Thursday, January 03, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- New Year's Resolution: Use Caution on the Internet

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 Aren't books, with their long publication schedules, more likely to be out of date than Internet resources?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As for being out of date...an online listing is a lot more likely to be out of date, incomplete, or just plain wrong than the most recent version of a print literary agency guide.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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't know how you've gotten by all these years by offering incorrect information. I've been in publishing twenty years, and your posts are filled with misinformation. Why don't you do the research you say you do? If you did, you might actually get some of the nonsense you post right. You are inaccurate and really, I think you are out of the publishing loop. Sorry, but you just are. You are telling writers to depend on old information in a world that changes constantly. Why? Is it that you don't know?

Nancy said...

Excellent advice, Victoria, and it applies to ANY type of Internet search. No matter what you're searching for, there are very good, factual sites and just as many, if not more, sites with false or outdated information.

As a librarian, I'm always advising people to consider the source of anything they find on the Internet. When was the page last updated? Who compiled the information or is sponsoring the website? Does the site belong to a professional or organization in the field, an individual with no verifiable credentials, or a company that wants to sell you something?

I trust your advice because it seems like common sense, I've heard much of it from other sources, (including books and magazines for aspiring writers) and I "know" Ann from the days of her message board on AOL. (Any more Star Bridge books in the works?)

Matt In The Hat said...

This was very helpful. I looked at this and previous posts and found some great tips. I too did a "literary agent" search, and to have you break it down was wonderful. Keep up the good work! matt

Linda said...

It's also particularly easy to people to see something posted on the Internet, think it's true, and pass it along--and never realize it's inaccurate. It happens in books and newspapers, too, but it's much worse on the Internet because any can publish on the Internet.

For Anon 8:44, just because the Internet is ever changing, it doesn't mean that Web site content is being updated. At least books are being reviewed for content, but I've seen Web sites that are clearly years old. I have a friend who is a lawyer and has moved three times in twelve years. All three addresses are posted in various places all over the Internet. No one's ever corrected the wrong ones!

The biggest problem is that people just post the information, often without vetting it, and then they don't review for updates later. An official source at least gets reviewed by the agent on a regular basis. Sure it may be out of date if the agent decides to close submissions during the year, but that's where good Web use comes in. I look the agents up in the Writer's Market and Jeff Herman's books, check them on P&E, and then (if they pass P&E) find the agent's Web site to see if anything has changed. I also look for any interviews they may have done.

In truth, it's actually less time consuming for me to buy a book like WM then to check a Web site listing agents. I'm more likely to find a high percentages of agents I will end up passing on by checking a site like Publishers Marketplace, which is reasonably reputable.

The Internet's strengths are also its weaknesses.

Victoria Strauss said...

It's also particularly easy to people to see something posted on the Internet, think it's true, and pass it along--and never realize it's inaccurate.

Absolutely. This is one of the ways in which those pernicious writers' myths like "it's almost impossible for a new writer to get published with a large house" or "successful agents aren't interested in first-time authors" or "a debut novelist should spend his/her entire advance on self-promotion" get perpetuated.

Also, people tend to believe the information that best fits their own experience or preconceptions, which is why the myths are often more appealing than the truth. It's much easier for embittered writers to believe that no new author has a chance than to conclude that their own work isn't marketable.

As for Anon. 8:44--why do I suspect that "I've been in publishing twenty years" means either "I've been charging fees for twenty years" or "I've been getting rejected for twenty years"?

Julia said...

I've been involved in publishing for 17 years, as both an author and an editor, and I think Victoria Strauss is one of the smartest, savviest industry watchdogs out there.

And Victoria herself has been been involved in publishing for more than 20 years.

"anonymous", on the other hand, is anonymous. And quite poorly informed--he/she seems to think that this is Victoria's day job. Victoria's "gotten by all these years" by writing popular novels, "anonymous." What have you been doing? Scamming would-be writers out of agents' fees?

Dave Kuzminski said...

