Cautionary tale for writers

A few years ago I spoke at a writers' conference and ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a long while. After the usual conversation between writers, she told me she had recently paid nearly four thousand dollars for a valuable writing lesson. Astonished and frankly curious as to what could have cost that much money, I asked her to tell me more.

Turns out, she'd submitted her manuscript to an agent who in turn praised it and said it just needed some editorial input to make it publishable and ready for submission to the big boys in New York. They had an editorial consultant in mind who could take her immediately if she paid in advance.

This woman is intelligent, educated, and normally sane. She'd tried for years to get published. To her, this sounded like her brass ring. She mailed them a check for three thousand some-odd dollars. A few months later she received her edited manuscript.

When she began reading what had taken her years to write, she immediately felt ill. I'm sure her blood pressure sky-rocketed. She told me she found her pristine punctuation replaced by commas, haphazardly injected or erroneously removed. Her tightly edited active voice narrative had been replaced with wooden passive passages.

Her brown eyes were awash with unshed tears when she told me how she realized she'd been had - taken for a ride. And it cost her nearly four thousand hard-earned dollars from her day job salary for the ticket. The killing blow was delivered with the returned manuscript. The so-called agent decided the story really wasn't as salable as originally thought so representation was declined.

If you're a writer and think you need an agent, then for God's sake, do your homework. Know who the demon agents are. Demon agents? Yes, those who prey upon writers and are only too willing to suck the soul and every dollar they can get out of the unwary.

With the Internet, you can find out just about anything you want about any individual, especially agents.

Here are some basic actions you always need to take when seriously interested in an agent.

1. Join a writing organization that has a professional relations committee or agent liaison. Romance Writers of America has such. They maintain a data base of complaints against agents. Check out the prospective agent with your organization.

2. Plug the name into the major search engines and follow the links, and go to more than the first few pages.

3. Ask for information from the writers forums or lists from present clients and past clients of said agent. Request those willing to share email you privately.

4. Go to any of the Internet sites that report on agents.

5. Please check out the list of the 20 Worst Agents maintained by Science Fiction Writers Association and find out who to avoid.

6. When you think you've found someone reputable, know what questions to ask about the agency business practices. These can be found on many websites, published in many articles, etc. I'll post a list of them in a later blog so check back.

7. Use your common sense. If something seems wrong, trust your intuition.

8. Know what you want from an agent and be prepared to express that in your negotiations. If you want had-holding and the agent you've singled out isn't big on mothering, find another agent.

9. Never, ever pay an agent for reading your manuscript or editing. Agents make their income from selling your manuscripts. If they require certain business expenses be reimbursed to them, know this in advance and find out if this is common with most agents. If you don't like it, find a different agent.

10. Educate yourself about contracts so you'll know if an agent is doing the best job of representing you. If an agent pushes you to sign a contract with what is commonly called "basket accounting" in order to make a sale, then that agent doesn't have your best interests at heart. Know the clauses. Know what is standard and what can be negotiated. Novelists Inc., Authors Guild, and Romance Writers of America, to name a few, have published wonderful analyses of standard contracts.

Don't ever be lazy and ignore the research a smart writer needs to do. Writing income is never "easy come," but it's all too "easy go" if you are unwary.

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