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How to Research Literary Agents and Publishers before Sending Materials

Friday, 29 June 2018  |  Posted by Sarah Nicolas

As you may know, Pitch Wars is a mentoring event culminating in an agent round and #pitmad is a quarterly twitter pitch event. For #pitmad, any agent or editor can participate in the event by liking/favoriting pitches. We have exactly zero control over who scans the hashtag. For Pitch Wars, we merely confirm that they are indeed a literary agent.

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This is why we strongly encourage you to do your research on any agent or editor participating in #pitmad or Pitch Wars (or any other event) before sending them your materials. It’s also why we stress that you do not have to send requested materials to someone if you don’t want to work with them. There are, of course, scams out there, but there are also well-meaning organizations that don’t have great management or business skills. Even more organizations/people simply won’t fit with your personal needs and publishing goals – and signing with one of them can be just as bad.

Please do not ask us to vet an agent or publisher for you. For many reasons (e.g. staffing, time, liability), we cannot do this research for you. Also, it’s something you really need to learn to do on your own if you want to have a successful career in publishing. Plus, everyone has different goals and desires, so what works beautifully for one person may be a nightmare for another.

However, I can provide you with tips on how to research those agents/editors/publishers. (For clarity and ease of reading, from here on out, I’m going to simply use “pub pro” to stand in for “agents/editors/publishers.”)

First, you need to make sure you have a basic understanding of how the industry operates. A lot of writers get stuck in bad situations simply because they didn’t know what the norm was, so they couldn’t tell when something was abnormal. I won’t go into this info now, as that’s another beast, but you should do this before ever pitching or querying your book. Read widely and from multiple trusted sources, including Writer’s Digest, literary agent blogs, and author blogs.

If a pub pro has requested materials from you, congrats! You’re excited and you have every right to be! We just want to make sure that excitement doesn’t lead you to make rash decisions you’ll regret later.

Sources

Here are some resources you can use in your search. Later, I’ll discuss what you’re looking for.

1) Google

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You can find almost everything you need to know by googling the pub pro’s name. Often, the listings for the pub pro on the sites I list later will show up in you Google search results. If there are a lot of results, don’t be afraid to go past the first page of results!

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Yep! You could even get thorough and go to page five or six of those results! Can you imagine?

If you’re researching a small press or one of its editors, you may also want to search for the names of other higher-ups in the company (editors, managing editors, publishers, any director-level people) to make sure. Sometimes the editor may be clean, but the publisher has had some shady past dealings.

2) Absolute Write Water Cooler

As the name implies, “Absolute Write” as it’s commonly called, is a great source for writer chatter. You can search for the pub pro’s name in the message boards, or you can simply google “[pub pro] Absolute Write.”

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3) Writer Beware

This one is maintained by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American (SFWA) and features alerts, info about specific pub pros, but also general info on avoiding scams and predatory practices.

4) Agent Query and Query Tracker

These are two similar websites where you can look up info on agent and publishers, including user-generated info.

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5) Association of Authors’ Representatives (commonly called AAR, not to be confused with All About Romance)

This is a professional organization of literary agents, so it’s only applicable to those pub pros. An agent who is not a member of AAR is not necessarily a red flag, but all of their members must adhere to a Canon of Ethics.

6) Writing Communities

Don’t hesitate to ask people in whatever writing communities you frequent, whether it’s in person, on Facebook, on Twitter, or on some other platform. When you’re on the verge of signing a contract, it’s always a good idea to talk privately with other authors who work with that pub pro, whether you know them personally or not.

What to Look For

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This will differ slightly based on whether we’re talking about an agent or a publisher. In both cases good signs include: authors who are happy with thriving careers working with the pub pro, interviews and features from reputable sites and blogs, quality covers (whoever said “don’t judge a book by its cover” was a fool), awards.

If the pub pro is an agent you usually want to look for one (or more) of three things:

  1. Sales to publishers like those you’d like to sell to
  2. They work for an established agency with sales to publishers like those you’d like to sell to, and/or
  3. They have apprenticed with an established agent/agency (internship, assistant, etc)

If an agent is new and doesn’t yet have a lot of sales under their belt, those last two things on my list are going to be very important. A new agent is not necessarily a bad thing!

You can usually find interviews or blog posts from agents where they’ll discuss their philosophies and styles. People prefer different things, but here are some definite red flags:

  • They charge any kind of reading fee
  • They don’t allow simultaneous submissions and insist on exclusivity
  • They don’t have any of the three things listed above
  • They bad-mouth any client or former client
  • Referring you to a specific freelance editor, doubly if it’s an in-house one
  • Unprofessional behavior, like talking down to authors
  • Yellow flag: the agent has only sold books to publishers that take submissions from unagented authors.

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If you’re looking at a publisher, what you’re looking for depends on what your publishing goals are.

Consider these questions:

  • Are their books good? Do they get trade reviews? How are the reviews on Amazon/Goodreads?
  • How are their sales rankings on Amazon? Are any of them titled (NYT or USAT) bestsellers? Again, how are their covers?
  • Does the publisher’s website home page focus on promoting books that they’ve published or on trying to convince you to submit to them? (FTR: you want the former)
  • Search a couple of their titles and see what kind of marketing/publicity the books have received.
  • Rumblings from current/past authors about payment problems, being mistreated, lack of editing or publicity support, etc should all be considered red flags.
  • Are their books available in bookstores? Are they just on the website or are they in stores, on bookshelves? Are they in libraries?
  • Jane Friedman covered these topics and more in an extensive post here.

Additional Reading

Sarah Nicolas Sarah Nicolas is the Pitch Wars Social Media and Fundraising Director, as well as a recovering mechanical engineer, library event planner, and author. Sarah has published both traditionally and independently, and has also worked in the publishing industry in multiple roles. Sarah’s been a Pitch Wars mentor since 2012. Website | Twitter

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