Hey, anonymous, I don't see you posting information with references. All you're doing so far is making unsupported claims. How about providing some proof backing your statements. My first publication occurred back in 1981 doing write-for-hire. My first publication for myself was in 1986. Since then, I've published a magazine that went under but paid off all its bills without leaving anyone unpaid, including every author and they all received full payment. After that, I managed to get some short stories and novels published. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to show I know how to string words together in an entertaining fashion. And I've put together Preditors & Editors to give other writers a fighting chance. You know what? I agree with Victoria on the issues you're criticizing. So, what's your real background?

Gregory Ludwig said...

I have much to say on the current state of trade-book publishing as "guarded" by the ring of literary agents, but for now, some practically oriented info:

Recently, after having tried to locate a new literary agent in 2002, 2004, and 2005 with few personal replies (to several manuscripts), I tried again in 2006 and especially 2007, with a very carefully thought-out and tooled nonfiction manuscript and proposal package. So far, I have sent to about 63 agents and accumulated some good, solid empirical info. For now, here are some interesting findings:

First, I agree that the Internet is not the first place to turn to to locate an agent, but it’s interesting how the sources turn out to be. You might that print sources are good to start with, but they can be (in some cases) crucially supplemented by Internet double-checking. But some “prime” Internet sources (like Preditors and Editors) turn out to need updating, too.

Now, for more details about agent searching within the past year or so: I took much of my information from Literary Marketplace (2007 edition), sometimes using Writer’s Market (2007 and 2008 editions) either as a reference to double-check with, or in some cases as a primary source. One finds:

* As may be easy to expect, info on how to send materials to agents does not always jibe between the two reference books. I think LMP is out of date with some agents, judging from what I have found from some responses or by checking with Internet listings like Preditors and Editors or other Web sites available via Google.

* I used to work for the reference publisher (it was Reed Reference Publishing at the time) that used to put out the LMP, and the methods used by the new publisher probably are about the same. They send “galleys” (like forms for entering info, usually with last edition’s info on it to be corrected as needed), and the recipient literary agencies may correct the info or not. There is a fair amount of room for error either because an agency doesn’t return a corrected galley, or some mishandling occurs at the reference publisher end.

* I would say that the likes of LMP is correct about the status and requirements of an agency the majority of the time, but I can’t say, right now, how much.

* The Internet sometimes offers updates—-such as an agency that has closed (e.g., consider the Vines Agency Inc.: for all I knew from probably LMP, it was open; I sent a package, and it was returned to sender with the P.O. note “moved, no forwarding address”; I checked the Web and found Vines’ site said they were taking no more new clients).

* Some agents newly start up new agencies, which you find on the Internet very recently but not in LMP. For instance, in the LMP you see info on Anderson Grinberg Literary Management; but check the Web and you find that, at the same street address, Anderson has started her own new agency, Anderson Literary Management, LLC, which apparently opened just very recently, to judge from hints at her website.

* For a book that best sells itself with a proposal package and not simply a query letter, you need to be clear on what an agency is looking for in terms of a package. It seems some of the best responses I get for my most recent manuscript are from agencies that see *packages*, not my boiled-down, long-tooled query letter.

* Beware of some ambiguities in the LMP: sometimes it will say something like, “Send query, outline and two sample chapters,” but then it turns out if you send all three, you find from the agency it only wants a query first. (This happened for me with Agents Inc. for Medical & Mental Health Professionals). Sometimes an agency takes just what the LMP says (in the LMP's sometimes vague way) when it says this, and sometimes it doesn’t, and you never know if the LMP listing was carelessly written or if the agency changed its mind in what it takes first—-a query alone, or a query plus samples and/or such.

