QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, July 29, 2013

Finding a Reputable Agent or Publisher

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I recently got an excited email from an acquaintance whose book had been accepted by a "publisher" with a terrible reputation for doing very little publishing and a great deal of stealing starry-eyed writers' hard-earned dollars. I had to give her the bad news that the publisher was not only disreputable, it was a scammer.

To keep the same thing from happening to you (or your friends), it's good to understand what makes a publisher reputable or reprehensible. Read on!

How Do I Find a Reputable Agent or Publisher?

There are a lot of ways to get published these days; Jane Friedman summarized them well in her recent objective infographic, 5 Key Book Publishing Paths. With regards to financial risk and value, a summary of her paths is:

  1. Traditional: Advance + royalties model; publisher takes on all financial and creative risk but is extremely selective about which books are chosen (e.g. Penguin)
  2. Partnership: No fee to publish, no advance; partner selective about which books are chosen (e.g. Rogue Reader)
  3. Fully Assisted: Author pays upfront free; all work is accepted (e.g. AuthorHouse). This is also sometimes referred to as vanity publishing.
  4. DIY + Distributor: Author does most work, pays service for conversion of all files into e-book, POD, or print; distribution service may take a percentage of sales and is responsible for paying you (e.g. CreateSpace)
  5. DIY Direct: Author does all work and provides retailers with completed books; retailer takes a percentage of sales (e.g. Amazon KDP)

Friedman's Key Publishing Paths Infographic
For a long time, the die-hard rule of the road was, never give money to an agent or a publisher, but the pond has gotten a lot muddier with so many available options. If you wish to self-publish or go through a “fully assisted” service like Author House, you will be paying some money to see your book published; however, if you produce a true quality product that people want and you are willing and able to do the work to promote it, you may do extremely well.

The most outspoken (and one of the most successful) self-publishing authors is J.A. Konrath, who could be called an entrepreneur. He's had so much success and made so much money that he had no problem turning down a $500K publishing deal from a mainstream publisher in 2011.

Of all the publishing approaches, the “fully assisted” (aka vanity) route is still seen by most as the worst since the service will publish anything, regardless of quality, and along the way they will push you to spend more and more money on things you don't need. As Friedman notes, “The self-pub success stories you hear about do not come from full-assist services.” So if you’re going to self-publish, take one of the DIY approaches.

If you want to go a more traditional route, however, you will either need to go through an agent or approach small publishers directly. The trick to this can be sorting the shysters from the reputable, so let’s look at some rules of thumb.


Not all resources, including some of the big-name publications and databases, put the legitimacy of the agent or agency first, but QueryTracker does. Though you should always keep your eyes open, administrator Patrick McDonald does his utmost to include only reputable agents. People frequently ask why this agent or that agent is not included, and now you know why. (Note: Sometimes there is nothing actually wrong with an agent, she may just be new enough that she has not yet built any reputation either way.)

You should never give money to an agent. If one tries to charge you for anything—from reading to editing to finding a home for your book—run.  Many less-than-upstanding “agents” make their money not from book sales, but from referring unwitting authors to editors who will charge them an arm and a leg without actually providing a quality service. In these cases, the agent gets a kickback from the editor. It’s fine for an agent to recommend more extensive editing than she is willing to do, but choose your own editor rather than accepting a referral. And if an agent takes you on, her editing assistance must be free.  It’s a conflict of interest for an agent who is also your editor to take your money.

When you find an agent or agency that interests you, always do some additional research—and that includes agents on QueryTracker, just to be safe. Two of the best resources (listed beside each QT agent’s entry) include Preditors and Editors for agents and agencies and SFWA’s Writer Beware. You can also ask what other people have heard on message boards like those in the QueryTracker Forum.

Finally, be sure to check out the agent and agency's website and (if available) blog. Reputable agents and agencies should have significant recent sales in the area you wish to publish.


QueryTracker has a growing list of publisher listings, which include the same information on acceptance and rejection statistics that is provided for agents and agencies.

The rules of the road are very similar to those noted above for agents.  Traditional and partnership publishers should not charge you upfront fees of any kind, including those for editing. And again, always double-check the publisher’s reputation by looking for recent sales, and by visiting Writer Beware. (If you want to take a look at one active “publisher”—who keeps changing names to try to avoid its own bad reputation—that is notorious for bilking writers, look at the Writer Beware entry on SBPRA.)

Don't Forget!

In both cases, remember—a publisher makes its money from sales. It gets the big percentage (often around 90%), and you get the small one. Likewise, a literary agent makes money because she gets a percentage—usually 15% for domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales—of any money the author makes. If an agent is involved, any money you make goes from the publisher to your agent, who takes her 15% and then sends the rest along to you.

It is therefore in the interest of such reputable agents and publishers to only choose writers who can actually sell books, because the author has to start making money on the book for them to get paid!

Once your manuscript is as polished as you can possibly get it and your betas (and/or editor) can't find much to complain about, you're ready for the next step—querying. More on choosing an agent or publisher who really "gets" your work in a future post!*

Have you ever had a bad experience or a close call with an agent, agency, or publisher? Without naming names, tell us about what you learned from the experience in the comments.

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*I’ve gotten several questions via email recently asking me about dealing with agents, so this is the third part of a series of posts on figuring out whether you’re ready to start querying, whether you need an agent,  finding a reputable agent, and choosing someone who really “gets” your work. Of course, QueryTracker.net will help you through all of the stages, and fellow QT blogger Jane Lebak recently wrote a great post on How to Use the QueryTracker Site.

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook

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