First, you finish your manuscript, and then you search for suitable literary agents and write them a persuasive query letter (or get the professionals to write one for you). It’s hard enough finding a literary agent who fits your genre and category and who’s looking for new writers, but you also have to consider whether the agent is reputable. Unfortunately, the industry is riddled with scam artists, and many unknowing writers fall victim to their deceitful ways.
When trying to find a literary agent, you’ll also stumble across inexperienced or incompetent agents. While their intentions may not be malicious, the result is the same for the writer. Navigating the literary agent landscape while trying to avoid dishonest or incompetent agents is no easy task. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of warning signs to watch out for when you’re trying to find a literary agent.
1. The literary agent isn’t a member of AAR.
In your search to find a literary agent, make sure to check their name in the membership list of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). Of course, just because the agent isn't registered with AAR doesn’t mean they’re incompetent or a scam artist. Some reputable agents simply choose not to join, so lack of membership isn’t a reason to disqualify the literary agent you’ve found. However, if the agent does show up, they’re likely a reputable literary agent.
2. The literary agent shows up on “beware” lists.
This point goes without saying—if you’re trying to find a literary agent and they show up on warning lists, you should keep your distance. Yes, that’s obvious. But where can you find such lists?
Preditors and Editors offers a database of numerous agents, and dishonest ones that have been found to engage in shady tactics are marked as “not recommended.” Another resource is the Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum at the Absolute Write Water Cooler community. The community keeps tabs on dishonest practices in the publishing industry and adds literary agents they find who shouldn’t be trusted.
You can also easily search the names of any literary agents you find on these sites to see whether they show up.
3. The literary agent is “new to the industry.”
It’s okay to query a new agent—if they’re truly new. The problem is that you may find many literary agents who only claim to be new to cover up their years of lousy sales records.
Legitimately new literary agents, as long as they have the necessary experience in or knowledge about the publishing industry, are generally good to query, as they’re looking to build up their client base. When you find literary agents claiming to be new, just do some research to make sure they’re not just trying to hide their bad track record.
4. The literary agent refuses to divulge sales information.
If the literary agent won’t tell you anything about their sales information, you should run the other way. Naturally, any literary agent with a good track record would be proud to inform you of their successes, so only those who have nothing to boast about would hide their sales history. Likely, the literary agent doesn’t have the necessary skills and connections to land you a book deal, and that’s why you should find a different literary agent instead.
5. The literary agent charges fees.
Reputable literary agents do not make money from upfront charges: they take a percentage of your book’s revenue. Never enter into a relationship with a literary agent who demands upfront charges. They may be trying to scam you, or they may simply be so incompetent that upfront fees are the only way they can make money. Either way, if the literary agent charges fees, you can safely assume they’re not expecting to make any money off your book sales—and therefore, neither will you.
Navigating through the many dishonest and incompetent literary agents that populate the publishing world is an exhausting task, but you have to do proper research in order to protect yourself. If you watch for the red flags we’ve outlined here, you can increase your chances of finding a literary agent who’s highly skilled and has your best interests in mind. To save time and increase your chances of success, you can also order a curated list of relevant agents that includes their contact info and submission preferences.
Don’t hesitate to query well-established literary agents, either. Many new authors assume well-established agents aren’t willing to take on unpublished writers, but that’s simply not true. If you have a phenomenal manuscript and a high-quality query letter, you can absolutely find representation. Don’t have a top-notch query letter yet? Let the professionals compose one for you.