By Ronnie Smith


“How do you know if a literary agency is reputable and not a scam to get your money?” New writers and veteran novelists can fall victim to literary agency schemes–ploys that literary agents use to create false legitimacy or earn a fast dollar from an unsuspecting writer. All writers should be wary when approaching fiction or nonfiction literary agencies, and there are certain signs to look for. Here is a guide to spotting potential literary agent scams.

On the surface the rule seems straightforward: agents should make the bulk of their money by selling books to reputable publishers. There is no other legitimate way a literary agent should make money from a client. And yet, despite this common sense, writers are such hopeful people that sometimes their optimism can muddle their judgment. It can happen to anyone.

So here’s what you should know: if a literary agent is asking for any reading, evaluation, marketing, or retainer fees, consider it a warning sign that something might not be right.

At one point in history, reading fees were not as frowned upon as they are now. But several literary agencies started abusing the system–asking for fees even when they didn’t care at all about the material or asking for fees when they didn’t even read the material–and the result was that the practice was prohibited by the Association of Authors’ Representatives (the trade group for US literary agents).

The same thing holds true for evaluation fees–charges for editorial critique of your manuscript or proposal. If an agent offers an evaluation or critique of your manuscript, the offering should come at no cost to you. In other words, play it safe. While there are agencies that might truly offer good critique, taking the safe route means finding a professional editor to critique your book–not an agent. Otherwise, the critique you pay for could be generic or written by someone who is unqualified.

But not all fees associated with literary agents are scams. Agents do charge fees for expenses incurred on your behalf (like making copies, buying stamps, etc.). Most agents will offer a contract specifying that such charges will be taken out of an advance if/when your book sells. If an agent is not able to sell the book, then you’re expected to pay out-of-pocket.

The question, then, is “How do I know the difference between literary agency charges that are legitimate and those that are scams?” If an agent requests a check before doing any work, then you should be wary. What if the agent is charging you for copies that never get made? Request frequent itemized summaries of any charges, or politely request a renegotiation of the terms of your contract. Also be aware that agent charges should only extend to those costs that are incurred for “bigger” expenses. You should not be charged for every pencil or thumbtack used in the process of selling your book.

One final issue to be aware of is the potential that a literary agent is not dishonest, but simply inept. Disreputable agents will use “shortcut” methods of submitting your work to editors, like sending your work en masse without querying in some way first, bundling several book queries into one package, and/or not intimately knowing editors’ tastes. Bad agents develop a bad reputation among editors, and their clients are ignored.

Don’t believe that any literary agent is better than no agent at all. You might cause yourself more harm than good.

Reputable literary agents normally don’t advertise in magazines; you’ll find them in market books and other resources, but rarely do they solicit writers through magazine or Internet ads. Also, they should never send spam. Reputable agents may approach you if they see your work in a literary magazine, etc., but beware. Dishonest agents often lurk in online writing forums or purchase subscription lists from writers’ magazines. The difference is usually clear: good literary agents get paid for selling books, not for making your photocopies or giving you critique. It’s flattering to have an agent approach you, but don’t let your naivete and hope lead you down the wrong path.

Writer’s Relief (established 1994) is an author’s submission service specializing in targeting (and preparing) submissions to reputable agents and editors ( We help writers find the best-suited agents and editors for their writing. For more articles like this one (and some fun contests and giveaways), visit