How Do You Know If Your Agent Is Any Good?

Jane Knows

I recently received the following question from a writer who wishes to remain anonymous:

Every new writer wants to know how to get an agent and everyone seems to write about that topic.

But I want to know how to assess my agent. How do I know if I have a good one?

I know there are no guarantees in this game of publishing. I’m trying to publish a nonfiction popular history and snagged an agent at a boutique agency in NY on my 40th query.

Like any first-time writer (though I have published one book, but to a different audience), I was thrilled. That was 16 months ago. He has sent the proposal to some big publishers who have all been complimentary of my writing and my passion for my subject. But none have made an offer. My agent thinks they are confused as to whether it’s history or memoir.

I sense his overall frustration with the transition in the publishing industry. He says that five years ago he could have easily sold it. He says he has a few other places to send it, but also offered me an out if I want to look for another agent. He maintains that he still believes in the project, but I’m wondering if his plate is too full to give my project the attention it deserves or if his creative energy is exhausted.

Does a good agent keep his clients informed about which publishers he has contacted about their books? Does a good agent offer continuous advice based on incoming feedback from publishers who turned down the proposal? How would you define the factors that describe a good literary agent?

This is a fabulous question! As I often like to say, writers shouldn’t ask “How can I find an agent?” but “How can I find the right agent?”

Side note: For those of you looking for practical advice on how to begin an agent search, see this post. It focuses on evaluating the agents you’ve identified as being (at least on the surface) appropriate for your work.

Before I answer the specific questions posed above, I’ll offer some broad criteria for evaluating an agent:

1. Track record of sales.

This is usually the No. 1 sign of whether you have a “good” agent: the characteristics of their client list and the publishers they have recently sold to. Are the publishers they sell to the types of publishers you consider appropriate for your work? Are the advances their clients command in the “good” range for you? These factors can be somewhat subjective, and are also based on your genre/category and your own sense of author identity.

Bottom line, ensure that your agent has experience and success in representing the type of work you’re trying to sell. Most agents will list current clients on their site, or you can find records of agent-publisher deals at PublishersMarketplace (subscription required).

If the agent doesn’t have the experience or connections you would expect, then ask them about it (respectfully, of course). Publishing tends to be driven by relationships and reputation, and if your agent is trying to break into new business territory with your book, you might regret it later.

A note about new agents: Sometimes it’s easier to get represented by a new agent who is trying to build a roster of clients. If you’re a new author with a potentially small deal that wouldn’t interest an established agent, then a new and “hungry” agent can work out just as well.

Even if an agent’s track record is still developing, take a look at their previous experience in publishing (for example, were they formerly an editor?) and the experience and reputation of the agency they are associated with. If they’re working at a solid agency with a track record, and/or have a long work history with the New York houses, these are good signs. Just make sure they haven’t been trying to develop their list for a very long time.

2. Industry professionalism and respect.

This can be tough for an outsider to gauge, but if they’re treating you professionally, then it’s a good sign. Timeless signs of professionalism: They get back to you in a timely manner, they communicate clearly and respectfully, their business operations aren’t cloaked in secrecy, they treat you as an equal.

However: I have observed some unpublished writers who seem to be very demanding and have expectations outside the norm. What does demanding look like? Expecting to call your agent at any time and have a discussion, expecting daily contact, or expecting near-instant response. Remember: Most agents work for free until your book is sold. Their most immediate responses go to their established clients (who are bringing in revenue).

3. Enthusiasm.

Do you get the feeling that the agent genuinely believes in you and your work? While agents are certainly interested in a sale, they’re also interested in projects that excite them and clients they are proud to represent.

While it’s not possible to put a quantitative measure on “enthusiasm,” think of it this way: Your agent is going to be handling your publisher contracts, negotiations, and other financial matters (including payment to you) for the life of your work. You need to trust them completely. They champion your cause to the publisher throughout the life of the book’s publication and resolve conflicts. You’re entering into a meaningful business partnership, and fit is important.

Just as you wouldn’t marry anyone, don’t partner with just any agent.

