S(uper) W(riter) seeks agent, manuscript hot for presses

Dear Miss Snark, When searching for a literary agent to query, what would you suggest are key factors/criteria to consider and should the agent's geographical location to the author be of importance?

First thing you want to know: "What have you sold". Accept NOTHING but a clear answer to this. It's either titles, pictures of book covers, ISBNs OR the perfectly acceptable statement that the agent is new. Do not fall for smarmy brush off tactics like "we have books in consideration by all the best houses"; "our list is confidential till you sign with us"; "we've had many best sellers"; "we've worked on books such as". The EXACT phrase you want to hear is "I sold this title, and that title, and this title and they are published/forthcoming from this, that and the other publishing house". NO exceptions.

That's the first thing. You'll probably knock 25% of the agents off your list with that. There's a lot of obfuscation slithering around agent lists.

Second, you want to know if the agent is a member of AAR, OR subscribes to the Code of Ethics. Several very good agents aren't members of AAR cause AAR doesn't let you do packaging. Some just choose not to be part of the group. Some newish agents don't yet qualify.

That's all ok, as long as they say things like "we don't belong; here's why; we subscribe to the code of ethics". Avoid anyone ANYONE who says AAR is for wusses, it's too expensive, I don't want to be in the club, etc." That's the sign of an agent who can't qualify.

Third, no reading fees. Not now, not ever. Never. No exceptions.

Fourth, location. You don't need an agent based in NYC to have a good agent. Many very very good agents are outside the city. Boston, Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and some very foreign place called...New Jersey...all have excellent agents.

That said, I like being in NYC cause it's where the action is, it's where all the fun stuff goes on, there's a greater opportunity for serendipity and besides, I love New York with all my heart. You'll get me out of here only when a house falls on me, or Mr. Clooney diverts the subway to his own private lair in Italy.

After the basic stuff, query widely. You don't want to query "a" literary agent. You want to query MANY. It's more who wants to take you on, if you have good rapport with that person, if their working style matches yours, etc.

It's a bit like having a list of things to look for in a date: yes he has to be Catholic (or whatever) but you can learn to love brown eyes instead of blue.


Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, perhaps I'll recieve nitwit of the day for my questioning, but I must ask:

Exactly when can you ask an agent, or group of agents, what they have sold?

If it's not posted on their website, and you haven't been able to ask anyone who knows them personally, then I honestly can't see how you'd ask until you've already sent them your manuscript.

Anonymous said...

Cynthia writes:

Another couple of filters for screening agents and generating your list to query: 1) Does he/she fit in with your career plan and 2) Does he/she have contacts with the houses you ultimately want to buy your books? Not THIS book, but some book in the distant future.

I chose to q&s agents who (a) were members of the AAR; (b) had a solid track record of sales in my genre; (c) sold books to the publisher I was currently targeting and (b) sold books to the publisher I ultimately wanted to target. These agents would be able to help me now (when my career started) and later (when I wanted to write my break-out book.)

Yes, I know Miss Snark says she does cold calls all the time and she doesn't limit pitching her clients' books to just those editors she knows ... but really, you're much more likely to sell something to someone you know, because you KNOW what that person wants, and you're not going to send him the wrong thing.

Also, in answer to the previous comment, many top agents don't have websites. They don't need 'em. But if you want to know who agented what, Bill's List of Agents is a good list of what book was represented by what agent.

And Another good website is

Of course they want you to buy their services, but they do have a free listing of the agents of the best-selling books (fiction/non-fiction) back to 2002.

Jarsto said...

In some cases you'll even have to research the sales the agent claims to have made. Writer Beware's blog was talking about fake track records just yesterday. This was with an agent who also seemed to have some dubious fee charging practices, but it can't hurt to keep this in mind with all submissions.

Dave Kuzminski said...

There's a web site in Australia that's tracking book sales to publishers by agent. Admittedly, it's mostly genre related, but it's a start for some writers. I have a link to it on the New page at P&E inside the section for new listings in the Related section. If that doesn't make sense, select New from the menu, scroll down almost to the bottom of the page where there's a section called Related. You'll find it there.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Damn, but I'm getting some great character names from the random word verification on this blog. ;)

Anonymous said...

I find Publisher's Marketplace to be well worth the monthly subscription fee for the ability to search the deals database.

They have a free version of course with weekly deals but the daily update on the site members can see is ever so much better.


Anonymous said...

It makes sense to beware of an agency that has no sales. But what about newbie agents at good firms? That is, folks who don't have a sale yet? Obviously everyone starts somewhere...

Elektra said...

To the first anon:
I once called an agent after she asked for a full, to ask her what she'd sold (her reply to my query had seemed very form-ish). And though she was legit, I found out something just as important--she treated me like I was the biggest nitwit on the planet for asking. So I saved myself the postage, and am still glad I never decided to do business with her.

Anonymous said...

I went with a "new" agent with only a few sales under her belt. She was open and honest about what she had sold. We discussed what mentorship/advice she had access to. Because she didn't have many clients she had a lot of time to spend on me and my fragile writers ego. She just sold my first novel to a major publisher. Sometimes a new agent is the perfect fit.

Jenna said...

Congrats, Eileen!

And thanks for continuing to spread good advice, Miss Snark.

Mark said...

Some with minimal sales, and none anyone has heard of still get snitty over over the transom submissions. After a month or so, I submitted a second proposal and got axed for exceeding the limit. Whatever. Who needs that kind of grief?