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
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
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
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
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;
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.
affiliations: If you want to be even more prescriptive, use the
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
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
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
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.
uses English spelling conventions.
Spellings such as "realise"
differ from other spelling conventions
but are nonetheless correct.
Poems sought for anthology A poetry anthology called Sushi Sandwich is being
compiled in support and celebration of the Anglo-Japanese exchange visit being
organised by Grange-over-Sands Primary School in Spring 2007.
Submissions are invited from poets and artists
from around the world. Contributions should be sent to Sushi Sandwich, c/o 1
Cartmel Rise, Grange-over-Sands,UK LA11 7JN, United Kingdom.
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