Finding good literary agents
By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, firstwriter.com
firstwriter.com – Saturday November 25, 2006
In last month's article, Avoiding literary agency scams (fwn 44), we identified the warning signs to watch out for in order to avoid bad agents. In this article I'll be reversing the question and providing tips on how to find good agents.
The first thing you have to think about is the source or sources you're going to choose for finding your leads.
- Internet or print sources: You may hear a great deal of debate about whether it's better to search for agents in books or online, but really this is a meaningless distinction: it's like debating whether it's better to use hardback or paperback books – it doesn't have any bearing on the information inside. Print and online are merely different formats for delivering information – the critical thing is how the information is compiled, and by whom. Most print resources are now online as well anyway, and over the coming years print is likely to decline and disappear altogether. One day, the internet will be the only way to find this information, so it's worth getting to know how to use it effectively now.
- Knowing the internet's limitations: The one genuine difference between the internet and print publications is that anyone can put anything online very cheaply and easily, while a printed book is an expensive venture that has to go through a professional publishing company's publishing processes. This doesn't mean that all information provided online is bad, but it does mean that you need to be careful to select websites that are put together and maintained with a similar level of professionalism to traditional print publications. Usually, this means paying for the service on a site like firstwriter.com. We all hate paying for things online, but ultimately you're not going to get the same level of service from a free site maintained by amateurs who have neither the time, resources, or motivation to maintain it properly. The real distinction is not between print and online, but between paid-for and free. You pay for print and you pay for online services of equal quality, too.
- Know your source's listing criteria: Different directories will often take very different approaches to how they compile their listings: is it a list of recommended agencies? Or an encyclopaedic database including them all? Or something else? These different approaches are all valid, but it's important you know which approach your source takes, so you know how to approach the agencies it lists. For instance, firstwriter.com takes the encyclopaedic approach, and aims to provide information on all agencies. If you see an agency advertising on Google Adwords you should be able to find that agency on firstwriter.com to see from an impartial source whether or not it charges fees, etc. and see what other people in the community are saying about them. We have found that it's important to provide this information, as it helps people pick out scams. This has proved, in our experience, to be a better approach than simply trying to pretend the agency doesn't exist, but it means that you shouldn't assume listings in firstwriter.com – or any other directory – are "recommended" (though on firstwriter.com you can select criteria to exclude bad agencies – we'll come onto that later). Usually, directories no more check or recommend agencies than the Yellow Pages checks or recommends the builders or the plumbers they list.
- NEVER trust your source 100 per cent: Even if your source does claim (or aim) to exclude scams, never assume they've got it right. For many years, the print book The Writer's Handbook has included a listing for a notorious scam agency. The agency in question was even featured this year in an article in The Times on dubious literary agents – and yet the listing is still there in the new 2007 edition, apparently now trying the trick of suggesting editorial services to writers (see last month's article), instead of (or perhaps in addition to?) the £350 previously demanded of writers for representation. Not very inspiring.
- Use multiple sources: Wherever possible, use two or more sources and compare their information against each other. The more perspectives you have, the better. If you can only afford to subscribe to one service then firstwriter.com's user feedback feature can give an increased breadth of perspective.
- Your source is a starting point only: Whatever source you use – whether it is print or online; firstwriter.com or another site – never take that brief overview provided as the be-all and end-all of your research. It's a starting point only. You should ideally carry out further research before even approaching an agency, and certainly before signing with them (especially if you are being asked to make any kind of payment, including paying for editorial services). Before approaching them you should have checked out their website, familiarised yourself with their client list and the kinds of books they already handle (and preferably read some of them); and before signing with them you should have checked out their credentials: asked them for their professional background and a list of recent sales, and follow these up. Check the titles exist – check the agency in question really represented them – and check the publisher is a respectable one and not a vanity publisher. Search the internet to see if there are any suspicions being raised about them.