* For my most recent manuscript, I am getting a higher percentage of PERSONAL rejections than to queries or packages sent in 2002, 2004, and 2005. But I am finding a number of times a *new* category of response from agencies, in addition to FORM and PERSONAL rejections—-the “EXCUSE” rejection. This says something to the effect that the agency is too burdened, or such. It doesn’t say the usual “Your work is not right for us, but this business is subjective, so feel free to try another agency who might like your work”; instead, it is distinctly written as if some harried so-and-so can’t keep up with her mail and she is pleading exhaustion. Mind you, any number of agencies will say they are not taking new clients. This “excuse” category has a quality of wording and mentality of its own.

Victoria Strauss said...

Greg--

Many of the issues you identify are why I no longer recommend LMP as a print research resource. (LMP lists a fair number of scam agents and publishers, as well.)

mlh said...

Newbie Alert! The following person only has brief instances of sanity, so please bear with any typos you might find.

Hello, everyone. I just want to take a moment to thank Victoria for all the helpful information. I totally agree that the Internet is not the one-stop shop for finding an agent. Unfortunately, I believe it’s the ease with just typing the word agent in the search box that’s become the pitfall we step into after grinding out manuscripts. It’s amazing how we’ll take the time to do research and editing for our writing but not the effort to find a reputable agent, especially one who works in our specific genre. It has come to the point where we expect them to fall out of the sky and into our waiting laps the moment we finish the last chapter.

Also, to have someone snub their nose about not doing research in other places besides the Internet is being counterproductive. In fact, it makes that person seem as if they have an ulterior motive with not wanting to have the public educate themselves.

If we can sit there and write a 400-page manuscript about radioactive ferrets saving the world, then why can’t we pick up a simple market guide to find an interested agent who works as a ferret handler in their off-time? What is so hard about that?

Victoria/Ann/Richard, keep up the good work.

Wench said...

Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm 32 and just starting to write; I'm a late bloomer. But better than a pair of bloomers, I suppose. Your blog is an education in a field I'm completely unfamiliar with.

Gregory Ludwig said...

Re Victoria's Jan. 6 "Many of the issues you identify are why I no longer recommend LMP as a print research resource."--

The LMP may have problems, but part of the point of my long entry above is that the best policy seems to be to work with multiple sources and, synthesizing info from among them, come up with reasonable hypotheses on what agent is good for what, what type of query/proposal to make, etc. I think no matter what sources you use, you will find problems in each. So you have to compare, weed out bad info, etc. And in fact, my LMP info has led me to few misfires. Writer's Market seems worse for misfires but not terribly worse.

The general point is, there is no one source of info for all the straight dope on all the straight agents. It requires work to find a good set of agents to query, but there's little that can be done about that.

I reviewed letters I received from editors at the likes of Knopf, Doubleday, Farrar Straus, and others in the 1980s and early 1990s. What an innocent time. Editors would actually write out personalized responses, on typewriters. And as a writer, you knew what addresses worked for publishers then. Today, with the circle of agents "guarding the prize at the center," you have suspect agents, bad address/requirement info, and other such to wade through. Not an improvement on the overall system.

Pam Halter said...

I just read this in another blog today: Airleaf Publishing, LLC (book publisher), and Airleaf Publishing & Book Selling (distributor) are currently under investigation by their local Attorney General (IN) and by the FBI.

Do you know anything about it?

My friend and mentor directs two writer's conferences. She always asks for feedback. If someone leaves comments and not their name, she simply throws them away. She says anyone who won't own up to their negative comments isn't worth listening to and probably isn't right anyway.

Thanks for your work and information. I usually lurk, but had to say something today.

Victoria Strauss said...

Pam, there are several posts about Airleaf on this blog. Use the Blogger searchbox at the top of the front page, and you should find them.

Airleaf has closed down, and there appears to be an ongoing local police investigation (the investigation was put in jeopardy by local political changes, but last I heard, the police officer who was looking into the case has been given permission to proceed), but as far as I know, neither the FBI nor the Indiana Attorney General are investigating, though both have been contacted by victims.

Pam Halter said...

Thank you, Victoria. I knew I saw that name somewhere before I read it on Sally's blog. :)