How to find a reputable agent from Writer Beware

Abridged by Gina Burgess

Finding an agent is difficult because there are a lot of really great agents, but there are hundreds of amateurs, and agents who are here today and gone tomorrow. There are probably just as many who are borderline or downright dishonest. Those are the ones that urge you to get your manuscript edited before submitting it, or who charge an upfront fee. The key is never assume all agents expressing an interest in your manuscript are reputable.

I know this because a watchdog group called Writer Beware has a list of more than 300 dishonest agents, maybe more by now. Yes, it is part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group, but it is definitely a great resource when you are a writer.

If you decide to go the tradition publishing route then you really need to beware. For instance, traditional publishers do not require a proofread manuscript, or line editing. (It is a good idea to get some developmental editing, because family and friends do not have the professional eye a developmental editor has. This kind of editing will help you keep your own voice and style, but just make it better. But remember, it isn’t required.)

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to break into one of the big five publishers without an agent when you are a debut author. If you’ve got lots of sales under your belt, and a large, solid platform, it isn’t as difficult, but it is best to have a reputable agent represent you regardless. Your agent is the one who will make sure the contract is good for you, and will explain the small print.

So study and research agents, what they do, how they do it, and search out their reputations.

To get a good list of agents who work with your genre, go to your library and research Literary Marketplace (US based). Other books to search include: Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, and Guide to Literary Agents. I’m really not sure about Australia and the United Kingdom, so search and research. Look for complaints and reviews online about every agent you put on your list.

Make sure the agents on your list work in the same genre you write. This is an extremely important key that a lot of writers ignore. Without the right key the publishing door remains locked.

Make sure the agents are members of Association of Authors’ Representatives and in the UK Association of Authors’ Agents. Do a bit of extra research on agents that are not members. Reputable agents don’t have to be members, but check out the reputations of those that are not.

Here is a partial list of abusive practices of un-reputable agents from the complete list at Writer Beware:

  • Requiring a reading fee with a submission.
  • Requiring writers to buy a critique or manuscript assessment.
  • Running a contest that’s a scheme for funneling writers into a pay-to-play scheme, such as a paid editing service or a vanity publisher.
  • Placing clients with fee-charging publishers.

You can read a lot more advice at Writer Beware Literary Agents page.

24 thoughts on “How to find a reputable agent from Writer Beware”

  1. This is a very important article and I hope writers will take it to heart. I had a bad experience before I finally landed the agent from heaven. I had a manuscript (nonfiction) that I had worked on for two years. I was finally ready to go out and see if I could land an agent. I went to writers conferences and agent events. An agent at one of the events was all excited about my project and said he knew he could sell it. Months went by and I didn’t hear from him. I finally called and he said he couldn’t sell it and it wasn’t going to work. Why didn’t he call me? This experience repeated itself with the second agent. I wasted 18 months with these two. I was very discouraged. Another agent said I was used goods and call him when I had something new. Seriously? Later I had signed up on a website call FirstWriter.com. You put it your profile and it sends information based on what you may be interested in. As a non-fiction writer, I would get information about magazines and writing opportunities for me. One day a note came through about a non-fiction agent. I sent a query letter and got a note back asking for a writing sample. I sent the prologue to my book. I’ll cut to the chase. My agent, Sharlene Martin, showed me what a real agent does. She kept me informed on every publisher she approached and the response. She worked for a year and finally sold my book to Macmillan. It was published in 2009 and is now optioned for a main screen movie by screenwriters Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen. Sharlene goes to the matt for her clients. What a difference. New writers do need to follow your advice and check to see if an agent follows the canon of ethics.

    1. That is so true, Geri. I am sorry you had those bad experiences and wasted so much time. However, I am so glad you show us how a REAL agent works in this business! Thank you 😉

      1. So, where are the good agents? I see a lot of stuff about beware and bad but very little recommendations as to where to find a good one. Yes, writers need to be wary but who has the time to go through lists upon lists of possible agents to see if they are legit? My guess is if someone has a good one they don’t want to share? Otherwise why not show a good agent list or throw out a name as just because someone sends something doesn’t mean they’ll be accepted.

