How to Evaluate a Literary Agent

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

When it comes time for you to research agents, you may find it difficult to determine whether any given agent is legitimate, effective, or the right one for you. Most authors are so eager to land an agent, that they will rarely stop and take the time to thoroughly evaluate whether an agent is appropriate to begin with.

But this process of evaluation is crucial, as it will prevent you from querying the wrong agents, and will prevent you from potentially signing with an agent that is wrong for you. As a literary agent for the last 13 years, I have encountered too many authors who have signed hastily with agents, and have come to regret it. If there is anything worse than not landing an agent, it is landing an inappropriate or ineffective agent, one who can tie up your career indefinitely.

The below questions will help you in your process of evaluation, serving as a guideline to help you make your determination. While it may feel as if agents are in control of the process, you are actually the one in control, because it is you who decides whom to include in your submission. This is your chance to be in the driver's seat. If after considering all of these factors carefully you don't feel an agent is right for you, then don't include him. There are hundreds of good agents out there, and it is always best to be discriminating.

13 Factors to Consider When Evaluating an Agent

1. Is he legitimate?

Does he charge a reading fee? If so, don't query him. There are many excellent agents that will read your query for free, and these are the ones you should approach.

2. Fiction or non-fiction?

Many agents will represent one or the other, but not both. As a starting point, make sure he is representing predominantly fiction (if you are a novelist) or non-fiction (if you are not).

3. Literary or commercial?

Many agents tend to lean towards representing only literary or commercial work. As a starting point, make sure he is representing predominantly literary or commercial works, depending on what you have written.

4. Historical or Contemporary (fiction)?

Many agents who represent fiction tend to lean towards representing either contemporary or historical fiction. As a starting point, make sure he is representing predominantly contemporary or historical, depending on what you have written.

5. Practical or Narrative (non-fiction)?

Many agents who represent non-fiction tend to represent either practical (i.e. parenting, business) or narrative (i.e. history, biography) non-fiction. Memoir tends to fall into a class by itself. In any case, make sure he has a track record representing your particular genre.

6. Hardcover or paperback?

There is a divide in the publishing industry between editors who publish hardcover or paperback editions; likewise, some agents will tend to represent more paperback original deals, while others will represent more hardcover deals. While it is possible to achieve a huge success with a paperback original, as a starting point, if given the option, it would be preferable for you to land a hardcover deal.

7. How many deals has he made in his career?

There is a big difference between being represented by an agent who has consummated 5 deals in his career and one who has consummated 200. I've been an agent for 13 years and have consummated over 200 book deals, and yet even now, after all this time, no two book deals are the same. Every book deal has its own unique issues, and there is no way to know what to expect without having simply done a certain amount of deals--and even then, you will always be surprised. Being a literary agent is a profession where experience is all. If you sign with an agent who has done only three deals, you take the risk of ending up with a deal or a contract which is not as good as it could have been.
That said, at the same time, you are far more likely to find an agent to represent you if you target those who have done fewer deals. So it can be a fine line. There is nothing necessarily wrong with an agent who has only done a few deals--everyone has to start somewhere. But if you have two offers of representation, and one agent has done far more deals than the other, then, all things being equal, choose the latter.

8. How many deals has he made recently?

Perhaps an agent has done 200 deals in his career but has only made one deal in the past year; alternately, another agent may have only done 24 deals in his career, but did 15 of them in the past year. If you have to choose between the two, all things being equal, choose the latter. The publishing industry is a fleeting one; agents and editors come and go all the time. Like Hollywood, the industry is not about what you have done last year, but about what you have done right now. The agent who is active now is more likely to be more up to date with industry information.

