Written by Emily Harstone December 23rd, 2019

How To Find the Right Agent

Researching agents can be a time-consuming process, but I would never submit to an agent without first doing significant research.

To me, research is the most important step of the submission process. It is vital, because there is no point going through all the work of writing your manuscript and submitting, just to end up with an agent that does not properly represent you or your manuscript.

An agent that could be a good fit for another author or even another one of your manuscripts might not be the right agent for this particular project. And just like any other industry there are bad agents out there that could misrepresent you in any number of ways, Writer Beware (a volunteer organization that works on behalf of writers) has a terrific section on dishonest agents.

It is important to note that many agents do not work alone, and most of the more successful agents, although not all, are part of, or head, a larger agency.

When submitting to an agency you often submit to individual agents that work there. Sometimes the agency is very established, but the agents within that agency that are open to unsolicited submissions are the newer ones. All these are important factors to consider when the time comes to submit.

I would say that over half of the agents I research in the genre I write in, I dismiss after researching. Or I put them in a document on my computer with notes about what I liked and didn’t like about them, to review for potential submission at a later date. In other words I would consider submitting to them, but only after a significant number of rejections from more established agents.

How to Find Potential Agents

The first step of researching agents is always the same. It involves finding agents that are worth looking into further. I usually start with a genre search on Query Tracker. This is the way many authors find the agents that end up representing them. This search engine has plenty of filters so it is easy to look for agents that focus on your genre of writing.

Although you should always verify by other means that they actually do focus on that genre, before submitting. You also need to verify that they are a legitimate agency elsewhere.

Another method, and the one with which I personally have found the best leads, is to read books in the same genre that you write in, and when you find a book or an author you like, figure out who their agent is. Often the agent is specifically thanked in the Acknowledgements section of the book, but if they are not, Googling the name of the author and the word ‘agent’ will often find good results as well.

I also use Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum to find agents. Usually I look just by browsing the Agents and Publishers forum. I always keep my eye out for the longer threads spanning multiple pages; that is generally a good sign with agents (less so with publishers).

Another way to find Agent is through attending literary conferences. Agents often attend literary conferences, and there are various ways to communicate with them, or pitch to them during the conference. If you are attending a conference specifically to seek agents, research the agents beforehand to see if you would actually want to work with them (and they with you – most agents focus on a specific genre). Also approach with caution any sessions where they are charging you an additional fee to pitch.

How to Research an Agent Outside of their Website

You can also learn a lot about the agent or agency just by browsing their website, but I always research the agent outside their website first. Visiting the website first can color your perspective too much.

I already mentioned Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum above as a potential way to find agents, but the way I primarily use it is to vet agents. The forums are active and get a lot of use. If an  author has a good or bad experience with an agent, they often will share it. Other people in the industry also chime in. Victoria Strauss, the co-founder of Writer Beware, is active there.

Because it is a forum and everyone can post, you sometimes have to take entries with a grain of salt. But there is a lot of good information to be had there. If an agent or agency isn’t discussed there, it is usually because they are new, small, or not very active, and that itself can be a clear sign, although there are exceptions.

Doing a Google search of the agency or agent is also good. A write-up in Publishers Weekly can be a good thing, but they also write a lot of “puff pieces” about agents and publishing houses so I try not to take them too seriously. Wikipedia, as most people already know, is not generally a trustworthy source in this area either. One of the things that is valuable is that sometimes the agent is mentioned on author websites (helpful), or the agency is maligned on Glassdoor (not a good sign).

It is very important to make sure the agency isn’t on the Writer Beware Thumbs Down Agencies List. At this point I almost have the list memorized.

How to Evaluate an Agent’s Website

A lot can be learned from the agent’s website itself. An established and reputable agent will have the names of at least some of the authors and books they have represented right on their website. It is important that these books and names are currently relevant. For example if they only mention representing one or two authors that were successful 20 years ago but have not published in a decade, they are to be avoided, generally.

But the clearest, best indicator of a legitimate agency that could place your book with a good publisher, in my experience, is their track record, the authors that they work with and the books they represent.

It is very important that an agent be active in the genre that you hope to publish in. If they are not, they do not understand how that genre works, and often don’t have the relevant connections that will help your book be considered by the right publishers. If they say they accept your genre but have not represented any books in that genre, I would approach with caution.

It is a good sign if an agent is a member of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR).  That in and of itself is not a stamp of approval though, it is just an indicator that they are probably competent. It’s important to remember that not all good agents are AAR members, and I wouldn’t eliminate an agent just because they are not a member.

New agents can be good, although they are more of a risk because they don’t have a track record. However, you should only consider submitting to a new agent if they have industry experience (more on that here).  They should make it very clear what experience they have on their website.

An agent should never charge an upfront fee. That is a clear indicator that they are not a legitimate agent. The same goes for agents who offer editing services for a fee. A combination editor/agent website is usually a clear warning sign, although those lines are starting to blur.

A number of successful agents now run publishing companies and/or have editing services. If that is the case, ideally, these different businesses will remain separate. For example an author taken on by the agent will not be offered a contract by that agent’s publishing company or be encouraged to use that agent’s paid editorial services. Sometimes this multi-business approach is clear on the agent’s site itself, other times Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum is where it is mentioned. If it is talked about on the forum, it is usually clear if the agency manages to run multiple businesses in a legitimate way, or not. Always look for fees and signs of multiple businesses or redirection on the website.

In Conclusion

Researching agents might seem overwhelming at first, but the good news is the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Spending a lot of time researching agents helps, but so does spending time increasing your base of knowledge by reading Writer Beware. One picks up warning signs much quicker as one’s base of knowledge expands.

Because it is important to keep track of the research one does, not to mention the submissions one makes, I have two files on my computer devoted to agents and publishers. One includes notes about the agents and publishers I am considering submitting to, as well as a list of agencies and publishers I do not want to consider in the future. The other file tracks my submissions to agents and publishers. It indicates the responses I have received and how long it took to receive them.  If I received a request for a full manuscript before receiving a rejection, I make sure to indicate that.  These two files help the submission process immensely.

Emily Harstone is the author of many popular books, including The Authors Publish Guide to Manuscript SubmissionsThe 2019 Guide to Manuscript PublishersSubmit, Publish, Repeat, and The Authors Publish Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Publishing.

She occasionally teaches a course on manuscript publishing, as well as a course on publishing in literary journals.


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