Access to agents

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A good friend of mine has polished off his novella and wants to locate an agent for his book. A few published guides will give him a copious list of the modern literary world’s gatekeepers and salespeople. (That is what the agent does these days for their pay, after they advise you on how to edit your book into a salable product.) Other online guides can help the writer, searching for a publishing contract producer, weed out the less worthy representatives.

To begin with, the published guides. Writer’s Digest, ever-vigilant to overlook no opportunity to school the writer, publishes a WD Guide to Agents. But the tome most often consulted among the writers I know is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Either of these books will cost less than the time you’d spend searching online — although you’re likely to be doing that, too, once you track down some prospects.

After being the person who sells work much like yours, the second hurdle an agent must cross: integrity. One way to check is to search out an agent’s name in the AAR directory. This Association of Authors’ Representatives requires an agent to have actually sold some manuscripts before it will accept the agent as a member:

To qualify for membership, the applicant for membership in the literary branch of the AAR must have been the agent principally responsible for executed agreements concerning the grant of publication, translation or performance rights in 10 different literary properties during the 18-month period preceding application.

You can tell by these requirements that an AAR agent is going to be busy. Better a busy agent than one who will just hold your book for months, unable to sell it. But just because an agent isn’t an AAR member doesn’t mean you should skip them. One bit of advice I gathered suggested otherwise. “If an agent isn’t listed there, think twice about the agent. There are very strict rules for getting in AAR.”

Maybe too strict. It seems lots of agents at the Writer’s League of Texas Agents Conference have no listing in AAR. A quick check of the first one-third of those agents, alphabetically, brought only one AAR listing, for Betsy Amster. Maybe not the definitive way to seek out a representative, unless you’re hunting for big game on that novella contract.

A better agent-checking resource, by my reckoning, is Preditors and Editors. It explains that it’s possible agents who aren’t in their rating system “don’t want to be listed with P&E, even though it’s free, because P&E dares to give negative recommendations.”

The P&E Web site is a good one, with one of the clearest explanations of the need for an agent and how they work. It’s frank, too. ” Many writers believe they need an agent to sell their book manuscript. Nothing could be farther from the truth.” An agent charging a fee before selling your book is a non-starter, according to the service:

Any charge made to the author that is payable prior to the sale of the manuscript to a publisher, however characterized by the agent, is a “fee” and represents inappropriate conduct not in the author’s best interest. This clarification is in response to several attempts to evade criticism through semantic changes by questionable agents that do not actually represent any improvement in practices–only in the labels on the bills sent to authors.

At this point, the effort and search is all about business, and offering a product with a platform: potential readers interested in buying the book. Not to be confused with the writing, or being a writer.

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