Literary Agents: Get Reputable Author Representation and Avoid Getting Scammed

Since our book The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death and Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery came out, we’ve dealt with various people asking us about the process of landing an agent.

Hence, we thought we’d offer a few insights here.

Finding the right literary agent can be a real headache. Here are several online and print resources that can make the hunt less daunting. Googling ‘New York’ and ‘literary agent’, surprisingly, is a good first step because within the Big Apple’s city limits beats the heart of book publishing. However, even though the majority ply their trade in the Five Boroughs there are good ones everywhere. More important than geography, is that a prospective agent is part of a professional body.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives

The Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) not only insists its members abide by a canon of professional ethics (for example, not charging fees as agents earn a living from a percentage of an author’s advance and royalties), but has a strict admittance criterion based on how often agents are able to sell author works to publishers within a given period of time. An author would obviously not be well served by an agent who last sold rights to a book years ago.

AAR and similar groups also have comprehensive listings of agent members, who often have websites where a writer can submit their queries online, great in this electronic age so that one doesn’t have to agonize over self-addressed stamped envelopes and being at the whim of the postal service. [Editor's note: There are still agencies that do not accept email queries. Luckily, at least half do. Read submission guidelines carefully. Some agencies USED to allow queries but now only get referral clients]

A fantastic site is Agent Query. There, you can pick and choose your agent based on the genres they represent. If you write cookbooks just pick that out of the pull down menu and presto.

The agenting business is fiercely competitive, with some agents getting hundreds (!) of queries a month. If a writer specializes in historical fiction, they should only query agents open to that, rather than thinking their stuff is so brilliant that it would even entice someone who deals mostly in romance or crime.

However you find your agent, check and see if the agent or agency is a member of AAR or its equivalent across the pond, the Association of Authors’ Agents (UK). Unfortunately, there is no comparable Canadian agent oversight body that we know of, perhaps due to the industry’s relatively small size.

If an agent is NOT a member of one of the aforementioned associations, it’s due to the following:

1. They charge fees, or are engaged in other unscrupulous and unethical behavior
2. They are too new to have accumulated sufficient rights sales to be considered for accreditation.
3. They simply never bothered joining.

Of these, consider 2 and 3 and AVOID 1. It’s not uncommon for an agent to work in a big, successful house, and feel the need to branch out and start up their own agency, and have yet to amass any rights sales. They still have editorial contacts and a great previous track record. ALWAYS check recent rights sales. (in fact, this should be done for AAR ones too, just in case). At MINIMUM, agents should at least adhere to the codes and conduct set out by the AAR and should ideally be in the process of seeking admittance to it. Again, if no rights sales are listed, that should be a red flag. If no authors are listed on agent websites, another red flag.

Also, check out agent bios. If they’re on the up and up, you’ll be able to tell where they did their post grad/undergrad and they’ll more often than not say things like “spent ten years at Random House as an editor”. If they say things like ‘worked in publishing for a decade’, watch out. Look for specifics.

The Guide to Literary Agents

In addition to online agent sources, the annually updated book The Guide to Literary Agents, is a useful source, however the contact info is occasionally out of date by the time it’s been printed. Our preference is to deal online.

Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) runs a very helpful site called ‘Writer Beware’, and offers a variety of advice and services. They have resources for how to deal with being defrauded and also have a blacklist of pseudo agents.

Preditors and Editors is a great place to track down agents. It’s organized alphabetically and notes agencies that have gone under, have had complaints levied against them or who no longer have operational websites.

This is a great resource which lists complaints that have been raised about agent conduct. There are no guarantees (given that there is no test for becoming an agent) and on occasion, complaints have even been levied against those who hold AAR membership. As the title ‘Preditor’ implies, there are lots of shady people out there, looking to get ‘reading fees’ or miscellaneous ‘upfront or administrative fees’ out of often desperate writers. Some lawyers even fancy themselves book agents, as they know how to read and decipher contracts, but do not engage in proper conduct befitting a literary agent.

Be careful, and best of luck.