How to Find, Research and Evaluate Literary Agents
Caitlin Jans is the founding editor of Authors Publish, a poet, and a novelist. Her writing can be found in literary journals and anthologies, including The Conium Review, The Moth, The Labletter, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and The Adroit Journal. You can follow her on Facebook.
In this post, she reveals what goes into finding an agent that's a perfect fit.
Every author knows the value of an agent. None of the Big 5 publishers will consider a manuscript without a literary agent, for instance (although some of their imprints do). Having an agent on your side can also stop your work from ending up in the slush pile — and they can help you work out a bigger advance during your negotiations for a book deal.
However, it’s important to note that not all agents are equal, and they don't all work in the best interests of their author. That’s why doing good research when it comes to seeking out representation is vital: there’s no point going through all the work of writing your manuscript and sending out a dozen query letters, only to end up with an agent that doesn’t properly represent you or your manuscript. Even an agent that could be a good fit for another one of your manuscripts might not be the right agent for this particular project.
So what exactly should you do to end up with the right agent? In this post, we’ll walk through everything you might want to know about finding, researching, and evaluating agents.
Part 1: How to Find Potential Agents
The first step of researching agents is always the same: you need to find them first. So where can we find this elusive creature in the vast world of books? There are several ways to go about this.
Use Agent Query and Query Tracker
One is to use an Agent Query or Query Tracker. This is the way many authors find the agents that end up representing them. Both search engines have lots of filters, so it’s easy to look for agents that focus on your genre of writing. You should always double-check by other means that they actually do focus on that genre, but we’ll get into that later.
Find out who represents other titles in your genre
Another method — and the one with which I personally have found the best leads — is to read books in the same genre that you write in. When you come across a book or an author you like, figure out who their agent is. Often the agent is specifically thanked in the Acknowledgements section of the book. If they aren't, searching for the name of the author in Google + the word "agent" will often get you the results.
Engage in forums and attend conferences
I also use Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum to find agents. Usually I look just by browsing the Agents and Publishers forum. I always keep my eye out for the longer threads spanning multiple pages: that could be either a good or a bad sign.
You can also attend literary conferences, which is another place that agents gather. There are various ways to communicate with them, or pitch to them, during the conference. If you are attending a conference specifically to seek representation, research the agents beforehand to see if you would actually want to work with them (and them with you — most agents focus on a specific genre). Remember to approach with caution any sessions that charge you an additional fee to pitch.
Now that you’ve got a list of names, it’s time to make sure that they’re worthy of your manuscript. Let’s move onto the next section: vetting agents.
Part 2: How to Research a Potential Agent
You can learn a lot about an agent or an agency just by browsing their website. However, I find that it can color my perspective too much, so I always research the agent outside of their website first.
Double-check the forums
I already mentioned the Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum above as a potential way to find agents — but I also use it to vet agents and publishers. This forum is active and gets a lot of use: if an author has a good or bad experience with an agent, they often will share it.
Because it’s a forum and everyone can post, you sometimes have to take entries with a grain of salt. But there is a lot of good information to be had there. (For instance, some important people in the industry chime in from time to time: Victoria Strauss, the co-founder of Writer Beware, actively posts on this particular forum.) If an agent or agency isn't discussed at all in the forum, it is usually because they are new, small, or not very active. This in and of itself can be a clear sign, although there are exceptions.
Google the agency or agent
Many times, it’s as simple as a Google search. You can sometimes gauge the quality of an agent by the places where they pop up online: for instance, if an agent is mentioned on author websites (helpful), or an agency is maligned on Glassdoor (not a good sign).
A word of caution: a write-up in Publishers Weekly can be a good thing, but they also write a lot of "puff pieces" about agents and publishing houses, so I try not to take them too seriously. Wikipedia, as most people already know, is not generally a trustworthy source in this area, either.
In any case, the first and most important step is to make sure the agency isn't on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agencies List. At this point, I almost have the list memorized. Writer Beware (a volunteer organization that works on behalf of writers) also has a terrific section on dishonest agents, so be sure to check that out.
Part 3: How to Evaluate a Potential Agent
Since it’s all about fit, this is the part where you make sure that a potential agent is right for your book. You should keep an open mind, but be sure to watch out for the warning signs below.
Assess their past record
In my experience, the clearest and best indicator of a legitimate agency is their track record. This includes the authors they work with and the books they represent. Somebody who’s established and reputable will feature the names of authors they’ve represented right on their website, although you should make sure that these books and names are currently relevant.
It is absolutely vital that an agent be active in the genre that you hope to publish in. If they are not, they don’t understand how that genre works — and often don't have the relevant connections that will help your book be considered by the right publishers. If they say that they accept your genre, but have not represented any books in that genre, I would approach with caution.
It’s a good sign if the agent is a member of a professional literary agents’ organization. That in and of itself isn't a stamp of approval — it’s just an indicator that they are probably competent. Make sure the organization they list is relevant. For instance, an association with a local writing group is not relevant, and neither is a general local business association.
Finally, new agents can be good, although they are more of a risk because they don't have a track record. You should only consider submitting to a new agent if they have industry experience, and their website should clearly list their credentials.
Watch out for warning signs
Steer clear of any agent who charges an upfront fee. That is a clear indicator that they are not a legitimate agent.
The same goes for agents who offer editing services for a fee. For example, you’ll find that several of the freelance editors listed on Reedsy are also literary agents. However, they never mention their freelance editorial practice on their agency website.
This is because the different businesses ideally should remain separate. A number of successful agents now run publishing companies and have editing services — but an author taken on by the agent should not be offered a contract by that agent’s publishing company or be encouraged to use that agent’s paid editorial services. Sometimes this multi-business approach is clear on the agent’s site itself. Other times, Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum will mention it. Always look for fees and signs of multiple businesses or redirection on the website.
Researching agents might seem overwhelming at first, but the good news is the more you do it, the easier it becomes! You’ll find that you pick up warning signs much quicker as your knowledge of the industry expands.
Because it’s important to keep track of the research one does (not to mention the submissions one makes), I have two files on my computer devoted to agents and publishers:
- The first file includes notes about the agents and publishers I am considering submitting to, as well as a list of agencies and publishers I do not want to consider in the future.
- The other file tracks my submissions to agents and publishers. It indicates the responses I have received and how long it took to receive them. If I received a request for a full manuscript before receiving a rejection, I make sure to indicate that.
These two files help the submission process immensely, so I recommend you keep similar ones.
By the end of the research process, I probably dismiss about half of the agents I’m initially interested in. Or I put them in a document on my computer with notes about what I liked and didn't like about them, so that I can review them for potential submission at a later date. Of course, you’re not always going to hit jackpot every single time — but if you put enough time and effort into looking, you’ll get that much closer.
Do you have any questions for Caitlin, or thoughts to share about your experience searching for agents? Leave them in the comments below!