Agent Advice Part 3: Online Sources for Finding and Evaluating

Not so long ago, your best bet for researching an agent was to buy one of the thick annually updated marketplace guides (see your bookstore for several popular choices). But today I’m going to focus on online info sources, because as one agent from BookEnds LLC says at her blog, “The Internet is the best source for agent research.” She points out that her own company has let her listings in the big annual guides slide because those books tend to attract the wrong kind of writers. “Requiring authors to do a little bit of work digging to find us usually means higher quality submissions.”

(So you see, you weren’t imagining it. Some agents DO make this process as hard as possible. And yes, getting an agent can be as hard or harder than getting an editor.)

OK: where to dig? Get your fresh coffee, your glass of wine, your dinner … this is going to take a while.

Agent Query is an excellent free online database; start there and if you find a possible match, follow up by looking for that particular agent’s website. (Cross-referencing is necessary because listings often have errors.)

Women of Mystery has a number of great posts and links for unagented/unpublished writers about how to avoid scam artists (there seem to be many of them parading as editors and agents). Note that at some of the linked blogs that specialize in “outing” bad agents and editors, like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware, the info is highly subjective. Just because a writer complained may not mean the agent deserves to be written off. (My correction/clarification: Writer Beware added a comment below specifying they have strict standards applied to whether an agent gets poor marks; see their website for guidelines.)

Publisher’s Marketplace (not to be confused with Publishers Weekly, which also has industry news) has a $20 monthly option that gives you full access to lots of agent and insider news. You can try out a shortened version of their daily newsletter, Publisher’s Lunch, for free. It includes exhaustive coverage of daily deals and is read (the site says) by 30,000 publishing professionals daily. Now, why get such breaking news about deals and publishing house news? One, to evaluate which agents are making their clients good money, and two, to find out which agents are changing jobs, opening new agencies, and so on. An agent making a change may be more open to new clients.

The problem, with all these great sources, is not finding agents but narrowing them down. It’s like the world of dating. You want to find the agent with whom you can find a personal/professional connection of shared tastes and interests, and convince that person you’re not just submitting blindly, that you chose them for a good reason. You need to know an awful lot about an agent before you approach him or her if that first encounter is going to pay off.

You might consider, in your cover letter to an agent, expressing sincere admiration for a project he/she agented, which may be similar to the project you are pitching, in terms of content, style, or audience. But how would you know what agent works with whom, on what? Even when I’m not agent-hunting, I pay attention to the acknowledgments pages in books (“Thanks to S.J., agent extraordinaire, who always believed in me…”), to word of mouth from other authors, to author interviews (see author websites also) for mention of the agents and editors they enjoyed worked with. Recently, I read an issue of Poets and Writers Magazine profiling five hot new young brilliant authors (are these articles designed to inspire envy or what?) and I was surprised to notice that one agent was responsible for representing two of the five authors present. That says something, don’t you think?

Now, how to live with the agent you have, or deal with other in-depth agent questions? Back to BookEnds LLC, the blog I mentioned up top. There are so many excellent posts here. I’ll link here to their posts on agent research in particular, but if you look at the full labels list, you’ll find all kinds of discussions about contracts, rejections, firing an agent, and even a dictionary of terms so you don’t have to admit ignorance about acronyms like ARC and BEA.

If an agent actually likes your query (because, as you probably know, you’ll be querying the agent, not just sending a huge boxed manuscript or attachment before he/she invites you to do so) and requests your work of art and actually READS it, what are the most likely reasons he/she would turn it down? I have another book to recommend, and this one doubles as a good reference on basic craft issues: The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman, who happens to be an agent. Lukeman focuses on those first five pages because that’s all an agent needs to read in order to make a pretty sound first judgment.

Phew. It’s a lot of work, I know, and worth doing only when you are really ready, with a solid nonfiction book proposal or a good chunk of a novel, and a strong resume of published works (perhaps articles, stories or essays) preceding those. But look at it this way: of the millions of people who think they have a book inside them, a fraction will actually commit the “book” to paper, and a fraction of those will revise it and polish it, and a fraction of those will bother to do all the proper agent research required, and a fraction of those will rebound from those first two or five or 20 agent rejections and keep looking until they’ve made the right match. Good luck and have courage; I look forward to buying your book when it hits the bookstore.

3 thoughts on “Agent Advice Part 3: Online Sources for Finding and Evaluating”

  1. Writer Beware has very specific criteria for what we consider to constitute questionable practice among agents and publishers, and for how we collect information. To start a file on an agent or publisher, we must receive a single complaint with documentation (such as an author-agent agreement that documents upfront fees) or at least two substantially similar complaints (such as two or more writers informing us that a publisher requires bulk purchase of finished books).

    We don’t, in other words, accept any old complaint, nor do we take a single writer’s word for something if there’s no documentation.

    A full discussion of our criteria, as well as what we do and don’t consider a valid complaint, can be found at our website.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Hey great — thanks for the clarification. You’re doing a wonderful service for writers. And you’re pretty fast on the draw too, considering how quickly you responded to this post! Keep up the good work.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top