Now, to address some specific questions:

  • It’s now very common for agents to say, “I could have sold it 5 years ago.” That’s probably because it’s true. I hope the agent is giving you more specifics about why this is the case. Is the market oversaturated on your topic? Are publishers demanding authors have bigger platforms? Have publishers cut back on their list? Are they unwilling to take even the smallest risk? Are bookstores not buying this category like they were before? Etc.
  • Is your agent’s plate too full? This probably isn’t a factor if the agent took you on in the first place. I’m going to assume that he’s representing you in good faith and thought he could find an editor to buy the project. It sounds like he’s hearing the same kind of rejection again and again (related to category/genre confusion?). Perhaps the industry won’t support the type of book you’re trying to sell.
  • He should advise you what would make your book more marketable. If there is consistent publisher confusion about whether your project is memoir or history (a deadly problem, in my opinion), there is likely a problem in the book concept or proposal itself. You and your agent should be having a conversation about how to address this reaction that publishers are having—unless you really are trying to sell a hybrid history-memoir (which is probably unmarketable, but that’s another blog post)! Editors should be offering enough feedback so that your agent can discuss with you how your book or the proposal could be repositioned to sell. However, his creative energy might be exhausted if he believes the project would take far more work and retooling to make a sale that’s not worth his time. Or, he might not believe you’re willing to reposition the book.
  • He should let you know what imprints/publishers he has contacted and has been rejected by. It’s your right to know this information, especially after a long period of time has passed. You may also ask for the rejection letters, though your agent is under no obligation to provide you with specific contact information of editors and publishers.

While there are many well-meaning agents out there, it’s true that some of them are amateurish, incompetent, or bad. Here are some issues to consider.

  • Did the agent help you improve your query, pitch, and/or proposal? A good agent will not take an author’s query/proposal package without going through a revision process. There might be a handful of authors who can put together a crackerjack proposal, but they are few. An agent should be ensuring the pitch or proposal is primed for success, and this almost always requires at least one round of feedback and revision.
  • Your agent should not have to advertise for clients. Do not respond to advertisements from agents seeking clients. Also, if an agent contacts you, a red flag should go up. While agents do seek out clients, it’s usually because an author has received recent publicity or attention (e.g., a personal essay or story of yours just appeared in a prestigious publication, or your blog was just ranked in the Top 10 by a major media outlet). A red flag should also go up if the agent makes all kinds of promises to you, praises you beyond reasonability, etc (and especially if these promises are followed up by a request for a fee).
  • People in the industry should recognize the name of your agent. Again, publishing is relationship driven, so editors and publishers should know who your agent is. If you can’t find any online mention or reference to your agent, and they’re not a member of AAR, that’s a red flag. Check their track record carefully. See who they’ve sold to and how recently.

For more excellent information on how to tell a good agent from a not-so-good agent, check these in-depth articles.

If you have advice on how to tell a good agent from a not-so-good agent, please share in the comments!

Write a Strong Nonfiction Book Proposal

The following two tabs change content below.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Getting Published, Writing Advice and tagged , .


  1. Thanks for this excellent article, Jane. Absolutely right on.

    Re this writer’s project specifically: Having shopped a number of proposals in this tough post-2009 publishing climate (results varying from NYT bestsellers to dead in the water), I feel this writer’s pain. From my perspective as a ghostwriter specializing in memoirs, it’s agony to see worthy projects weeded out to the thinnest degree while celeb books still get hefty advances. (Although not as hefty as they used to.)A hybrid history/memoir most certainly can work (Henrietta Lacks anyone?), but it’s incredibly hard to sell on proposal. It’s not a no-brainer. You have to prove you can pull it off, and that means having either a bombastic platform or a finished, excellent full manuscript. In 2010, I coauthored a hybrid memoir with the founder of a huge non-profit org — a compelling life story woven with the history of breast cancer from it’s first mention in ancient Egyptian medical texts. The proposal got a great advance, and the book debuted at #6 on the NYT bestseller list. The perfect storm of great story, thorough research, careful crafting of the ms, strong editing and major PR platform.On the flipside, I’ve had two proposals that were just as strong go down in flames because my clients had no platform. Frankly, my own memoir pubbed by HarperCollins ten years ago could NEVER have sold on proposal.I would add, in answer to your general question, that a good agent is willing to think outside the box in order to work with the career you’re trying to forge. (You’re the one who has to live with it, after all.) I love my agent at WME who is a savvy advocate for my ghostwriting projects but also supportive of my decision to indie pub my backlist and forthcoming fiction. Even though she doesn’t participate in the ebook income, she will (hopefully) make a little bank on subrights, and she sees it as building my brand, which is good for both of us.  

    Thanks again for a great article. Forwarding, FBing and tweeting accordingly. Everyone should read.

  2. All true, and something that every new author should be aware of because it saves a lot of heartbreak. Thanks for this, Jane.

