It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of an unpublished manuscript, must be in want of an agent.
This is not news, I know. But because it is a universal truth, there's never any shortage of Wonderful New Ideas or Nifty Innovative Tools designed (supposedly) to make the process of agent-hunting easier, or at least a bit less frustrating. Manuscript display sites and query and submission services have both held out the promise of bypassing the tedious research-and-submission process, the former by enticing agents to come to you rather than the other way around, the latter by letting you farm out the work to someone else, rather than doing it yourself. To date, neither has managed to become a viable alternative.
The latest agent-hunting "innovation" is the literary agent directory--an online compilation of literary agent listings with contact information, submission guidelines, what the agency is looking for, and often some info on clients and sales. The idea is somewhat similar to a print market guide--all the info in one place--with the added Internet benefits of searchability (many databases allow you to plug in your market or genre, and generate a list of agents who are interested in receiving submissions like yours) and linkage (to agency websites, for instance).
Some directories are just listings; some include extras, such as articles about writing and publishing, utilities to track your queries, editing or critique services, or even a submission service. A few allow you to post comments about your experience with an agency. Many directories are free, but some are fee-based, and others are a combination (the basic info is available for free, but if you pay for membership you get expanded listings).
Agent directories I'm aware of (there may well be others I haven't found) include, in alphabetical order:
1000 Literary Agents
Agent directories can be a helpful and handy resource in your search for a reputable literary agent. But there are a number of things to take into account.
- Not all directories are equally careful about how they vet the agents they list. Most do a decent job of excluding the more notorious scammers, but nearly all include at least a few marginal or amateur agents, and some (FirstWriter and WritersNet) include many. Don't, therefore, assume that simply because an agent has a listing, he or she is reputable and/or successful.
- The directories can be a good starting point, but don't use them as your only source of information. Even the most comprehensive directory won't include all possible appropriate agents, and some may be missing a large number of them. There's also a surprising amount of variation from directory to directory. I did a number of sample searches, and for the same search, all the directories listed many of the same agents, but every directory listed agents another didn't, or listed different agents at the same agencies. Expand your agent search by using a print market guide, and identifying books similar to yours in subject, genre, tone, theme, etc., and trying to find out who agents them.
- Search results tend to reflect agents' expressed interests, not necessarily clients or sales. Just because an agent has an interest in receiving a particular genre doesn't mean that he or she can sell it. The ideal agent is one who has an actual track record of selling books like yours. Always do some extra research on agents you find in the directories (the best source is the agent's website, if s/he has one) to be sure the agent's track record is a good match for your manuscript.
- Did I mention that search results reflect agents' expressed interests? Unfortunately, the directories don't always list those interests correctly, or list them too broadly (for instance, failing to distinguish between agents who specialize in children's fantasy and those who specialize in fantasy for the adult market)--which means that your search results may include agents who aren't appropriate for you. Another good reason to do some extra research on any agent you find at an agent directory.
- Some agent directories provide extra services for a fee, such as critiquing or query tracking. But there's no reason ever to pay a fee to access the agent listings themselves (as at FirstWriter). The information provided by the directories is available elsewhere for free; the directories do you a favor by aggregating it in one place, but none of it is secret or proprietary.
So which databases do I recommend? For accuracy, depth of information, flexibility in searching, and general up-to-datenesss, you can't beat AgentQuery, in my opinion. I also think QueryTracker is also a solid information source.