In Part I we covered the best sources for finding literary agents. We learned to weed out those agents who are closed to submissions and/or don't represent our genre. And we've got a list of prospective agents ready or in the works. In Part II we'll be covering how to assess an agent or agency's legitimacy.
Your main interests are: Making sure an agent/agency is legitimate, has a respectable name in publishing, and has verified sales. I'd recommend checking at least three of the following before contacting an agent. I'd also recommend keeping notes of interest on each agent as you research to help you prioritize later.
Check with the Association of Author's Representatives:
You don't necessarily have to do this first. I've noticed that more and more agents are choosing not to be members (for a variety of reasons), and a lot of new but perfectly respectable agents just haven't met the criteria to join yet. Don't be alarmed if some of the agents on your list are not members. Just put a mark next to their name and carry on.
However, it is a good starting point. You might first consider familiarizing yourself with the AAR by reading the following: About the AAR, Canon of Ethics, and Membership Criteria. While word of mouth is an excellent vessel for information and opinion, you should make a habit of verifying the legitimacy of something by learning about it and coming to your own conclusions. Now, use the search function and see which agents on your list are members. If they are, mark that down somehow, perhaps by writing "AAR" next to their name. Make note of any specific information you can gleam from their profile. If they aren't a member, mark that in another way.
You've just taken your agents through their first checkpoint. But don't stop here. I mentioned that market guides can have errors and scams. Well, the AAR can have bad apples, too.
Look to your friendly watch-dogs right here on the net:
Predators and Editors is a great place to go next. P&E offers quick, reliable information for a second checkpoint. Once again, I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with the site by reading their Rating Criteria. You'll need this information to fully understand how the agents are being rated.
Once you're ready to proceed, find your listed agents by first name in the directory. If the agent is not recommended for any reason, I would personally scratch them off the list. However, if you're iffy about the reasoning, you can always continue to research the agent. Please note, however, that legitimate agents should never charge fees. If any of your agents are noted to charge fees I'd highly recommend that you do not proceed. While you're there, you'll be looking for agent rating, notes on the agent, if they have verified sales, etc. Make notes on your list as you see fit and carry on.
You can also check with Writer Beware. There is an invaluable amount of information available on the Writer Beware web site (including information on agent research) and Writer Beware will keep you up-to-date on schemes, frauds, unreliable agents, and information on how to protect yourself from the aforementioned. You can familiarize yourself with there mission statement by reading About Writer Beware. If your research reveals little about an agent and you're still unsure, you can e-mail Victoria Strauss (awesome WB staff member) and she'll check the archives for you. Or you can use this (free) Agent Verification Service.
Check out trusted industry resources:
Publisher's Marketplace is a great place to go for information. If you're a member, you can see agent and agency profiles (editors, publishers, and authors, too), look up previous sales, clients, and publishing history, etc. If you're not a member, it's still worth your time to check out. Some agents and agencies have public pages and keep their recent sales and clients updated, and you can also sign up for Publisher's Lunch, a free newsletter that is e-mailed daily. Also, consider signing up for at least a month or two of paid membership while you're doing your research. Payment is month-to-month and you can cancel your subscription at any time.
Another great site to check out is Agent Query, which is generally viewed as one of the best and most reliable resources for writers on the net. Recommended by both Writer Beware and Writer's Digest. They have a searchable database that offers generally up-to-date agent profiles. They also have interviews, live-chat transcripts, message boards, networking opportunities, etc. It's also free.
Google is your friend:
Google offers a variety of useful resources. You can start by going to Google Groups and doing a quick search on your agents. Sometimes you can find some great, pertinent information through questions and discussions about agents that have been posted. After you've done that, you might choose to do a Google Book Search. If you type an agent's name into the search box with quotations, you can often find snippets of acknowledgements where an author's agent has been mentioned. This is a good way to 1) Check an agent's legitimacy. 2) See who an agent's clients are if you're unsure. 3) See how authors are describing their agents in the acknowledgements. 4) Check past sales. This also works (sometimes) with Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. Beyond this you have your regular ol' Google search, which is equally if not more helpful. I usually search for an agent by name-only and then also with the word "agent" or "literary agent" with it. As a general rule, I look through 6+ pages, usually close to 10. This might seem like a bit much, but I've found some hidden treasures farther into the pages than one might generally look.
Check the buzz:
I'd highly recommend checking one or more message boards to see what people are saying about the agents you're interested in. You may have already done this during your Google search as the boards will often come up. If not, the Absolute Write Water Cooler has a Bewares and Background Check forum including a great index that you can check. The Verla Kay Children's Writers and Illustrators Message Board also has certain boards where you can read about agents and their response times. Another tip: If you sign up for Query Tracker (it's free) you can read comments people have left after querying an agent. This can help you get a sense of how an agent responds to their queries, the taste they leave in writers' mouths, and what you might expect when you send out your own query. Keep in mind, however, how subjective this area of research can be.
You can do even more:
If you have any friends or acquaintances that are agented (online or in a critique group, perhaps), you can always ask them who their agent is, how they like their agent, and how the agent works. You can also ask if they have any knowledge of the agents on your list or if they've had any experience with them, i.e. if they've queried them or met them at conferences, etc. I would not recommend trying to get an "in" with anyone's agent unless they offer. You're only heading in to awkward territory (for many reasons) if you do.
Go to conferences. A great way of expanding your list and meeting legitimate agents is to go to conferences and network if it's within your means. I'd recommend, however, that you get a good feel for how the conference is run and make sure you know how to handle yourself. If you actually meet with any agents and cannot handle yourself professionally and competently, you might lessen your chance with an agent rather than increase it.
Keep an eye out for publishing news and interviews. Publisher's Marketplace and The Guide to Literary Agents blog are great for this. New agents and agencies are generally more open to expanding their lists than the veterans, and they spring up all the time. So, if a new agent/agency has a decent publishing history (or has worked with a respectable house) and you've made sure they are not a scam, they would be excellent to target if they meet your criteria.
- Resist agencies that advertise. Respectable agencies usually don't need to.
- Never trust one source of information.
- If you're unsure about an agent, it's better to pass over them or continue researching.
- Learn how the publishing industry works before querying.
- Educate yourself about scams and warnings signs.
- Try to get an idea of each agent's reputation - a legitimate agent is not necessarily a good agent.
- Care about yourself and writing enough to find a good match.
Hopefully everyone on your list so far has shaped up to be a good and legitimate match. If you didn't do this before you began your research, you might begin to consider the things that are important to you in an agent, i.e. years of experience, track record, reputation, personality, if they are editorial, etc. Using the Google and message board methods mentioned above, you can do even more research to try to answer your interest-specific questions. Once you've found out everything you can, which is sometimes limited, I know, begin to prioritize your list.
In Part III we'll take a look at agent specifics, submission guidelines, and personalizing queries. If there is anything else you'd like me to cover, let me know in the comments! Also, I'm probably forgetting plenty here. If you have some other nuggets of advice, please speak up!