8 red flags to a literary agent

Book publishing is a commercial business full of highly professional and sophisticated people who love books of all kinds. We’re all looking for new authors with wonderful stories. It’s a complicated and difficult way to make money, but the goal is simple. Book publishers acquire manuscripts which they believe they can market to a particular demographic of readers in order to make a profit.

Among other things, a literary agent attempts to find manuscripts she believes publishers will want to acquire for publication.

Given the infinite information available online about the business of publishing, and the constant reminders about how difficult it is to find and agent and/or a publisher, it continues to astound me how unprofessional so many unpublished writers can be. This weekend I’ve been catching up on queries from unagented writers. On more than one occasion I’ve had to pick up my jaw from the floor.

Here are eight red flags that — rightly or wrongly — make me suspect you are not professional about the business of getting published.

  1. You query me about your manuscript without having read my submissions guidelines.
  2. You pitch your manuscript to me in a comment on one of my old blog posts.
  3. You ask me to assess your memoir even though you have not yet finished a complete first draft.
  4. Despite reading that I’m not accepting fiction queries at the moment, you query me about your novel in the hope that I will make an exception just for you.
  5. You provide your own book cover artwork. (Contracted authors will probably be consulted about cover design, but the publisher almost always has final say over the cover.)
  6. You send the full manuscript as an email attachment without having been invited to do so.
  7. You send an email with four separate attachments and a cover note that says, “Hi Virginia, please see attached.” Would you feel confident about opening an email attachment from a sender you’ve never heard of?
  8. You ask me to connect on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is not for querying agents. Not this one, anyway.

Lots of readers tell me they like my website because I’m open and straightforward. I want to help unpublished writers find publishers, but I’m not a charity and I can’t help everyone. So I want to know: what questions do you have for me as an agent that I haven’t covered on my website? Please don’t be afraid of asking questions. I won’t bite.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Wow, this answered two questions I hadn’t ever thought to ask. Thanks!

  2. Having achieved a number of good reviews for my self-published titles –reviews from people such as Shelleyrae Cusbert and Brenda Telford– I have come to the conclusion that the road to commercial success is via mainstream publishers. At present I have ten titles available through Amazon Kindle, and nine of these are also in paperback. I have just completed a 9,000 word romantic story. My question is, if I self-publish it, would this put me at a marked disadvantage in trying to have it accepted by a mainstream publisher? Should I try to get a literary agent to help me? If so, should I expect any up-front fees?
    Thanks very much for your help. I appreciate it. 🙂

    1. Hi Lynette,
      Thanks for your comment. The quick answer to your question is that no commercial/mainstream publisher wants a 9,000-word short story, romantic or not, so you should self-publish that one.
      But in your genre of romance, novel-length manuscripts are in hot demand. So I recommend you attempt to write an excellent novel and seek representation from a literary agent who specialises in romance fiction.
      Important note: no reputable literary agent will ask you for a fee in order to represent your work. Writers beware!
      Good luck with your projects — Virginia

  3. Dear Virginia, I have another red flag to unwittingly offer you. I mistakenly misspelled your name Lloyd on the first line of my submission query I emailed in. Despite following all your submission requirements I neglected to ensure I spelled your name correct. I humbly apologize. Simon

    1. Hi Simon,
      Don’t worry! I have quite a backlog of queries right now and am attempting to work through them this month. If you’ve not heard from me by the end of Feb please resend by forwarding the original query. Thanks — Virginia

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