The Safest Way to
Search for an Agent
by Victoria Strauss
Searching for an agent is difficult enough without worrying about whether the agent is dishonest.
Unfortunately, you do need to worry. Too many agents engage in abuses--charging
up-front fees, participating in kickback referral schemes, urging writers
to pay for expensive editing services--for you to assume that every agent
who expresses interest in your manuscript is reputable.The Procedure
1. Begin with a couple of good market guides. For US-based writers,
I recommend Literary Marketplace (available in your local library), Jeff Herman's Writer's Guide to
Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, and Rachel Vater's Guide to Literary Agents. In the UK, Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and Writer's Handbook are both comprehensive resources. I suggest you use more than one guide,
because all have a different mix of information (and some can be out of date).
To give you some idea of the magnitude of the problem: Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group of which I'm a staff member, has assembled documentation on more than 300 agents in the US, UK, and Australia who engage in the practices mentioned above. This is just the tip of the iceberg. In the US, for instance, there may be as many as 900 people doing business as literary agents, but only about 400-450 of these can be considered reputable (about 350 members of the Association of Authors' Representatives--the
only professional trade group for agents in the US--and perhaps 50-100 more
who choose not to join). The problem is less widespread in other countries,
but it does exist.
Most aspiring writers know the basic drill: assemble a list of agents, prepare and polish a synopsis
and sample chapters, write a dynamite query letter, send out submission packets...and wait. To this must be added
another step: weeding out the questionable agents who will inevitably wind up on your query list.
Also very helpful is John Baker's Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction--not
so much for the agent listings, which though useful are somewhat idiosyncratic, but for the insight it provides
into the way agents work.
Unfortunately, there's not a market guide in existence that doesn't contain at least some questionable agents--hence
the steps below--but the ones listed above seem to have fewer than others. I don't recommend Writer's Market,
which contains a lot of marginal and amateur agents, as well as a good number
of fee-chargers hiding out in the non-fee section.
2. Use the information in the guides to make a list of agents who are appropriate for
your work. This list can be as big as you like.
3. Expand your list by picking books you think resemble yours, and finding out
who agents them. This is not as difficult as it might seem. Some writers thank their agents in the
Acknowledgements sections of their books, or name them on their websites. A websearch on the author or the title
may yield the information--through a newspaper interview reproduced online, for instance--as may a search of Publisher's Weekly or Publishing
News, which regularly report on who's selling what to whom. If you're a genre writer. here's another resource, Locus Magazine reports on science fiction/fantasy/horror sales. Also, some publishers maintain
rights guides on their websites, where agents for recently-published books
4. Obtain the membership roster of the Association of Authors' Representatives (US)
or the Association of Authors' Agents (UK). You can obtain these rosters by visiting the AAR website or the AAA Website. Membership in these organizations is an indication of legitimacy:
agents must meet competency requirements in order to join, and abide by a code of practice that excludes many
common abuses, such as referral kickback schemes.
5. Place a question mark beside any agent who isn't a member. Non-AAR or -AAA membership doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of reputability--a
number of successful agents choose not to be members, or are still too new
to have fulfilled the membership requirements. But it's wise to do
some extra research on agents who aren't members.
6. For agents with a question mark, do any or all of the following:
The above steps should ensure that you have a list of agents to whom it's appropriate to send your work, and
make it less likely you'll query a questionable one. It's not an infallible method, but it does offer more protection
than sending out submissions based solely on the information you find in market guides.
7. Some additional recommendations:
- E-mail me. (firstname.lastname@example.org) I'll go through Writer Beware's complaint archives,
and let you know what I find.
- Check the agent listings at Preditors & Editors.
This website hosts a large agent listing, with "not recommended" notations to indicate agents who charge fees
or engage in other abuses.
- For US writers: use Agent Research & Evaluation's free agent
verification service. AR&E maintains an extensive database of agent sales information, and also collects complaints.
- Don't use the Internet as your primary source of information.
The Internet is an invaluable research tool, but it shouldn't be where
you begin your agent search. Lists of agents on the Internet have usually been compiled by people without much knowledge of publishing,
or else are databases where anyone can enter information. Most are full
of questionable agents. A good print guide like the ones mentioned above is a much better place to start.
- Learn the warning signs of a questionable agent. Pay a visit to the Literary
Agents Page of Writer Beware. If a questionable agent does slip through your screening
process, the tips and information here will help you to identify him/her.
- Read trade publications. Knowledge is your best defense. Magazines like Publisher's Weekly report regularly on agents and the deals they make--plus, you'll learn a lot about the publishing industry. Both are available in
libraries, or in shortened versions online. There are also some excellent free electronic newsletters, such as Publisher's Lunch.
Some Practical Advice on Querying
1. Queries should be precisely targeted.
Pick only agents whose interests and specialties are a good match for
your work (apart from the fact that you're more likely to find representation this way, it's simply a waste of time and postage to query an agent if
your work doesn't match his/her tastes). Be sure to take the future shape
of your writing into account--ideally, your agent won't represent just this one book, but your writing career as a whole.
2. Use up-to-date sources. Print market guides
are expensive. I often hear from writers who've picked up a two- or three-year-old
edition at a used bookstore as a way to save money. But things change fast
in publishing, and even a year-old guide may contain a lot of outdated information.
Bite the bullet and spring for a new copy.
3. Be businesslike. Your
query letter is your chance to snag an agent's attention. It needs to
provide a dynamic and intriguing snapshot of your work--but remember that
it's also a business document. Keep it professional, and keep it brief (a
single page if possible). Really unusual or inventive or passionate query
letters that break the business mold can also work, if you're able to write
them--but not many people can. Unless you're really sure you have the skill
to carry this off, stick to a business format.
