The Safest Way to Search for an Agent

Researching literary agents is complicated enough without having to worry about whether or not the agent is reputable. Unfortunately, you do have to worry. Too many agents engage in abuses–charging upfront fees, participating in kickback referral schemes, urging writers to pay for expensive adjunct services, even steering clients into the clutches of vanity publishers–for you to assume that every agent you encounter is equally honest and skilled.

Not all abusive agents are scammers–some are just inexperienced or incompetent. They may not understand that offering paid editing services to clients is a conflict of interest. Their track records may be so dismal that they can only keep their businesses afloat by charging upfront fees. Either way, though, the bottom line for writers is the same: a lighter bank account and no sale. Writer Beware, the publishing industry watchdog group that I co-founded with fellow author Ann Crispin, has gathered documentation on hundreds of such agents.

Most writers know the basic agent-hunting drill: assemble a list of prospects, prepare and polish a synopsis, write a dynamite query letter, send out submissions…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 good market resource. This could be one of the many print market guides–such as Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents or Writer’s Market (for the US market); Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or Writer’s Handbook (for the UK market); Canadian Writer’s Market; and Australian Writer’s Marketplace–or a reliable online resource such as Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, or QueryTracker.

Make sure to use more than one resource, because all have a different mix of information (and some can be out of date). If you write in a particular genre, there may be a resource that specializes in your area.

Unfortunately, I’ve never encountered a market resource that doesn’t include at least some questionable agents, who slip in despite the resource’s best efforts–so don’t assume that a listing in a respected market resource is proof of an agent’s honesty or competence. To protect yourself, follow the steps below.

What not to do: Don’t type “literary agent” into a search engine. This is guaranteed to turn up scammers, some of whom buy sponsored ads or use Google Adwords. And don’t ask for agent recommendations on writers’ forums or social media. There are plenty of knowledgeable people on the Internet, but there are also plenty who don’t know what they’re talking about and are eager to pass on misinformation. You may also make yourself a target for unscrupulous web-trollers who want to sell you something you don’t need. (For a more detailed discussion, see my blog post, Using Caution on the Internet.)

2. Use the information in the resources to make a list of agents who are appropriate for your work. This list can be as large as you like (but see #1 in the “Practical Advice” section, below).

3. Expand your list by identifying books you think resemble yours, and finding out who agents them. 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 an industry magazine such as Publishers Weekly, which regularly reports on who’s selling what to whom.

If you’re a genre writer there are even more resources–for instance, Locus magazine reports on US science fiction/fantasy/horror sales.

4. Check your list against the membership rosters of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (USA), the Association of Authors’ Agents (UK), or the Australian Literary Agents’ Association (Australia). You can obtain these rosters by visiting the AAR website, the AAA website, and the ALAA website. Membership in these organizations is one indication of reputability, since agents must meet competency requirements in order to join, and must abide by a code of practice that excludes some common abuses, such as referral kickback schemes.

Membership in one of these associations is not an infallible guarantee of quality–Writer Beware has received serious complaints about some AAR members–nor is any particular AAR, AAA, or ALAA member necessarily the right agent for you (a very different, but equally important, issue–again, see the “Practical Advice” section, below). But you’re certainly safest if you give AAR, AAA, or ALAA member agents priority on your query list.

5. Place a question mark beside any agent who isn’t a member. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the agent isn’t reputable. Some countries don’t have trade associations for agents–and even in countries that do, successful agents may choose not to join, or haven’t been in business long enough to fulfill the membership requirements. Still, it’s wise to do some extra research on agents who aren’t AAR, AAA, or ALAA members.

6. For agents with a question mark, do any or all of the following:

- E-mail me.  I’ll check Writer Beware’s archives, and let you know if we’ve received any complaints.

- Search 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.

- Search the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler writers’ community. This is a major source for information on the reputation of agents (and others).

- Follow the steps in my article, “Researching an Agent’s Track Record,” which offers tips on finding out about agents’ track records and reputations.

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 that 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 information you find on the Internet or in market guides.

7. Some additional recommendations:

- 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.

- Educate yourself about the publishing industry! This is incredibly important. I’m constantly amazed by the number of writers who start submitting without first taking the time to learn how things work in the strange and complicated world of publishing. Knowledge is your best defense–without it, you’re far more likely to fall into the clutches of a dishonest or incompetent agent, or to waste your time querying inappropriate people.

For some suggestions on how to start the learning process, see my blog post, Learning the Ropes.

Some Practical Advice on Querying

1. Target your queries as precisely as possible. Pick only agents whose interests and specialties are a good match for your manuscript (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. Online resources are likely to be regularly updated (as long as they’re reputable and their staff is conscientious), but print materials fall quickly out of date. I often hear from writers who’ve picked up a two- or three-year-old market guide at a used bookstore in order to save money. Things change fast in publishing, and even a year-old guide may contain outdated information. Bite the bullet and spring for a new copy.

