Director’s Corner: Finding Reputable Literary Agents

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.


Finding Reputable Literary Agents

Many authors make the mistake of pulling agent names at random off the Internet or out of reference books such as Literary Market Place (you can find the book at most libraries or subscribe for a fee to their database here: http://www.literarymarketplace.com/lmp/us/index_us.asp), Writer’s Market, Guide to Literary Agents, Science Fiction Writer’s Market, or The Insider’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. These references are useful, but not as your primary source for finding agents. Anyone can call himself a literary agent. This does not necessarily mean that he is reputable or competent, or even that he’s ever sold a manuscript to a publisher. Some so-called “agents” prey upon unsuspecting authors. You don’t want to get involved with them, and you don’t even want to send your work to them. It’s a waste of time and money.

Developing writers often have a very hard time finding a competent, reputable literary agent. A good literary agent can only handle a limited number of writers at once, so established agents often have full rosters and are unable to take on new writers. Openings may only occur when one of their writers stops writing, or when the agent drops the writer (perhaps because publishers are no longer buying his work), or when a writer decides to switch to a new agent.

Thus, the best opportunities for a developing author to find an agent often occur when a new agent comes onto the scene. An agent’s assistant may be promoted to agent, or an editor may become an agent, or an agent may leave an agency to strike out on her own. In these cases, the agent’s roster will be nearly empty, so the agent will be actively searching for strong writers to represent.

Keeping up with these developments can provide you with key information in your agent search. A few good sources for this type of information are Locus magazine (you can find subscription info at www.locusmag.com), SF Scope (www.sfscope.com), the free e-newsletter Publishers Lunch (subscribe at www.publisherslunch.com), and Agent Query (http://agentquery.com/). If you go further afield, beware that you may find less reliable sources.

These sources will announce when an agent starts his own agency, an assistant is promoted to agent, and so on. They’ll also commonly report information like this: “Author Jane Doe sold the science fiction novel Iguana Planet to editor John Smith at Reptile Publishing via agent Mary Dear.” You can now write in your Publishing Information File–which all writers should have–that Mary Dear is an agent who handles SF and who made a recent sale to Reptile Publishing. If this is Jane Doe’s first novel, that would be a very encouraging sign that this agent is taking on new, unpublished clients. Reading these sources, you can quickly compile a list of good agent candidates.

Another good source for agents’ names are books themselves. When looking at books for this purpose, you should limit yourself to those published in the last year. Also, look only at books in the same general field as yours. If you’ve written a fantasy, look at other fantasies. Often, an author will thank her agent on the acknowledgments page of her book. First novelists especially tend to acknowledge their agents. Look at these acknowledgments pages and see if an agent is named. Sometimes the agent’s name will appear, but the author will not specifically say that this person is her agent. So Jane Doe may write, “Thanks to Mary Dear for all her help and encouragement.” So how do you know that Mary Dear is Jane’s agent? This is where the reference books I listed above can come in handy. If you spend some time flipping through these listings and becoming familiar with the names, then you can recognize them when you see them. Those reference books can also provide additional information about an agent.

Some additional sites with useful information on agents: Preditors and Editors (http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm), 1000 Literary Agents (http://www.1000literaryagents.com/), the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America site (www.sfwa.org) and the Horror Writers Association site (www.horror.org).

You should always check out an agent before submitting your work to that person, making sure he is reputable, successful, and handles the genre in which you write.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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