Researching an Agent's Track Record

Research is the name of the game, whether you’re searching for a contractor to put a new roof on your house or a literary agent to represent your book manuscript. How do you research a contractor? You check references. You make sure the company has experience doing jobs like yours. You verify that there are no outstanding complaints.

Your book deserves the same consideration.

Before submitting a query, a smart author will carefully research the literary agents s/he has targeted. Aside from the obvious–you should only approach agents who have an interest in the sort of work you’re trying to sell–there’s another compelling reason to verify an agent’s reputation before (rather than after) you submit: you don’t want to wind up fending off the attentions of an incompetent or fraudulent agent.

The Procedure

Start with a solid 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, QueryTracker, or AuthorAdvance.

These resources should provide not just agents’ names and addresses, but details about their interests, specialties, and submission requirements, so you can decide if your work and their expertise are a good match. Often, representative recent sales will be listed.

It’s also a good idea to expand your search by picking books you think are similar to yours in subject, theme, genre, and/or style, and finding out who agents them. This can be as simple as looking through the book’s acknowledgments–authors often mention their agents by name. Or you may have to poke around a bit on the Internet. A search on the author’s name or the name of the book may bring up the author’s website, or news articles in which the author’s agent is mentioned.

Once you’ve assembled a list of appropriate agents, you’re ready to do some checking.

First, look for warnings from other writers or publishing industry watchdog groups. After all, why would you consider an agent who’s been the focus of author complaints? The Preditors and Editors website warns about questionable agents; you can also contact Writer Beware, which tracks questionable agents and maintains a large database of information.

You can also search the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler writers’ community–this is a major source of information on the reputation of agents (and others). Google Groups, a searchable database of Usenet messages, is also worth checking–writers sometimes post questions about agents to Usenet, and the answers they receive can be informative.

If everything looks okay, try a web search. It’s a good idea to search both on the agency’s name and the name of the individual agent. If the agent has a common name you can minimize irrelevant results by adding “agent” or “literary” to your search terms.

What you’re looking for is evidence of a track record of commercial book sales–i.e., proof that the agent is professionally competent. If the agent has a website, the information should include lists of clients and recent sales (be wary of an agent whose website does not provide this information). You may also find news items about the agent and his/her sales, writers’ conferences the agent has attended (conference websites often include informative bios of attendees), interviews the agent has conducted in which s/he mentions clients, and so on.

Another trick: the Advanced Search feature on Amazon.com. Set your search for Books. Click the Advanced Search tab and type the agent’s name into the Keywords box (don’t use quotes). If the agent has a common name, refine your search by adding the word “agent.” Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature will bring up text references from books’ front or backmatter–such as authors’ mentions of their agents in their acknowledgments or agents’ entries in various market guides.

Google Books, which also allows you to search the text of a large number of digitized books, is another good resource. Simply type the agent’s name into the search box (do use quotes for this search), and if the author has mentioned the agent in his or her acknowledgments (and if the book is included in Google’s database), a listing will come up.

Be sure to do some further research if you don’t recognize the names of the publishers where the agent claims sales. Questionable agents sometimes list “sales” to vanity or questionable publishers. There’s also a growing number of marginal agents who specialize in placing clients with small presses that do most of their business with authors directly. You don’t need an agent to place a book with a publisher like this.

Other good places to search:

- Agents’ association websites. The USA, UK, and Australia have professional trade groups for agents. To join, agents must prove they’ve made sales, and agree to abide by a code of ethical practice. Some good agents choose not to be members of these organizations, so not finding an agent on the list doesn’t mean s/he isn’t reputable. But membership is a good indication of legitimacy.

- Trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly and The Bookseller, which regularly report on agents and their sales.

- Publisher’s Marketplace, a website where many established agents have detailed listings (as with any online agent listing, use caution: there are a few bad eggs here). A full membership is pricey, but agents’ listings can be viewed for free.

- AgentQuery, another useful online agent listing at a site whose owners are careful about vetting the agents they list.

- For genre writers: Speculative fiction writer Melinda Goodin has compiled science fiction, fantasy, and horror sales announcements from Locus magazine from 2004 to the present. This is a fantastic resource for checking agents’ track records. Romance writer Karen Fox maintains a similar list of recent romance deals.

- Publishers’ catalogs, which list frontlist and backlist books, often include information on agents (for links to catalogs, see below). Not all publishers put their catalogs online, but some do, and they are a treasure trove of information.

I’ve left till last the most obvious source of information: the agent him/herself. No agent is going to want to respond to an out-of-the-blue inquiry from an author s/he’s never heard of, but an agent who shows interest in you should be willing to answer a polite inquiry such as, “Can you give me a list of your most recent sales?” Refusal to provide this information, vagueness, or claims that sales information is confidential should prompt suspicion.

If Your Research Fails

What if your research turns up little or nothing? It’s possible that the agent is new, and is only beginning to build a track record, or that the agent is successful but prefers to keep a low profile. However, it’s also possible that the agent isn’t very good at selling books, or that he’s someone who makes his money from charging fees rather than from placing manuscripts.

If you do decide to query an agent about whom you can’t find much information, proceed with caution–and if the agent offers to represent you, don’t even consider accepting without asking for a list of recent sales. A reputable agent should be willing to respond with concrete, verifiable information (author, book title, and publisher–not just a client list or a string of publishers’ names). An agent who refuses to answer, or chastises you for asking the question, is one you want to avoid.

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.

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.

AuthorAdvance: also a reliable resource.

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.

Google Groups hosts thousands of Usenet messages. Many writers have posted complaints about agents here.

Google Books allows you to do a text search of the digitized books in Google’s book catalog. Authors’ acknowledgments of their agents may show up here.

Amazon’s Advanced Search feature lets you do a similar text search of books in the “Look Inside the Book” program.

Locus magazine reports on science fiction, fantasy, and horror sales.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror sales announcements from Locus, compiled by Melinda Goodin

Romance deals, compiled by Karen Fox

Publishers’ Catalogs:

- Random House catalogs (includes Ballantine Bantam Dell, Del Rey, Spectra, and Random House)
- Beacon Press catalogs
- Macmillan catalogs (includes Tor, Farrar Straus, and St. Martins)
- Kensington Books catalogs (includes Kensington, Zebra, Citadel, and Pinnacle)
- Hachette Book Group catalogs (includes Little, Brown, Grand Central, and Orbit)
- Penguin UK catalogs

First published in The Bare Bones, 2002

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