Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- Evaluating an Agent's Website

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.

WARNING SIGNS

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:

BookEnds, LLC
Manus & Associates
Jenny Bent
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

24 comments:

A. C. Crispin said...

I sure am glad you're back, Vic. As you can see, I kinda ran amok while you were out of town...

Great post, I'm sure it will be very useful!

-Ann C. Crispin

Dave Kuzminski said...

Absolutely good information and advice. Writers should read it and heed it.

michaelc said...

I don't know how carefully you picked out those sample websites, Victoria, but the differences between the good and the awful were very illuminating.

A. J. Luxton said...

Hey, for some reason all your blog links are at the bottom of the page! You might want to troubleshoot. :-)

I second michaelc's comment, by the way. A WORLD of difference. Thanks.

Bernita said...

More vital information, thank you.

The phrase, "frustrated writers" caught my eye - have been wondering about some small publishers as well who seem to have been established by the same.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

I think the proble AJ mentions is caused by the long row of asterisks in the April Fools' post - it goes outside the width of the main column.

Anyway, I was thinking of another possible sign of a legitimate agent. Many legit agency websites I've seen have a list stating what sort of books they will accept, and just as importantly, what they are not accepting. Many agents seem to have a few genres that they don't like or just plain can't sell. But most scammers seem to take anything in any genre - even things that aren't saleable.

Victoria Strauss said...

That's a good point, Matt. Agents specialize. An agent who's interested in every genre or market known to man should be approached with caution.

Another one I forgot to mention: an agent who wants poetry or short fiction. Apart from celebrity projects or collections by already-published writers, reputable agents don't represent poetry or short fiction, except maybe as a favor to an established client.

I don't see the formatting problem on my screen, but I'll see what I can do.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

Looks like you successfully fixed the formating, Victoria.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Another sign would be when agencies are related so that each offers representation to a different genre but they're all in the same office and the names of the agents turn out to be the same.

In the same vein, when it turns out that an agency shares office space or a mailing address with an editing service, a promotional service, a publisher, or any combination of the three.

Anonymous said...

Why are all the recommended literary agencies for romance and chick lit? How about guy stuff and general stuff? Any recommendations?

michaelc said...

Thanks to Matt, the problem was easy to fix. Yes, it was the asterisks.

That's what happens when Ann runs amok. ;-)

Diana Peterfreund said...

It's not "recommended literary agencies," anonymous. It's "examples of good agency websites." Victoria gave an example of four good agency websites, that's all.

Is it our fault that we chick lit writers pick such tech-savvy agents? :-)

(McManus appeared to specialize in non-fiction.)

Victoria Strauss said...

Diana's right. I didn't intend to recommend or endorse the agencies, just to identify their websites as good examples of the craft of agent-website-building. What you see on these sites should be what you look for on the site of any agent you're interested in querying.

Here's another interesting example:

Firebrand Literary.

This agency has been around for less than a year (it opened its doors in September 2005) but already claims a decent number of sales. With a new agency, this is what you want to see.

James Goodman said...

Vic, your link to Firebrand seems to be broke. It just scrolls you back to this comment section.

Great information though. Another thing I've seen on certain shifty agent's websites are testimonials from their clients (or posted without credit to the contributor) praising the agency, but when you google the clients (because you don't recognize a single name) none have any published works.

Sam said...

Here's the link for Firebrand:

http://www.firebrandliterary.com/

BookEnds, LLC said...

A client of ours passed this along and I want to thank Victoria and Ann both for recognizing our site and, primarily, for the hard work they do to protect the interest of authors. We have spent a lot of time (and continue to do so) creating a site that we hope authors can find useful and learn from and it's nice to know that we've succeeded.

--Jessica Faust, BookEnds

Paulo said...

Just a quick word of advice, every time I open the Mocknic website, it tries to send a virus (trojan) to my computer, and Norton detects and deletes it.

The trojan is "Download.Trojan" and it "connects to the Internet and downloads other Trojan horses or components", according to Norton's website.

Beware... and always keep your antivirus updated.

Anonymous said...

I am asking about an agency I can not find any info on. I was told to come here. Arthur Flemming literary agency. Can you tell me anything about him. If this agency is not recomended can you tell me why? Tiana

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous, please write to me with your question about the Fleming Agency at the Writer Beware email address: beware@sfwa.org. I'm on vacation right now, and don't have access to Writer Beware's database, but I'll respond when I return.

Anonymous said...

I was intending to ask about The New York Literary Agency, but I see that The Children's Literary Agency is mentioned above as being on the 'worst' list, and they seem to be the same agency. I'm still curious if there is anyone who's had experience with TNYLA. Thanks

gmarantz said...

Another question and I promise not to repeat this one (Is there some way I can delete a post?); I sent this scam agency my manuscript by email, should I have any concern about them using it?

Victoria Strauss said...

gmarantz, Writer Beware has heard from scores of writers who've had experience with NYLA and its fellow agencies--and before that, we heard from hundreds of writers who had experience with Sydra-Techniques/ST Literary/Stylus Literary, the agencies' predecessor. On Absolute Write, an excellent writers' message board, there's a thread dealing with this outfit that contains a number of first-hand reports.

You also asked about theft. A good agent won't risk his reputation by stealing; a bad agent isn't interested in your manuscript, only in your money. Either way, your ms. won't get stolen--theft of unpublished work is so rare as to be functionally nonexistent. On the long list of things writers need to worry about, it's at the very bottom.

Kristen King said...

I was feeling nosy, so I checked out the Desert Rose "sites to be aware of" link on their homepage and laughed out loud when I found this: http://www.desertroseagency.com/beware.htm

Anonymous said...

I am SO, SO, SO HAPPY that I found your website before I signed on the dotted line! I am a "New" writer and I too fell for the CLA, based out of NY or wherever they may be. I thought WOW - this isn't hard!! Now I am back to the sad truth and hitting it hard, again. Hopefully, I will not be able to wallpaper a room with rejection letters(isn't there another way of putting it?).