Literary agents, I mean. (Though, belatedly, I have only just got round to reading Charlie Stross's JENNIFER MORGUE, and what a hoot it is. In case you didn't know, it's got spies, Lovecraftian demons and geek humour galore.) I mentioned this on an Eastercon panel that was of interest to unpublished writers. Although it was a little off-topic, it was one of several things I talked about because of the specific audience.
A friend of mine, eager to have some poetry published - poetry for kids in fact - sent me an email to say that she had found herself an agent. What she gave me was essentially a URL, something like www.dodgy-agents-r-us.com
So I popped on to the website and alarm bells rang in my head. Everything looked/felt/smelled/tasted wrong. (I wasn't licking the screen, just experiencing synesthaesia.) The point is that it was an immediate reaction, so it took a while to analyse what was wrong. And it began with what was missing.
First off, most reputable agencies - though NOT all - have a name like Joe Braun Agency. Joe may be the only agent, or the main agent with several experienced colleagues or more junior protégés, or was a founder of a long-established agency in which he is no longer the most active participant. In any case, the agency bears Joe's name because editors and other publishing professionals know his name. As a newbie writer, you probably don't know many folk in the publishing industry, so all the face-to-face conversations have to be conducted by an agent on your behalf. That's what they're for.
Regardless of the name, the agency will surely list its personnel. And none of that was on this particular website.
So who else is involved in a reputable setup?
Well, one clue was dodgy-agents' own page that asked: Who are our clients?
Hmmm... Or maybe a reputable agency would list the authors they represent. Since my agents are there to promote my work (and their other writers' work) to our mutual advantage, they will be giving me publicity because, again, that's their job... and how else can an agency be creditable? The list of writers and the books they've written, well, that's the agency's credentials right there.
Since dodgy-agents clearly don't sell the publishing rights to books, they have no way to earn commission. Therefore they charge money to read your stuff which they have no way of selling. Hmmm again. Real agents' earnings come ONE HUNDRED PERCENT from commission. Therefore they can not waste time on books that won't sell. Therefore it's hard to get a real agent.
Is that a barrier to success? Well, ask yourself this question: Has any other unpublished writer been faced with this situation and still succeeded? And of course the answer is yes, and the proof is on the shelves around you whenever you step into your favourite bookstore.
For both psychological and mathematical reasons, your quest is uncertain, yet there is a near-certainty: everyone who succeeds in getting published is in it for the long haul, is prepared to spend 15 years learning their craft, to write four unpublished novels and still press ahead with the fifth...
Just go for it, and keep on going...
Incidentally, getting that first book published is the beginning of the hard work, not the end. But that's for another post, I guess. Hard work but the best thing in life, or why would you want to do it?
Likewise, for me to justify what I'm saying not just from experience but also psychology and maths, that'd take a while, and might be worthwhile doing later. For now, if you're interested, check The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (for the psychology) and The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow.
Oh, a practical thing... How do you know who the reputable agents are? In the UK, buy the Writers & Artists Yearbook. (My agents, Zeno Agency, are not in there only because the company came into being some months ago. But John Parker was for decades a director of MBA, who certainly are in there.) In the US, I believe that Writer's Digest publish something.
Per ardua ad astra!