  3. I’ve had several agents that on paper looked like great agents, but did practically nothing for my career. I have a new agent now, brand new, so here’s hoping this one will “take”. So far so good.

  4. I learned a lot from this post.  I was recommended here by another blogger and am so glad I stopped by!  I will definitely by stopping by again.  Thanks

  5. This is indeed an excellent post with invaluable information for any would-be author – thanks for sharing, Jane.

  6. Pingback: Reading and Writing Wednesday: Some goals and ideas. « Krafty Ellen writes

  7. Pingback: Blog Treasures 1-7 | Gene Lempp's Blog

  8. Pingback: Book Bits #112 – Charles Addams birthday, Nobel jury said Tolkien not up to scratch, Connie Rice, Contests | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

  9. I’ve had two bad experiences with agents. One, I met at an SCBWI international conference and had a “good” reputation. I sent her two children’s book manuscripts, she accepted them and sent me a contract. That was the last I heard from her for over a year when I finally tracked her down. She had moved her office and evidently lost my contact information. I withdrew my manuscripts. She proved to be productive for a friend of mine, so maybe she’s not all bad.
    The second poor agent was somewhat similar. Her business address was in a southern state. After accepting an adult manuscript, she didn’t stay in touch with me. I asked her how she was able to market books from the South when most publishers are not in that area and she acted offended. Nothing ever developed. I eventually sold the manuscript directly to a publishing house on a “co-operative” basis. Not the best idea, but I thought I’d give it a try.

    • Elaine – Interesting experiences! Thanks for sharing. The second agent sounds like a not-so-good one. Any agent based very far from New York should expect questions about how she keeps in touch and effectively markets to the industry.

  10. Pingback: January 2012 |

  11. Jane, I am wondering about how much agents are now helping authors with self publishing? Over on the Writer Unboxed, Christopher Harris posted his story of how he finally self-published. It sounded like his agent Rachel Vogel did quite a bit on the e-publishing front.  Is this something typical of a good agent these days?

    • Agents are indeed helping authors with e-publishing and self-publishing, but such help can be controversial if the agent is ultimately serving as the publisher, as that can be a conflict of interest.

      However, agents are responding to client and market demand, and many legitimate agencies have decided to help both existing and new clients with e-publishing.

      Some agents have access to e-distributors and services that individual authors do not, so they can offer unique value. But every author should make sure the agent does add value for whatever services they’re providing.

  12. I found your article extremely interesting. I’m in a similar situation–yet different. My book is a memoir/history combination and has been languishing at a University Press for 10 months. It was accepted for consideration by an Acquisitions Editor who has to o.k. it first, then send it to a group of professors “familiar” with what I am writing about; then if it passes muster there, it goes to a committee of six to receive publishing approval; I would assume that would include a contract or offer.

    I realize academia is a different process, but ye gods, almost a year and only past the editor of first resort.  There has been very little contact between us, only every few months at my instigation. The editor claims to like the book, is somewhat apologetic, but still no movement. Unfortunately, I think where it is is where it belongs, so I try to write other things to keep my mind off of it.

    At any rate, I am preparing for the unknown with a strong platform for my work and will give myself a couple of more months and then I may become more pushy like some of the folks you have mentioned.

    • Wow! That’s quite a wait. My experience in publishing is that the longer things stay in limbo, the less likely it’ll work out. I don’t mean to discourage at all, but you may want to start considering where else to send it.

  13. Pingback: The Road to Success Part Two–Understanding the Why Behind the Buy « Kristen Lamb's Blog

  14. Pingback: Write. Book. Pitch. Agent. Right? « virtualDavis

  15. Pingback: What Are You Looking for in an Agent? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  16. Pingback: March Manuscripting: Some Links on Agenting | Hallie Tibbetts

  17. This is a great post. I recently queried an agent at a major NYC house who openly posts somewhat less than nice remarks about the queries he’s received via his Twitter account. Sure, it’s not technically illegal or slander, but certainly does smack of the unprofessional, and in my husband’s not so subtle language, constitutes what he calls a “dick move.” What would be your take on this? I emailed the agent after reading this and rescinded my query. Does this make me a ‘problem author? I understand this sort of discussion does take place behind closed doors, but to make commentary on it in a public forum seems wrong, on many levels.

    • Indeed—I can only say it’s incredibly common, and some writers find this kind of “critique”—of other queries or even their own—helpful, since it provides insight into how agents think.

      I don’t think you’re a problem author for rescinding your query, though. You should only work with an agent you can respect.

Join the conversation