We here at Curtis Brown Ltd. receive a surprising number of query letters addressed to "Mr. Curtis Brown," many of whom speak to the fine reputation Mr. Brown enjoys in the industry and his many successes past and present. Um, folks, Albert Curtis Brown died during the Roosevelt administration. He's not going to represent you.
However, if Albert Curtis Brown were alive today (which, again, he isn't -- seriously, don't write to him) he would probably be appalled at the number of disreputable agents out there, people who prey on writers who are just trying to live out their dreams of becoming a broke published writer. I can understand how difficult it is for an aspiring author to tell the difference between a good agent and a bad agent, but there are sites that can help.
First and foremost is the Association of Author's Representatives (www.aar-online.org). All members of the AAR adhere to a canon of ethics that respect your rights as an author (these are posted on the AAR website). Even better, there is a searchable database on the site that you can use to find good, reputable agents. (Yes, I'm in there, and don't act surprised.)
Aside from the list, there are a few telltale clues that should tip you off to your prospective agent's intentions: You should never, ever pay money up front. Reputable agents work off of commissions, and they only earn money if they sell your work. Also, if you do sign with someone, your agent should be very clear about where they are sending your material -- you should be kept in the loop.
So, beware of the baddies. But also DON'T BE PARANOID. I can't emphasize this enough. There are good, nice agents out there who want to work very hard to help make your dreams come true. Some agents might even wash your car and bake you cookies (ok, I made that part up). But don't let a few bad publishing apples ruin your perspective. You're going to need to trust your new agent, so don't turn into a paranoiac.In honor of Halloween, please feel free to post your own publishing horror stories in the comments section.