I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but agent proliferation has reached epic proportions. Editor Molly O’Neill tweeted the other day that she received submissions from nearly 200 agents last year, and it seems like every other week you hear about some other new agency put together by two more agents you’ve never heard of. Now I’ve no doubt these agents are eager, hard-working people who love books, books, and more books (they must be, since they certainly can’t be in this for the money), and most of them, I imagine, have only the very best of intentions.
The problem is, a lot of these eager, hard-working agents haven’t the slightest idea what they’re doing, so here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. First off, I'm not talking about junior agents at well-established agencies. The way to become a literary agent is fairly straightforward: You intern at an agency, sorting through someone's slush and reading requested material. You have lots of conversations with this someone about what works and what doesn't and, more importantly, why. You form relationships with editors and other industry professionals and learn, among other things, how to negotiate deals, read contracts, and handle royalty statements. After a while (usually a year or two, maybe more), the agency promotes you to junior agent, or maybe you just find a manuscript you love, love, love and beg your mentor to let you take it on.
If you don’t go through this process, you probably aren’t going to have the know-how to, say, interpret the clauses in a boilerplate contract, let alone the industry contacts to even get one in the first place. An agent’s job is a lot less about writing and a lot more about business, so if you don’t put in the time to learn all those things, you’re probably not going to succeed on the agent side of this industry.
2. Thoroughly vet the agents you plan to query. You don't have to read every book on their lists, but you should at least be familiar with some of the writers they represent and what they've sold in the last couple of years. Reputable agents want you to be able to figure this out, so if you have to hunt too long and hard for this information, that's probably a bad sign.
Also, even if they are selling, be aware of who they’re selling to. If all of their sales are to smaller presses, they’re probably going to sell your manuscript to a smaller press also. That’s fine, of course, if you’re hoping to work with a comparable publisher, but if you’re hoping to sign a contract with one of the Big Five, you might as well not even query that agent.
3. You owe it to yourself to be selective. Thirty years from now, when you're swimming in royalties and your bookshelves are sagging under the weight of your words, you're not going to remember the
What other thoughts would you add?