It’s NOT a Jungle Out There (or an Ocean, or Whatever)

Like many bloggers, Ann and I have a site tracking tool that tells us where the people reading our blog are coming from. The other day, checking out links, I came across the blog of a writer who’d just visited us and was feeling very discouraged by our gleeful scam stories. “It seems,” this author wrote, “like the only way to get your story out to the largest amount of people is to jump in the shark tank and swim like a crazy person.”

Well, yes. You do have to get in the tank. The thing is, with the right knowledge and some common sense, you can build yourself a boat. Or, to continue the jungle analogy, a zip line.

The first thing to recall, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by warnings of scammers and incompetents, is that there are plenty of excellent, reputable literary agents and publishers. They may be outnumbered by the questionable folks (I’m not sure that questionable publishers outnumber reputable ones, but I know for a fact that there are way more bad than good agents), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there in substantial numbers.

Remember also that the world of scam and incompetent agents, of dishonest vanity presses and clueless hobby publishers, has no connection with the real publishing industry apart from you, the writer. Strictly speaking, the literary world is not full of sharks, because the sharks are part of an entirely different realm. The denizens of this realm are a distorted reflection of their counterparts on the other side of the mirror.

Which leads me to my third and most important point: common scams, bad business practices, and incompetence are actually very easy to recognize, once you know what to look for. There’s no subtle masquerade or clever camouflage; scammers and incompetents do not operate like real agents and publishers, and if you know how real agents and publishers do operate, the scammers and incompetents will stick out like sore thumbs. That’s what the Writer Beware website, and this blog, are intended to do–not overwhelm you with scam tales, but arm you with the knowledge you need to identify the bad actors.

Here are two simple rules. Commit them to memory. Write them out and tape them to your computer. Repeat them like a mantra every time you consider sending out a query letter.

  • Confine your queries to agents who have verifiable track records of book sales to commercial publishers (this is not as hard to determine as you might think; this article of mine provides some tips).
  • Limit your submissions to publishers that are able to get their books into bookstores and libraries (this is easy: just check the shelves).

If you are religious in these practices, you’ll eliminate 90% of the pitfalls.

For the remaining 10%–such as judging which new agents are worth querying, or the subtle art of recognizing a marginal agent–knowledge is your first line of defense, and research is your friend. Read books on publishing. Get in the habit of paying attention to industry publications such as Publishers Weekly and the Publishers Lunch electronic newsletter. Check out the links in the sidebar here: there are some great resources, including the blogs of agents and editors. In other words: don’t plunge into the submission process blind, hoping you’ll figure it out as you go along. First educate yourself about the publishing industry; then start submitting. I am constantly amazed by the number of writers who don’t do this. Simple ignorance of the publishing process accounts for better than 50% of the questions and complaints Writer Beware receives.

And don’t yield to desperation. I’ve blogged about this before. As tempting as it may seem, after scores of rejections, to settle for that nice agent with no industry background and zero sales, I urge you to resist. It will not do you one bit of good. “Everyone has to start somewhere” are the five worst words you can ever say to yourself.

Finally, to my anonymous blogger, who wonders how many great books never see the light of day because they fall prey to bad agents or publishers: the answer is, not many. There aren’t all that many great books out there (harsh, perhaps, but true). More important, as I’ve outlined above–it’s not difficult to stay out of the scammers’ clutches. Really.


  1. This sounds weird, but as a young writer my first book was accepted by the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Pretty reputable, no? But then when I responded back (in the days before email) they had never heard of me. It's only when I sent them a copy of the signed contract that they got into gear and then made a few token, halfhearted submissions to publishers before spitting me out like a hot potato. So keep your eye on the agencies with good backgrounds, too. Remember, lots of us are in it for the art but they're in it for the money, whatever mendacious things they say on their websites.

  2. You know what..? I totally agree with you and I am happy for this eye opener. I am new on the writing block, having just written my first novel. The genre is unique and the novel itself is also ( I believe). I have sent out dozens of submissions and have received 2 "polite" rejections…which were nicely no depression feeling there. I have received several…and I mean several responses, which all have one ting in common…a fee of some sort. I have one rule ..and one rule only..and it is…I'm not parting with a dime to finance the book…with that "no money being paid out from submission to publication in its entirety", it has given me some sort of immunity to these scam artists. So I am thankful for information like yours to help me in protecting myself.

  3. Kiley,

    Here’s the corrected link to the Locus spreadsheets.

    Writer Beware doesn’t recommend agents (or publishers), because there are so many good ones and their interests and specialties vary so much. The best agent for a fantasy writer might be the worst agent for a narrative nonfiction writer–even if both agents were equally successful. (For a more detailed discussion, see my blog post on this subject.) It’s best for writers themselves to do the research and choose whom to approach.

