Is Your Agent Legit?

Should you nix your rep because he isn’t a member of a respected guild? Not necessarily. by Scott Hoffman
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As a veteran literary agent who has attended dozens of writers’ conferences and met hundreds of authors in the one-on-one meetings that take place at these events, I hear the most incredible stories from people who’ve been taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals who claim to be literary agents, but are little more than scam artists.

The stories all start out the same. “I had an agent once,” writers tell me within the first few minutes of sitting down. “But it wasn’t a good experience.” Though the details differ, they all end the same, too. At some point I’ll ask the writer how much he paid the agent, he’ll sheepishly mention a figure (often in the thousands—or even tens of thousands—of dollars), I’ll offer my sympathy, and then we’ll get down to the real business at hand: figuring out if I’ll be able to sell his book to a reputable, advance-paying publisher.

Inevitably, the villainous agents involved in these stories have one thing in common: They’re not members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the non-profit member organization of literary and dramatic agents.

The inference is clear, right? Don’t hire literary agents unless they’re members of the AAR.

But not so fast. Many talented, capable and reputable literary agents—myself included—aren’t AAR members. Why not? And what’s to say that all AAR members are talented, capable and reputable?

The second question is easier to address. While there are no ironclad guarantees, it’s extremely likely that if an agent is an AAR member, he’s above-board.

There are two main things that set AAR members apart from every other Tom, Dick or Harry who calls himself a literary agent. First, in order to qualify for full AAR membership, an agent must have demonstrated professional success by selling at least 10 books to publishers in an 18-month period (a formidable task, as any new agent can tell you).

The second factor that differentiates AAR members is that they agree to adhere to the organization’s Canon of Ethics, an eight-point checklist of practices that are and aren’t acceptable. Although the document is clearly written and easily available (you can find a copy on the AAR’s website, aar-online.org), there are many misconceptions about what the AAR’s ethical guidelines permit its members to do.

The most common misconception is that only commission-based agents can join. That’s not true. An AAR member can charge her clients an hourly fee, a success-based flat fee, a variable commission or a combination of all the methods.

The other common error people make about the AAR’s Canon of Ethics is that it specifies the commission rate AAR members must charge. In reality, while the vast majority of AAR members charge their clients 15 percent on the sale of domestic rights, nothing in the organization’s guidelines prohibits an agent from charging a higher or lower percentage.

The association also makes it a point to note that it doesn’t—and can’t—regulate the services its members provide. Several agencies are beginning to expand the range of services they offer clients to include marketing, public relations, publicity services, booking of paid speaking engagements and securing of licensing deals, none of which are prohibited by the AAR Canon.

So why am I not an AAR member? After all, I follow the vast majority of guidelines the AAR sets with respect to making sure client and agency operating funds aren’t co-mingled, making sure clients get paid in a timely fashion, and ensuring transparency in my dealings with clients and publishers.

It comes down to two relatively minor issues. One of the things the AAR guidelines prohibit agents from doing is acting as book packagers (liaisons who assemble product concepts for publishers). Curiously, however, agents may package film projects. While I’ve never come across a situation in which acting as a packager would be in the best interest of a client, it’s possible the situation may arise in the future.

Second—and more important—I suppose I’ve never really been much of a joiner.

So if you’re offered representation by an agent who isn’t a member of the AAR, should you say no? Of course not. Check out your prospective agent the way you would any other service professional. Ask for references from current or past clients. Make sure the full nature of the arrangement is spelled out ahead of time to avoid any unpleasant surprises. And last but not least: Trust your instincts. If something seems wrong, it probably is.

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