Publishing is an ever-expanding industry. Over the years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of agents in particular. While this might seem like great news for new authors (“Yay! More people who might want to represent me!”), the truth of the matter is that not every agent out there is going to be one you should want to represent you. As no license is required to become an agent, essentially anyone can call themselves one. So, with the daunting, exponentially increasing number of literary agents out there nowadays, how do you properly go about finding a good one? More importantly, how do you go about finding the one that’s right for YOU?
The agent-author relationship is so much more than a business partnership. We hold your hand every step of the way. We are your loudest cheerleaders, your coaches, your anchors, and your confidantes. An agent’s job is to believe in you, so how do you find one you can believe in?
To start, let’s go over the formal, technical bare bones of what agents are supposed to do:
1) Agents help you form the best manuscript (or proposal) that they can through many discussions and insightful editorial advice.
2) Agents help you find a home for your work by placing it with an editor at a publisher.
3) Depending on the agency, agents take care of contract preparation and negotiation and financial management (advances, royalties, etc.).
You shouldn’t want just any agent, so how do you pick out the good ones?
Here is what good agents do:
1) Good agents have lots of experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean in years (there are plenty of awesome young agents out there), but in the knowledge they’ve accumulated before becoming and as an agent. They give stellar editorial advice because they know the market, know what works and what doesn’t, know different editors and their tastes, and know how to identify the good and problematic parts of a manuscript. They help you shape your manuscript into something that has the best chance of finding placement with a publisher.
2) Good agents don’t submit at random to anyone and anywhere. They spend plenty of time getting to know editors and cultivating relationships so they know what kinds of projects they’re looking for. They build their networks to help their authors find placement. They do their research so they don’t submit blindly. Again, they do everything in their power to give your manuscript the best shot at being published.
3) Good agents know their way around a contract negotiation. Usually, the longer an agent has been in the business (and the more successful their projects), the more sway they have and the better the deals they can get for their authors. They fight for you and your manuscript throughout the publishing process, every step of the way.
As an author with your own best interests at heart, you should be in search of the agent that’s going to be the best agent for YOU.
What does this mean?
1) Your perfect agent wants to help you create YOUR best work.
2) They are sympathetic, can relate to you, and understand what you are trying to accomplish. (Generally, I’ve found that agents who have experienced the creative process firsthand tend to develop better relationships with their clients. As a singer and composer myself, I believe my ability to be both sympathetic and empathetic has allowed me to better connect with my clients.)
3) Your perfect agent knows your project is your baby and worthy of treatment as such. The author-agent relationship is a lot like a marriage in this way. You and your agent have to be compatible as you are going to spend a lot of time together deciding what’s right for your child, whom you both need to want the best for. The first agent who comes along isn’t always going to be the right one for you.
As hard as agents work for authors, it’s your job as an author to do your research and figure out who’s the best agent for you. Agents don’t reach out blindly; you shouldn’t either. Don’t waste your time querying at random in the hopes that someone (ANYONE) will want to represent you. Unsurprisingly, what you give is what you get. Again, there are a lot of agents out there. If you put the time and effort into looking for the right one, you’re way ahead of where you would be otherwise.
To find your perfect agent, I recommend taking these steps:
1) Know yourself and your project: what kind of work is it, who would it appeal to, what kind of personality do you work best with, and what are your goals? This will help you determine the kind of agent you need to achieve them.
2) Make the internet your best friend and do your research: search for good agents whose tastes align with yours. Try to determine whether you two would work well together.
3) Put your best foot forward and properly approach the agents that seem right for you. (For helpful tips on querying, check out last week’s blog post here!)
4) Have fun with it! This can be a long, scary, stressful process, but it doesn’t have to be. As with most anything else, finding the perfect match takes time and effort.
Keep an eye out for our next blog post in 2015!
Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein is the President and managing agent of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. She will be open to queries in 2015 and is always on the search for great voices. Feel free to drop Liz a query at
Please note: Elizabeth does NOT represent poetry, children’s picture books, or screenplays.