5 Literary Agent Red Flags

When querying, the literary agent landscape can seem daunting. Worse, there have been a few prominent dust-ups in 2020 regarding agents’ behavior that raise a really good question: How do I know if my agent is a good one?

“Good” can mean a number of things in this question. Do their morals and values align with yours? Do they conduct themselves professionally? Do they have the connections to make the book sale you want for your work?

When researching agents, trying to find this information can be daunting. But in today’s post, I’ll outline a few signs to look out for. On their own, some of these may not be an automatic “run for the hills”, but each is something to consider while seeking literary representation.

1) What is their feedback on the Absolute Write “Bewares” forum?

Absolute Write is a community of other writers, and has an entire forum called “Bewares, Recommendations, & Background Check” that is dedicated to feedback and advice regarding the integrity of agencies and publishers. This portion of the forum is publicly available and may contain pages of feedback regarding agents’ behavior over the years, including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I will note Absolute Write’s DDoS protection does mean the pages can take a few seconds to load, so it may be easier to run a quick web search for “Absolute Write [Agent/Agency Name]” to get a direct link to that agent or agency’s thread.

2) Do they have a QueryTracker profile page?

QueryTracker is a great service for, well, tracking your queries.

Most agents and agencies are listed here, and you can easily run a search for their name. They’ll have a profile page where querying writers can leave comments, usually noting when the writer sent a query, when they received a response, and whether the reply was a form or personalized.

There’s a paid option with a few more features for tracking and analyzing data, but the bulk of the site is available for free, and you can check out agents’ pages without needing an account.

If an agent has removed themselves from QueryTracker, that could be a sign they have something to hide. There are a few other legitimate reasons they might be currently missing (transitioning between agencies, etc), but it’s something that would give me pause.

3) What is their relevant job experience?

Most agencies will post short bios or profiles of their agents. While these contain their wishlist and the genres they represent, it will also usually list previous experience. It might state how years they’ve been agenting, where they interned or learned the trade, etc.

Unfortunately, agenting is a bit of a “who you know” business. If you’re aiming for a traditional contract with a bigger publisher, the networking needed for the agent to to form those connections is usually done through an internship or an “associate-agent” mentorship situation.

That’s not to say you should entirely avoid newer agents, though! If the agent is currently an associate or new addition to the agency’s team, take a look at the rest of the agency. Does it look like their other agents have a decent track record and industry know-how? What you’re looking for is the support structure that will help this newer agent form those connections with editors and publishing houses.

If an agent has recently started their own agency with little to no previous experience agenting, this may be a warning sign. This person may have the best of intentions, but lack the know-how or the connections in the industry needed to get your work in front of the right editors.

4) Do they ask you for money?

(Or do they refer you to a paid service such as editing or a training course, with the implication that buying said service will increase your chances of representation?)

This one is a definite “nope”. Run away. If an agent asks you for money, they’re not legit. An agent gets paid a commission upon sale of your work. Any agent asking for money up-front is shady and should be avoided.

5) To what publishers do they usually sell books, and in what format(s)?

This one can take a bit more digging. The easy but pricey answer: Many deals are listed on Publisher’s Marketplace, but the service is behind a paywall of $25 per month. (Also there’s been some troubling information about PM’s behavior toward a customer that was recently shared on Twitter.)

However, if you can’t or don’t wish to pay for PM’s quick access to the information, you can still find it with a little legwork. Most agencies have an “our authors” page. You can then run a quick search for those authors’ books to see what publisher or imprint is listed.

Check out the sites of the publishers. Search for the imprint on the Absolute Write “Bewares” forum mentioned earlier in this post. There are many decent smaller and indie presses, so it doesn’t necessarily need to be a big-five name, but check out their overall track record. Are these reputable presses, or do they have a history of late royalty payments and shady activity? Look at their marketing, their covers, their books, and consider if you think that sort of indie press would be a good fit for you.

You should also look to see if these publishers have a standing open call for unagented submissions. If an agency sells primarily to small presses that would also take unagented submissions, that agency may not have the connections needed to make a sale to the bigger houses (if that’s something that’s important to you).

Likewise, check to see if the agents’ sales include print, or if they’re ebook-only. Some agencies sell mainly digital book contracts without print runs. Again, this is something where you’ll need to weigh what’s important to you, but if an agency is mostly brokering small digital-only deals or low-advance contracts with indie publishers that take unagented submissions, you might consider whether you’d be better served with either A) a different agent who could get your book a better deal elsewhere or B) submitting directly to the indie press on your own if you want to go the small press route.

Bonus: The Twitter dirt

Not all agents are on Twitter, and a lack of presence on social media shouldn’t be considered a red flag. Plenty of agents are great at their job but don’t participate in social media.

However, if they do have a Twitter account, take a look. Do they seem like the kind of person you’d be happy to work with? Moreover, run a keyword search for their name or agency and see what others are saying about them. If there’s been any major scuttlebutt about the agent/agency, it could show up there.

Conclusion

Searching for an agent can be a scary business, but listen to your gut when it comes to these red flags. Ideally, a partnership with an agent will be a mutually-beneficial arrangement. A great agent could be with you for your whole writing journey, and you owe it to yourself to find one that will fit your desired career path and work well with you.

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