Legitimate: A Word I Don’t Like

Publishing is a dynamic field, and though a generally accepted (and understood) terminology exists, there’s no Great Publishing Dictionary in the Sky where definitions are chiseled in stone. Thus, I can say (as I often do) that the term “traditional publisher” has no accepted industry meaning–that it is, in fact, an intentionally spurious label invented by one of the more notorious author mills–but I can’t point to any definitive proof, or cite any recognized authority to support my statement.

Ditto for my currrent pet peeve, “legitimate agent.”

Unlike “traditional publisher,” “legitimate agent” wasn’t always a meaningless term. Way back in the dark ages, when Writer Beware was first getting off the ground (okay, 1998), it was generally understood to denote an agent with standing in the industry–i.e., an agent who was reputable, experienced, and successful. Over the past few years, however, I’m seeing the term used more and more often to describe an agent who is merely well-intentioned, responsive, and non-fee-charging. Have you heard of Brand New Agent? someone will ask on a writers’ message board. Yes, she doesn’t charge a fee and she responded to my query in less than a week, someone else will reply. Oh good, the original questioner will say, without asking whether Brand New Agent has any relevant professional experience or whether she has ever sold a book. Looks like she’s legit.

Why is this a problem? Because while it’s great for an agent to be well-intentioned, responsive, and non-fee-charging, that doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is reputable, experienced, and successful. Good intentions don’t sell books, after all; promptness doesn’t necessarily imply expertise, and not charging a fee, while commendable, says nothing about an agent’s skill. (Here are some more thoughts on why skill is important.) Since you can no longer be sure, when someone says “legit,” which set of descriptors they intend to invoke, “legitimate agent” has become as useless a term as “traditional publisher.”

What I prefer:

Reputable agent. An agent with a good standing in the publishing industry, i.e., a track record of commercial sales.

Experienced agent. An agent with publishing industry experience, i.e., someone with the professional background to know what s/he is doing, as demonstrated by a track record of commercial sales.

Successful agent. An agent who has sold, and is actively selling, books, i.e….someone with a track record of commercial sales.

Again, of course, there’s no Great Publishing Dictionary in the Sky. So I can’t claim any authority for my preferred terms, other than the fact that I think they are more useful. Nor can I assume that others will understand them in the same way I do–which is why I always try to pair a word like “reputable” with concrete information about the agent’s clients and sales.

The point is that language is imprecise. Professional experience and achievement are far less ambiguous. Don’t rely on terminology; always check the facts. And remember the Writer Beware mantra: Track record (or, if the agent is new, relevant professional background) is the bottom line.


  1. Teddy Gross said,

    “However, perhaps it would be important, if not critical to point out to the new author that it is not often easy to “track” even a really successful agent’s sales by just going to a forum board.”

    I agree completely. It’s a lot of work to identify appropriate agents to query, and even more work to thoroughly check their credentials and reputations. My article on Researching an Agent’s Track Record suggests a procedure and some resources.

    Kim Stagliano said:

    “And honestly, can you CALL an agent for whom you find little sales info and say “Hey, before I query you, what have you sold?”

    No. An agent isn’t likely to respond positively to an out-of-the-blue inquiry like this. However, it’s a perfectly legitimate question if the agent asks to read your work–and especially if s/he has made an offer of representation. If the agent refuses to answer, or berates you for asking, or cites confidentiality or trade secrets or any other justification for not revealing sales, be warned–the agent is probably trying to cover up a poor or nonexistent track record.

  2. I have a shortcut for neos wanting dish on a prospective agent.

    Open Google.

    Type in name of agency.

    Type in the word “scammer.”

    Click “search.”

    See what pops up.


    Works well for publishers, too.

    At least this way they can figure out who to avoid.

