How To Research Literary Agents & Make Sure They Don’t Ruin Your Life
This post was originally published in the October installment of my WITCHES & WONDERMENTS newsletter. To sign up for future newsletters, go here.
DVpit happened this week and a big high five to all the authors who put themselves out there and gave it a shot. I hope you got some likes! If you didn’t that’s really okay too (unless you were a jerk to me bc in that case. ) But for the rest of you non-jerks, pitching contests are not the only path. Cold querying has worked for many more writers than contests have. But no matter which path you take, there’s one thing nobody should skip out on: researching agents.
I did a small thread on this on Twitter a few days ago, which got a lot of traction because of the idea that “No agent is better than a bad one.” That’s still true and although I know how hard it is to say no when you have an offer from anyone, signing to a questionable agent will only hurt and not help your career. Not only do you run the very high risk of not selling your book and having to shelve it, but you might also become distrustful of everyone in publishing, which is a hard thing to overcome. It sucks to work with someone who is not the right fit for you, and although this can also happen with a “good” agent, you should take every possible step to avoid it. How? I’m about to show you!
Step One: The Internet is Your Friend
Update: Although I still consider Publisher’s Marketplace a useful tool, I’ve moved it down on the list since sketchy agents sometimes manipulate rankings (by submitting to lists other agents never submit to) in order to appear more successful. Therefore I would suggest going to this site LAST, and factoring in sales but only to reputable publishers. Please do not be fooled by agents claiming to be #1 in anything.
Some of my favorite research websites are:
Absolutewrite: A forum where authors can dish on agents, publishers and more.
Query Tracker: A fantastic resource for, you guessed it, keeping track of which agents you’ve queried and also see comments left by other querying writers.
Literary Rambles: Helpful interviews with kidlit agents, great for finding specific agent wants to include in your query letter!
Manuscript Wishlist: See what agents and editors are looking for!
Jim suggests questions to ask a prospective agent! : Once you have an offer, these questions from agent and legendary-beard-haver Jim McCarthy is the go-to list of questions to use for the call.
Twitter! Yes really, search that agents name and see if anyone has said anything you’d want to know about them. You can’t take this as gospel, but if everyone is publicly saying an agent is no good, you should probably listen.
Publisher’s Marketplace lists agent/agency sales & ranks. It’s an incredibly useful tool if you’re trying to figure out if an agent has sales in your genre and to which houses. If any agent has multiple sales to the same house it can be also be an indication of strong relationships with editors. Publisher’s Marketplace is where I got my “Most Beyoncé List of YA-Agents” List from and I’m sharing it here for any of you who’d like to take a look! *Please note this list is based solely on PMP sales which I talk more about below Download List
Now, while all this information can be very helpful it’s also important to keep in mind what literary agent Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch expressed on Twitter: ” …not having a sales record ≠ being a schmagent…”
Saba went on to say that many established agents took years to get to where they are and that many newer agents are also sitting on book deals which they haven’t been able to announce yet. This is all so important to keep in mind and in my opinion, when faced with a lack of information for an individual agent, looking at what agency they’re with and what support they’ll have in turn, is a great way to gauge if these newer agents might be a good fit for you. Publisher’s Marketplace costs $25.00 a month and I would definitely recommend signing up for a month or two at minimum if you can afford it. You should also, always, check an agent’s agency website. This is where their submission guidelines, emails and sometimes updated wish-lists are posted.
Step Two: Google It (aka Google is also on the internet and also your friend)
When an agent is considering signing a new author, many times they Google them. You should do the same for agents you are querying. Aside from the dedicated websites above, many authors blog about their experiences with signing to their agent and sometimes though not as often *gasp* horror stories. Doing an in-depth google search might help you find a helpful interview or information about prospective agents. Also, you wanna make sure they’re not a vampire. Or maybe you want to make sure they are. Listen, I’m not judging you. Edward Cullen would’ve made a great agent, he watched Bella sleep and everything! #Persistent
Step Three: Gossip!
Okay so maybe not gossip per say but word of mouth is a crucial step in the agent research process. Why? Because as I said above, horror stories aren’t often shared out in the open. There is always a fear of stepping on toes or retaliation against your career (especially for marginalized authors) so often times the most useful information is the one shared in private settings. Reach out to former clients if you can, join private Facebook groups (like this one I set up specifically for people of color!) and reach out to other writers who have been around longer in the community. It’s likely someone you reach out to either has information or knows someone who does. The writer grapevine is essential and you should definitely take advantage of it.
Step Four: Listen.
Steps one through three don’t matter if you don’t listen to the warning signs. If you have a bad gut feeling, if you’re getting bad information from multiple writers, if you aren’t happy with multiple aspects of a prospective agents profile and career, it’s better for everyone involved that you not query or sign with them. As I said in the opening, no agent is better than a bad one, and although it takes incredible self restraint to say no to a lone offer it won’t be the last time you’re forced to wait in publishing and you should consider it practice for the future. You should also consider it an investment, in yourself. In your writing and the time you put in to finish your book. Don’t put all the hard work and time into the hands of someone who doesn’t appreciate it as much as you do. Do not sell yourself short & good luck in the query trenches! I’ll be rooting for you.