9. What kind of publishers has he done deals with?

It's very telling to see not only how many deals an agent has done, but which publishers he has done them with. Has he done 20 deals, and are 18 of them with small presses? Has he done 12 deals, but all of them are with major publishers? Has he only done deals with academic publishers? Have 11 of his 12 deals been with the same publisher? Ideally, you want an agent who has done the vast majority of his deals with a broad variety of major publishers, since major publishers tend to pay the highest advances, print the most copies of your book, get the most review attention, and get the best distribution. Of course, there will always be exceptions--many small-presses prove this wrong--but as a rule of thumb, you do want to start with major publishers first. If a potential agent has only done deals with small publishers, for example, this is a red flag.

10. What kind of advances has he negotiated?

If an agent has done 40 deals, and none have been for six figure advances, it is a red flag; alternately, if another agent has done 12 deals, and 8 have been for six figure advances, you should lean towards him. Some agents think big, while other agents don't; some agents have stronger negotiating skills than others; some are just better at what they do. I don't want to give you false hopes: landing an agent at all is a major accomplishment, and landing a book deal--for any advance--with a reputable publisher is an even greater accomplishment. There is nothing necessarily wrong with an agent getting you a $10,000 advance, and in fact the vast majority of deals are for less than six figures, probably even for less than $50,000. However, you don't want to limit yourself out the gate, and it's best to begin your search with agents who consistently land bigger deals.

11. Do you recognize any of the other authors he represents?

Just because an agent is representing "literary fiction," it doesn't necessarily mean he has great taste in books, or that he represents acclaimed authors. If two agents equally want to represent you, and you know that one of them represents authors you've heard of and respect, and the other has authors you've never heard of, it's safer to go with the former. It does take time to build a client list, but if an agent has been in the business for 10 years and you still don't recognize a single author he represents, then it is a red flag.

12. Do you think you'd be a good match with his client list?

Based on the authors and books he represents, do you think you'd be a good match with his client list? If one agent represents ten clients and they are all major literary lions, and another represents ten clients and they are all first time novelists, and you yourself would be a first time novelist, chances are the latter would both be more likely to represent you and would give you more time and attention. Similarly, do you feel that the subject matter and style of the books he's represented are similar to yours? Do you instinctively feel that he would "get" your work? These are all important issues to consider.
Along these lines, you might begin by making a list of authors whom you respect and/or who are writing books similar to yours, and begin by approaching their agents. Although, this could also hurt you: if an agent has sold a book similar to yours, he might not want to take on a work too similar, for fear of competing with his own clients. Yet in the scheme of things, it is better to start with an agent who represents work similar to yours.

13. How receptive is he to new clients?

If an agent has been in business for 5 years, he will be less likely to take on new clients than if he had just started--even less so if he has been an agent for 10 years. As a rule of thumb, beginning writers stand a much better chance of landing an agent if they target an agent who is just starting out, someone who has been an agent for three years or less, someone who has proven himself by securing at least a few deals with major houses but is actively looking for more clients. (This factor alone can make the difference in finding an agent.) Just because an agent is starting out doesn't make him any less competent or capable; in fact, it often makes him work harder on your behalf--which can make the difference in getting you your first deal.

When researching any given agent, you may not be able to find out all of the above information. For example, you might find out about some of the clients he represents, but not how receptive he is to new clients; you might find out how many deals he's done, but not how large the advances were; you might find out about a few of his successful titles, but not about his entire range of deals. Not all publishing deals are reported to the press, and thus a website may tell you an agent has consummated 50 deals when in fact he has consummated 150.

Thus be careful not to rule out any given agent too soon: if you are serious about a potential agent, truly research deeply, and cross-reference as many sites and sources as you possibly can. Know that even with the best research, you will probably not be able to find out everything. Also know that even if you do find out everything, and even if all of your research points to the absolutely perfect agent for you, that agent might very well surprise you and not be interested; conversely, research might indicate that an agent is an unlikely match for you, and he may turn out to be perfect. None of this is a science.

Now that you know what to look for in evaluating an agent, the next step is knowing where to look in order to find out all of the necessary information. As I discuss at length in my book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent, there are dozens of free resources that can give you this information instantly, and I will share many of them with you in the next installment of this article.

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