  3. Happy New Year! As a newcomer to writing, this blog and others (Miss Snark) have proven invaluable. I think many of us newbies are afraid to ask hard questions of agents – the power is slanted in their direction at the start of the querying process. And honestly, can you CALL an agent for whom you find little sales info and say “Hey, before I query you, what have you sold?” Probably not. Thanks for helping us learn where to mine for the appropriate info to make the best decisions on querying and we all hope, signing.

    Yours in health.

  4. Victoria…
    I am not going to argue or get involved in semantics of “labels” for agents.

    However, perhaps it would be important, if not critical to point out to the new author that it is not often easy to “track” even a really successful agent’s sales by just going to a forum board. As you well know, many really good and reputable agents shun the limelight. I certainly know two or three of them.

    I would suggest that one always do an Google, MSN & Yahoo search, ask on forum boards, check the normative web sites, use LMP and Agent Query…and if you still cannot find anything .. ASK THE AGENT.

    Often it is just a simple question and answer, and an agent who does not show up in any Internet search and refuses to answer, and has no entries in publishers marketplace etc. – then I would begin to be wary and real careful.

    I happen to know one agent who I call “pathologically shy” of the limelight. She is successful and professional with a really good track record. BUT if you were looking up her credits without doing an exhaustive search you may not reveal much. I have actually found Publishers MarketPlace an interesting well of information in this area.

    Just an opinion…please don’t bite my head off!

  5. All of these labels can become mere puffery when used by people who want to look more attuned to the industry than they are. Proclaiming oneself as “reputable” pretty much guarantees the person isn’t for, if you are, your track record ought to prove that. Same goes for “experienced.” I see this used by people who helped their next door neighbors get a letter published in the newspaper. I don’t want to see this label, I want to see the agent’s track record.

    Nonetheless, all of the labels are better than the ever-popular “legitimate” which I have assumed meant the person wasn’t born out of wedlock (to their knowledge) and termed as such.


  6. It seems to me that one thing a person can do is post a follow-up to the “sounds like s/he’s legit” asking the question: What has s/he sold? Bringing this up enough times might start to imprint on both those posting and lurkers the importance of the question.

  7. Great point – how do you tell people to beware when “on paper” an agency looks legit without sounding like a jerk? For instance:

    Does this sound like a “legitimate” agent or a high school year book entry? This is from a literary agency website:

    “X has an absolute love for learning and meeting people. Before pursuing her dream of becoming a literary agent and learning everything she could on the craft and the industry, she studied biology, chemistry and medicine. A hopeless overachiever, she has re-dedicated all her time and efforts to becoming a ‘super literary agent’ and networking goddess.”

    How about this “agent?”: “X Has been practicing law since 19XX, specializing in civil litigation.”

    Sound like people who can get the attention of the major publishing house editors?

    This is one tough business indeed.

  8. Sounds tempting, Dave. Most of the agents I’m familiar with are Fantasy/SF/Horror and represent authors I know of or have read before. Those would be the easy ones. It’s the middle-of-the-road ones, and the non-genre ones I would have trouble with. I’ve always wanted to do something to help.

    My only question is, how would I put this on a college application?

  9. Your reasons go hand-in-hand with why P&E places a dollar sign next to agent listings when it can be determined if the agency has sales to reputable, royalty-paying publishers. In fact, we’re considering adding a symbol to indicate which have multiple sales and have been in business multiple years. Hopefully, such information will make it clear to writers seeking agents that being in business for multiple years is only good when it also has multiple legitimate sales otherwise known as a track record.

    Of course, I could use some assistance from writers in compiling said information. Anyone want to help out?

  10. Personally I love it when Miss Snark stomps people who say they want her as their agent, pointing out that they don’t know what she’s sold.

  11. Because while it’s great for an agent to be well-intentioned, responsive, and non-fee-charging, that doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is reputable, experienced, and successful.

    Yepper. An inexperienced agent with good intentions can screw you up just as badly as one who sets out to scam you.

    Remember that your agent will, among other things, be negotiating legal documents in your name. You really want someone who’s done that before more than you want someone who thinks that publisher’s boilerplate looks fine.


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