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Hello, writers. Happy New Year!

Write On! turns five years old this week. It began with a one-off post on New Year's Day, 2009, suggesting that if you'd always been thinking of writing a book, the first day of a new year was a great time to start. The response made me realize there were more writers lurking around dkos than I'd ever suspected.

I know of some of the successes y'all have had since then... manuscripts completed, stories sold, a few books sold... and hope to hear of many more. (Though the important thing, I suppose, is to enjoy the writing process itself. I've been told.)

And I know that some Write On regulars are currently looking for agents.

I've been through three agent hunts during these last five years. The first one was, like an earlier agent hunt I'd indulged in, unsuccessful. The next two led to my signing with agents, the last being my present agent, who is great. But it brings us to tonight's word, because I know sometimes there is a feeling among writers that any agent will do. I once saw a comment on a writing blog to the effect that “I don't need to find a great agent. Any agent who likes my stuff is obviously a great agent.” Argh. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A bad agent is much worse than no agent, because when you have an agent you're no longer free to submit your work wherever you want. Your agent is in control of where and when your work is submitted. Therefore, unless you can sign with someone you really trust with that responsibility, you're better off selling your own work... slow and discouraging though that may be.

So I submit for your consideration tonight my Spotter's Guide to Agents.

(Please note that not all agents fit into these categories... in fact, most agents probably don't fit into any of them. But these are a few I noticed in my last agent hunt.)

The Dreamer

This agent will accept queries. S/he'll probably even sign some clients. But his/her bio doesn't mention any background in the publishing industry, and s/he doesn't mention any actual sales. I'd avoid this one, especially if s/he's not located in New York.

The Newbie

Like the Dreamer, s/he has no sales. But unlike the Dreamer, s/he's got at least some background in the industry... some internships, perhaps. There may be hope here, especially if s/he's affiliated with a well-known agency. (But personally I'd probably avoid.)

The Moonlighter

Some agents may say in their listing on or (both good sites on which to look for an agent, btw) that they rep your genre. But when you scope out their actual sales, they only mention a book about tropical fish care and one about macrame owls... books that are not in your genre, and pay such a low advance (maybe $1000 - 3000?) that the agent's 15% can't possibly be what s/he's living on.

I would avoid this one too.

The Innovator

These ones tend to suggest that they've developed a whole new model for agenting. They're not like the other agents. The most salient way in which they're not like the other agents is that they charge more than 15%. (Avoid. If they can't make a living on 15%, then their whole new model isn't working.)

The Special Relationship

None of the above are scammers. The agent who has a “special relationship” with a particular publisher (invariably a pay-to-play publisher) is a scammer. It's you, the writer, that the agent is supposed to have a relationship with.

Don't just avoid this agent. Sic the grebes on him/her.

The Star of the Small Screen

These agents have thousands of twitter followers and hundreds of readers on their blogs. They are certainly legit. They may be great agents. But they get way more queries than do agents without an online presence. It's just too hard to get through to them. I've never even gotten a partial request from one, so I gave up trying. YMMV.

The Author

Related to the Star of the Small Screen. Some agents write books about writing and publishing. Like the SotSS, they may be great agents, but they get so many queries that you're less likely to hear back from them.

The Last Big Thing

S/he sold the latest mega-hit which made its author into a millionaire. Now everybody wants to sign with this agent. There's clear evidence that s/he's good at selling books. But the sheer volume of queries s/he receives will make it hard for you to get through to him/her.

It's from identifying these types that I came up with my own criteria for an agent, which may not be yours, but I submit them for your consideration. On my last agent hunt, I queried only agents who met most or all of these criteria:

- works in NYC
- has worked as an editor at a major publishing house
- has a good sales record in my genre
- does not have a significant online presence

There are many legit agents who don't meet these criteria, of course. That was just my wish list. You'll want to make your own before you begin querying.

Since the above doesn't really lend itself to a Tonight's Challenge, I did that old writer's trick of randomly picking two words from the dictionary. Please write a scene... a description, a scene, a dialogue, a limerick, whatever... based on these two words.





Write On! will be a regular weekly diary (Thurs 8 pm ET) until it isn't.
Before signing a contract with any agent or publisher, please be sure to check them out on Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write and/or Writer Beware.
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