A few posts back, I linked to an example of the sort of agent website that fairly screams “Avoid!” Unfortunately, the reason I know about this website is that someone wrote me to ask whether the agent was reputable. You’d think that some things--an inability to spell, for instance--would register on the clue meter. Sadly, for many people, that’s not so.
But there are also more subtle signs of wrongness that are harder to recognize. Here, therefore, are some tips for evaluating an agent’s website.
WHAT YOU SHOULD SEE
Reputable agents’ websites vary a lot. Some stick to the basics--staff, sales, submission guidelines--while others include extras, such as interviews with clients, FAQ’s for new authors, query letter or proposal guidelines, links to helpful resources...the list goes on. But there are two things you really want to see:
A list of recently published books. If the agency has been in business for six months or more, it should have sales, and those sales should be given a prominent place on the website. Some agents simply list what they’ve sold; some provide thumbnails of book covers and links to Amazon; some include capsule information on the books and/or bios of the authors.
Whatever the format, it should include the title, the author, and the publisher, so you can check that a) the books really exist (because bad agents sometimes make up sales), b) the sales actually are recent (some marginal agents who've turned to the dark side have sales from years and years back--but having a track record from 1991 says nothing about the agent's ability to sell your book next week), and c) the publishers are real publishers (because sometimes they’re not. See my earlier post, Faking a Track Record. Remember, bad agents lie).
Some agents also provide a list of clients. This is even better than an enumeration of recent sales, since it lets you do a more thorough evaluation of the agency’s interests and expertise. Not all agencies are willing to post a full client list, however, so if you don't see one, it isn’t cause for alarm.
The name(s) of the agent(s) and information about their background. Not only does this assure you that the agents are qualified to be agents (or not, if this is an amateur agent who’s honest enough to provide a CV), it will help you decide which agent is best for you to approach, if it’s a multi-agent agency.
Knowing the agent’s professional background is especially important if the agent is new and hasn’t yet built up a track record. You want to be sure that a new agent has actually worked in publishing or trained at another reputable agency. Here’s why.
Finding any one of these on an agent’s website should make you wary. More than one should start alarm bells ringing. Most or all should motivate you to walk very fast in the opposite direction.
No sales. A brand-new agency will take a few months to start selling. Longer than a year, however, suggests that the agent lacks either expertise or contacts. If an agency has been around for a year or more and no sales are listed, be very cautious. This is the principal thing that distinguishes the website of a questionable agent from that of a reputable agent: no mention of sales.
Unverifiable sales claims. Reputable agents provide specifics: author, title, publisher. Less reputable agents make claims that can’t be checked: "We've sold to major publishers such as Avon, Penguin, and Random House" or "Last year we sold 15 books." Unverifiable sales claims are meaningless.
A claim that sales information is “confidential”. It’s not. Agents report sales to the media as soon as the ink on the publishing contract is dry. The only reason not to list sales is if there are none, or if the list reflects badly on the agent.
A client list unaccompanied by information about published books. Not all reputable agents list their clients, but all reputable agents list their sales. A client list means very little if no sales info is provided. Of course, you can look the clients up on Amazon--and you should. Odds are, you’ll find they’re unpublished.
No information on who’s running the agency. Reputable agents say who they are. If you can’t find the name of an actual person on the website, move on. If the agent or agents are listed but there’s no biographical information, do some more digging. Don’t take anything at face value.
Spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical errors. This should be obvious, right? A literary agent should be literate.
Ignorant and/or silly statements. For instance, urging you to register copyright (a good agent should know that's not necessary). Or telling you that your manuscript must be "professionally edited" (watch out--the agent may want to recommend an editor). Or saying that new authors rarely get published (this is a common writer's myth--a good agent knows it's not true). Or a statement that the agency works only with "traditional" publishers (apart from the fact that "traditional publisher" has no accepted industry meaning, this should go without saying). Or a claim to specialize in new writers (new writers usually make up a fairly small percentage of an established agent's list). Or lots of verbiage about how the publishing industry is shutting out original voices, or overlooking good stories, or ignoring the potential of unpublished authors (this is often a sign that the agency is run by frustrated writers--not a good thing).
THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER
The absence of a website. Successful agencies don’t need to advertise--word of mouth and market listings bring them all the submissions they can handle. In the late 1990’s, when most businesses were frantically scrambling to establish websites, agents were an exception. This has changed. Still, there are many successful agencies that haven’t yet gotten round to creating a website. So the absence of a website doesn’t, as some new writers fear, indicate that the agency isn’t reputable.
The presence of a website. Nor does the existence of a website say anything about an agency’s legitimacy. It’s as easy for a scammer to set up a website as it is for a legitimate agent.
A domain name. Many people assume that a domain name is a sign of business legitimacy. But plenty of scammers have their own domain names, and a few successful agents are still on free servers or share domains with others.
Good or bad design. A lot of bad agents have ugly, amateurishly-designed websites. But so do some successful agents. Many top agents have gorgeously designed sites--but so do some scammers. It isn’t how the site looks, it’s what it contains--or doesn’t contain. See above.
Business memberships. Some writers are impressed if an agent claims membership in the BBB or other business group. They shouldn't be. Such memberships are irrelevant. The ONLY membersthip that counts for a literary agent is one of the professional agents' trade associations such as the AAR, AAA, or AALA. There's more about credentials here.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Some examples of what I consider to be exemplary agents’ websites:
Manus & Associates
The Knight Agency
Some websites of agents on Writer Beware's 20 Worst list:
Children’s Literary Agency
Mocknick Productions Literary Agency Inc.
The Abacus Group Literary Agency
Desert Rose Literary Agency