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.
Imagine this scenario: you’ve just completed your manuscript — and you’re overjoyed because a literary agent’s said yes to representing it. But months pass and it’s only then that you discover that your book isn’t being pitched correctly to publishers.
That’s why doing good research when it comes to agents is vital. Literary agents are one of the major players in the publishing world — and finding the right one could make your book sink or swim. It can be a time-consuming process, but I would never submit to a literary agent without first doing significant research. There’s no point going through all the work of writing your manuscript and submitting, only to end up with an agent that doesn’t properly represent you or your manuscript.
In this post, we’ll go through three easy steps to make sure that this doesn’t happen to you. But first, you should ask yourself: does a literary agent really align with your literary ambitions?
HOT TIP: To discover how to write a query letter that actually gets agents' eyes, check out this complete guide. Or, if you're a nonfiction author who's looking to write a book proposal for agents? Go this way.
Do you need a literary agent?
Before you sink a lot of your time into finding a literary agent, you should first figure out if you absolutely need one. (Hint: the answer is that it depends on the book that you’re writing.)
Let’s take a look at both cases, and which situation fits you best.
The case for no agent...
If you’re writing a niche book, you may be able to skip the frustrating process of acquiring a literary agent altogether. Let’s say, for instance, that your book is about the history of the Bishop Rock, the world’s smallest uninhibited island. Since this book likely won’t sell that many copies (which means that an agent won’t be able to make much money from the commission), it probably won’t attract much attention from literary agents and you may want to shop it directly to relevant academic presses.
For anyone who’s writing mainstream fiction, you might be gratified to know that the publishing world is much bigger than the biggest publishing houses: publishers such as digital-only publishers, small presses, and independent publishers, for instance, will look at books without agents. Even a few imprints of the Big 5 publishers do accept unsolicited manuscripts, such as:
- Loveswept and Flirt, of Random House
- Alibi, of Random House
- Tor, of Macmillan
- DAW, of Penguin
However, your chances of getting past the slush piles are higher with an agent. Which brings me to why you might want an agent.
The case for an agent
Of course, if you’re writing in genre or mainstream fiction, your situation is a little different: a literary agent might be your make-or-break card. Having an agent on your side can stop your work from ending up in the slush pile — and they can help you negotiate a bigger advance or a better share of royalties once you’ve nailed down your book deal.
In addition, all of the Big 5 publishers won't consider manuscripts without a literary agent (although some of their imprints do, as I mentioned earlier). So if your goal is get published by a publishing house like HarperCollins, Hachette, or Simon & Schuster, it’s critical for you to find an agent who can competently shop around your book to the appropriate editor.
However, this is easier said than done. It’s important to note that not all agents are equal, and not all agents work in the best interests of their author. So what exactly should you do to end up with the right agent?
How to find literary agents
An agent who could be a good fit for another author — or even another one of your manuscripts — might not be the right agent for this particular project. Meanwhile, there are bad agents out there who could misrepresent you in any number of ways.
That said, the first step of researching agents is always the same: it involves finding agents who are worth investigating even further.
1. Locate a pool of literary agents who work in your niche
Don’t be afraid that you won’t be able to find any agents. Literary agents want to be found by the right authors. Your job is to find the right one for you and your book. Many successful agents are part of a larger agency: be conscious that when you’re submitting to an agency, you often submit to individual agents that work there.
The first thing you can do is check 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. Of course, you should verify 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
Don’t forget 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. To do this:
- Check the Acknowledgements section of the book. Nine out of ten times, the agent will specifically thanked there.
- Do a Google search for the [name of the author] + [the word ‘agent’].
Engage in forums and attending conferences
Literary conferences are another place that agents gather. When attending a conference specifically to seek agents, research the agents beforehand to see if you would actually want to work with them (and they with you — most agents focus on a specific genre). And approach with caution any sessions that charge you an additional fee to pitch.
If you live too far away from any conferences, don’t fret: the Internet exists! The Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum could be your answer: it’s an active forum that stores the collective (and top-notch) knowledge of many writers and publishers. Usually I look just by browsing the Agents and Publishers forum. I always keep my eye out for the longer threads spanning multiple pages: which could be either a good or a bad sign.
Finally, new agents can be good, although they are more of a risk because they don't have a track record. However, you should only consider submitting to a new agent if they have industry experience. They should make it very clear what experience they have on their website.
2. Vet the agent through lots of research
Now that you have a base of literary agents to which to refer, it’s time to whittle them down.
In my experience, the clearest and best indicator of a legitimate agent or agency (that could place your book with a good publisher) is their track record. This includes the authors with which they work and the books they represent. The most obvious place to do this might be the agent or agency’s homepage: somebody who’s established and reputable will feature the names of authors they’ve represented right on their website (though you should make sure that these books and names are currently relevant).
However, I find that that can color my perspective too much, and so I always research the agent outside of their website first.
I find that one of the best ways to tackle this is to head again over to the Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum. I mentioned it already as a potential way to find agents — but I also use it to vet agents and publishers. The forums are active and get a lot of use: if an author has a good or bad experience with an agent, they’ll 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 — and many important people in the industry also chime in. And 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, and that itself can be a clear sign, although there are exceptions.
Next, do a thorough Google search of the specific agent. You can sometimes gauge the quality of agents by the places where they pop up online: say, if an agent is mentioned on author websites (helpful), or an agency is maligned on Glassdoor (not a good sign). Speaking of bad signs...
I can’t emphasize this enough: one of the most important steps 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.
While we’re on the subject of caution, keep in mind that 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. Wikipedia (as most people already know) is not generally a trustworthy source in this area, either!
3. Evaluate the individual agent
Now it’s all down to fit. Throughout this stretch of the process, you should be asking yourself: is this agent (who I’ve confirmed is good) the right person for my book? You should keep an open mind as you mentally check off the below questions:
- Does the agent accept books in my genre?
- Have they represented books in my genre?
- Are they currently active in my genre?
As you might be able to guess, it’s 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 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 is not 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 the local writing group is not relevant, and neither is a general local business association.
Again, 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.
Researching agents might seem overwhelming at first. But the good news is the more you do it, the easier it becomes! Spending a lot of time researching agents helps, and so does spending time reading Writers Beware. You’ll pick up warning signs much quicker as you expand your knowledge of the industry.
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.
As a final note: don’t get discouraged if you don’t immediately find the right match. Over half of the agents I research in the genre I write in, I dismiss after researching. 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 for potential submission at a later date. You’re not always going to hit jackpot every single time — but if you research enough, you’ll certainly 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!