Things to Watch Out for When Querying

(Because sometimes I need reminding…)


Although I didn’t start writing fiction again in earnest until 2011, I followed writer forums and blogs long before that. I guess part of me always knew that I was going to get back to writing someday, and that part of me wanted to be well prepared.

Something I never knew about until I started visiting places like the Absolute Write Water Cooler was the sheer number of people who see aspiring writers as sheep ripe for the fleecing. It honestly never occurred to me that the publishing industry could attract so many dishonest people posing as legitimate publishers and agents. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. I’m just thankful I found Absolute Write before I started querying.

But while I can detect an outright scammer fairly quickly these days, something that’s been trickier for me to spot, especially in recent years as digital publishing has become popular, are small publishers who talk a good game but just don’t have the experience to put together quality books and get them in front of buyers. Now, there’s a vast difference between well-meaning but clueless people and actual scammers, but neither type will do you or your book any good.

And just recently, I committed the classic rookie mistake of querying a publisher before looking into them. Luckily, I didn’t commit to anything before finding out that they had an iffy reputation, but it was a stark reminder to do the research before hitting “Send.”

So, to remind myself as much as anyone else, here are some warning signs I’ve learned to heed when I’m looking into an agent or a publisher. They might not be deal-breakers on their own, but the writing forums I follow are littered with the bones of companies that displayed the following issues.

1. The first and most obvious trouble sign: They ask you for money to represent or publish your work. No, no, no.

2. The publisher or agent is brand new and has no prior experience in the industry. I know everyone has to start somewhere, but if the person’s never worked in publishing or at another agency, how can you be sure they’ll have any clue what to do with your work?

3. A publisher’s website is full of bitter rhetoric about how they follow a whole new business model and want to give aspiring writers a chance, unlike those Big Six snobs who won’t give a newbie the time of day. I’ve been watching these types for years. Their business models are never new and usually involve editors who are overworked and over their heads and authors who get no advances and end up doing the vast majority of the publicity work. Most of these companies are lucky to make it three years.

Bonus warning points if they really pour on the syrup about considering their writers family. I’ve already got a family, thanks. I’m looking for a business relationship.

4. An agency has almost no sales, and the only ones they mention were made to publishers that don’t require agented submissions. While an agent can still get a writer a better deal with such a publisher, you’ll want to see some sales that you couldn’t have initiated yourself.

5. A company owner or agent shows up in a forum where they’re being discussed and gets incredibly hostile and condescending when asked even the most reasonable of questions. Who wants to work with someone like that? It’s never a good sign when people get defensive right off the bat.

6. Writers who’ve worked with the companies in question complain about low (or no) sales, or about their book being abandoned after a very short period of time. If that’s a common complaint, things won’t be different with your book.

7. The publisher or agent has told unhappy writers that they’ll fix it so that the writer never sells a book again to anyone if they don’t stop complaining. Oh, boy. Folks, there is no single person in the publishing industry who’s powerful enough to do that, so point and laugh if you ever hear this one, and don’t sign your work over to such a dimwit. The person can fix it so you never sell a book to them again, but who cares?

I’d probably break Medium if I tried to list every trouble sign I’ve ever seen, but those are the ones that crop up over and over. Feel free to mention any other issues you’ve seen in the comments.

And I can’t recommend the Absolute Write Bewares, Recommendations and Background Check forum enough if you have any questions about a publisher or an agent. Note that an existing thread about a publisher or agent in this forum does not necessarily spell trouble; it just means someone’s asked about them.

Happy querying!

This is part of the Ninja Writers May Post-A-Day Challenge. If you enjoyed this, I’d ❤ a recommend heart. You can find a listing of my fiction on Medium here, and I blog occasionally over at my personal website.