Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas

Part of Writer Beware’s mission is to accept complaints from writers who’ve had bad experiences with questionable agents and publishers (first-hand complaints only–we have to hear from the writer directly–and always documented, if possible). But questions, not complaints, make up the biggest portion of our email. How do I start my publication search? How should I format my manuscript? Is self-publishing a good way to kick off a writing career? Is Agent A reputable? Is Publisher B’s contract language standard? Is Editor C experienced?

Often, when I let someone know that the agent who just requested their manuscript has no sales, or the publisher that just promised a contract charges fees, they will sadly say something like, “My manuscript is a magnet for the bad guys,” or “My writing must suck, since the only interest I ever get is from people who want me to give them money.”

Of course, it’s always possible that your manuscript isn’t publishable. The hard truth is that most manuscripts aren’t; whether you’ve written a publishable book is one of the biggest “ifs” that you must face as a writer. But when the only publishers and agents who are responding to your queries are disreputable, it’s likely that the quality of your writing–along with bad luck, karma, or whatever outside influences you may fear are holding you back–is only incidental. Other factors are likely to play a much bigger part.

1. Fee-chargers respond to everyone. Whether they’re dishonest, inexperienced, or just plain clueless, the money that fee-chargers extract from authors represents the bulk–or possibly the entirety–of their income. So quality is not a pressing concern. Or it may be no concern at all. Bottom line: regardless of how bad or good your manuscript is (and fee-chargers will as happily take on a good manuscript as a bad one), if you query fee-chargers, you will hear back from them.

2. You may not have done your research. If you’re experiencing Factor Number One, this is probably why.

Writers: research is essential! There is no substitute. You CANNOT count on others’ recommendations, on the publisher’s or agent’s expressions of goodwill, on a listing in what you believe is a reputable resource–you MUST investigate the publisher or agent for yourself. If you don’t, and you wind up getting offers from the bad guys, it’s not your writing or your karma that’s to blame–it’s you.

The timing of the research is important too. Don’t wait to investigate a publisher’s reputation, or to make sure an agent has publishing industry experience or a track record of sales, until you get a nibble. Check them out before you ever start to query. If you eliminate the scammers and amateurs at the beginning, you will never have to deal with them. Not only will this save you time and aggravation, it will protect you from the trap that many writers fall into, especially if they’ve been querying for a while without success: It can be very hard to say no to an actual offer of representation or publication, even if it comes from a bad agent or publisher. When your emotions come into play, when your desire for validation and success is triggered, your good sense may fly out the window. I can’t count the number of writers who’ve told me that the excitement of an offer caused them to ignore their gut feelings of caution.

Don’t know how to research, or where to start? The better you understand publishing and the publishing industry, the easier the process will be, so begin by becoming informed (my blog post, Learning the Ropes, offers some suggestions on how to accomplish this). For researching agents, see my article, “Researching an Agent’s Track Record.” For researching publishers, agent Rachelle Gardner offers a great blog post on how to figure out whether a publisher is reputable.

These are just a few resources; there are many more, in the archives of this blog, in the links on the sidebar, and at the Writer Beware website. Never forget: knowledge is your greatest resource, and your best defense.

3. You may be selling yourself short. Many writers believe–often based on misguided information they’ve found on the Internet–that reputable agents aren’t interested in unpublished writers or that big publishers seldom take on newcomers, and that the only path open to them is lesser-known agents, small publishers, or publishing services.

This is a myth. Newcomers absolutely do get picked up by top agents and publishers–the pages of PW, or any other publishing industry publication, amply demonstrate this. That’s not to say there aren’t excellent small presses and savvy lesser-known agents–but the problem with scouting the margins of the publishing business is that the individuals and companies you’ll find there are, well, marginal. When you set your sights low, you vastly increase your odds of running into inexperienced, unscrupulous, or just plain crazy people. Rather than beginning at the bottom in hopes of working your way up, start at the top and work your way down. You’ll never know whether you could have landed that top agent or publisher unless you try.

So don’t lie down with dogs. Do your research, eliminate the questionables at the beginning of the process, and never, ever sell yourself short.


  1. Thanks again. I passed this one on to the person in my office who is working with my boss who got a solicitation from a publisher who . . .you get the idea.

  2. I am Robin Buckner the author of "Sade". Unfortunately, I used Mark Sullivan & Associates to publish my novel. I was told by Mark Sullivan nothing had come of my book. However, I saw "Sade" being sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book sites. I have yet to receive a dime. I don't know who received money from the sale of my novel, I only know it wasn't me! I probably should sue Mark Sullivan but with all the lawsuits against him what's the odds of collecting? Please contact me if you have any information about this matter.

  3. Great post, Victoria!

    Whether it's trying to come up with authentic story detail, or choosing an agent to query, it's all about research.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. "Rather than beginning at the bottom in hopes of working your way up, start at the top and work your way down. You'll never know whether you could have landed that top agent or publisher unless you try."

    Wise words, those.

  5. Brilliant post, Victoria. Like a carpenter’s hammer in a joiners shop, you’ve hit every nail square on the head.

    Why, oh, why, do authors start on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder where the waters are—at best—murky? That’s just the place where shady agents, publishers and author services operate, always ready to cast their skewed vision of the publishing world and gouge out a profit from the pocket of the author at every opportunity.

    Authors—believe in your work, persevere and research. Start as high as you can, and as much as reaching the top rungs of the ladder might seem like climbing the Alps—be prepared to listen, learn and revise on what you glean from reputable agents and publishers. Often, a single sentence of rejection from a reputed agent or large publisher, though filling you with more disappointment, can guide you more than any glowing paragraph of a company on the bottom rung of the ladder you have yet to properly research and discern the true reputation of.

    What irks me the most about the perception of publishing portrayed by some is that only successful authors and already published authors get the breaks. That’s simply not true and a glance through every trade publishing magazine and website will tell you it is not true. This year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, ‘Tinkers’, by Paul Harding, was a DEBUT novel. Tonight, I covered the awarding of one of the richest literary prizes in the world; the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award…won, yes, by another DEBUT novel, this time by Gerbrand Bakker for ‘The Twin’.

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