3. Be businesslike. In the UK, where agents commonly ask for a synopsis and writing samples as part of a submission package, query letters are not a big deal. Typically, UK agents just want a brief covering letter, with title, word count, and genre, a short, straightforward description of your book (as in a couple of sentences), your contact info, and a description of your writing credits, if you have any.

In the US, on the other hand, tremendous emphasis is placed on the query letter. Often a query is all an agent wants to see initially, so the query may be your one chance to snag the agent’s attention. You need to provide a dynamic and intriguing snapshot of your work, via a dramatic one- or two-paragraph synopsis.

Remember, however, that a query letter is also a business document. Keep it professional, and keep it brief (a single page if possible). Offbeat and unconventional query letters can also work, if you’re able to create 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 guidelines may provide a good reason to set your submission aside.

On a related note: keep it basic. Fancy packaging such as colored paper or elaborate binders (if the agent wants paper submissions), or extras such as author photos or mockups of your book cover, will make your submission stand out–but not in the right way.

5. Spread a wide net. If an agent asks for your entire manuscript, she 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 for your work, no matter how successful. 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 not only is this a myth, it’s pretty much a guarantee of getting stuck with a dishonest or incompetent agent.

Certainly it’s hard to attract the attention of an established agent. But no agent worth his or her salt will turn away a promising manuscript simply because the writer has never published anything before. Agents’ client lists are constantly in flux–writers move on, retire, die, or stop selling–and an agent who isn’t on the alert for new talent will soon be out of business. Successful agents are also 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 provide a good demonstration of 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 employ a real estate agent who’d been trying for years but had never actually managed to sell a house? Or one who’d was just starting out and on top of that had no relevant training? It’s no different with literary agents. You want someone with demonstrated competence, either in the form of a verifiable track record of commercial sales or prior professional experience in the publishing industry.

If an agent has been in business for a couple of years and has no real track record (or won’t share sales information–a major red flag) it’s a strong indication that he doesn’t have the skills or the contacts needed to get editors’ attention. And if he isn’t having much luck selling his other clients’ work, the odds that he’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. But this truly 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, 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 aside.

So do query that top agent–not only because you can, but because a successful, skilled agent is only kind of agent worth having.

7. Be careful with new agents. First-time writers are often advised to query agents who are just setting up shop, since these agents are usually actively looking to build their client 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 for success. 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 or trained with 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 about a year of starting up.

Resources Mentioned in This Article

The Association of Authors’ Representatives.  The professional trade group for US agents. The 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.

The Australian Literary Agents’ Association. The professional trade group for Australian agents. The website includes a membership roster, a Code of Practice, and an extensive list of writers’ resources

Publishers Weekly covers US and international publishing. A prime source for publishing news and information.

The Bookseller offers comprehensive news about the UK publishing market.

Publisher’s Lunch is a daily e-mail newsletter with all the latest news about publishing worldwide. A full subscription costs, but the “lite” version is still free. A feature is the weekly Deal Lunch, which covers recent agent/publisher deals.

Publishers Marketplace is an extensive professional website where many established agents have listings (as usual, though, there are a few bad eggs). You can view the listings without a subscription, but with a subscription you get access to a tremendous amount of news and information about agents, publishers, and recent deals. Membership is pricey–but in my opinion, this is one of the few resources that’s worth the money.

AgentQuery is an agent listing site whose owners are careful about vetting the agents they include (one of the few such listings that Writer Beware recommends).

QueryTracker is a similarly reliable resource.

The Writer Beware website offers detailed information on the wide variety of schemes, scams, and pitfalls that threaten writers.

Writer Beware’s blog supplements the information on the Writer Beware website, offering lively, up-to-the-minute coverage of scams, schemes, and issues of importance for writers.

Preditors & Editors provides agent and publisher listings, with notations indicating those who are not recommended due to fee-charging and other abuses.

The Absolute Write Water Cooler’s Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check forum is a popular online writers’ community where writers discuss agents, publishers, independent editors, and others, and post information and/or warnings.

Researching an Agent’s Track Record. My article suggests a procedure for researching agents’ track records, and offers a number of resources to help.

For US writers, some excellent resources on crafting query letters:

- A discussion at Absolute Write that links to examples of successful queries.

- Joshua Palmatier’s Query Project also links to successful queries.

- A comprehensive resource on creating query letters, from author and editor Jane Friedman.

- Advice from Miriam Goderich of Dystel & Goderich on writing the perfect query.

- How to Write a Query, from AgentQuery.com.

- A query letter tutorial from author Anne Mini.

For UK writers, helpful information on approaching agents from The Writers’ Workshop, including examples of good and bad covering letters.

First published in Writer Online, 1999

Updated version copyright © 2012 Victoria Strauss. MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.