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  • Writer's pictureJ. Johnson Higgins

Is it a Literary Agency, or a Toxic Literary Scam? Indie Writers, Don’t Take the Bait

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

One bite and all your dreams come true!

For the better part of the last year, I’ve been shopping around and sending materials for my next novel to different literary agencies. For those new to the term in this context, a literary agency represents a writer’s work to various potential partners in the industry such as publishers, magazines, and journals. Agents often handle contracts and follow up with them once you’ve reached an agreement. For an independent writer, one might think: You seem to be doing everything else yourself, Indie Anna or Jones. Why not represent yourself, too? Well, I personally would be delighted to do that but the harsh reality is that most major publishing houses will not accept my unsolicited material and will only consider reading a writer’s work if it comes from a reputable agent. If it is your goal to publish your work with a traditional or mainstream publisher, as opposed to doing an independent release, then an agent is something of a broker to them worth looking into. Lately, it’s become increasingly common for indie writers to work with agents, but to do that successfully, we need to understand who is out to help us or harm us.

Truth be told, my next release is likely to be an independent one but I did learn something from the literary agent process while considering traditional publication and thought I’d share my experience. If you take nothing else from this post, remember these words: There are real literary agencies and toxic literary scams. The real agencies will not charge a writer an upfront fee to represent their work.

Professional Literary Agents Won’t Charge a Writer Upfront (Indie or Traditional)

No upfront charge? Let’s unpack that statement for just a moment, shall we? Writer representation is a commodity, why wouldn’t a writer pay an upfront fee for it? Good question. The short answer is that agencies are in fact getting something valuable for working with writers: marketable material. There’s no need to charge an upfront fee if they’ve found what they are looking for. What they are looking for will make them money, if they are doing what they are supposed to do.

Literary agencies are quite selective to begin with and they will only pick up a project when the writer’s work meets their finicky selection criteria in terms of genre, character types, narrative voice, previous sales, mainstream appeal, etc. In a way, agencies are like the rest of us and are passionate about what they choose. Their selection criteria vary considerably from one agency to the next—and even from one agent within that agency to the next—about as widely as there are sections in a bookstore and the preferences of shoppers within them. It helps to research the agent and learn what they like before submitting work to them. If the writer’s work meets the agent’s criteria and they are interested, they will represent the work. It’s as simple as that. If the work does ultimately sell with a publisher, the agent will take a cut of the deal after it sells. This is standard operating procedure and this is true whether an agent is working with an independent writer or a traditional one.

Recently, I encountered a self-proclaimed “hybrid” literary agency that proposed that I, the writer, pay the agency upfront in order for them to represent my work. This caused me to raise an eyebrow. By charging an upfront fee, such agencies would have no incentive to really do a good job once they’ve been paid, as it would no longer be a performance-based operation but, instead, a token relationship that I sponsor. Did they expect not to perform well so they wanted a security deposit? I was suspicious. Let’s not forget the most important reasons why writers pursue agents in the first place: their connection to the publishers and their expertise in the ever-changing demands of the industry. In other words, they perform well regularly and should not build their business platform on a foundation of uncertainty (unless of course, they don't know the market). True literary agents are reputable ones that the publishers trust to reliably bring them marketable material that fits their current business goals. What was this strange creature before me?

Being a “Hybrid” Agency Does Not Justify a Bogus Upfront Fee

Okay, so traditional literary agencies don’t charge an upfront fee, but the agency that contacted me claims to be a "hybrid." Do hybrids charge upfront fees? And by the way, what do we mean by “hybrid” anyway? In simple terms, hybrid refers to the broad nexus that exists between traditional publishing and independent publishing and, in short, true hybrid literary agencies do not charge upfront fees either.

You may have heard the word “hybrid” used in the publishing sphere a few times with maybe some loose descriptions but just so we’re clear what I’m referring to, let me give it a brief once-over before we move on (feel free to skip if you already know this):

  • Hybrid Publisher – A hybrid publisher is one that operates in the same manner as a traditional publisher except that the printing is author-subsidized (the author carries the bulk of the financial risk and/or reaps the bulk of the financial benefit). It is easy to confuse a hybrid publisher with other author-subsidized printing models such as print-on-demand—a model I’m quite familiar with—but the primary distinction is that hybrids adhere to special criteria that mirrors that of traditional publishers. They vet submissions and decline those that do not meet their mission, vision or quality standards. Books are published under their recognized logos & ISBNs. The hybrid publisher remains responsible for all of the same things as a traditional publisher in terms of editing, sales, design, distribution, and marketing but the author finances the printing and storage. For more details on this and the industry standards, you might look here.

  • Hybrid Author – A hybrid author is one who publishes their work independently (often digitally) but also works with traditional publishers on their projects in some capacity. This could mean anything from having a traditional publisher agree to print the work of an indie author, or could mean that the author has some titles self-published and others published traditionally or these things occurring simultaneously. If a traditional publisher agrees to pick up and continue a series for which the indie author has already started and released earlier installments, that author could be considered a hybrid author for example.

  • Hybrid Literary Agency – Okay, so we know what a traditional literary agency is. A hybrid literary agency, by comparison is actually the same except that they are a bit more flexible and metamorphic. A hybrid literary agency may be willing to, for example, take alternative approaches such as negotiate terms for print-only deals between indie authors and traditional/hybrid publishers or provide other ad hoc self-publishing assistance such as licensing, help with foreign contracts, film rights, non-compete clauses, etc. Just like a traditional literary agency, a hybrid would not need to charge an upfront fee if the two parties are truly a good match. Professional literary agencies (traditional or hybrid) will be following a set of standards that will not permit them to charge an upfront fee (see the canon of ethics). The label of hybrid has more to do with how they operate in practice: the writers that they take on and in what capacity they work with them. Literary agents can assist both independent and traditional writers.

