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  Judging a Book by its Cover
How to Evaluate Literary Agent Websites

by Tina Morgan

Our readers often send us email or ask on the Fiction Factor Forum if an agent or publisher is legitimate. When this happens, we start with the industry watchdog sites: P&E, and Writer Beware. We can also search the AAR website to see if an agent is a member (this is not required of all legitimate agents but it helps validate the agency's business model). However, it isn't necessary to go farther than the agent or publisher's homepage to make a pretty solid decision about whether or not you should submit to or query them.

When you find a site that looks promising, ask yourself one question: Does this site appeal to me as a writer or as a reader? For a publisher, this is extremely important, but it can also be critical when evaluating an agent as well.

It's easy to forget when we're looking for just the right agent that we need to switch from creative to business mode. The website shouldn't stroke our ego or shore up our insecurities as a writer, but promotes the books of the authors it represents. Agents and publishers are in business to sell books - not to find a first-time author, regardless of how fabulous that author may be. This may feel a bit contradictory. After all, they have no product to sell without the author, but unfortunately for those of us looking for an agent, our numbers are so high that lack of new material is not a danger for the business.

Commissions on sales are the primary income for a legitimate literary agent. Some agents write books themselves: Donald Maass and Noah Lukeman both have some excellent books over the art and business of writing, but this doesn't change the basic business model or their agencies. They represent other writers to publishers and receive a percentage of the royalties for their work.

The homepage of their websites are dramatically different. If you visit Noah Lukeman's site, you'll find (if you click on returning visitor) a page listing some of the awards the authors he represents have won. Click enter again, and you'll find a page of pictures of some of his best-known clients. The third enter will bring you to a page of books by his authors that are currently in print. Mr. Lukeman isn't accepting any new clients at this time so it's not until the fourth page that you can find a link at the top of the page for queries. (This link takes you to a page where you can download his book: How to Write a Great Query Letter, which I recommend.)

At Donald Maass's site you'll find a very simple and easy to navigate interface on the first page. You can bypass the listings of the authors and books the agency is currently representing and go directly to the submissions page. This would seem to be contradictory of my first point: appeal to the reader, but the website adheres to my second point.


Why is this so important? Because an agent who's doing his/her job will be proud of the work he/she has done. You won't find silly pages saying: please respect the privacy of our clients. Excuse me? A page listing clients isn't about delving into the writers' private lives, but about selling their books. Click on Donald Maass's client list and you'll see not only a long list of authors, but most have hyperlinks back to their own websites or link directly to sales pages on Amazon. If you click on the link "New Books by DMLA Clients" you'll find a list of books first, then book covers, synopsis and links to Amazon sales pages.  Noah Lukeman's site starts with pictures of book covers but the titles link on the fourth page takes you to a long list of book titles which link back to descriptions of each book. His clients list links to bios of most of the authors.

One of the ways some of the questionable agents have tried to bypass this guideline is to include long lists client names. If you don't recognize any of the names as those you've seen either on bookstore shelves or at your favorite online bookseller, double check who published the books. One agency that was recently successfully sued, listed several books for sale, but they were always published by self-publishing companies or by very small publishers. This is not a negative commentary on self-publishing or small press, but a reminder that an author doesn't need an agent to publish with those types of publishers. In fact, most small press don't want to talk to literary agents because they can't afford the advance most agents would wish to negotiate for their clients.

There is one exception to keep in mind. A new agent won't have a long list of clients, book covers or an AAR membership. Not because he or she isn't legitimate, but because the agency is just getting started. It is possible to find a new agent who has the know how and experience within the publishing industry to become a good agent, but great care must be taken when querying an agent that doesn't meet the criteria this article discusses. If you chose to take a chance on a new agent, follow these few simple rules: do NOT agree to or send them any money. Do NOT sign a contract giving them an undefined amount of time to represent your book. Make certain you have the right to withdraw your book from their agency at any time (with written notice) without any cost to you. Always remember the golden rule: Money Flows TO the Author.

This article used two major agents as examples, but the rules are the same regardless of genre or number of clients. There are a few agents who have been very slow to enter the information age and are still lacking quality websites. This doesn't mean that they're not legitimate, but that you must rely on the watchdog sites to help you determine if they're in the business of making money from book sales or from fees to authors.



  Copyright 2009 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved


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