A wizened best-selling author once told me there are three truths about literary agents:
- Everyone needs one.
- A good one is worth their weight in gold.
- A bad one – or a bad fit – is usually worse than not having one at all.
That’s spot-on advice. I should know: I’ve had five agents in my career, ranging from one who charged me a pile of “fees” and then vanished, two who sold nothing and caused me varying amounts of grief (ranging from low-grade irritation to me wailing like a yeti with kidney stones), and two who sold books for me.
The last two? Magic. The first three? Headaches.
So how do you ensure that you’re targeting good literary agents in your quest for representation? And how do you know if they’ll be a solid fit? Perhaps equally important – what can you do to ensure you’re not at the losing end of a story like the Danielle Smith/Lupine Grove disaster, where an agent lied about submissions and offers, resulting in an entire agency folding in 2018?
Holly McGhee, the creative director of Pippin Properties, Inc., offers authors tips to avoid that last situation. “Locate books that have been represented by the prospective agent and check the acknowledgments: Is the agent mentioned favorably?” She also suggests you read the agent’s client list and verify through Publisher’s Marketplace that deals have indeed been closed for those clients by this agent.
Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency adds two more helpful ideas: “If you’re part of a writers’ organization (for example, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America or Mystery Writers of America), they’re likely to have a list of reputable agents in your field who have made verified sales. This won’t necessarily tell you if an agent is right for you, but it will give you a good start.
“You can ask to speak to a current client, who can give you firsthand information about how they work,” she says. “Hints for this: You won’t want to ask to speak to their best-sellers, because a.) they’re not likely going to put you in touch with their top authors, and b.) of course they’re going to give best-sellers their best attention, so you’ll want to talk with someone closer to where you are in your career to determine the kind of relationship you’re likely to have.”
Through trial and error, I’ve found the following questions extremely useful in terms of finding the ideal match. Feel free to generate your own questions well beyond this list, according to your specific interests and needs.
“What do you like about my work, and how ready is it for submission?”
Both are crucial to know. Be prepared to feel all warm and snuggly about the first and less so about the second.
“What publishers do you have in mind for my work?”
If they can’t generate some specifics here – even on the spot – they either don’t know your work well or they don’t have the insider knowledge of the industry agents need.
“In your experience, what makes for an ideal author-agent relationship?”
This should prove quite telling. If they have expectations or limitations that don’t sit well with you now, you’re not going to like those more down the road.
“What kind of submission strategy do you prefer?”
My last two books went out in small rounds – often to two or three publishers are a time – which gave me the chance to respond to feedback before submitting elsewhere, if I felt the advice was useful (sometimes it was!). Yet some agents like to go big from the start.