When new writers ask me how they should go about looking for a reputable agent, I tell them to start with a print market guide such as Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. They can then expand their search by reading industry publications, such as PW, that report on sales, and by identifying books that are similar to theirs in genre, style, tone, or content, and trying to find out who agents them.
I finish with this piece of advice: "Don't look for agents on the Internet."
This suggestion often meets with stiff resistance. What's wrong with the Internet? people want to know. What can you find offline that you can't find on the Web? Don't agents' websites and blogs provide more information than books? Aren't books, with their long publication schedules, more likely to be out of date than Internet resources? Besides, the Internet is easy. No poring through (not to mention spending money on) heavy tomes. No leafing through magazines. Just you, your computer, and your mouse.
First off, I'm not suggesting that the Internet should be avoided. Quite the opposite--the Internet is an invaluable resource for agent-hunters. Nor am I suggesting that you shouldn't research agents on the Internet, once you've identified them as submission prospects. In fact, there's an article on my website that provides many ideas and resources for doing exactly that.
But if you're a brand-new writer--and especially if you don't know much about the publishing industry--the Internet should not be your starting point when you are trying to identify agents to whom you can submit.
There is a tremendous amount of good information on the Internet. Unfortunately, anyone can slap up a website, whether or not they are honest or know what they're talking about. So there is a tremendous amount of bad information as well. If you don't already know something about agents and publishing (which, sadly, many writers just beginning their agent search don't, having skipped the important step of educating themselves about the publishing industry before plunging in) you may not know how to filter what you find.
As for being out of date...an online listing is a lot more likely to be out of date, incomplete, or just plain wrong than the most recent version of a print literary agency guide. For instance, this one, which an inexperienced author might assume was an authoritative list of AAR agents, but which appears to have been cribbed from the AAR website some time ago, and no longer matches the actual AAR list. Of course, there are also many reliable online agent guides and listings, but in searching for them, you will inevitably also turn up the bad ones--and are you sure you'll be able to tell the difference? Whereas if you go to a bookstore or the library, you'll find a selection of recently published, editor-vetted books that have been written by people with at least some claim to expertise. Print guides aren't perfect, but as a group, they are far more authoritative than much of what exists online.
The inefficiency of Internet searches also makes it dicey to look for agents online. Your search may well turn up the names of reputable agents, but they won't necessarily be appropriate for you--and as many names as you find, there will be many more you don't. This is true of any agent resource, of course. But the sheer mass of information on the Internet, as well as the ways in which search engines aggregate it, makes online agent-searching a hit-and-miss affair.
To illustrate the points above, I did a couple of Google searches using common search strings that bring writers to this blog. Here are the results from the first pages of each of these searches.
Search string: literary agents.
- First link: a sponsored link, "Literary Agency Expanding." It leads to Writers Literary Agency. We all know why this is not a good thing, right?
- Second link: Writers Net. Writers Net is well-intentioned, and has an active message forum. But its agent listing is a database where anyone can add information. It includes large numbers of marginal and amateur agents, and excludes similarly large numbers of reputable agents, who aren't likely to take the time to make an entry here.
- Third link: Writer Beware's Literary Agents page. Good!
- Fourth link: AgentQuery. One of the more reliable agent-matching websites.
- Fifth link: the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. A successful agency, but this link is useful only if you write in genres it represents.
- Sixth link: Preditors & Editors. Another great resource.
- Seventh link: Writers' Free Reference Agent List, a list of agents' email addresses. Many bad agents are listed here, and some of the info is outdated.
- Eighth link: Donald Maass Literary Agency. Another successful agency.
- Ninth, tenth, and eleventh links: a solid, but very limited, list of agents from an ebook-focused website (with Google ads for Writers Literary Agency); a Wikipedia page on literary agents that provides decent basic information; and the Irene Goodman Agency, an agency with a solid track record.
- Sponsored links along the right side of the page: one each for vanity publishers AuthorHouse ("Skip the Literary Agent"), Universal Publishers, Inkwater Press, and BookSurge; one for a site that wants to sell new authors its books and other products (Author101); and one for a freelance editor who offers a fee-based agent-matching service, and has mirrored his main website at a URL designed to appeal to agent-hunting writers, Literary-Agents-Information.com. (Sponsored links vary from search to search; other searches I've done throw up Desert Rose Literary Agency, the subject of an Alert on Writer Beware, and something called Agent Wizard, software you can buy that will supposedly help you look for an agent.)
So, some good information, but also quite a bit of bad, questionable, and irrelevant information. Suppose you're an aspiring writer who doesn't know a great deal about agents or publishing, and is trying to learn as you go. Will you be able to judge which links are helpful and which are not? Will you click on the ad for Writers Literary Agency? True, the search turned up three reputable agents--but it's a pretty random grouping, and not all of them may be suitable for any given writer. Bottom line: an inexperienced author could get into serious trouble as a result of this search.
Let's get more specific. Search string: literary agents for fantasy novels.
- First link: A list of UK fantasy agents. A solid resource.
- Second link: WritersNet. Not so great--see above.
- Third link: something called AuthorNetwork.com, an agent listing that includes numerous fee-charging agents plus out-of-date info.
- Fourth link: a blog called Literary Agent News, which Writer Beware recently exposed as a scam.
- Fifth link: my article, The Safest Way to Search for an Agent. Yay!
- Sixth link: website of John Jarrold, a successful UK agent who reps a good number of speculative fiction authors.
- Seventh, eighth, and ninth links: an Amazon listing for Donald Maass's The Career Novelist, a book I recommend; LitAgentX, the blog of the savvy Rachel Vater; and solid agent advice from established novelist Holly Lisle.
- Sponsored links along the right side: Writers Literary Agency again, The Paris Review (irrelevant for agent-hunters), AuthorHouse, and that freelance editor with the agent-matching service. (Again, sponsored links vary; other iterations of this search have brought up ads for Dorrance, a very expensive vanity press, and Firstwriter.com, a fee-based agent-matching service that doesn't vet the agents it lists, and whose database includes many marginal and dishonest agents.)
Once again, a fairly even mix of bad and good information, with plenty that could get an unwary author into trouble.
Also worth noting: just about any Google search that includes the words "literary agent" brings up a link, usually sponsored, to Writers Literary Agency or one of its divisions. WLA is also likely to be present on any website that includes Google ads. It's no wonder that so many of the hundreds of writers who have contacted Ann and me with complaints and advisories about WLA report that they found it on the Internet.
So do your best to assemble your query list before you go online to do more research--and make Internet caution your New Year's resolution.