This post is several days overdue because Blogger has been an absolute nightmare this past week. I could break it.
Today I have a request from Ian, who said:
I'm not a newbie or anything but I seem to notice I'm running into suspicious and dodgy-sounding situations lately. I'd love it if you could do a reader request post about publishing red flags/warning signs and what to look out for?
Normally I pick Reader Requests at random but I chose this one deliberately this week because it seems very timely. Anyone else read this post about a cruel hoax?
There must be a thousand excellent posts on this subject out there but I'm going to make a stab at it. About five years ago I almost got myself into a tricky spot because I ignored an awful lot of red flags, so I can completely sympathize with Ian. This isn't going to be an enormous and exhaustive list - it's just a few common things I've come across or heard about.
Red Flags (or, Turn Around, Run Away and Never Look Back)
1. A literary agent or publisher asks you for an up-front fee. No legitimate person in the business will do this. Agents make money when you make money. Publishers buy the right to publish your book - even if you aren't offered an advance at the go, you are still supposed to make money off royalties when the book is out. You shouldn't be paying anyone any money up front.
(Note: obviously this doesn't apply to specific pay-to-publish and self-publishing places; that's a whole other subject.)
2. You can't find any information about the agent/publisher online. Sometimes these places will have excellent, professional-looking websites. I ran into one a few years ago, submitted my query through their online form, and received a 'yay we'd like to represent you!' email the next day. Followed by a list of their costs. When I went back to their website and re-checked their online form, I found that you could put anythingin - yes, even a few nasty swear words - and you'd still get exactly the same 'yay!' email the next day.
It just goes to show that a pretty website doesn't always mean everything is okay. On the flip side, some successful and legit agencies/publishers may not have a big fancy website. This shouldn't put you off.
What should send you running is a complete lack of information about these people online. Even a brand new agency or publisher usually has a web record: someone used to work somewhere else, a glowing blog post from a client or author, an interview at a reputable blog or website... you get the idea. If you can't find anything about someone online - and certainly if you can't find anything good - it's probably best to avoid them. Or at least bookmark them and check back in a few months, in case they really are legit and just very very new.
3. You sign a contract, agreeing to work with them, only to be forgotten. Your emails aren't answered, your phone calls are ignored, and you don't hear a peep out of them for weeks on end. People are busy. People also go out of town and don't check their work emails. That's a fact. You can't expect replies and hand-holding in five minutes flat. But if you're being ignored for weeks or months (and this doesn't apply to the querying process where it could very well be normal not to receive a reply at all), well, that's not very professional or courteous.
4. They recommend you get your manuscript professionally edited before they are willing to move forward with you... and they tell you who to go to. It's one thing to suggest that a manuscript be professionally edited because it's not quite up to par yet. It's even okay if they suggest editors/places they've worked with before. But when an agency or publisher tells you to get your manuscript edited at a specific place or they're not interested, you should be concerned. Odds are they're two threads of the same con and you're going to lose a lot of money. No legit agent or publisher will demand that you pay money to have your manuscript edited before they are willing to take you on.
5. You are approached by an agent/publisher who seems wildly enthusiastic about your material/story/blog and within hours they have stunning results for you. This is very much what happened to Aaronni Miller, as described in the post by Victoria Strauss that I linked to above. Publishing just doesn't move this fast. Always check out anyone who approaches you. And be very wary of hourly miracles.
And finally, a couple of excellent resources:
Can you think of any other red flags? Have you ever found yourself in a nasty place because of something like this?