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.

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.

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 I suggest you use more than one guide, because all have a different mix of information (and some can be out of date).

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 are listed.

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:
  • E-mail me. ( 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. 
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:
  • 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 mail.

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 ever do.

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

Writers' and Artists' Yearbook

Writer's Handbook

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:

Used with Permission Copyright 1999-2012 Victoria Strauss