In the United States, there is no government regulation on literary agents. Someone who calls himself an agent may be a godsend—or your worst nightmare.
Searching for literary agents can be tough, and the job is made tougher because most authors go about it in the wrong way. They very often look at listings of agents and don’t really know how to gauge an agent’s credentials.
I like to put agents into various categories:
1. Crooks. Some agents are literally scammers. I’ve known agents who bilk writers out of large sums of money in order to “represent” an author. A few years ago, one young man called me in tears because his agent wanted $12,000 to represent his novel—all the money he had in the world. Immediately I had to warn him that his agent was a fraud. Real agents don’t charge money up front. Remember: agents get paid when they sell a book. Aside from a small reading fee of perhaps a few hundred dollars on a first book that some agents may charge, I don’t know of any real agents who charge the author money. Instead, the agent gets paid a percentage of the money that he or she brings in on the backend.
But there is more than one kind of crook. Some agents steal from their authors. In fact, last Christmas, an “agent” in England faked her death and the deaths of her children, then ran off with her clients’ money, apparently after making a nice movie sale. Others have been known to sell foreign rights for authors and “forget” to ever report them, or they will make bad deals in order to line their own pockets.
2. Frauds. In one case that I know of, a woman posed as an agent while at gatherings of authors, apparently in order to become the center of attention. She garnered one talented author as a client and then proceeded to tell the author that one publisher after another had rejected her book. Eventually, I discovered that the agent had never sent the book to any publisher at all. So the author withdrew her book from the agent and sold it on her first try. It went on to win major awards and launch a fantastically successful career.
3. Wannabes. Recently a young woman complained that her agent had not been able to sell her novel after circulating it for three years. So I checked the agent out. I discovered that the agent had never been able to sell any books, other than a pair of cookbooks. There was nothing criminal in what he’d done, but the truth was that he didn’t have any real contacts, any pull, in the publishing industry. He was just struggling to make a deal.
4. Crippled Agents. Some agents develop bad reputations with publishers. I’ve known of editors who will “blacklist” an agent and refuse to work with him or her. Others will place a ceiling on any book that the editor sells them, usually because they feel that the agent’s literary sensibilities are off.
Most authors are so enamored at the idea of getting an agent that they forget to check to see if they’re hiring a cripple: someone who is unable to sell to the publishers and editors that they want for a good price.
5. Premium Agents. In every genre, there are genuinely wonderful agents that have fine literary sensibilities. They know a great book when they see it, they have good established ties to various editors and publishers, and they know how to negotiate a deal. These are the ones that you look for. They’re an invaluable asset to a writer. But how do you know who they are?
This is what I recommend: To find a top agent, go to www.publishersmarketplace.com and pay the money to join. It costs about $25, but the information you’ll get is priceless, and there is no faster way to search for an agent. (By the way, I don’t get any cut from those people for directing you to this site.) Once you join, you can go into the “Top Dealmaker’s” section of their website. Look for deals in your genre, whether it be “Young Adult,” “Fantasy,” “Romance,” or whatever. The point here is that you must search for agents who are able to sell in the genre that you’re writing in.
Once you’ve selected your genre, first look up “Publishers.” This will give you a list of top-ranked publishers in your field. It will also tell you which editors bought books in that genre over the past few years. This way, you can find out which editors are actively buying at the major publishers. More importantly, you can find out which publishers are paying well for novels, and you can even see what hits they’ve been able to engineer. This lets you know which publishers are able to market books well, which have deep pockets, and which ones therefore are likely to invest in you.
Then check on each editor at each publisher and try to discern their tastes. See what books they’ve bought, and if necessary, go to the library or bookstore and sample those books so that you can figure out what the editor likes. Then go to the editors’ websites or search for recent interviews to see if you can find even more information about what the editor might be searching for.
When you’ve found an editor you think you might like, check to see which agents that editor buys from. Just as importantly, look at the quality of the sales. Publisher’s Marketplace uses codes like “significant deal” or “major deal” to let you know which agents bring in the most money for their clients.
Do you get the idea? Most authors search for agents backward. They look for an agent blindly, hoping that the agent can connect the author to an editor and publisher. But if you choose the agent last, after figuring out what publishers and editors you need to connect to, you can avoid the crooks, the frauds, the wannabes and the cripples.
Now, when you’ve come up with a pool of potential agents to work with, research each one before making contact. On Publisher’s Marketplace, you can find out what sale they’ve made, who they represent, and you can even get links to the agent’s website so that you can find out what the agents themselves have to say about their tastes.
But don’t stop there. Before you contact an agent, check out the website www.predatorsandeditors.com in order to see if there have been complaints by authors about that agent. Then check with some of the agent’s clients, as much as possible, to find out what the authors think of their agents.
Remember, every agent has his or her own personality, quirks, and way of doing business. An agent that is great for someone else might not be a good fit for you. So enter the relationship carefully.
On the agent’s website, you’ll be able to find out what the agent wants to see from potential clients. They will most likely want a package that contains a query letter (which is something like a written interview), a writing sample of the first pages of your novel, and they’ll probably want a summary of your novel. You will need to submit these items and possibly have some phone conversations before you begin working with the agent.