        1. Really good point, Wendy!

          I know several quality literary agents, so I googled: literary agents Terry Whalen, Chris McGregor, Rachel Gardner, besides the agencies that these agents are a part of, a nifty site came up that lists authors and who agents them. So I clicked on it.
          https://querytracker.net/clients.php?g=G

          Now… I can look for authors that write in my genre and find out who their agent is, then query those agents.

          If you write Christian spec, Dave Fessenden is a vendor here at Authors Community.

  2. Thank you for helping to reach writers that not all agents or publishers are honest. Victoria at writers beware and I have been pushing that boat for ages. Unfortunately a lot of self publishers get sucked into parting with thousands and end up with nothing more than a garage full of printed books. http://www.onlinebooks.net.au tries to help by displaying such printed books and offers 60% of sale plus a contribution towards postage from the authors directly to the buyer. We are a not for profit site and only charge a self publisher what it costs us to do what is needed and then only if the author requests it. Even then we look for the best price and go over checking every aspect to make sure the result is as best as it can be. Wish we could print out a list of reputable agents for everybody but that is not ethical. Writers have to try and submit according to guidelines, bearing in mind that agents get an estimate of 2000 submissions a day. They only pick the best.

    1. Good point Rolando. I know Terry Whalen has a list of reputable agents on his website somewhere. The point is in any business one needs to be careful to build a good reputation. Agents are no exception. Thanks for the input!

  3. Gina,
    I often am asked by agents what level of sales I have generated on my own before they will consider representation. Is this a current norm, which indicates that new authors must self-publish prior to attracting an agent, or is this a red flag? It seems that agents do not want to represent authors without a self-generated track record. What is your take on this?

    1. That’s one of those gray areas, Margie. It actually isn’t the agent who is wanting that track record. It’s the publishers. The big five publishers won’t look at an author without a healthy platform with lots of followers, and publishers also want to know what your track record is as far as book sales to see if you are a good risk for them. That means that debut authors are shoved into the corner with Cinderella.

      I know Bethany House and Revell (Baker Publishing) do publish debut books because I’ve read a ton of them. Not sure about others except Harper Collins runs contests to get access to first time authors’ debut works — so they don’t entirely depend upon agents.

      If new authors want to go the traditional publishing route, they really need an agent to go to bat for them. Slush piles are a thing of the past. The catch for first time authors is if they do have super great sales when they self-publish, why in the world would they want to go the traditional route and give up the really good royalties and still do all the marketing work that they’ve been doing?

      No matter which route an author goes, selling books is hard work–but, oh, so worthy.

  4. I have been attempting to get published by a “traditional” publishing house since I was 19, which was 1984. I have had five agents since then, all claimed they were “reputable,” but none of them got me a contract. Back then, agents were a dime a dozen–they were all clamoring to represent me or ANY writer! Nowadays, these agents are acting like they’re hot stuff. I am presuming that their quality hasn’t changed over the years, yet, they are being more “selective” with which writers they choose to represent. What I’ve learned is that to get a publishing contract, it’s not what you know, or even how talented a writer you are, or how well you’ve polished your art, it’s whom you know. What I need is a reputable agent to represent me, who has solid contacts in the publishing industry. Oh, yes. I have ONE (1) of my manuscripts “self-published.” I used a place called iUniverse.com. They did a beautiful job–but–they did not bother to provide any MARKETING for my book,. It’s a well-written novel, set in a fantasy world I created, with good plot and character development, and everyone who’s read it–mostly kids, for whom it was written–loved it. I even got a few wonderful newspaper reviews to put on the back cover. However, it did not improve my chances of getting an actual publishing contract from a traditional publishing house, so I’m still at square One.

  5. May I take leave to dispute a statement you made? An agent who urges you to get your ms edited MIGHT still very well be a genuine agent, AND even have your best interests at heart. (This is the quote I’m disputing: ‘There are probably just as many [agents] who are borderline or downright dishonest. Those are the ones that urge you to get your manuscript edited before submitting it, or who charge an upfront fee.’)

    You are absolutely right about the upfront fee, btw.