What about this self-proclaimed “hybrid” agency that asked me to pay an upfront fee? It is clear to me that the agency’s use of the word “hybrid” is nothing more than a ploy; a device that allows them to say: we do things differently here from traditional literary agencies, so forget what you’ve heard; indeed, a means of making writers believe that it is forgivable to charge a fee without a clear connection to the publishing marketplace. No matter how you package it, the proposal that the writer pay an upfront fee is inconsistent with industry standards. Being a hybrid literary agency changes nothing about the ethical standards, so don’t be fooled. The move is nothing more than an attempt to appeal to avant-garde but unsuspecting indie authors who occupy that ever-changing arena between traditional and independent publication. It is an attempt to use the ambiguous and emerging term to have us excuse the bogus fee.

What Does the Bait Look Like?

The agency appears fine on the surface but it’s only once you’re looking closely that you realize it’s a poisoned apple; fortunately, I just happened to know the signs. The name is Global Summit House (GSH), and while I’m typically not one to name names and point fingers, I feel I ought to warn other writers of this agency’s approach and point out its moniker so that they can make educated decisions. I discovered GSH in the worst possible way. I’d sent manuscript materials out to a series of professional literary agents several months ago. The process is so exacting that I have a detailed spreadsheet keeping track of submissions, rules, dates, responses, types of material each agent is looking for, etc.

One day, I received an email that sounded promising based on this subject line:

“Your Hybrid Literary Agent Proposal from Global Summit House Team”

With a cursory look, I was intrigued and assumed that one of the agents I’d reached out to was replying to my query letter with an offer. After a closer examination it became clear that this was not one of the agents I’d contacted. Could it be possible that an agency outside of my scope and research parameters actually found me and was interested in my work? Not likely. The last thing a legitimate agency will do is go looking for more work outside of the tons of submissions they already receive and get recommendations for daily. If anything, a real agency would take steps to trim down that pile of submissions, even rejecting submissions that are a good fit for them because they have too many to consider.

Here is the actual text from the GSH email:

“Our team is interested to be part of your journey as an author and would like to represent your book to various publishers and companies.
Our team has been on the lookout for books that will grab readers and companies. We want authors who have something new to say about an important story, who bring a fresh voice to a topic of concern to many people. We need authors who are passionate about their ideas and stories.
We would like to offer your work/s to several publishers and become your literary agent who will also help build a strong portfolio for you and your book.
Please read our detailed proposal and contract below”

Notice that this message is very good at not saying anything at all and contains no specifics. To put this point into perspective, I’ve received rejection letters from actual literary agents who went as far as to refer to my main character or at least insert the title of my book into the form letter, if they use one. Some explain why they were not interested or suggested I keep looking because they liked my story but just didn’t feel their agency was the one to represent it. I would expect more from an agent who is actually interested in my work. This entity did not indicate their genre preferences, which is odd in this field. I sensed a general lack of authentic passion I’d typically expect to see from an agent, even from the irrational ones (yes, they’re human too).

This agency’s contract is double-barreled, by the way. That is, if you agree to it, you’re not only committing to paying their upfront fee without first being connected to a publisher, you are also committing to their “marketing services” that cost thousands of dollars. If their marketing services are anything like their contract, proposal, or their email, it is likely junk, written in broken English, and maybe even a little drunken. This method replicates models employed by other predatory groups that specifically target indie writers. For more background on the models and shady groups I’m referring to, you could look here and what a rabbit hole it is. Just promise me you will return.

A Word on Reputation and Dignity

What can we say about the reputation of a hybrid literary agency that charges a writer an upfront fee, such as Global Summit House? We can say that they recruited writers who were willing to pay-to-play. We cannot say anything about the marketability of the work they represent. Every writer represented by this kind of agency will be viewed by major publishers in the same way and distinguished only by the fact that they were willing to pay money upfront without a likely return on the investment. This harms the perceived business acumen of independent writers in general. Do we really need marks against us? I think not.

Why would a major publisher want to give the agency that contacted me an audience? I don’t think they would and there is mounting evidence to this conclusion, in the inability to verify their publishing successes. A true literary agency would be proud to flaunt their client list and display who they’ve represented or assisted with publication in the last year; GSH does not do this. As writers interested in keeping our dignity and our resources, we should not give this kind of agency an audience either.

Things to Avoid: Poisoned Fruit, Clowns in the Storm Drains, and Fee-charging Agencies

For me, being an independent writer is mostly about maintaining control over my projects. If your current goal is to work with an agency or become a hybrid author, I would just advise doing it right or not doing it at all: either work with a reputable agent that will deliver for you or forgo that process and find a way to produce your best work yourself. Be clear about your own objectives before ever entertaining offers or promotions from entities you’re not familiar with. If you want to work with an agent, be clear in your query letter about how you intend to work with them so that you both know if it will be a good partnership. Do your homework. Do an informal background check on them before signing anything. Your gut will usually tell you if something’s not right.

Global Summit House is only one of many entities out there and unfortunately, we’re not all trained to see the signs of a scam. The choice is ultimately yours but if you come across an agency who asks for a fee to work with them, I would advise that you not reply to their emails and do not let them get you on the phone. If they do ambush you, cut them off and block the number. Just get back to writing great material.

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