In a business like scriptwriting, when there are so many writers (new and more experienced) desperate to attract the eyes of agents, producers, managers et al, it's not surprising there are nasty people out there wanting to cash in on this.
Knowing how agents work can be the difference between getting scammed or not, quite literally. More than once I have been contacted by Bang2writers wanting to engage my services as a reader after being asked by a so-called agent to get coverage to ensure their script is "ready for market". Why would this be a problem, you might ask? After all, the Bang2writer is offering to pay ME money, not them. That's certainly true - and if the Bang2writer wanted coverage for their own ends - say, a redraft for a competition entry - then I would have no problem with that. But I would never knowingly become party to a scenario that sees a writer misled and disappointed like this because real agents don't want writers to get their own feedback at their own cost. Agents have their own readers, plus they read stuff themselves. That's THEIR job. Similarly, any writer under the belief that an agent would want a report from an unconnected reader like me is mistaken. Agents do their own thing. That's how it works. If the agent wanted a report on a particular work from me (and they have done), then they would engage my services themselves.
That's only the thin end of the wedge however: a writer that signs a contract with one of these so-called agencies will often be asked to pay for editors and for further reads too, all to get the script "ready for market". I've heard of writers do this... Only to never hear anything again. We've all heard of the scam artist who asks the model to pay for the photographs... Well this is the scriptwriting equivalent. Avoid these so-called agencies like the plague. Here's a few things that should alert you to whether you have a genuine agent interested in you or not:
Their reputation is recognisable and accountable. A good agent is known, either as the agency or personally. They may be affiliated to The Authors' Agents Association; a member of a particular Committee like BAFTA; a patron of a writing-related association, magazine or The Writers' Guild. The agent him or herself may appear at things like The Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham or at Writers' Guild events. They may have a website that is updated regularly with their clients' news or even a blog. A simple Google search can throw up these aspects for you if you have not heard of them before. If you cannot find them ANYWHERE or if you read bad reports about them that are not simply sour grapes, then beware.
You approach them. An agent only goes looking for a writer when they REALLY want them and that usually means that particular writer is already the thing of the moment. If you're NOT a big thing, then a sudden letter or email from an agency you've never heard of asking for a submission should be treated with caution.
They won't want you to get your own script report. As in the article.
They charge no reading fee. They'll probably take three million years (at least three months) to get back to you as well. This is because they have three million other scripts to get through.
It's as simple as that, really. Chances are, you'll get a rejection letter; if you're lucky, you may get a few lines of feedback. They usually won't return your script unless you send an SAE with it by the way, so if you want it back, do this.
If however you don't get rejected, here's what happens next:
They will want to see more work. This is a good sign, but you shouldn't be popping the cork on the champers yet. They're checking to see if the script they liked was a fluke, if you're a one trick pony. Sometimes they will request a third script too. This can take ages with the reading times taking such a long time. The record for me was four over about fourteen months - then the bloody agent left and disappeared into the ether (apparently she is now a full-time Mum), damn her hide.
You will be invited in for a meeting. Generally speaking this is AFTER they've read several of your scripts (though there's always the odd writer who's written something so on the ball the agent has them in immediately). Bear in mind then that this meeting may be at least six months AFTER your initial submission, so make sure you remember what your script was about, especially if you've redrafted. I'll never forget talking animatedly to one agent about my character Beth only to see his eyes cloud over: in the draft he had, she was called Melissa.
They will want you to sign a contract. Unlike the scam agency then, the contract comes LAST, not first. What's more, there is no "you have fourteen days before this offer expires". You can talk it over with your spouse, solicitor, your dog as much as you like, though I would imagine your average agent wouldn't want to be kept waiting months and months! In the contract there is no clause saying you have to pay ANYTHING - it details how much commission you will be paying for any sales or commissions, what you have to do if you want to go to another agent, that sort of thing.
A few other things to remember too:
Managers are not the same as agents. I don't have much authority on this subject, since having a manager rather than an agent seems to be more of a US thing than over here; I've certainly never met a Manager like this or had one myself. From what I understand, they are similar to the managers bands have, which I suppose means there are good managers and bad managers, just like in that world. Best to have a contract there I should think, a solicitor would best advise you on how to proceed or whether it's a good idea. There's also an Association of Personal Managers I understand too, so check with them.
Services are not scams. InkTip is a great resource for screenwriters without agents. InkTip is NOT a scam, it is a well-designed and well-run service. You pay your money - you get your chance to showcase your work, you can't say fairer than that. They make no pretence at being an agency and nor do they GUARANTEE success or anything like that: they DO give you free tips, articles and even email help on how to best present your work. All you pay for essentially is your listing or anything else you CHOOSE - like their magazine or Preferred newsletter subscription. Same goes for other such showcasing websites as My Visual Pitch. I've used both of these sites myself and found their service and ethos to be exemplary.
Look out for number one, but share your info. Everyone has to keep their eye on the ball in this game, but that doesn't mean you can't pass it occasionally. If you have a bad experience, don't get bitter about it - tell others, help them avoid what you went through. Chances are, others will warn you about what has happened to them too. The worst thing you can do is to keep your cards close to your chest, since all that will happen is you get left out in the cold. Be generous and not only can you hopefully avoid the crap, you can harvest some good opportunities that others pass on too!
Writer Beware's List of Bad Practices (inc. list of "Twenty Worst Agencies")
Writer Beware Blog on "Literary Agent Scams"
Literary Scams and How to Avoid Them
Thread on John August's Blog about The WL Literary Agency's practices
Forum Postings on Writers' Net about The ST Agency and The New York Literary Agency