I got an email from an aspiring writer today, and since she was asking a question published writers hear rather often, I thought I'd answer it here on the blog. That way, lazy dog that I am, the next time someone asks me the same question, I can just send them a link.
The question was: "How do I go about finding a legitimate, reliable literary agent? Do you have a web site or name you would be willing to share?"
Well, yes and no.
No, I don't have the magic answer. There's no site that will tell an aspiring writer "Here's exactly how YOU can find your one true agent." And I don't happen to know the name of an agent who's looking for precisely the kind of book you've written, whatever that is. Or an agent to whom I can say, "So-and-so is a fabulous writer--you should sign her!" and have it happen. Believe me, if I knew a tame agent, a couple of very deserving unpublished writers would be in print by now.
But I can tell you how I would go about finding an agent if I were doing it all over again-- a combination of how I actually found an agent, lo these many years ago and what I'd do if I knew then what I know now and had the resources then that exist now. Like a few of the websites that do give you a lot of help. I wouldn't rely on websites alone, but if I were starting out, I'd certainly use them.
When I was starting my search, I got a couple of the directories you can find in the reference section of the bookstore or library. Writers Digest publishes an updated Guide to Literary Agents each year, as does Jeff Herman. Using these directories, I extracted a list of all the agents who said they represented mysteries.
This is an important step. The best agent in the world can't help you if he or she doesn't like the kind of book you write and doesn't know the editors who publish that kind of book. So if you're writing a mystery, it isn't necessarily useful if you're trapped in an elevator with John Updike and persuade him to introduce you to his agent. Unless his agent represents mysteries as well as literary fiction, which is possible--but you should find that out before you bribe the building engineer to sabotage the elevator.
Nowadays, in addition to the directories, you can use a recently established website called Agentquery. It looks like a fairly good site, with not only agent listings but also sound advice on the agent-finding process. One caveat: It's fairly new, and I don't yet have any authoritative information on how comprehensive it is. I plugged in my agent's name and all the names I could remember of my friends' agents and they were all there, but I'm not sure how rigorous a test that is, so you might want to doublecheck your results against one of the printed agent directories.
And if an agent's listing on Agentquery or in the directories says something like "This agent does not currently accept unsolicited queries"--well, I suppose you could still query, but your odds aren't good. They're not in the market for new clients, or at least not unpublished ones.
Once I had a list of agents who represented mystery and were open to queries, I started finding out more about who they represented, apart from the few famous clients they listed in the directories. I made a list of my favorite authors--especially the ones who wrote books similar to mine. And then I looked in the the acknowledgments of their books to see if they thanked their agents--the majority do.
Again, there are more modern ways to do this that didn't exist when I was hunting. (Damn, but that makes me sound ancient. It wasn't even a decade ago, but thanks to the Internet, a lot has changed.) Many authors list their agents on their websites--Google your favorites and see. Another very interesting and useful resource is Publishers Marketplace, which in addition to the information on its site, puts out a daily email newsletter, Publishers Lunch, that covers the publishing business exhausively--including long lists of deals. A typical Lunch deal report might read:
MY LIFE AS A MINION OF EVIL, a memoir by former Mordor inhabitant and retired orc Vuurk Gnashluk, to Peregrine Took, editor-in-chief of The Shire Press in a very nice deal, by Arwen Evenstar of the Grey Havens Literary Agency.
Look at all the information that gives! The author's name--if Vuurk is one of your favorites, now you know who his editor and agent are. And even how much he got paid, in a general way: a very nice deal in Lunch-talk means between $50,000 and $99,000. Deals range from nice through very nice, good, significant, and major, which is over $500,000. Don't worry; they tell you how to translate this whenever they report deals.
Read enough of these and you get a good idea which agents are earning their keep in your chosen genre. There's a free version of Publishers Lunch that gives you a small selection of deals, and a full verion that costs $20 a month. Though if you can't bear the idea of getting even more email, they sell a book with all the previous year's deals. And if you're really serious about your search, the $20 a month fee also gives you access to a searchable deals database and a searchable database of what agents represent what authors. If I were actively hunting, I'd subscribe in a heartbeat.
Publishers Lunch also gives personnel news, which is one way you can learn that Arwen Evenstar recently left the Ringwraith Agency to form her own agency. The conventional wisdom says that someone who is leaving a well-established agency to go into business for himself or herself is more likely to be looking for clients, and conventional wisdom could be right--I know several people who specifically targeted such new agencies and now have agents.
When I was hunting, I also asked my published writer friends for advice. But I was careful how I asked. "Who is your agent and will you recommend me to him/her" is NOT the approach you want to take. "How did you find your agent" is a good question to ask. Most writers are willing to answer that--look at me, blogging at length about the subject. It's also helpful to ask your friends if they've heard anything good or bad about any agents, and particularly if they've heard of any agents who are actively looking for new writers.
I'd also pay attention to which agents attend the genre conferences and conventions. Especially the conferences that offer one-on-one meetings with the agent--it seems reasonable that an agent's willingness to meet unpublished authors face-to-face that might indicate a greater openness to taking on new clients.
And then, just to be safe, I'd check all the agents on my list to make sure they aren't, well, crooks. If an agent has been around for years, is representing some well-known writers, and pops up in Publishers Lunch doing nice, very nice, good, significant, and major deals, odds are he or she isn't a crook. But sometimes newer writers have better luck with newer agents, who don't yet represent a lot of known writers and haven't popped up much on Publishers Lunch. If that seems to be the case with some of the agents on your list, check them out. Two useful sites for this: Writer Beware (sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and the Bewares and Background Checks forum at Absolutewrite. From what I've heard, both sites are pretty rigorous about checking out reports of scams and problems to make sure it's not just a case of sour grapes.
(Jenna Glatzer of Absolute Write has teamed up with Dan Steven, a publishing attorney, on a new book, The Street Smart Writer: Self-Defense Against Sharks and Scams in the Writing World. I know Dan--he's a sharp and savvy member of our local MWA chapter, and will be teaming with Brenda Clough to give a presentation on this subject at the MWA Mid-Atlantic's upcoming Dying to Write conference [scroll down if you don't see the conference information immediately]. So I have a copy of the book on order so I can check it out as a resource for my aspiring writer friends.)
Getting back to the agent hunt--you should also make sure your agent is a member of the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives). It’s a nonprofit organization for agents, and requires its members to comply with a rigorous code of ethics. For one thing--and this is important--an AAR member agent may not charge a reading fee.
What's wrong with reading fees? Well, there may be some very honest agents who feel they must charge a fee to cover the cost of their time spent reading a manuscript. But the AAR--and here I'm quoting from their website--"believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, the AAR prohibits its members from charging reading fees."
The general rule is that the money flows down--from the publisher through the literary agent to the writer. If an agent--or for that matter, a publisher--asks for money up front, in the form of a reading fee, that might be a clue that you're about to get scammed. Look elsewhere.
(Agents who are AAR members usually mentions this fairly prominently on their websites and in their directory entries; look for it.)
And that's how I'd go about finding a legitimate, reliable literary agent. In fact, a whole list of them. Yes, it's a lot of work, but it's worth it.
"What next," the aspiring writer will probably ask. "So now I have a list of agents who are honest, hardworking AAR members and represent some of my favorite writers, or at least some people whose books I've actually heard of and seen in the stores. That's nice, but what am I supposed to do now?"
Hey, she asked how to find legitimate, reliable literary agents. Landing them's fodder for whole 'nother blog.