    As I noted, it’s easy to avoid 90% of the scammers and questionables if you just follow the simple rules I suggest. If you only approach agents with verifiable commercial track record, you’re all but guaranteed not to wind up with any scammers. And check the article of mine I linked to in the post above. It suggests a research technique that should help.

  4. Hey Victoria,

    I am a new writer and I was wondering if you had any reputable agents you were willing to vouch for or at least recommend.

    With my unfortunate lack of luck, I will probably end up with a scam artist.

    [Also, the link to Melinda’s spreadsheet doesn’t link to anything. Could you repost it?]

    Thank you,

  5. I was all excited about my “agent” at WL Literary Agency saying that “Strategic Book Publishing” was interested in publishing my work. Now, thanks to your blog, I know both are bogus and feel so stupid for being so excited AND paying a $90 editing fee. Nothing in life is easy- I should have known better than to google “literary agent” and go with it. Thank you saving me from wasting more of my time and money! I’m sure going to be more careful next time.

  6. I am concerned about a literary agent that has shown interest in my book. The company is Talcott Notch Literary located in Milford Conn. The problem is that she told me in June to please have patience, with no word since. I tried to e-mail Gina,( she’s the managing editor) to no avail. Has anyone had any dealings with her? Please let me know. I am ready to self-publish if she is not interested.


  7. jdfenner, if you Google PublishAmerica, you’ll find a lot of detail on the company, most of it negative. Briefly, Writer Beware considers PA to be a vanity publisher (we define “vanity publisher” as a non-selective publisher whose main income is derived from its writers, whether through charging upfront fees or persuading its authors to buy their own books) that deceptively presents itself as a commercial publisher, yet does little more in the way of editing, marketing, and distribution than one of the fee-based POD services such as iUniverse.

    Because of PA books’ high prices and limited availability, they typically sell in tiny numbers. This, together with the company’s poor reputation, means that a PA-published book will not be regarded as a professional publishing credit. In other words, a reputable agent will not be willing to take you on on the basis of a PA book.

    Some authors have been let out of their PA contracts just by asking. Others have had to take legal action. Either way, it’s a tough process that may not yield the desired result. My advice to you is to concentrate on writing another book, which you can then market to reputable agents.

  8. I hadn’t discovered your site, nor any of the other warning sites, when I first discovered Publish America. I was introduced by a friend who had just published his first novel with them, has just had his second accepted.

    So far, they have lived up to their end of the contract, but I can see that they are as much a handicap as a help when trying to tie with an agent to promote this and other works.

    Any suggestions?


  9. I hadn’t discovered your site, nor any of the others warning about publishers and agents, when I signed with Publish America for my first novel. So far they have not done anything really wrong, if you don’t count using my initial submission, not the edited version for printing (grin). Being a marketing type, I have been at work promoting my book and have made some sales, but I really need the services of a good agent.

    My problem is how to I tell them about the mistake of PA? How do I get out of my contract with PA? Or, do I just forget it and get on with the sequel and look for an agent for that effort?

    Dave the Rave

  10. Melinda’s link scrolled out of the comment box, so here it is again:

    Melinda Goodin’s Locus Sales Spreadsheet

    Melinda, what a fab resource. I’ve bookmarked it and will be referring people to it. Thanks so much for letting us know about it!

  11. At the the library I photocopied the agent listings from Literary Marketplace and 2006 Writers Market. I scan through them at home, trying to figure out which ones to target.

    I see notations like “no fees,” “photocopying and messenger fees,” and “$200 application fee.” Thanks to people like you, Writer Beware, Miss Snark and AbsoluteWrite, I know to further investigate the first two, and to cross off the third.

    There are other, murkier notations that raise questions. These I cross off as well. Since they’re not, as you say, operating like “real agents,” I think that bad stink I’m smelling is rotten fish.

    In other words, thanks for all you do.

  12. I’m sure you hear this all the time, but please allow my voice to be added to the pile.

    Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. I appreciate it.

  13. I really enjoyed this post. even though some of it is stuff I have heard many times over in some version or other, it takes me a lifetime to learn. that’s one reason I never tell others “hey stupid, read through the gazillion archives and comments, this was already discussed”.

    When I worked for the fire dept. I became a classroom trainer for the new guys/gals. even though I taught the same basics every year I learned new stuff myself each time, mainly because you can’t take it all in, in one fell swoop.

    a comment about staying away from scammers etc. it must be a praticed art, cause i have found myself face to face in many hanky situations over my lifetime and it is difficult for me to call it what it is. especially when you are being driven by desire, that is what they prey on. yes, i was a firefighter, yes i am a fairly big guy, yes i have a loud voice, but when a scammer is laying the pressure on and you’re not sure what is really going on, it can be awkward.

    so… i appreciate all you do with this blog to help folks find their inner-voice and inner-strength!

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20 Worst List Updated

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New Alert on Writer Beware: The Robins Agency / Cris Robins