We know that researching agents is hard. Not only is there very little information out there, a lot of it is anecdotal. So, I put together this post on how to research agents when subjective stories are involved.
When we are researching agents we use what information is readily available. However, there is a flaw with how information is disseminated in publishing in that there isn’t that much and the info there is loses value with lack of context. For example, an agent can sign a huge bestseller after they sold their bestselling books so of course that agent will have success with that client as they came ready made with success and a fan base. What is more important is seeing what that agent does with their brand new baby clients. Additionally, having a handful of good or even great sales doesn’t excuse unprofessional behavior.
Yes, this is a tough business and agents need to be aggressive sometimes but because it’s a tough business their job is to advocate for their clients, not against them. They are aggressive on their clients’ behalf and in their best interest. They are the one in your corner so they should always be honest and available to you (within reason).
This industry is hard to break into. Many will say publishing isn’t purely a meritocracy. It feels like to get your foot in the door you either have to be super lucky or know someone. However, it would be a folly to allow this knowledge to make us think “all agents can be shady sometimes” or “editors don’t need to be polite.” Everyone deserves the chance to work with people who are enthusiastic about their stories and professional when it’s their stories on the line. At the end of the day professionalism should be queen and doing what’s right for your individual authors should be the main goal of all agents and editors.
Here are some Red Flags (with a bit of interpretation where necessary):
- Not sharing sub list (this is different than when a client asks not to know who they’re on sub to) – there should always be a high level of transparency between an agent and their authors. The agent is an advocate for the author’s books and career, but at the end of the day it’s your career so if you require certain information to make an informed decision then your agent should be able to supply this information. (Note that there are times when agents just don’t have the information you want, this can often happen during sub when editors have not gotten back to the agent).
- Rushing you to make a decision to sign with them/telling you to immediately pull your queries from all other agents (instead of letting you take 1-2 weeks to decide, which is standard)
- Submitting to disreputable publishers/ONLY to ebook/online publishers and/or publishers that take unagented submissions – the purpose of getting an agent is to go “the traditional route” of publishing. This means that you want to submit your work to bigger publishers that require an agent as the liaison between author and publishing house. If your agent is only submitting to small presses or ebook publishers that don’t require an agent for submissions, then you are paying them 15% for a service you could have technically done yourself.
- Charging for reading your query/MS/giving edits – An agent makes money when their authors make money. They should never be charging you ahead of time for any of their services. They make a percentage off of the sale and off of royalties.
- Redirects you to their pay-for-service editorial business – an agent/author relationship is an agent working with the author on their manuscript in good faith with the goal of submitting and selling the book. They should not be asking you to also pay them for side-services. They should not be rejecting you but then redirecting you to another way for them to make money off of your work. The exception is if you know of a reputable agent who does freelance editorial services and you seek them out specifically for that service.
- Subtweets you – this is a new thing that has come about with social media, but it should fall under the umbrella of “professionalism.” Yes, this industry is more casual. Yes, we love the personalities that have come out via fun tweets and instastories. However, when an agent is discussing their work (e.g. signing clients, editing manuscripts, selling books) then they should be as professional as they would be via any other communication. And if they’re subtweeting clients or potential clients then it could be a red flag.
- Is not available for communication for months (if they reply quickly saying, I can get you an answer in a few weeks, then that’s fine. This is referring to complete radio silence for a prolonged period of time)
Things that are not red flags and that are truly just stressful things we deal with include: long read times, form rejections, long time with non-responses to query/sub = no.
In conclusion, yes, sometimes it’s a personality match and we want our agents to be detached business-only people. Still, there do exist red flags that an agent should never do if they are truly looking out for your career. You spent so much time working on your book, so don’t throw it away with an agent who won’t give it their all. There are amazing agents out there, and you deserve one of them advocating for you!