How to Choose a Literary Agent

A recent question from a writer has inspired my thoughts on how to choose a literary agent. The question:

“I have an agent who is new interested in my manuscript. Based on her existing clientele, I feel I have a good chance of sparking this woman’s attention. I also have a well-known agent sitting on a full of one and a partial of a second. In the event that either one of them should contact me. . . especially the former. . . I don’t know what to ask her to help me make a decision. Obviously if they both are interested in the same manuscript, I would probably go with the larger name and proven track record of sales. But can you offer any guidance as to what I could ask, what I could look up, what I could possibly do, to decide if I would want to work with this new agent?”

Best Tips for How to Choose a Literary Agent

The first tip for how to choose a literary agent is that having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all. By “bad” agent, I mean everything from a scam agent who takes your money and doesn’t do anything for you to a well-intentioned individual who just doesn’t have the contacts and industry-savvy to succeed.

So, the first step is to vet the agent. To rule out the scam agents, I would check out the Writer Beware blog, and Absolute Write forums, especially the Bewares and Background Checks thread.

Assuming that you only queried legit agents in the first place, you’ll want to make sure that your prospective agent can do the job. If the agent is new, this is harder to judge because of a lack of track record. (On the plus side, new agents are more open to taking on clients).

What’s important is that the agent has experience in the publishing industry and understands how it works. Good agents are often former acquisitions editors. Sometimes they’re former sales reps, and occasionally they’re book authors who’ve been in the business a long time and know something about it.

What you don’t want is someone who thinks that what works in another field (for example, used car sales) is going to work in publishing. Someone whose experience in publishing is tangential (worked in a bookstore) or only with smaller publishers isn’t your best bet, either. This is not an entry-level position.

A new agent at an established agency is a better risk to take than a new agent who sets up her own agency. An established agency has connections in the publishing industry and can help the new agent through every aspect of recruiting clients to selling their books to negotiating their contracts and beyond.

When deciding between a new agent and a more experienced agent, you’ll probably do better with the agent who has a record of sales in your genre. However, I will add a few caveats. Assuming that both agents are competent, then you really have to go with who is going to be a better fit for you. It’s true that going with the more established agent who has a longer track record makes sense, but it’s also possible that your book wouldn’t get the attention it needs from someone who has lots of other clients who themselves have track records and are thus easier for the agent to sell.

The only way you can get a handle on this is by having a conversation with the agent. Ask what her process is, ask what her dream client is/does. Think about what you need. Do you need a lot of guidance, reassurance, and hand-holding? There is nothing wrong with that, but an agent who doesn’t have time for it isn’t going to be a good fit (which is not to say a new agent will have time for it and a more established agent won’t; that’s just a matter of personality and priorities).

How would the agent pitch your book? What is her pitching process? Are you comfortable with it?

I have a friend whose agent said, “I want to pitch this as YA, is that okay?” My friend had never considered her book as being YA, but when she thought about it, she realized that was an absolutely appropriate thing to do. But if she’d hated the idea, she and the agent would have had a problem.

Beyond that, I think you have to go with the agent who is most excited about your project and about representing you. It’s a tough slog, especially these days, and you need a lot of enthusiasm to carry you through to the sale. You need an agent who isn’t going to give up after the first five tries.

My best tip for how to choose a literary agent is to ask for a few days to think about an offer of representation. Then you can let anyone else who has a partial or full know you have an offer and let them make their move if they’re going to make it. It also gives you some time to think of questions you didn’t remember to ask and to check with colleagues to find out what they know. You can also see about talking with other clients of the agent before signing on. That can be a good way to get a sense of what it’s like to work with a particular agent.

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