Donya Dickerson, former editor of the Guide to Literary Agents, advises writers daily on finding agents, and when she does the word "research" invariably comes up in conversation.
But just as it is essential to know an agent''s reputation before sending out your query letter, it is also important to understand—and trust—where your information about that agent is coming from. Since researching your research seems like a lot of extra work, Dickerson has come up with the following tips to keep in mind when investigating agents:
Several authors and writing organizations have excellent Web sites providing information on literary agents. Some sites, however, allow any agent to post information without being screened. Keep in mind, too, that writers who post opinions could be disgruntled or even in a partnership with an unscrupulous agent. Try to verify any information you read on the Web—whether it''s good or bad.
A resource might not have a firm understanding of the publishing industry. For instance, there is a popular list of dishonest agents circulating. This list gives negative points to agents who charge hourly retainer fees. While many agents do take advantage of writers with fees, an hourly retainer fee could be charged by a respectable agent who is helping a non-client writer negotiate a book contract.
There also are services providing writers with information about agents. While it is convenient to have someone do your research for you, many of these services charge extravagant fees. For example, there is one online service charging writers $100 to disclose the names of five writers'' agents. Any writer can obtain this information for free by calling the Contracts department of the writers'' publishers—a job that takes about 30 minutes. Just as you should research an agent before paying a fee, make sure you understand what you are paying for with these services as well.
Because agents are becoming more integral to the publishing process, new sources of information about agents come out all the time. Trustworthy places include Publishers Weekly, national writers'' organizations and published writers. We do our best to screen all the agents in the Guide to Literary Agents, and we include several articles to show how you can find a great agent to sell your book. And if you ever have a question about a way an agent is operating, contact us.