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Researching agents. A plea to be wise!

So there has been some talk in cyber space about the quality of certain agents/agencies out there. Some writers are completely oblivious, some think those agents are scam artists. Truth is: most of the agents you see out there helping writers, doing interviews on known blogs and participating in contests, are honest, sincere agents.

BUT that doesn't necessarily mean you want them to be your agent. (but please don't belittle someone who is a client of an agent you don't deam "worthy")

How do you know? How do I know that Ray Lewis (This is a football player NOT an actual agent, non of the names in this post are real agents) is a successful agent? How do I know he's not a complete scammer? Or a nice person who doesn't know the first thing about agenting? (Because sorry guys, but that last one? EXSISTS. Don't assume because you see someone around being very nice, maybe even smart, means they know what they're doing. They might not)

What bothers me, and this is the real reason I'm writing this post, is that I haven't seen a lot of proof that writers do real, in depth research on agents. I've read posts recently, even, that say things like-

"How do you find agents? Simple, agent query and query tracker!"

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Stop. HAULT, even.

Technically, the line above isn't "wrong", you can "find" agents using those sites but it's the implications that are bad here. Most writers will read that and think, "Okay, I'll go on agentqeury, find an agent that is listed as representing my genre, then SEND." *Click*

Please, don't do that.

Here is the honest truth about query tracker and agent query-- any person who calls themselves an agent, can be listed on query tracker and agent query. They don't have to have EVER actually sold a novel before. They don't have to have a degree. They don't have to have ever worked in publishing before. Now, I'm sure these sites try not to list just anyone. I'm sure they TRY to weed out some of the scammers. But they didn't create those sites so that they judge whether an agent is good enough. There are other sites for that. Sites that could save your lives (Okay, I admit, slight exaggeration).

So, yes, you can use Agentquery and QueryTracker (And other sites that list agents) to find agents to send to. But please, don't stop there. That is only part of the process. You then have to research that agent.


That sounds hard right?

It takes a little time, sure. But even if you only do one thing it will help you stay away from potential bad-agents. Here is my little secret weapon.

That beautiful link above will send you to the AW forums. But not just any part of those forums, but the Bewares, Reccomendations and Background Checks section. What does this mean, you ask? Well, this amazing site has played host to thousands of writers asking basic questions about agencies (and publishers) out there. There are over 200 pages of links (20 or so to a page) to threads about agencies and publishing companies. The good is listed with the bad, nearly every agency out there has a post at Absolute Write.

First, here is a list of "Things to look out for" (outside of specific "Issues")

I know some writers don't know what constitutes a good agent, so let's take a step back. Not all agents are members of the AAR (they have strict guidelines). And some don't have huge issues that you'll find to be glaringly obvious. There are some agents out there that simply don't have the proper experience to be an agent. So how do you know?

1. An agent should have experience. In one of the examples I give below Pacman Jones is a college professor who has never worked in publishing before. I wouldn't send to this agent. Why? Because even IF he has a pretty good understanding of how publishing works he 1. Probably doesn't have any contacts in the industry. Editors at big houses will push him off to the side and read from agent he/she trusts. 2. He won't know what those editors are looking for. How in the world is a college professor supposed to know what is right for the market? What publishing houses are buying? He won't. 3. He probably doesn't know how to negotiate a contract. The LAST thing you want is someone who pushes you to sign something that not only do YOU not understand but HE doesn't understand it either. Contracts are SCARY things that you DO NOT want to mess with. You want and agent who you can trust!
 2. New agents are okay, as long as they are at an established agency-. This goes with #1. If Pacman jones is a brand new agent that went from teaching college to agenting BUT he's working with Tim Tebow, who has been in the industry for 25 years and has a GREAT reputation. NO WORRIES. Send it! Tim Tebow will teach Pacman Jones everything he needs to know about (that sounds very odd lol) the publishing world. He will know what editors to send to and because he has that name on his side, even though he's new, editors will respect him. It's nice to want SPECTACULAR agent who sells 7 figure deals every year, but there is nothing wrong with a new agent (as long as they are at an established, successful agency). Sometimes their enthusiasm will be better than being at the bottom of SPECTACULAR agents pile of amazing clients (yes, it does happen often that clients of agent with other clients who are super-stars will get forgotten)
3. An agent should SELL BOOKS. Please, this is very important. Sometimes there are agents out there that look great in every way. They're SO NICE. They help people, they talk about the industry. They're website is awesome. But they haven't sold a book to a good publisher in 2 years. Ouch. Not good. This is one reason why it's a very good idea to get a publishers Marketplace subscription (it costs money) so you know if an agent is actively selling in your genre.
4. Be aware of agents who only sell to publishers who take unagented submissions. - There are a lot of small press publishers that don't need an agent to submit to them. If there is an agent who is selling a few books but they're all to publishers who you could have sent to, without the agent, are they really helping you all that much? Mind you, there is nothing wrong with an agent selling to small press publishers, really, there isn't. (Most agents sell to Small, medium and large publishing house. This is a good thing. And) yes, having an agent, even with small presses can get you a better contract, sometimes an advance, and might get the offer faster. But remember, you're still paying them 20%, so sometimes, if the agent can ONLY get offers from the little guys, (and I mean ONLY. If they sell books to both small, medium and larger publishing companies, this warning doesn't even apply.) than you might have been better off going at it alone. Another mind you, an agent who only sells to small press companies is NOT a bad agent. Just go into it knowing that most likely, you won't be getting a deal with Random House. You might not even see your book in stores with this agent. Just know what you're getting into. 
5. A new agency may take a little while to sell something, that's OKAY. If an agent has been working for an established agency for years, has sold many books to good publishers, sometimes they will want to branch off and start their own agency. Sometimes editors of publishing companies will decided to start their own agency (chances are they will have enough knowledge and skills to be okay even without agent specific experience). This happens a lot, and it's perfectly fine. And it's okay to take into consideration that it takes a little while to establish themselves and start making sales. Usually, it's safe to give a new agency 6 months to a year, to start making decent sales. It will be a slow start. If the agent is experienced enough, they will get up on their feet soon, and it's okay to take a chance on them even from the beginning. 
 6. The agent who founds a new agency should have significant experience as an agent AND SALES before starting the new agency. Sometimes, there are shiney New Agencies that look fun, you might even know the agents from twitter and blogs etc. But if they only worked at their first agency for 2 months, they probably don't have the experience to run a whole agency by themselves. I'm a big fan of new agents, but I'm a fan of new agents at good agencies (with people who have been through it all to give advice if they need it) Let's face it, it takes a while to really learn how to do any career. There are a lot of variables. And I'd be willing to bet, that agenting is 10x worse than any normal career. It's not something you can become a pro at in 6 months. Sure, you can be good in 6 months, but can you be successful and truly knowledgeable enough to run your own company, without help, in just a few months? These kinds of agencies scare me. Even with the agents running them are great people. My suggestion is to keep them on your radar, pay attention, watch how they do things. Keep a look out for good sales etc. and after a while they might be okay to approach, but these aren't that much different from the college professor who decided to become an agent except they look a lot better on the outside.

