Questionable agents, who unlike reputable agents are unable to impress potential clients with their track records, sometimes try to project an aura of professional competence by attaching lots of (apparently) professional memberships to their names.
Mensaguy, whom I discussed a few posts back (his agency is a front for an expensive editing scheme), uses this technique. His letterhead prominently lists a business organization, a couple of Who’s Who tomes, and, of course, Mensa. It’s a good-sized list, and it might actually look impressive if you didn’t realize that none of the memberships are relevant for a literary agent.
So what professional memberships are relevant?
There’s really only one kind of professional membership that’s directly relevant for a literary agent representing book-length manuscripts: membership in a trade association specifically for literary agents. These include the Association of Authors’ Representatives (USA), the Association of Authors’ Agents (UK), and the Australian Literary Agents’ Association (Australia). (There’s also a New Zealand literary agents’ association, but it’s not clear to me how rigorous its membership standards are.) Member agents must abide by professional codes of practice that exclude abuses like third-party referral schemes, and in some cases they must prove competence in order to join (i.e., they must show that they’ve actually sold books to publishers). So if an agent is a member of AAR, AAA, or ALAA, you can be sure that they’ve had some industry success and adhere to reasonably standard business practice.
(UPDATE: In the time since I wrote this post, the AAR has become the Association of American Literary Agents [AALA] and agents’ professional associations have been organized in Canada, Scotland, and France.)
Professional memberships that are good but neutral–in other words, they suggest at least some relevant professional standing, but don’t necessarily say anything about an agent’s competence or success:
- Membership in the Authors Guild (USA), Society of Authors (UK) or other author-focused professional groups. These groups may be prestigious, but they are mostly for authors. Agents may be able to join as associate members or members at large. However, if an agent is a member, you may not know whether it’s because they’ve published a book or because they are a successful agent–so membership may or may not be relevant.
- Membership in professional genre writers’ groups such as SFWA, MWA, or RWA. Membership in these organizations is advantageous for agents who specialize in these genres, but not all of them require agents who join to prove competence.
- Membership in the WGA. It’s important for a script agent to be a WGA member, but WGA membership really isn’t relevant for a book agent. Selling scripts to producers is completely different from selling books to publishers; success and contacts in one field doesn’t imply success and contacts in the other. This is why so many book agents use subagents to sell dramatic rights. Also, while WGA members must promise not to charge fees to script authors, they’re not prohibited from doing so to book authors. A WGA membership tells you nothing about a book agent’s competence, success, or business practices.
And of course, there are memberships that are totally irrelevant. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them, just that they have no bearing on the business of literary agenting. All of the following are actually claimed by agents in Writer Beware’s files.
- Membership in the Independent Book Publishers Association (USA) or the Independent Publishers Guild (UK). These are trade associations for small publishers–not agents’ organizations.
- Membership in the Better Business Bureau. The BBB is a general business organization. Membership says nothing about an agent’s qualifications or success. In fact, it doesn’t even say anything about an agent’s honesty. Just about all that’s required for BBB membership is that the company provide info on itself and respond promptly to complaints. That’s easy for even a scammer to do. We know of scam and incompetent agencies (and publishers) that are BBB members.
- Membership in other business organizations, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners or the American Marketing Association. Not relevant for publishing professionals.
- Membership at Publishers Marketplace. PM is great. But anyone can be a member as long as they pay the fee. PM membership includes a number of disreputable and/or marginal agents.
- Membership in special-interest club-type organizations such as Mensa or the Society for Creative Anachronism. Everyone should have a hobby. But do you really care if your literary agent dresses up like Sir Lancelot on weekends, or has an IQ over 130?
- Inclusion in one of the Who’s Whos. You know that most of these are schemes to sell the books to the people who are included, right? (More information here.) Even if that weren’t so, people can become Whos for all kinds of Who-ish reasons that are not necessarily relevant to skill or success as a literary agent.
- Membership in local writers’ groups or chapters. There’s nothing wrong with this, but membership in such groups confers no professional advantage.
- A PhD. This isn’t really a membership, but I’m including it anyway, because a surprising number of questionable agents claim it (some even insist on being called “Doctor”). I’m not dissing PhD’s. I come from a family of academics, so I know exactly how much work goes into obtaining those three little letters. But I also know that they don’t say anything whatever about a person’s skill as a literary agent.
So don’t be overawed by a long list of memberships and/or academic credentials. Even if they aren’t bogus (I’m sure it won’t surprise you to discover that dishonest or inept agents often lie about such things), it’s more than likely that they aren’t relevant to the agent’s professional competence or standing.