“You warn about so many bad literary agents and publishers, why don’t you ever tell us about the good ones?”
It’s a question Writer Beware has been getting for almost as long as we’ve been around, from writers bewildered about where to go for reliable information, frustrated by the abundance of author-focused schemes and scams, or just exhausted by the work of finding a good home for their manuscripts.
I have a standard answer that I provide when people email me with this question or ask me on social media. But with writing scams more prevalent than ever, and writers more beleaguered by fraudulent solicitations than at any time in Writer Beware’s history, I thought it would be helpful to offer a more detailed explanation of why we call out the bad guys but don’t focus on the good guys.
1. Writer Beware has a relatively narrow mission, and it’s all about fraud.
Our purpose is to track, expose, and raise awareness of the prevalence of fraud and other bad practice in and around the publishing industry, with the aim of providing writers with the information they need to protect themselves from exploitation. (More detail is here.)
In other words, we’re not an everything-about-publishing organization; we are laser-focused on just one aspect of the publishing world. We feel it’s better to do one thing intensively and well than to try and be all things to all people.
More practically, we are a small, all-volunteer group–we simply don’t have the staff to handle the time-consuming, careful research that would be needed to maintain and update a database of “good” agents and publishers and bring that information to the public. Instead, by identifying the characteristics of common schemes and scams and shining a light on their inner workings–by educating writers on what to avoid, in other words–we try to give them tools they can use to safely research agents, publishers, self-publishing platforms, etc. on their own.
2. Lists or recommendations are of limited usefulness, since one size does not fit all.
A bad agent or publisher is bad for all writers, but a good agent or publisher is only good for some writers.
Just as every writer has their own particular subject, genre, style, and tone, every literary agent has their own particular skills, specialties, interests, and way of doing business, and every publisher has their own focus and culture. For the best results, there needs to be a good match between what the writer brings to the table and what the agent or publisher has to offer.
It’s just common sense that if you’re a fantasy author, you shouldn’t query an agent or publisher that doesn’t sell or publish in your genre, or if you’re an author of fiction, you shouldn’t approach agents or publishers that only do nonfiction. But less obvious issues are also important. If you’re looking for an agent, for example, how active a role do you want your agent to take in steering your career? How important to you are particular kinds of subsidiary rights sales? How much do you want your agent to work with you on editing? Do you prefer the clout of a large agency, or the more informal style of a smaller, boutique agency? Is a Big 5 contract your goal, or would you be happy at a smaller house?
Along with track record and the absence of complaints or poor contract clauses, all these things need to be carefully considered–and what’s just right for one writer will be “no way” for another. That’s the limitation of lists or recommendations that purport to identify reputable publishing professionals: it may seem like an easy shortcut to have the vetting done for you, but you’ll still have to do all the same research to figure out whom to approach.
A related limitation: even if such lists and recommendations are reliably researched and vetted and don’t accidentally include bad actors (a whole other question than the ones I’m addressing here), they will inevitably be based on subjective judgments about what makes a publisher or agent “good” or reputable (the old Preditors & Editors got into trouble that way). So they’ll nearly always include names you will want to avoid because they’re not a good fit, and omit names that might be just perfect for you.
3. We don’t want to appear to be endorsing people or companies.
Writer Beware does everything it can to avoid conflicts of interest, both actual and apparent. That’s why we never suggest fee-based services (for example, if you ask us to recommend a reputable freelance editor or an IP lawyer, we will say no and direct you to resources where you may be able to find one for yourself). It’s also why we don’t provide endorsements, even though we’re sometimes asked to do so. For our warnings to be credible, we need to remain unaffiliated.
The kind of good/reputable agent/publisher resource some writers would like us to create would inevitably be interpreted as endorsement of those agents and publishers, even if we specifically disclaimed it. Beyond the reasons discussed above and our limited staff, we feel that’s an important argument against it.
The publishing world is complicated, confusing, and maddeningly opaque. As with any creative industry, predators cluster at the gates. But knowledge is a writer’s best ally and greatest defense. The more you know about how things should work, the better equipped you will be to recognize bad practice when you’re confronted with it. That’s what Writer Beware aims to enable you to do, and it’s what we’ll continue to offer for, hopefully, many years to come.