Be careful. But most of all be knowledgeable.

So you find Ray Lewis (remember, made up agent who doesn't actually exsist) on twitter and you think, hmm I wonder if she's a good agent (yes, I know Ray's not actually a she. Go with it) So you clickity click click, go to the link above click "search" and type in her name (threads are named for the agency not individual agents) and up pops an entire forum about her agency. You'll read, ""Agency blah blah" is great! Ray is a member of AAR" and you read a few people raving about how she's they're dream agent and she represented "Famous Author Jim Bean". YES! Great agent to add to your list. (Note: you can also type in (Agent name) or (Agency name) followed by  "Absolute Write"  to google and the link to the forum will usually come up)

 Then you find Pacman Jones (again football player not agent.) and learn he was a college professor who started his own agency. He's never worked in publishing before and he's never sold a book.-- This might be an agent you watch for a little while and see if he does okay (if in a 6months to a year, he starts selling some books to decent publishers maybe give him a shot. In this case, keep a look out at for contractual issues. This agent might not know a good contract from a bad one (Which is one reason why you might consider skipping them in general, that's up to you.))

Then you look up Orlando Scandrick (also a football player, not an agent.) and you search him on AW, and find—wait! He used to be an okay agent but he's currently being sued by 3 of his clients for not paying them the royalties he owes them. Oooh, maybe you keep him off your list.

Now, there are a lot of things that can be on these forums. Some of them there have three posts that say, "Yep, good agent." Then people talk about submitting to them and how long it took etc. Others will have some small issues that are resolved a few pages in (make sure you read far enough to know). Some will have big issues that are never resolved. Truth is- shit happens. If you read about something small that happened 6 years ago, well, look into it enough to learn if it's enough to stop you from sending.

Sometimes, it'll be up to you. Things are changing in the agenting world, some agents have side businesses that some think are "conflicts of interest", you should decide if it bothers you. Some (good) agents are helping their clients to self-publish, you should decide if that's okay with you. People on AW will often question these practices--I'm a firm believer that things SHOULD be questioned. Not harshly, just honestly "How does this work?" "By doing this, aren’t you putting your authors at risk?" Often agents will hop on and answer these questions sincerely. But then there are some agents get very testy about it. "How dare you question ME!!" (seriously it happens, I've seen it). Those are agents I'll often skip over when making my query list. A lot of times it's the agents reaction to those things, not the issues themselves, that make me not query an agent.

There are also other ways to research agents, is one example. They list agents by name and say if they are recommended, if they've been known to make sales (they should!) or if they are agents that currently have issues (aka, you should stay away from). Most of the time, if they have a problem listed on P&E that will be in the Absolute Write forums.

Pictures are from

And disclaimer- the names of the agents are no indication about how I feel about the players. In fact, in order (of the ones I used) my favorites would be- Pacman Jones (I'm a Bengals fan) Orlando Scandrick (My Hubby's a Dallas fan) Tim Tebow (no reason) and Ray Lewis (NOT a Ravens fan, which is why he's last ;-)


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