I recently received the following question from a writer who wishes to remain anonymous:
Every new writer wants to know how to get an agent and everyone seems to write about that topic.
But I want to know how to assess my agent. How do I know if I have a good one?
I’m trying to publish a nonfiction popular history and snagged an agent at a boutique agency in NY on my 40th query.
Like any first-time writer, I was thrilled. That was 16 months ago. He has sent the proposal to some big publishers who have all been complimentary of my writing and my passion for my subject. But none have made an offer. My agent thinks they are confused as to whether it’s history or memoir.
I sense his overall frustration with the transition in the publishing industry. He says that five years ago he could have easily sold it. He says he has a few other places to send it, but also offered me an out if I want to look for another agent. He maintains that he still believes in the project, but I’m wondering if his plate is too full to give my project the attention it deserves or if his creative energy is exhausted.
Does a good agent keep his clients informed about which publishers he has contacted about their books? Does a good agent offer continuous advice based on incoming feedback from publishers who turned down the proposal? How would you define the factors that describe a good literary agent?
An excellent question. As I often like to say, writers shouldn’t ask “How can I find an agent?” but “How can I find the right agent?”
Side note: For those of you looking for practical advice on how to begin an agent search, see this post for database and market listing resources.
Before I answer the specific questions posed above, I’ll offer some broad criteria for evaluating an agent.
1. Track record of sales.
This is usually the No. 1 sign of whether you have a “good” agent. Evaluate their client list and the publishers they have recently sold to. Are the publishers they sell to the types of publishers you consider appropriate for your work? Are the advances their clients command in the “good” range for you? Keep in mind these factors can be somewhat subjective and are also based on your genre/category and your own sense of author identity.
Bottom line, ensure that your agent has experience and success in representing the type of work you’re trying to sell. Most agents will list current clients on their site, or you can find agent-publisher deals reported at PublishersMarketplace (subscription required).
If the agent doesn’t have the experience or connections you would expect, then ask them about it (respectfully, of course). Publishing tends to be driven by relationships and reputation, and if your agent is trying to break into new business territory with your book, you might regret it later.
A note about new agents: Sometimes it’s easier to get represented by a new agent who is trying to build a roster of clients. If you’re a new author with a potentially small deal who wouldn’t interest an established agent, then a new and “hungry” agent can work out just as well. Even if an agent’s track record is still developing, take a look at their previous experience in publishing. For example, were they formerly an editor? Or consider the experience and reputation of the agency they are associated with. If they’re working at a solid agency with a track record, and/or have a long work history with the New York houses, these are good signs. Just make sure they haven’t been trying to develop their list for a very long time.
2. Industry professionalism and respect.
This can be tough for an outsider to gauge, but if they’re treating you professionally, then it’s a good sign. Timeless signs of professionalism: They get back to you in a timely manner, they communicate clearly and respectfully, their business operations aren’t cloaked in secrecy, they treat you as a business partner.
Unfortunately, the biggest complaint I hear from agented but unpublished writers is they can’t get a response from their agent any longer—or there’s poor communication about the status of the project. A good agent doesn’t leave her clients in the dark for extended periods, and will offer clarity about each stage of the process—no loose ends, no vague reports.
That said: I have observed some unpublished writers who seem to be very demanding and have expectations outside the norm. What does demanding look like? Expecting to call your agent at any time and have a discussion, expecting daily contact, or expecting near-instant response. Remember: Agents work for free until your book is sold. Their most immediate responses go to their established clients—the ones bringing in the revenue.
Do you get the feeling that the agent genuinely believes in you and your work? While agents are certainly interested in a sale, they’re also interested in projects that excite them and clients whose long-term careers they feel proud to represent and help manage.
While it’s not possible to put a quantitative measure on “enthusiasm,” think of it this way: Your agent is going to be handling your publisher contracts, negotiations, and other financial matters (including payment to you) for the life of your work. You need to trust them completely. They champion your cause to the publisher throughout the life of the book’s publication and resolve conflicts. You’re entering into a meaningful business partnership, and fit is important.
Just as you wouldn’t marry anyone, don’t partner with just any agent.
