Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

April 13, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Research First, Query Next

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 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.


Dave Kuzminski said...

I have to echo this. I receive all too many requests for information about agents being legit even though P&E has notes beside the listings stating which we recommend and which we don't. The words "not recommended" will not magically change just because you emailed and asked about them.

Lisa Cohen said...

Yes--this is absolutely true as far as the basic research--is this a reputable agent with verifiable sales, is this an agent who reps in my genre. But beyond that, there's only so much an aspiring writer can glean from the usual places: P&E, AgentQuery, Publisher's Marketplace, etc.

There's a second layer of information that's harder to get to, once you've gotten nibbles from said reputable agents, and that's the intangibles of what that agent is like to work with, how responsive to communications is that agent, how does the agent see him or herself as guiding your career. Some of that is what comes through in agents' blogs, but for the most part, it feels like a big black hole.

Not every reputable agent is going to be the right fit for every writer. But at least in following Writer Beware's advice, you spare yourself the emotional turmoil and wasted energy of querying the wrong agents.

Thank you for your ongoing support of us aspiring writers in the agent-searching trenches!

Kristi Holl said...

Seems like common sense to check first--especially in days like this when there are so many scams afoot. The process is slow enough without having to start over because you chose a dud!

Pam Halter said...

To go along with this; an author also needs to research a publishing house before submitting, as well. Another "duh" moment, but many beginning writers send out to anyone and everyone. It is also a waste of time to send children's materials to a house that doesn't publish them.

Anonymous said...

Of course it might be helpful to list the resources one could use to research the reputability of agents. Preditors and Editors? Agent Query? What else? And what exactly should one look for?

Victoria Strauss said...

Greg, check the Literary Agents page of the Writer Beware website. I think you'll find the answers to most of your questions there. If not, email me at

Unknown said...

dear ms. strauss,
here is a blog about publishing and writing that i hope you'll find of interest.

Howard Goodman
blogs editor
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Robin said...

makes perfect sense to me...

Nancy Beck said...

This is something that continues to bug me no end. I mean, I've seen plenty of posts where the writer says, "I just receive a request from a partial, but wanted to make sure the agent/publisher was on the up-and-up."

Hunh? Doesn't it make more sense to find that out before you start querying? As someone else said, the process is slow enough as it is; what's an extra week or so for research?

Thanks, Victoria. This kind of stuff needs to be shouted from the rooftops! :-)

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