Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware offers an excellent primer today on how to spot, and avoid, literary representation scams. As it turns out, the sample solicitation she's using was sent by Dan Grogan, an ex-employee of Jones Harvest, a two-bit and particularly sleazy vanity press. Clearly, Dan learned from the best. Here's some of Victoria's warning signs to watch out for:
– Cold-call solicitation. Reputable agents will sometimes directly approach an author whose work they've seen and liked (and if so, will reference that work). But they don't rely on mass email solicitation to build their client lists.
– Multiple punctuation and spelling errors, both in the email and on the agency's website (missing apostrophes, "summery" for "summary," etc.). A literary agent should be able to write error-free English–and to proofread it once it's written.
– Claims of experience that can't be verified. There are more of these on the agency's website. Alleging "long term relationships with particular publishers and editors" or "connections in the film industry, publishing companies, and multi-media marketing companies" are meaningless without specifics. A real agent with real experience who wants to tout that experience will say exactly what it is (see, for instance, the staff bios at the Nelson Literary Agency, or those at the Waxman Agency).
– Promotion of services irrelevant to literary representation.Reputable agents help guide their clients' careers, but they don't typically double as "public relation [sic] representatives." And see this page of the agency's website, where they claim, among other things, to be able to provide an ISBN, list clients' books on Amazon, and "Copyright your work with the Nation [sic] Library of Congress." These are services important for self-publishers, but not relevant to authors expecting their agents to sell their books to reputable trade publishers. (And wouldn't you hope your agent would know that your work is copyrighted from the moment you write it down, and that what you do with the US Copyright Office–not with the Library of Congress–is register it?)
– A critiquing service for a fee. The publishing world is changing, and reputable agents are more and more branching out into other areas–including the provision of various paid services (I'm planning a post on that in the near future). However, offering a paid service to a potential client is a conflict of interest–never a good thing–and if you're cold-call soliciting that client, it suggests that maybe shilling the paid service is your main objective.