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When New Isn’t Better: The Value of Experience

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“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

It’s a familiar truism. And like most truisms, it states a fact so self-evident that there’s no need to really think about it. There’s no start without a starting point, right?

Too often, however, it’s used to dismiss or excuse a lack of skill or training or experience or some other important qualification for doing something that requires expertise.

Because “starting” doesn’t necessarily mean starting from zero. If you start your own law practice, you’ve presumably gone to law school and passed the bar. If you start your own contracting firm, you’ve hopefully apprenticed and/or worked with other builders. If you start your own real estate agency, you’ve taken courses and obtained a license.

Non-zero starting points are just as important for new literary agents and publishers. This may seem obvious—but it’s a fact that writers too often ignore.


Working as a literary agent, or running a publisher, is not an entry-level job. These are complicated, challenging professions that demand specialized knowledge and expertise—not just because skill is needed for success, but because the publishing industry is weird and opaque and clubby and really, really difficult to figure out from outside.

An agent needs—at a minimum–to have contacts at publishing houses and an understanding of publishing contract terms, as well as a nose for marketable manuscripts (not as easy as it sounds). A publisher must—also at a minimum—understand editing and marketing, know how books are acquired and distributed, be capable of creating a fair contract, be able to hire qualified staff–and, just as important, have a business plan.

Such skills don’t come out of the blue. They’re best acquired through training at a reputable agency, or working in publishing in some capacity. Because there are no licensing or educational requirements for literary agents, however, and the easy availability of digital publishing technology makes starting a publisher as simple as setting up an Ingram Spark account, anyone can become an agent or a publisher…even if they have absolutely no qualifications for doing so.

Inexperienced agents and publishers often have unrealistic ideas about what it takes to succeed. They may believe that a love of books and writing is enough to bridge the knowledge gap, or that the scars of a previous bad publishing experience will empower them to do better. They may imagine that publishing is a fun side hustle they can do in their spare time, or that a career in corporate sales gives them skills transferable to agenting. They may not realize the importance of a business plan, and assume it’s okay to skip the prep work—to just jump in and learn as they go.

That’s not to say they don’t have the best intentions. Frequently, they do. But without professional skills and experience, they are at a significant disadvantage, and face a high risk of failure in an extremely competitive industry that’s precarious even for people with substantial credentials.


Brand-new agents and publishers still building their lists offer the possibility of access, in an industry where access is highly restricted and competitive. Along with hope, dreams, and the frustrations of the query process, it’s one of the main reasons why so many writers are willing to give unqualified people a pass.

Failure isn’t the only thing you’re risking when you sign with an inexperienced agent or publisher. Thanks to their lack of knowledge, they’re more likely to have odd or nonstandard business practices (such as fee-charging or cost-sharing), or to create author-unfriendly contracts, or to hire unqualified editors, or to have poor accounting.

Your inexperienced agent may submit your work to undesirable publishers or fail to negotiate problem contract clauses—or be unable to make any sales at all. Your unskilled publisher may miss work deadlines and pub dates, publish books with formatting errors, be unable to retain staff, or just be overwhelmed by the logistics of running a business where schedules have to be met and payments made on time. There’s a higher likelihood of unprofessional behavior–bullying, ghosting, retaliation–especially toward writers who report problems or demand accountability. The line between personal and professional may become seriously blurred.

Writer Beware’s files are filled with such stories. A few examples:

  • The resume of Pigeon House Literary’s founder included no agenting or publishing experience or training whatsoever. Despite that, and an unbelievably unprofessional website, she set about recruiting clients via Twitter pitch events. Over a year later, she had yet to make a single sale—but she was still recruiting.
  • City Limits Publishing, established by an individual with a history of business failure whose sole publishing experience was a handful of self-published books, closed down after just over a year amid a blizzard of author complaints, including misrepresentation and gaslighting. Authors were left with royalties unpaid, their books still available for sale on Amazon, and no way to reach the publisher.
  • The founder of Entranced Publishing had no publishing credentials when she started the company. Initially things seemed fine…but within a few months, editors started leaving and writers began reporting payment and other problems. Less than a year after release of Entranced’s first titles, writers learned that the company had been sold—to another individual with no publishing experience. A few weeks later, the new owner closed Entranced down.
  • Helmed by a CEO with no professional publishing background, Hurn Publishing quickly ran into trouble: late payments, books published with errors, and more. A year after startup, the company abruptly went out of business. The CEO then went radio-silent. Several months later, authors were still waiting to be paid.
  • Yet more examples, along with a discussion of why small publishers fail, can be found here.


Before rushing out a query to that new agent who liked your pitch on #PitMad, or submitting to that startup publisher that just put out a call for manuscripts, it’s a very good idea to take a pause, and do some investigating to make sure they’re qualified to perform.

What should you look for? Ideally, training or work history at a (reputable) agency, or a position in the traditional publishing industry as an editor, sales rep, publicist, etc. Look for longevity: a three-month internship, for instance, isn’t enough time for comprehensive learning. Specifics are important: the name of the agency or publisher, the exact job title. Claims like “Agent X worked as an associate agent at three premier New York agencies before starting their own agency” are worthless unless you can confirm them.

Less certain, but possibly transferrable skills might include years of experience as a bookseller or bookstore buyer, a professional writer with Big 5 publishing credits (for agents), or graduation from a publishing course (for publishers–though keep in mind that many of these courses are geared to entry-level skills,and such learning is mostly theoretical).

Not useful, at least on their own: an English degree or an MFA in creative writing (neither of these provide publishing industry contacts or business skills). Freelance editing (unless the person has worked with major publishers). A history of self-publishing (publishing yourself is very different from publishing others). A career in corporate marketing or sales (book and manuscript sales require a very different sort of selling). A passion for books and writing (a great motivation—but not a sufficient starting point).

This information should be easily findable on the agent’s or publisher’s website. Be wary if it’s not, or if it’s too vague to verify. LinkedIn can be helpful if the agent or publisher has a profile (sometimes because it helps to unpack inflated claims).

And if the agency or publisher is a black box, with no staff information at all, it may be best to move on.


There are no guarantees, of course. Highly-qualified agents and publishers fail. Inexperienced agents and publishers sometimes learn, grow, and do right by their authors.

But as in any expert profession, you are best served by someone who has the skills to do the job. Signing with an agent or publisher who is starting from zero is basically volunteering to be a guinea pig while they attempt to learn on the fly. Publishers and agents who fail, fail themselves–but they also fail their authors. And that can do considerable damage to careers and finances–not to mention, waste one of a writer’s most precious resources: time.

Have you had an experience with an inexperienced agent or publisher? How did it turn out? Do you have any research tips to share?


About Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone fantasy duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and Passion Blue and Color Song, a pair of historical novels for teens. In addition, she's written a handful of short stories, hundreds of book reviews, and a number of articles on writing and publishing that have appeared in Writer’s Digest, among others. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She is the co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009 for her work with Writer Beware. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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