Vetting Literary Agents

Post by Gabi Burton

For many aspiring traditionally published authors, being published by a major publishing house is THE DREAM. And, in most cases, if you want to make it happen, signing with a literary agent is a necessity.

Unfortunately, since the road to publishing is paved with many rejections, it’s easy to fall prey to predatory practices and people. Especially when it comes to literary agents.

Some red flags are easier to spot than others. For example, I can confidently say that if anyone who claims to be a literary agent asks you for money in exchange for representing you, RUN. As fast as you possibly can. The real trouble is the agents who aren’t scammers out to take your money. The unfortunate truth is that anyone can call themselves an agent. This includes people who want to exploit your dreams for financial gain and people with good intentions, but no experience. Which means we as writers need to be cautious when considering who is going to represent us and we need to vet an agent before agreeing to sign with them.

Below, I’ve outlined the best ways to vet a literary agent. Keep in mind, this article isn’t about detailing agent red flags. The purpose is for you to know how to obtain the information you need to make an informed decision.

Ask questions on THE CALL

Yes. A great strategy for knowing more about a literary agent is to literally just ask them. If you’re currently in the query trenches or you’ve previously been in the trenches, you probably know about the legendary CALL—when an author and offering agent discuss potential representation. In THE CALL, the author has a chance to ask the agent questions about their agenting style, editorial vision for their book, experience, etc.

There are a lot of online guides with more extensive lists of questions to ask on the call, but a great starting place:

  • What did you connect to in my book?
  • What is your editorial vision?
  • Are you wanting to represent me for this book only, or future projects (if you have other ideas, now is a good time to discuss as well!)
  • Are you open to representing me if I were to write in a different genre(s)?
  • What’s your preferred method of communication?
  • Can I see a copy of your agency contract so I know what I’m signing before accepting anything?
  • What happens if you leave the literary agency?
  • How many rounds of submission do you envision us doing? How large will each round be?
  • Do you have any editors in mind already?
  • What happens if this book doesn’t sell? (a hard question to ask, but really important!)
  • And please, please, please ask for time to consider! Good agents want you to take your time to make the best choice for you!

Talk to their clients

An agent’s clients are one of the best ways to learn about an agent. You want to know their communication style, what kind of editor they are, how informative they are while you’re on sub, how accessible, etc. Those are questions you need an outside opinion to get a full picture. So, ask their clients! As many as you’re willing to talk to. A few ideas of what you can ask a potential agent’s clients:

  • How long have they represented you?
  • What is their editorial style? (how many rounds of edits did you do? Did you agree with those edits? How long did they take to get back to you?)
  • How easy is it to get in contact with them?
  • How often do you communicate with them?
  • Have you sent them other books? How receptive were they to your other ideas?

Something to keep in mind: make sure you’re not just talking to clients who have already sold books. You want a wide range. Clients who have sold, clients on sub, clients who are in the editing stage, etc. You want as full a picture as possible!

Something else to keep in mind: not all agents have a lot of clients. Newer agents still building their client list aren’t going to have a ton of clients for you to reach out to. That’s fine. Most of the time, you can still contact authors represented by other agents at the agency.

Look at their sales

As important as an agent’s communication style is, it doesn’t matter if an agent is communicative with you if they can’t sell your book. That said, there are plenty of new agents with no real sales history yet. That’s ok! New agents are amazing. They’re actively building their client lists and they’re hungry for a sale to prove themselves in the industry. Which means an agent not having an extensive sales record isn’t, in and of itself, a red flag.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for assessing sales: if an agent is new, the agency as a whole should have sales. If the agency is new, the agent(s) at the agency should have sales from former agencies. There’s nothing wrong with a new agent in a good agency. There’s nothing wrong with a new agency with good agents. The problem is if you encounter an agent with no sales at an agency with no sales.

If you’re not sure about sales, ask someone with a paid Publisher’s Marketplace account to look something up for you. As a brief aside: I have one if you need information and I’m always happy to search for sales history for anyone who needs it.

Vetting agents is every bit as important in the querying process as writing a query letter. I know authors hate to hear this, but I’m going to say it anyway: it’s better to have no agent than a bad agent. You want the person who’s going to take your book on sub to know what they’re doing, and know how to do it well.

Getting agent attention is a big accomplishment! But you don’t want to sign with an agent without knowing what you’re signing up for. The most important rule for vetting a literary agent— know your worth! You wrote an amazing story. You invested your time, your energy, and your soul into a book. You deserve an agent who has your best interests in mind and the ability to sell your book and make your publishing dreams come true.

Gabi is represented by Naomi Davis at BookEnds Literary and her debut novel Sing Me to Sleep comes out in Spring 2023 from Bloomsbury. She is a Young Adult fantasy and mystery author from St. Louis. You can find her online here: Website| Twitter | Goodreads

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