Literary agents are not created equal, and a bad or incompetent agent is worse than no agent at all.
A literary agent needs to be a) legitimate b) have a suitable track record and c) be a match for you, your work, and your career. Finding the right literary agent to approach therefore requires some research, because even a well-known and successful agent may still not be the right one for your work.
First, let’s deal with legitimacy.
Anyone can set up as a literary agent – they don’t need to have a qualification, be a member of a governing body, or have relevant experience – they can just call themselves an agent.
There is a difference between the kind of well-meaning but ignorant people who don’t really know what the job requires or just aren’t up to it, and the kind who are out to scam authors, but either way they usually wave a red flag or two, and since you’re not a bull, you should resist the urge to charge towards them. At best, they’ll waste your time and maybe take some of your money.
In the 2000s, the main scam for a fake literary agent was charging authors reading fees, and then sending out the manuscripts semi-randomly to publishers, or just throwing them in the bin. A newer scam is a kind of phishing: Impersonating well-known agents to ask for fees for various services, and if you pay you’ll be asked for more and more.
Sometimes a person who is well-meaning but ignorant sets up as a sole agent – there’s nothing stopping them and maybe they think they can really do it – and this sort of person can do quite a bit of damage to an author’s career, especially if their lack of competence isn’t immediately obvious. They may claim to have relevant experience (though probably not as an editor and possibly not in publishing at all), they have a website which lists some authors, and they may have made a deal for some of those authors.
The cracks start to appear later: The agent’s list isn’t developing because editors won’t look at the agent’s submissions anymore, so there are no more deals and authors are leaving; authors who got a deal are disappointed with their sales and want their rights back from the publisher, but it turns out the contract wasn’t negotiated and doesn’t allow for reversion; or maybe the agent begins to resort to unethical practices like insisting that new clients pay for their associated editorial services, or they are funnelling clients towards a publisher with whom they have a financial relationship; and so on.
This leads us into the next point, because the difference between a clueless amateur and a competent sole agent is very clear once you compare them: The competent one has set up her own agency after years working for a larger agency, or as a senior commissioning editor, or both; whereas the clueless one can’t point to any editorial experience, but mentions something interesting or impressive but irrelevant, like a literary event she helped to run.
Track record and background
It’s absolutely necessary to check whether the literary agent you’re approaching has a suitable background as well as a track record of sales, because the responsibility for informing yourself and avoiding being taken advantage of is yours: You can’t blithely sign with a clear amateur and then claim you were tricked if you never even checked they were legitimate.
Their track record doesn’t necessarily need to be huge, because (depending on the work you’re presenting) it may even be better for you to sign with a younger and less experienced agent at a medium-sized or big agency: Someone who’s working hard on building their list, but has mentorship and guidance from a senior agent.
For this reason, it isn’t usually wise to go straight to the biggest names in agenting — even if they are taking on new clients, which they may well not be, their time is already taken up with more established authors and you might find you spend more time talking with their assistant or a junior agent, who may or may not really like your work.
Instead, as well as looking at their background, look at the authors the agent is already representing, and the books they’ve sold, and see whether you can see your work fitting in with the work they already represent.
Categories and potential
It ought to go without saying that there’s no point approaching a literary agent with work in a category they don’t represent — even if you love the sound of them, even if you met at an event and got along like twin souls, they are not best placed to sell your work, and they know that.
Much better to approach agents who represent not only the categories your work falls into, but also sells to the kind of publisher that successfully sells that kind of work.
This is where your research needs to become both deep and wide: You need to know your categories, which authors are doing well in them, and who is publishing those authors.
Are the successful books in your genre published by Big 5 publishers, small presses, or are they self-published?
If your genre is a big one, such as crime or romance, there will be examples of successful authors at all types of traditional publisher, as well as self-publishing. If it’s a niche, you may not be able to find examples at the big houses, and only a few at small presses — and in that case, do you really need a literary agent?
The realistic size of your book’s potential is relevant too, and this question can be difficult for an author to evaluate themselves. Genre fiction and general non-fiction is unlikely to get lots of attention in the marketplace unless it’s genuinely remarkable or fresh in some way (and so it’s unlikely to be a lead title for the publisher). Fiction suitable for book clubs, and popular non-fiction from an author with a great platform, tend to get more attention and may be attractive to a publisher with deeper pockets and a desire to spend more time and money marketing the title.
These things aren’t set in stone either, as careers follow all sorts of paths: A new voice may unexpectedly win prizes, sell thousands of copies, and start a new trend. Another author will quietly sell a respectable number of copies for the first few books, before breaking out and becoming a bestselling name. And a much-hyped author may make disappointing numbers with the second or third book, before finding that less pressure makes for better books and a steadier stream of sales.
Again, the last point feeds into the next: Compatibility is the key here. Compatibility between you and your work, your literary agent, and your publisher, which is not an easy mix to create.
However, you have agency here — you’re not looking for any literary agent that will have you, you’re looking for the right one for your career. This should be a decision for the long term, as chopping and changing agents does your career and your reputation no good.
Once you get talking to an agent who has a high degree of enthusiasm for your work, make sure you align on the other important things too. The agent should obviously be pretty confident they can sell the book you’re showing them, as well as broadly agreeing with you about the direction your career should take.
Find out whether they’re the kind of agent who expects to work with you editorially, or whether future manuscripts need to be ready to sell. Are they willing to answer questions, and discuss issues like what further work the manuscript needs, the reason for rejection by an editor, or whether some repositioning is needed?
This does not mean you may pepper them with questions every day or expect lightning-fast replies: Don’t be a diva, remember they’re genuinely very busy and only part of their time is going to be spent on you.
Check what’s going to happen about contractual negotiations too — will they handle the negotiation personally and if so are they experienced with contracts, or will they outsource this, or hand that stage over to the agency’s contracts manager?
There’s a lot to research and figure out before you find your perfect literary agent, but it boils down to whether they are a) legitimate b) have a suitable track record and c) are a match for you, your work, and your career.
Answering these questions requires quite a bit of prep, and some very objective evaluation of the potential of your own work and where it fits in the publishing landscape. An independent opinion can be a great help here, and so one of my services is helping authors prepare for submitting their work.