Buyer Beware: Literary Agents
While it's fair to say that 'not all agencies are created equal', as I've said about publishers and writing coaches in my previous posts in this series, that is definitely a good thing.
The relationship between author and agent is not only a professional one but quite often a personal one, so each agency is as unique as the agents it employs. When you're starting the search for an agent, you cannot simply go with the first one who says 'yes'. It is crucial to find the agent who is right for you.
PS: Read right to the end. That's where the gold is buried.
Before we look at how you determine if an agent is right for you or not, I'd like to take a step backwards and look at two major factors in the search for an agent:
what does an agent actually do?
why would you want an agent?
What does an agent do?
The agent's job is to package your submission so it is as strong as possible, then submit to their network of contacts in the publishing houses. The agent then manages all rights, offers, contract negotiations and payments on behalf of the author.
Some agents offer strong editorial support, helping the author make the submission as publishable as it can be; some don't. Some agents assist with long term career management; some prefer to represent a specific book or series, or only certain rights. Some agents work with indie authors or hybrid authors; some work exclusively with authors interested in traditional publishing.
The most valuable thing that any agent brings to a table, however, is their personal contacts. They know the editors in the genre(s) they represent, know which publishing houses have bought what recently, what the editors are looking for or not looking for. Their personal connections mean that your submission is a phone call away from being read rather than several months wait on the slush pile away from being read. And their personal connections, and the leverage they bring because they already represent other authors the publishing houses might want to get their hands on, is what will get you a better than average deal.
Why do you need an agent?
Depending on your current or career aspirations, you may not need an agent. Many publishing houses, especially the smaller digital presses, accept direct submissions from authors. These same publishers will have standard contracts which are not open to much negotiation. In which case, why share a portion of your income with an agent, for something you can manage on your own?
However, if you want to submit your book to a bigger publisher, negotiate a better than standard deal, or plan ahead for a long-term career, then an agent might just be what you need.
How do you select the right agent for you?
I'm going to answer this with even more questions:
Do you need an editor who will hold your hand, polish your punctuation, and remind you about deadlines?
Do you need a specialist in foreign rights sales?
Do you need a hard-ass negotiator?
Until you know why you want an agent, you won't know who to submit to. Also, many literary agents are genre-specific, so bottom line, as I've said in previous posts:
Do your homework! Research!
Research is crucial, because much like the rest of us, agents change jobs and sometimes even change career paths. Do not submit to an agent you found in a directory that's three years old. It's entirely possible that agent is no longer accepting queries or has moved agencies, or any myriad of other things I can't think of right now.
Don't waste your time researching agents if you've only just started writing your masterpiece. By the time you're ready to submit, it's possible that agent may no longer be an option. Concentrate on finishing and polishing your book, then do the research!
Do not simply submit to the first agent you see. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of agents out there, and you'll only find the right one for you by going onto Google and stalking them until you know what they want and how they want it.
Then you submit, and cross fingers they like you back too. (It's just like dating!) Agents are unbelievably picky. They have to be: tehy only get paid if you get paid, so they will only take on a project they believe 100% that they can sell. If you get a rejection, don't take it personally. It just means that particular agent didn't love this particular project. You wouldn't want an agent who doesn't love your work, in the same way you wouldn't want to marry someone who doesn't really love you!
So far, so good. Now we get to the 'Buyer Beware' bit. Here are some red flags. You see any of these, run a mile!
The agent asks you for an up front payment or reading fee. No! A true agent only takes a percentage (usually 15%) of the sales that they get for you.
The agent's client list does not include any respected authors in your genre. If the agent is not bragging about the authors they represent, then they either don't have any clients, or are so big and established that they don't need to brag (and therefore are unlikely to sign you), or they simply don't represent enough authors in your genre to have the kind of influence you need them to wield on your behalf.
The agent has not made at least 5 sales in your genre in the last 3 years. If your online research doesn't turn up any recent deals, this is definitelty a red flag! Does it mean they're not very good, or perhaps that they're no longer agenting?
The agent has no connections in the New York or London publishing scene. In this digital age, agents can live and work anywhere, but the major publishing houses are still based in NY and London. An agent who has never worked in a reputable publishing house or literary agency before this job, or who is not currently working in a reputable NY or UK literary agency, probably doesn't have the kind of connections that will get you a top rate deal with a top rate publisher. For my fellow South Africans, yes, that means you'll need to look beyond our borders for any agent worth having.
The agent only sends your submission out to publishers that accept submissions direct from authors, and which only offers authors boilerplate contracts. If the agent is only doing what you could do for yourself, why would you want to share your hard-earned income with them? Unless the agent is adding value to your submission, and making the initial introductions to get you to the front of the queue on the editor's desk, they don't warrant taking a percentage of your royalties.
Finally, they aren't members of any accredited agenting association. The AAR is the main international organisation for literary agents, though there are others. Most legit literary agencies have at least one staff member who is a member of AAR. This means that the agent/agency has been vetted, has agreed to subscribe to a code of ethics - and should they rip you off, you have legal recourse through the organisation.
I promised you gold, and here it is: Tom Corson-Knowles has written a far better post on literary agents than I could ever hope to write. Read it!
Just one caveat: don't bother using Tom's list to find an agent. I've already checked out my genre on his database and many of the agents are either no longer agenting, are closed to queries, or don't even represent my genre. This is why you always need to do the research yourself, looking for your specific requirements, at the time when you need it!
Is there anything I've missed? What should I add? And do you have any questions? Leave your suggestions and queries in the Comments section below.