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Finding and Choosing Literary Agents
By Harold Underdown
Let people know:
You have decided that you need an agent, but how do you find one? This is a basic guide to help you through this difficult process. It's based on what I have learned as an editor and heard from the authors and illustrators I know during almost 20 years working in children's book publishing. The principles apply to all other areas of publishing (and if you're an illustrator, to looking for an artist's representative). Before you embark on your search, though, you may want to consider whether you really need one, because in some cases it can be harder to find an agent than a publisher.
In your search, you need to do two things: research the agents who work in your area of publishing, and determine if they are qualified and a good match for you.
(If you are not sure you need an agent, then read up on agents in my Guide to Agents, which will also tell you more about what an agent does).
If you want to do a thorough search, the best way to start is with a book. Use a well-known market guide, which will have a section on agents, or a guide that specializes in agents. For example, you might start with Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, Writer's Market, or a similar guide in another area. Find the agents who are open to submissions, and who work in your area. For example, if you write science fiction novels, an agent who specializes in romance novels will not want to represent you. Add to your list with other resources, if they come from reputable sources, such as agentquery.com, a searchable online database of agents, the resources available through the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, or the subscription-only online version of Writer's Market, writersmarket.com. For a more complete list of resources, see Resources Listing Literary Agents and Artist's Representatives. And you might also want to consider the advice of agent Jill Corcoran in her excellent piece about researching agents.
You will end up with a fairly small list of possible agents. That's OK. Better a short list of good possibilities than a long list of unlikely possibilites. You can make it longer by:
* getting involved in local writer's groups. Eventually, you will know enough other writers that you will start to hear about people's agents and what they are like to work with.
* looking for mentions of agents in writer's magazines, such as interviews that will tell you more about particular agents, or announcements of someone setting up shop as an agent.
* meeting agents at conferences. Agents often attend writer's conferences. If the conference is small, you may get a chance to talk to them. If it is large, you can still hear them talk, find out about their interests, and get a sense of them as a person.
Double-check agents at the Literary Agents section of Preditors and Editors. This is a comprehensive list of agents: ones who should be avoided have a not recommended notation. Sometimes P&E won't have information about an agent; in that case, go to the Bewares and Background Check section of the "Absolute Write Water Cooler" and search the forum. If there's no discussion there already, start one.
No matter how desperate you feel, avoid agents advertising on the Internet. No agent who is successfully placing books with publishers needs to advertise (with one exception I will get to shortly)--even relatively new agents get all the clients they need through word of mouth and announcements in writer's magazines. The agents who are advertising are not traditional agents. They are agents who charge fees to their clients, serve as funnels to self-publishing services, and otherwise do not do what an agent should be expected to do. The one exception I have seen to this is that some legitimate illustrator's representatives advertise, but they do this to find work for their clients, not to find more clients.
Watch out in particular for several agencies that are part of The Literary Agency Group: they include The Children's Literary Agency, Stylus Literary Agency, and the New York Literary Agency. These companies do not function as true literary agencies--they don't make their money from commissions, but from fees of various kinds. Every source I have checked warns about them. Ignore them, even though you may see their ads on reputable web sites.
If you are willing to wait, another approach to finding an agent is to get published, and then approach agents. Indeed, by the time you have had a few books published, they will be coming to you. You'll meet agents at conferences, or hear about them from other authors and illustrators. When and if you reach that point, of course, you'll still want to choose your agent carefully.
Choosing an Agent
Qualifications: As you research agents, be sure to consider their qualifications. Being an agent is one of those professions for which there is no degree or certificate or exam. You could call yourself an agent, in fact. But calling yourself an agent would not make you one. So do not consider an agent qualified if they do not have experience either at an established literary agency, or at an established publishing company. If they do not, they probably do not know what they need to do as an agent, and do not have the contacts they will need to get started. Unqualified agents are the ones that resort to charging fees to stay in business, because they can't generate enough income from commissions.
You should be able to assume that agents listed in the sources I mention above are qualified, but it doesn't hurt to check. If you can't find information about an agent's background in books or other resources, contact them. If they have a background working for an agency or a publisher, they should be happy to tell you about it. Find out too about their current clients. Unless the agent is just starting out on their own after working for an agency or a publisher, they should be able to point to clients with published books. And those books should have been published by reputable companies, not self-published or published by companies of which you have never heard.
You can also simply visit their website. It should look professional, provide specific information, and tell you something about the agent. If you can't find out about an agent, or their web site seems to be full of hype rather than information, or the agent has no relevant background, then simply look elsewhere. There are plenty of good agents. I created three case studies to help you tell the difference between good agencies and the ones you will want to avoid:
Comfort level: In the end, all the research in the world won't tell you if you will feel comfortable with an agent. And that's important, because your agent is your agent for all of your books. You may have several editors, but you will have only one agent. So think about what you want in an agent. Do you want someone who is all business? Do you want someone who is warm and supportive? Do you want someone who will help you polish your manuscripts. or someone who will leave that up to an editor?
Of course, you may not have much choice, but if you do, try to get to know the agent before you make a commitment to working with them. Talk to current clients about them, if you can. Do a Google search on their name and see if you can find an interview. If you sign up with an agent and end up not feeling comfortable with them, don't fret. Try to work things out, but if you're just not a good match, most agency agreements allow for the relationship to be ended on reasonable notice.
Some Other Things to Consider
Agents who belong to the Association of Authors Representatives must follow a code of ethics, so membership in the AAR is a plus. How does an author find out which agents belong to the AAR? Write to the AAR:The Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc.For $7 (payable to AAR), and a SASE with 55 cents in postage, anyone may receive the AAR's package of info., which includes:
P.O. Box 237201
New York, New York 10003
- a list of agents who are AAR members
- a brochure about what agents can and can't do for authors
- a sample questionnaire to ask agents when considering working with them
- the canon of AAR ethics
Illustrators can contact the Society of Photographer and Artist Representatives for a list of members. To get it, please email Katharine Hunt, the Coordinator for SPAR, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should I Pay a Reading Fee?
In a newsgroup discussion about reading fees I made the facetious suggestion that if literary agents could charge reading fees, perhaps publishers should too, since that might help defray the costs involved in reading the thousands of submissions that some publishers receive annually. This provoked some outraged reactions, not surprisingly, and helped to clarify my point. Authors should no more have to buy access to publishers than they should to agents. Agents make money from commissions, and publishers make profits on their books, and the cost of finding new clients by reading manuscripts comes out of that. I suppose that reading fees for agents could be defended if agents made clear up front that they did it, and if they separated the reading they did for new clients--free but with no explanation if rejected--from the reading they did to support themselves--critiques for which the author had to pay. That way an author would not be buying access.
But of course it would be hard to maintain that separation and that is why the Association of Author's Representatives (which has about 300 members) has a policy prohibiting their members from charging reading fees, both to prospective clients and authors already represented. Jennie Dunham, an AAR member, kindly faxed me the text of the press release on the policy, which I regard as the final word on the subject.
Therefore, avoid "agents" charging reader's fees. For a cautionary tale, read Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell, which I discuss at the end of the disreputable agency case study.
For basic information about agents, read my Guide to Agents, which also has links to other agent-related pages on this site.
I would be happy to hear your suggestions for other resources, and your comments and suggestions on this article. Please contact me via the contact page.
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