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9 Literary Agent Red Flags by Peter Mountford

Posted Fri, 5/31/2019 - 10:09am by  |  Category: ,

This Sunday, June 2, 2019, Peter Mountford, Karen Finneyfrock, and Theo Nestor will teach an all-day Publishing Intensive.

This course will give students a comprehensive overview of the publishing business, from finding an agent to seeing your book arrive in the world, as well as cover opportunities for writers of memoir, adult fiction, and young adult fiction.

Get a head start on finding an agent with Peter’s list of the top 9 literary agent red flags:

1. Not listed on Publisher’s Marketplace, the online database of publishing, which is used by agents/publishers.

It costs $40 a month to access, but the site is invaluable when you’re searching for the right literary agent.

2. No website.

Most agents have a presence on the internet. Their professional, up-to-date website might talk about services, and list their represented authors.

3. The agent has been fired often. 

How can you tell if an agent has been fired? If the agent has represented authors, but the authors seem to jump ship after 1–2 books have been published.

4. The agent has too many authors.

If an agent has more than 80 authors on a list, they might be overloaded and don’t have time and attention for their authors.

5. The agent asks for money from you at any point.

Your agent shouldn’t charge you anything other than 15% of your book’s advance and royalties.

6. Your agent lacks a track record.

While a new agent may not have much a track record—and that’s valid—an agent with 20 years of experience without many recent deals has a serious problem.

7. The literary agent is based in Omaha.

Around 90% of agents are based in New York City, with the remaining 7% in Boston or DC, and a small number in Los Angeles and scattered elsewhere around the country. Why? The publishing houses are in New York, and the deals are in New York, and it’s a relationship-based business. If an agent is located elsewhere, carefully scrutinize their authors and sales, and ask how they maintain their connection to the publishing business. A good agent will understand and appreciate your questions, and won’t get defensive.  

8. They make big promises.

Be wary if they promise you that you’re going to have multiple offers and bids on your book, or promise high advances.

9. When you ask what their submission strategy might be, they don’t have a clear answer.

A good strategy would involve what editors might be interested, the state of publishing and knowledge of changes within companies – such as publisher mergers and the ascension of smaller publishers such as Graywolf and Tin House.

Want to learn more from Peter? Register for this Sunday’s Publishing Intensive, or sign up for a personal manuscript consultation to get one-on-one advice on your work.


Peter Mountford has taught creative writing—fiction and nonfiction, primarily—to thousands of writers at all phases of their careers. Peter’s first novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) won the 2012 Washington State Book Award, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novel Award, and is currently being developed as a television show by Campanario Entertainment. His second novel The Dismal Science (Tin House Books) was a finalist for the 2015 WSBA, and was a New York Times editor’s choice. His short work has appeared in the New York Times (the “Modern Love” column), the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Southern Review, Best New American Voices 2008, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, and dozens of other magazines and newspapers.

In 2012–14 Peter was the prose writer-in-residence at Hugo House, where he has been teaching since 2008. Since earning his MFA from the University of Washington in 2006, Peter’s work has won awards and grants from 4Culture, Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, Seattle Magazine, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Peter has received the Bread Loaf’s 2015 Bakeless Fellowship in Fiction, the he’s also won two fellowships to Yaddo, including the Wallace Fellowship for a distinguished writer. He is currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program.