So you’ve done your research and made a list of agents to whom you plan to submit your query letter or book proposal. Unless an agent/agency has a very high-profile, chances are you may not have heard of the pros on your list. How can you know if a specific agent is any good?
Do Your Homework…Again
There are several reliable resources out there designed to help you vet that agent who just sent you a glowing letter of appreciation.
I always say start with the Better Business Bureau. Few agencies are members, so you may not find much, but it’s free and will take you just a few minutes to search their database. Note: For an effective search, you’ll want to use the city and state or postal code of the business’ location, not your own.
Next, check out Preditors and Editors’ list of Agents and Attorneys. This is not a comprehensive list, so don’t expect to find everyone here. However, if your prospective agent is listed, you can check P&E’s rating and find out if they are “Not Recommended,” usually a sign that something is amiss. P&E has a rating system (you can read more about how they determine ratings here) and they also collect complaints that may indicate a scam or an otherwise undesirable agency, so this is a good place to start checking up on any agency you are considering.
Last but not least, peruse the membership database for the Association of Author’s Representatives. AAR is a professional organization with a published “canon” or code of ethics, so you can feel confident that any agent who is a member is at least not a scammer or unscrupulous. Their membership criteria helps make sure that any agents listed with them meet a baseline of professionalism and experience as well—for example, prospective members must demonstrate at least ten reportable sales over an eighteen month period.
Look to the Past to Predict the Future
But of course, ensuring that an agent doesn’t have an Internet history riddled with words like “scam artist” and “liar” only tells you the professional in question is probably ethical. Membership in organizations with standards like the AAR ensures that the agent has solid experience, but it doesn’t tell you if he or she will be good for you and your book, specifically.
One of the best ways to get a bead on whether or not an agent has experience that will help him or her sell your book is to look at a list of books the agent/agency has sold. You’ll often see book covers or titles listed on an agent’s website: Do you see books coming out fairly regularly, and recently, or are there huge gaps between their published clients? For example, if your prospective agent hasn’t had anything published in a few years, it might be a sign that his network has gone stale, or that she’s losing her grasp of what’s popular.
Similarly, look at the publishers represented among the books listed. If you’re targeting agents, you should already know where your book fits in the marketplace and have some idea which publishers are putting out books comparable to yours. You want to see that your prospective agent has sold books to those publishers. And unless you’re writing for a narrow niche, you also want to see a nice variety of publishers across the client list. This indicates a stronger network of editor relationships, which is key to any agent’s success.
Since it can take a year or more for a book to make its way from acquisition to print, ask any agent who has offered to represent you a list of recent projects sold and to which publishers. I recommend that you ask how large the advances were, but be aware they may not give that info out and it’s not a red flag if they don’t. It just never hurts to ask!
One of my favorite resources for “people in the know” is Publisher’s Marketplace. Their membership is only $25 per month and you can cancel at any time, so when you’re actively submitting your work this is a very worthwhile investment. Besides a great industry newsletter, the real gold here is their searchable database of over 75,000 book deals. Here you will find details on books that were sold, by which agents and to which publishers, and for how much. There’s a key they use, not numbers, so you won’t see the exact amount of the advance paid for any given book but you will still get a good idea. For example “a nice deal” equals an amount in a certain range, “a very nice deal” is a little higher, and so on. This is an excellent way to check on a specific agent’s recent track record and also to find agents who represent books like yours or who sell often to the publishers you’ve identified as good targets for your work.
Don’t Forget Your Old Pal, Google
Besides these trusted resources, don’t forget about your basic online search. First, type in the agent’s or agency’s name(s) and see what comes up. If there’s been a scandal, it’s sure to pop up. Then do a more specific Internet search for terms like “[Agency Name] AND book deal” “[Agency Name] AND bestseller” or “[Agency Name] AND [Comparable Author’s Name].” You may find news items about earlier book deals such as in interviews with clients of the agent discussing their book’s journey, interviews with the agent, even industry listings about sales.
I know it’s very exciting to have someone, anyone, offer to represent your work, but the partnership between author and agent is a crucial piece of your writing career. The last thing you want is to be tied up in contract with someone who doesn’t actually know what they’re doing, or worse, to get bilked out of hundreds of dollars by a fraudulent company.
Remember, a successful writer is an educated writer!
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.