    I know what I’m talking about. I have been twice published personally (hardback and paperback) by one of the top six publishers AND I’ve been an editor for over 20 years. My agent was one of the UK’s top agents. Check me out on http://www.alicemcveigh.com. The point is, editors can still really help a book. I didn’t have a line-editor, even at Orion/Hachette, BUT I had a top editor who pointed out where my plot could be tightened – even AFTER they’d paid me my advance, and taken on the book.

    In other words, just because someone suggests an editor does not mean that they’re trying to deceive you. No, I wouldn’t suggest taken someone on recommendation only (I recommend the Editorial Freelancers Association and getting lots of quotes) but don’t dismiss the advice out of hand. It all depends upon the book and the publisher. It is absolutely sensible to be careful what you pay for – and far too many newbies get taken in – but editors can not only make your book better but also more publishable.

    1. Well, Alice, I totally agree with you!

      Later in that paragraph I expound on that statement by saying that a publisher doesn’t require proofreading or line editing of a manuscript. I also recommend developmental editing (or substantive editing) because that kind of editing does exactly what you are talking about here.

      I’ve been an editor for only about 10 years so when I’m reading a book, I can’t seem to take the editor’s hat off. I see all kinds of mistakes even from the big publishing houses (thought not as many from them as from those smaller publishing houses). So, you are absolutely correct that far too many newbies get taken for a ride–but an editor can only make the book better AND more publishable.

      The association you mention is a good one, but still anyone can be a member of the EFA regardless of reputation. That’s one of the main reasons Tom and I have partnered to bring to authors vetted vendors, and their reputations have been scrutinized here at Authors Community.

    2. Years ago, I submitted a manuscript of mine to a large number of agents, only to learn later that the manuscript had not been ready to show. What I learned was that when an agent tells you that your manuscript needs to be edited, take the hint and get it edited. On the other hand, when an agent says; I have editors working for me – send your mss. to this editor – run the other way.

      Agents who are really agents get paid from the cut the publisher pays you. Agents who expect to be paid up front by the author for various services are the ones to stay away from.

  6. A timely post for me as I am almost done with my second novel.
    The thing I wonder about is the perceived boundaries of a “successful” author’s platform. Mine has all the bells and whistles…FB page, website etc. but there’s not been a lot of traffic on either…especially of late as I’ve spent more time working on the book than trying to expand my platform.
    I have a wish list of agents I’d like to work with that operate in my genre, but I’d like to narrow that down to two or three before sending out queries.

    1. Lawrence, I suggest you do an internet search of each agent on your list: [Agent name] + reviews. See what pops up. Just because an agent has 1 or 2 bad reviews doesn’t mean the agent is all bad. Some people just hate everyone and like posting bad things. Also search their websites. I would steer clear of any agents that do not accept multiple queries. If they want exclusivity, then there’s insecurity there somewhere, and you’re tying yourself to a tree rather than a wagon — standing still kills momentum 🙂

  7. One of the best sources for reputable agents is http://www.publishersmarketplace.com. This site allows you to research publishers–what they’re looking for, which editor is taking what, which agents do they work with, and what kind of manuscripts those agents handle. Membership is $25/month, but you usually only need one month at most to do some solid research on your target market.
    Also, in regard to agents requesting that you have your ms. edited first. The problem lies with so-called “agents” who want to charge you to edit your book. Don’t go there! An agent’s job is to *sell* your book–and if they ask for a fee to do that, run in the other direction.
    That said, you most definitely *should* get your book edited, but do it long before you start looking for an agent. A good developmental editor will spot problems you won’t and help you strengthen weak spots. As an author, my books have benefited from my editor’s input and recommendations, and as an editor I’ve received thanks from many clients, especially less experienced ones, for helping them make their manuscripts even better than they were before.

  8. Gina, I appreciate your insights in “Scents of a Bias,” which gives me an entirely new perspective on commercial publishing. I had assumed the business of writing was far beyond sexist bias, but your observations open a door to new considerations. They also answer questions as to why some less than literate authors of the male persuasion are so successful in formulaic genres that do not require any structure or character development, only a spell-checker.

    1. I’m glad to mentioned this, Margie… I’ve wondered why male authors who don’t aren’t too particular about correct grammar, proper spelling, and annoying split infinitives are selling sci-fi books hand over fist, while female authors are barely getting by. It could possibly be that readers have a bit of bias as well.

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