Now, to address some specific questions:
- It’s more common for agents to say, “I could have sold it 5 years ago.” That’s probably because it’s true. I hope the agent is giving you more specifics about why this is the case. Is the market oversaturated on your topic? Are publishers demanding authors have bigger platforms? Have publishers cut back on their list? Are they unwilling to take even the smallest risk? Are bookstores not buying this category like they were before?
- Is your agent’s plate too full? This probably isn’t a factor if the agent took you on in the first place. I’m going to assume that he’s representing you in good faith and thought he could find an editor to buy the project. It sounds like he’s hearing the same kind of rejection again and again—related to category/genre confusion. Perhaps the industry won’t support the type of book you’re trying to sell.
- He should advise you what would make your book more marketable. If there is consistent publisher confusion about whether your project is memoir or history (a deadly problem, in my opinion), there is likely a problem in the book concept or proposal itself. A good agent will have a conversation with you about how to address this reaction that publishers are having. If your agent has a good relationship with the editors/publishers he’s querying, then he’ll be receiving meaningful feedback that he can share with you. You can then discuss how your book or the proposal could be repositioned to sell. However, his time or energy might be exhausted if he believes the project would take far more work and retooling to make a sale that’s not worth his time. Or, he might not believe you’re willing to reposition the book.
- He should let you know what imprints/publishers he has contacted and has been rejected by. It’s your right to know this information, especially after a long period of time has passed. You may also ask for the rejection letters, though your agent is under no obligation to provide you with specific contact information of editors and publishers.
Don’t assume that your agent isn’t “good enough” if your book didn’t sell. But they should have an open and frank discussion with you about the rejections received.
While there are many well-meaning agents out there, it’s true that some of them are amateurish, incompetent, or bad. Here are some issues to consider.
- Did the agent help you improve your query, pitch, and/or proposal? A good agent will not take an author’s query/proposal package without going through a revision process. There might be a handful of authors who can put together a crackerjack proposal, but they are few. An agent should be ensuring the pitch or proposal is primed for success, and this almost always requires at least one round of feedback and revision.
- Your agent MUST know their way around a book contract. A good agent understands where to ask for more money or rights, and knows if their client is getting the best deal possible. (If an agent passes you a publisher’s boilerplate contract to sign with no changes, you may be in big trouble.) Many authors like to have an agent who is an “attack dog,” but primarily they need to understand how to protect your rights (by changing or inserting the right contract language) and prevent you from signing an unfair or substandard agreement. They know the industry norms, when those norms are changing, and when to push for more. However, they also understand that not everything is about money—sometimes it’s better to partner with a publisher offering a smaller advance. A great agent advises you on the pros and cons of the deals you’re offered.
- A great agent is an author’s business manager, mentor, and cheerleader. They’re also there to hold your hand when things go wrong with the editor or publisher. They prop you up when you’re down, they celebrate your successes publicly, they look for opportunities you might not see, and attend to both your financial best interests as well as your big-picture career growth.
- People in the industry should recognize the name of your agent. Again, publishing is relationship driven, so editors and publishers should know who your agent is. If you can’t find any online mention or reference to your agent, and they’re not a member of AAR, that’s a red flag. Check their track record carefully. See who they’ve sold to and how recently. One thing you needn’t worry about too much is the size of the agency; this doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the agent or the size of the deal you can expect.
- Your agent should not have to advertise for clients. Do not respond to advertisements from agents seeking clients. Also, if an agent contacts you, be cautious. While agents do seek out clients, it’s usually because an author has received recent publicity or attention (e.g., a personal essay or story just appeared in a prestigious publication, or the author’s blog was just ranked in the Top 10 by a major media outlet). A red flag should go up if the agent makes all kinds of promises to you and praises you beyond reasonability—and especially if these promises are followed by a request for a fee. Most good agents make money on sales, not upfront fees.
For more excellent information on how to tell a good agent from a not-so-good agent, check these in-depth articles.
- Writer Beware on Literary Agents (or, go straight to the section on “Amateur Agents”)
- Bad Agent by Jessica Faust, a literary agent at BookEnds
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.