Before I dive into how to select a literary agent, let me just state the obvious: I am a newer agent, therefore, my outlook on the issue is a bit biased. However, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to sway you unfairly. There is a lot to be said for being the client of an established agent, but there’s also a lot to be said for being the client of a newer agent. This isn’t going to be me playing the realtor who tries slapping creative adjectives on something undesirable.
So, what’s the difference between a newer agent and a more established agent? Time and experience. As Ben Folds says, “time takes time,” so the only way a newer agent becomes a more established agent is through living and working in publishing every day. All agencies have rank. At my agency, we have Andrea, who is the President, then we have a Senior Agent. After that, we have five Agents and two Associate Agents (including myself). The “title” of each agent depends on the amount of time they’ve been with the agency and the number of books they’ve sold. That’s really all you need to know about rankings. (All the other concerns are internal and mean more to the agents themselves than to writers.)
Established Literary Agents
Let’s talk about established agents and how they factor into the “how to select a literary agent” question. These are the Presidents or Senior Agents, and sometimes the Agents, at an agency. They’ve been around for (usually, again, this is general) about three/five years or more and have amassed an impressive sales record. They have strong relationships with editors and their projects often get more careful consideration when they land in an editor’s inbox. They’ve proven themselves as people who have great projects. People editors want to work with again and tell their colleagues about.
- Great reputation
- Strong relationships and lots of trust
- Impressive sales and client lists
- Clout, clout, clout
- Very selective, so it’s sometimes hard for a debut author to be considered.
- Most established agents don’t get a lot of their clients from submissions — they weigh referrals much more heavily.
- The longer an agent works, the busier they are. They have bigger client lists and they’ve done more books. For every book you sell, there is work attached to it (contracts, paperback reissue, royalty statements twice a year, marketing, foreign and subrights sales, etc.). The more books an agent has sold, the more work they have to devote to their existing sales and clients, and the less time they sometimes have.
- Agenting is all about taking risks on writers and the possible return on that time and energy investment. More established agents might select writers who are very advanced already, and not take as many risks on debuts who have something special but need a lot of work.
So it’s a trade-off. An established agent has wonderful pros but they keep their clout by working hard and staying very busy. Smaller writers or debuts sometimes feel like they disappear on a bigger agent’s list. When you’re considering a more established agent, ask yourself what is more important to you: their clout when dealing with editors or feeling like a big fish in their small pond? You’ll always get the former with an established agent, but you may not get the latter.
New Literary Agents
Let’s how new literary agents factor into the “how to select a literary agent” question. They’ve started as an intern or an assistant at an agency and worked their way up. They may have been agenting for a year or two or three. They’re building their relationships with editors and they don’t have as many sales under their belts. In a business that’s all about reputation and relationship, they’re still working on a lot of those factors.
This is often tempered, though, by the reputation of the newer agent’s agency. An agent who is hired by a very well-regarded agency has some clout already — great agencies keep their reputations by choosing great employees. And a newer agent’s senior colleagues are usually great resources, giving advice, reviewing submission lists, suggesting editors and otherwise speeding up the time/experience process. But the newer agent is still an unknown until they get more business. And their tastes and market knowledge are still evolving, so editors take that into consideration when they see a submission from most newer agents.
- Less personal clout — though they might have agency clout and mentors within the agency
- Fewer big name clients and impressive sales
- Evolving taste and market knowledge
- Personal relationships with editors are still developing
But there are pros, too. And, again, I speak as a newer agent, so take this with a grain of salt. The pros:
- Newer agents are hungry for sales and to build their careers. (Most agencies pay commission only, so making those sales, building those relationships and getting off the ground are very high-stakes matters for newer agents.)
- Newer agents have more time to devote to existing clients and might be more willing to take on writers/projects that need a lot of work — they are sometimes more open to the risk of developing a writer.
- Most newer agents have something to prove and are the ambassadors of their agencies, going to all the conferences, making the rounds with editors, getting their name out there. They’re on the up and up and have unknown potential — the newer agent who plucks you from the slush might grow into that senior agent one day, and you could be one of their loyal, long-term clients as they gain prestige.
Much like we’re taking a risk on you when we offer representation and start developing you as a writer, with a newer agent, you’re taking a risk on someone who is at the beginning of their career, too. If it works out, you could be in a great, prestigious relationship.
How to Select a Literary Agent: Build a Varied Query List
Take these things and what you want as a writer into consideration when you’re on the hunt to find a literary agent. With newer agents, DO make sure that they have some sales under their belts and that they’re with a reputable agency. In this industry, it doesn’t really take much to hang out a shingle and call yourself a literary agent. If a newer agent is backed by a reputable agency, that’s a huge vote of confidence (as I’ve experienced firsthand, as a newer agent with a prestigious agency). If you’re getting ready to query, I’d suggest picking a list that has both newer and established agents and seeing where you get more responses.
ETA: As Bryan points out in the comments below…newer agents won’t take just anything. Newer agents have to build reputations and go out with great projects, so it isn’t necessarily easier to get past the threshold of a newer agent. And established agents will work with stellar debuts, too! Bottom line, as it is in any other post on my blog: write a great book!
Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.