Should writers query only the big-name literary agents with their book or novel—or is it worth checking out some of the newer kids on the block?
At Writer’s Relief we are often asked this question, and our answer is yes, absolutely! Target a wide variety of agents, from the big names to the lesser known, assuming, of course, they’re appropriate for your work and ethical/reputable. It’s tough to land an agent, and by making well-targeted submissions and casting an appropriately wide net, you’ll up your chances.
If you do happen to interest a literary agent who has only been in business a short while, remember that anyone can claim to be an agent—there is no license or competency testing required to set up shop.
So before you sign with a new literary agent, ask these questions!
1. What’s the literary agent’s background?
A literary agent who opened his/her doors a year ago may be coming from a major publishing house or another reputable literary agency and should have the skills and contacts necessary to place your work. But an agent with no experience (or contacts) in the industry and a background in commercial sales or advertising probably doesn’t have the expertise you’re looking for.
And if the agent is simply a frustrated writer who set him- or herself up as an agency because of being ignored by “the establishment”…that person is probably not your best bet.
2. Are they solo or part of a larger group?
If your agent works with three or four established agents, their combined experience and contacts will likely work to your advantage. Many new agents get a strong start because they work in reputable offices that offer plenty of editorial and professional support.
If your agent works alone, at home, you may put some feelers out. Where did the decision to work independently from home come from? Also, how often does the agent get into the city to hobnob with publishing types (one agent we know of reportedly traveled 500 miles by train to New York once a week in order to hold all her necessary meetings before returning home; other agents rely primarily on phone calls but have occasional trips to New York for face-time lunches with editors).
Note: Some reputable solo agents who’ve been around awhile do work from home to keep overhead costs down (or just because they can). When making a decision about submitting, this should be a contributing factor but not a determining one.
3. What kind of client list do they have?
A brand-new agent isn’t going to have a long list of big-name clients or commercial book sales, but you should ask about any recently published or sold books. If the client list is a litany of unpublished writers, or writers who did not publish with reputable publishing houses, be careful—you may or may not end up being another name on that list too.
And consider the bonuses: Newer reps are actively trying to build up their client lists, so they are more likely to sign new writers. They will also have more time to really focus on those writers and work with them closely to get their book projects ready to submit.
4. What’s their experience in contract negotiations?
Newer agents may be less experienced in contract negotiations, and as newbies, they may not have the clout that can help get authors huge advances. But it’s important that they are knowledgeable about publishing contract terminology and are able to protect your rights. Not all agents are lawyers or work with lawyers, so ask questions about practical experience.
Agents who do not have a history of dealing with contracts will sometimes contract with intellectual property rights lawyers to assist with fine-print negotiations. Larger agencies will often have lawyers on staff.
5. What’s the enthusiasm level?
Does your potential agent have big plans and an enthusiasm for your work? Does he/she have a well-targeted list of publishers in mind for submitting your novel? Are your calls and emails ignored, or is there good communication?
Newer agents are often excited and willing to dig in and create a successful track record; if your potential agent is lackluster, unfocused, or generally unenthusiastic about you and your book, the publishers he/she approaches will adopt this attitude as well.
Amateur agents may have all the enthusiasm and good intentions in the world, but if they have no publishing experience combined with shoddy business practices, they could do you more harm than good.
You don’t need an agent who charges up-front fees, bundles query letters, or sells your work to a questionable publisher simply because the agent can’t get anyone else to take him/her seriously. With any agent, a little homework is in order. Be sure you’re not entering into a discussion with a shady literary agent.
Do you really need a literary agent?
Writers who are hoping to sell their books know that publishers generally refuse to consider unagented manuscripts. It’s crucial to land a literary agent if you’re seeking a traditional publisher. But don’t fall into the “any literary agent is better than none” trap.
At Writer’s Relief we have been helping authors connect with literary agents—both well-established and up-and-coming agents—since 1994. Let us know if we can help you too.
QUESTION: Would you consider querying a “newer” literary agent?