Using your source effectively
Perhaps predictably (as the person who created it, and spent five years developing it), I'd recommend firstwriter.com as the best tool for searching for agents. It's certainly what I would use, because I think it gives you the broadest range of possibilities. It gives you advantages over print publications because you can find things quickly and easily according to over a dozen different criteria, and it's updated daily, not yearly. It has advantages over other web listings because it includes valuable user feedback, giving a broader perspective on the agencies, and it has the flexibility to be used either as a research tool to check out individual agencies, or as a means of creating lists of appropriate (and reputable) agencies. If you're looking to create a list that excludes dubious agencies, there are a number of tips for creating the list you want:
- Tick "No Fees": If you're looking for a good agency to represent you then you should probably have this ticked all the time. This will weed out almost all the potential scammers.
- Industry affiliations: If you want to be even more prescriptive, use the "Advanced Search" option to select agencies that have industry affiliations, such as being part of the AAR (US) or AAA (UK). While there are lots of good agencies who choose not to be part of these industry bodies (for various reasons), those that are should be conforming to the codes of conduct required by these associations.
- Age of the agency: Scam agencies are normally short-lived. By using the "Advanced Search" option you can restrict your results to agencies founded prior to a certain year (note, however, that agencies with unknown dates of establishments will not be included in the results).
- Summary: When approaching agencies, you want to start with the safest bets and then work down as necessary. A good way of organising your searching might be to start off by looking for agencies with industry affiliations, who don't charge fees, and who have been established for at least ten years. Once you've used up all those leads, start reducing the establishment time (your first search might have been for agencies established between 1800 and 1996; your second might be for those established between 1996 and 1998, and so on).
Once your establishment time reaches zero then remove the requirement for industry affiliations and put the establishment time back up to ten years. Now you're looking for agencies who don't have industry affiliations, but who don't charge fees and have been around for more than ten years. Again, gradually reduce the establishment time to zero, so that in the end you're looking at all suitable agents who don't charge fees.
If by this point you still haven't had any luck then you may (or may not!) want to consider removing the requirement for no fees. If you do decide to do this, proceed with extreme caution, and bear in mind all the warning points from last month's article. Again, you probably want to start with agencies established more than ten years ago and work down, but it may well be better to go back to the drawing board and re-work your book, thinking about why all the other agencies have rejected it, than to start pursuing agencies this low down your list.
Screening your agent
If you do get accepted by an agent then resist the temptation to leap at the opportunity with both hands. Don't fall prey to flattery and keep your ego in check. Remember that having the wrong agent – even if they are honest – can be worse than no agent at all; and it's better never to have an agent, than to only ever have a scammer exploiting you for their personal gain. Before signing with any agency, make sure you are confident of not only their honesty, but also their competence, expertise, and ability to sell your book. Don't be afraid to decline representation if you are unsure on any of these points.
- Ask for credits: When an agency offers to represent you, always ask them for some of their credits. What have they sold recently, and to whom? If they refuse to provide you with this information, be on your guard.
- Check the credits: Once you get a list of credits, don't just take them at face value – check up on them. Make sure the books exist, and make sure the publishers are themselves respectable. What kind of publishers are they? Are they the kind of places you'd be happy for your book to end up? Does the presentation of the books match what you'd hope for your book? Even if an agent is honest, if they can only place books with second-rate publishers you may wish to think again. Try and check that the agency was actually involved in the sale of the books in question. If they were, they may get a mention somewhere in the foreword or inside cover. Otherwise, you could try contacting the publisher for confirmation. Finally, even if everything checks out, do the books they have sold have any similarity to your work? If not, are they the right agent for the job?
- Undercover checks: If you have suspicions about the honesty of an agency offering you representation you can use surreptitious means to investigate them. Try writing an approach so appalling no-one in their right mind would accept it, then submit it via a friend's email address under a different name. If that gets accepted as well, you know you're probably looking at a scam. In the past I've heard of people submitting a menu, and still receiving an offer to represent their "manuscript". I've even heard of someone sending a random message without any manuscript attached, and still received the same response commending their manuscript (that they didn't send) and offering to represent it.
- Take your time: Don't let an agency pressure you for an answer. Most scammers will think of some reason why they need a quick response that doesn't allow you time to investigate them properly. The more you're pressured for a response, the more careful you should be.
For more tips on screening your agent, see Jill Nagle's article in fwn 22, "Getting to know you: 8 questions to ask an interested agent". For tips on spotting scam agencies, see Avoiding literary agency scams (fwn 44). To search firstwriter.com's database of literary agencies, click here
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