4. Pay attention to the agent's submission requirements.
How-to-write books often give general guidelines for what to send (query
letter, synopsis, first three chapters). This is fine when an agent doesn't
have specific preferences--but many do, and don't want to see all of this
initially. Sending a submission that doesn't conform to agents' stated preferences may provide a good reason to set your submission aside. Also, don't send
submissions electronically unless the agent's guidelines specifically say
you can do so. Most agents still want to receive work in hard copy, via snail
On a related note: keep it plain. Fancy packaging such as colored
paper or elaborate binders, or extras such as author photos or mockups of
your book cover, are not welcome. They will make your submission stand out--in
the wrong way.
5. Spread a wide net. If an agent asks for your entire manuscript, s/he
will often request an exclusive reading, but you can query and/or send partials to as many agents as you want.
6. Be bold. Query every agent who might be appropriate,
no matter how established and successful they may be. Many new writers limit
their queries to small or new or never-heard-of-'em agencies because they
believe, or have been told, that established agents don't work with first-time
writers. But this is the best way of getting stuck with a scammer or incompetent.
Certainly it's hard to attract the attention of an established agent.
But while agents do sometimes close to new submissions (if their lists
are full, for instance), no agent worth his or her salt will turn away
a promising manuscript simply because the writer has never published anything
before. Agents' lists are always in flux: writers move on, retire, die,
or crash and burn. An agent who isn't willing to look for new talent will soon
be out of business. Plus, agents are well aware that future literary stars
and bestsellers often come from the ranks of the previously unpublished.
A quick check of the news and reviews in trade magazines like Publishers Weekly will show how many writers are selling
first novels via well-established agents.
Here's another way to look at it. If you wanted to put your home on the market,
would you use a real estate agent who'd been trying for years but had never
actually managed to sell a house? It's no different with literary agents.
You want someone with demonstrated competence--i.e., a verifiable track record
of commercial sales. If an agent has been in business for some time and has
no real track record (or won't share sales information--a major red flag)
it's a strong indication that she doesn't have the skills or the contacts
needed to get editors' attention. And if she isn't having much luck selling
her other clients' work, the odds she'll sell yours are pretty slim.
Many writers believe that the words "literary agent" on a letterhead is a guarantee
of editors' attention, and that having an agent--any agent--will automatically
open doors that are closed to unagented writers. But this really isn't so. Editors
are well aware of how many incompetent and/or fraudulent agents
there are; it's one of many reasons they prefer to work with agents they
know, either personally or by reputation. Unknown agents may receive a little
more attention than unagented writers, but not much. And if--as many amateur
or fraudulent agents do--the agent uses obviously unprofessional methods (submitting
substandard or inappropriate material, "blitz" submitting to a dozen or more
editors at once, using form letters, using the client's own query letter,
including a "marketing" plan with a novel submission, "bundling" several
queries in a single submission...the list goes on) the editor will immediately
tag them as questionable and toss their submission onto the slush pile.
So do query that successful agent--not just because you can, but
because he's the only kind of agent worth having.
7. On a related note--be careful with new agents.
First-time writers are often advised to query new agents just setting
up shop, since these agents are usually actively looking to build their lists. This is good advice, with one caveat: not all new agents are created equal.
Contacts and an inside knowledge of the publishing industry are essential.
Someone with these assets will probably start making sales right away,
but someone who's coming to agenting from a non-publishing-related field
is going to have a much tougher time getting up to speed--if indeed they
If you're thinking of querying a new agent, make sure s/he has either
solid commercial publishing experience (as an editor, say), or has previously worked
for another (reputable) agency. Make sure also that s/he really is new--in
business a year or less--and not just using a "new to the business" claim
to cover up several years of pitiful track records (a common tactic among
incompetent agents). As a general rule of thumb, a new agent should begin
making sales within six months to a year of starting up.
Resources Mentioned in This Article
The Association of Authors' Representatives. The professional trade group for US agents. Their website hosts a membership roster and the AAR Canon of Ethics.
The Association of Authors' Agents. The professional trade group for UK agents. Their website hosts a membership roster and the AAA Code of Practice.
Agent Research & Evaluation News. Informative articles on agents and the deals they make.
Publishers Weekly. The online version of the print magazine, very useful for news about agents and publishing in general. It's mainly US-focused, but covers international publishing as well.
Publishing News Online. Also the online version of the print magazine. Comprehensive news about the UK market.
Publisher's Lunch. A fantastic free newsletter that provides the most up-to-date information about the publishing world. A feature is the weekly Deal Lunch, which covers recent agent/publisher deals.
Publishers Marketplace. An extensive professional website
where many established agents have listings. Apart from the AAR and the AAA, this is the most reliable agent listing on the Internet; but as with all Internet listings, there are a few bad eggs.
Writer Beware. I maintain this website for SFWA. There's detailed information about literary agents here, as well as sections on book doctors, subsidy publishers, contests, copyright, electronic rights, and online publication.
Preditors & Editors. Agent listings, with notations as to which agents aren't recommended.
Agent Research & Evaluation Verification Service. Another place to check up on agents. AR&E will search their database for sales the agent has made, and let you know if there've been any complaints.
Landing an Agent. This article by science fiction author Robert Sawyer includes advice on querying plus a list of agents who represent SFWA members.
The Complete Nobody's Guide to Query Letters. An excellent article on crafting query letters, from author Lynn Flewelling.
Order Books Mentioned in This Article
Writer's Guide to Book Editors,
Publishers, and Literary Agents, by Jeff Herman
Guide to Literary Agents, by Rachel Vater
and Artists' Yearbook
Literary Agents: A Writer's Introduction,
by John Baker
Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, and a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site. Her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. She’s an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website. She welcomes visitors to her own website: http://www.victoriastrauss.com.
Used with Permission Copyright 1999-2012 Victoria Strauss