching self pubs with his "formula" when his own fiction sales are risible mean he and his book are of the kind that "Writer Beware" should be warning about, not cosying up to.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Authors sometimes do need third party advice with agency contracts, but not a third party who thinks agents BUY books!

Victoria Strauss said...

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Murray.

Perhaps you'd consider sharing the names of the agencies and publishers with which you've placed writers, along with the authors' names and book titles (agents and publishers regularly share this kind of info with the trades, so there shouldn't be any confidentiality issues to worry about). This would help us get a better sense of how successful your service really is.

If I'm wrong about the value your service provides, I'll gladly make a correction to this post.

 
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