Researching New Agents

Antique Writer's FriendsIndustry publications like Writer’s Digest or Publishers Lunch often include announcements of new literary agents just entering the business. We are told these agents are a “golden opportunity” for writers and illustrators since they are actively building their client lists.

So are new agents a goldmine or a minefield? The answer is “it depends.”

On the plus side, the odds are in your favor when querying new agents. A new agent may sign several new clients per year versus an established agent who only signs one or two. And once you sign with a new agent, you’ll likely get a larger share of their time and attention, at least until they have expanded their list.

But without a sales track record, it’s difficult for creators to evaluate whether a new agent can be effective. We’ve heard time and time again that no agent is better than a bad one. So what’s a creator to do? Do your research, ask a lot of questions, and listen carefully to the answers.

  1. Consider the agent’s work experience. If the agent started at a publisher that is a plus. They’ll have a good sense of what sells, and, if they worked in editorial, they’ll have honed their craft. Definitely consider the house where the agent worked. That publisher is likely where their strongest networks lie. Still, many successful agents did not come from the publishing world. Great agents may have started as booksellers or lawyers and learned the job through hands-on experience. Find out how they gained that experience. Did they attend a publishing course? Did they intern for a year or two at an established agency (or work as an agency assistant) before hanging out their shingle? All of these indicate a commitment to learning the business and show a level of experience.
  2. In the absence of the agent’s own sales track record, examine the agency’s sales. Without their own reputation and relationships, new agents rely on those of their agency. So carefully investigate the agency’s sales track record. Look at their recent deals. Which publishers are represented? Are those the publishers you envision for your work? Likely the new agent’s deals will be at similar houses.
  3. Find out how the agent is being mentored. You may not be able to ask about mentoring until “the call.” However, if you are considering a new agent, make sure you know the type of support they have from their agency. Ask them how they would handle a contractual issue they’ve never faced before, for example. In the best situation, new agents will have a senior agent they can turn to when unexpected situations arise.

And before we end, a few “bewares” when it comes to new agents. Unlike doctors or astronauts, anyone can declare themselves a literary agent. Here are a few red flags:

  • A new agent who starts their own agency right off the bat.
  • A new agent who joins an agency with limited publishing experience or a less-than-stellar reputation.
  • A new agent at an agency that sells to mostly small publishers that don’t pay advances.
  • A new agent who bounces from agency to agency. It’s common for new agents to intern at an agency and then move on to another, but an agent who’s at three or more agency in rapid succession warrants further investigation.

So, yes, new agents can be a “golden opportunity,” with the right combination of experience and mentoring. Want more information about evaluating literary agents? See Writer Beware’s article here.


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