To Agent or Not to Agent? by Kathy Stemke

To agent or not to agent that is the question. Writers can certainly get their feet wet by publishing without an agent. However, to get to many of the bigger publishing houses you still need an agent. Although I have successfully published over a hundred articles, activities with Gryphon House Publishing, and three children’s books, for my first novel I’m on the hunt for an agent. I’d like to share some of things I’ve found in my research so far.

Dishonest agents prey on writers by charging fees, promoting their own paid services, engaging in kickback schemes, and misrepresenting their knowledge and expertise. These agents don’t earn their income by selling manuscripts to publishers, but by extracting money from their clients.

Some examples of dishonest agenting practice, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:

  • Requiring a reading fee with a submission.

  • Requiring a “marketing” or “submission” or other fee on contract signing.

  • Requiring writers to buy a critique or manuscript assessment.

  • Referrals to an editing service owned by the agency, without disclosing the connection.

  • Requiring that clients use the agent’s own paid editing services. Running a contest that’s a scheme for funneling writers into a paid editing service or vanity publisher.

  • Pressuring clients to buy “adjunct” services–website design, catalog space, book cover mockups. Etc.

·         Placing clients with fee-charging publishers.

There are no licensing requirements or competency standards for literary agents. Anyone who feels like it can set themselves up as an agent, whether or not they’re qualified to do so. The result is a large number of amateur, incompetent, and marginal agents.

If an agent is established, s/he should have a verifiable track record of commercial book sales, and be willing to disclose it.

A robust history of selling books to commercial (advance-paying) publishers is the single best indication of an agent’s effectiveness and expertise. You want an agent who is selling regularly to a variety of commercial publishers (a reasonable minimum standard is the AAR’s’ requirement for new members–at least 10 sales within the past 18 months), and who has experience selling books in your subject or genre.

For book agents, commissions should not be more than 10-15% for domestic sales and 20-30% for co-agented or foreign sales.

Be wary of an agent who claims to specialize in new writers.

Be wary of an agent who is looking for poets.

Be wary of an agent who claims to want to sell your book idea to Hollywood.

Be wary of an agent who advertises.

Be wary of an agent who solicits you.

Be wary of an agent who provides extravagant praise or inflated promises, and of her opposite, an agent who paints a dismal picture of your chances of success.

There are a number of helpful, vetted, up-to-date agent directories online, such as,, and AuthorAdvance.

Soooo, what do you think? Should you find an agent?
Agents on twitter:
jwchilton Jamie Weiss Chilton
Agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, shameless caffeine addict, farmer for Marbles, my gray and white rescue bunny.
jenrofe Jen Rofe
Children's lit agent with Andrea Brown who dreams about being a bakery-owning cowgirl. Nevermind that I don't bake much or have a horse.
stevenmalk Steven Malk
Literary agent with Writers House musing on publishing, music, and sports--not necessarily in that order.
McVeighAgency The McVeigh Agency(Mark McVeigh)
A boutique literary agency representing authors, illustrators, graphic novelists and photographers.
DonMaass Donald Maass
President of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, The Fire in Fiction and other craft books for fiction writers.
SlushPileHell SlushPile Hell
Literary agent. Supervillain.
KOrtizzle Kathleen Ortiz
Associate Agent & Foreign Rights Manager; Books + Chai + Tech. = Life
joemts Joe Monti
Children's & YA, F&SF, Literary Agent & Hero Myth Cycle believer.
JoSVolpe Joanna Volpe
NYC lit agent and lover of pizza.
WolfsonLiterary Michelle Wolfson
I'm a literary agent. Check out my site and if you think we're a fit, let me know. Otherwise just support my authors and buy their books!
KnightAgency The Knight Agency
kate_mckean Kate McKean
Literary Agent, Image (c) William G. Wadman
DeidreKnight DeidreKnight
Literary Agent and New York Times bestselling author of romance/women's fiction who loves to travel to far away places, mentally and geographically.
Kid_Lit Mary Kole
Kidlit enthusiast and associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency!
TracyMarchini TracyMarchini
Editorial Consultant, former Literary Agent Assistant, freelance copywriter.
sztownsend81 Suzie Townsend
book lover, former HS teacher, literary agent, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, and owner of an unused $6000 wedding dress. love my life.
michellelit Michelle Andelman
Dark Lady of Letters
UpstartCrowLit Upstart Crow
We're a brusquely friendly literary agency.
ChrisRichman Chris Richman
Kid's book agent, music snob, Philadelphia sports fanatic.
MichaelBourret Michael Bourret
Literary Agent, bran muffin enthusiast and nerdy cat person
NathanBransford Nathan Bransford
ColleenLindsay Colleen Lindsay
Publishing browncoat. Cat herder. Queer human. Professional nerd. TARDIS fan. Athlete's foot survivor. Part of Penguin Group (USA) Business Development team.
BookEndsJessica Jessica Faust
literary agent, blogger, business owner, book lover and foodie
BookEndsKim Kim Lionetti
Literary Agent representing women's fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, pop culture and pop science.
Ginger_Clark Ginger Clark
I am a literary agent. I work at Curtis Brown. I respond only to queries I'm interested in. This twitter account will be boring.
hroot holly root
literary agent, theater wife, cat person, iphone addict.
BostonBookGirl Lauren E. MacLeod
A literary agent @strothmanagency with an emphasis in YA and MG fiction and nonfiction. Opinions are my own.
literaticat jennifer laughran
literary agent at andrea brown lit, children's bookseller, reader, raconteur, eccentric multi-millionaire and patron of the arts... and some of those are lies
JillCorcoran Jill Corcoran
Literary Agent with Herman Agency representing primarily MG and YA authors.
RachelleGardner Rachelle Gardner
Literary agent, firefighter's wife, mom of two awesome girls, Starbucks freak.
ElanaRoth Elana Roth
Brooklynite, children's book agent, Squarespace support specialist, semi-pro Jew, bourbon drinker. I work for lots of people. None of these tweets are theirs.
Author/Educator, Kathy Stemke, has a B.S. from Southern Connecticut State University and Covenant Life Seminary, and graduate coursework from Columbia University. As a freelance writer Kathy has published several articles and is a former contributing editor for The National Writing for Children's Center. she is on the team at DKV Writing for you, a writing services company. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, Movement and Rhythm, on her blog.  
Moving Through All Seven Days, her first e-book, is now available on lulu  
Trouble on Earth Day and Sh, Sh, Sh Let the Baby Sleep Were released in May 2011.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I'll be passing this link to my clients, Kathy. "Buyer beware," is always a good rule. Having said that, for some titles and some authors, navigating the path to getting an agent is well worthwhile.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Excited about the new second edition (Expanded! Updated!) Frugal Book Promoter,

Magdalena Ball said...

What a great post and list Kathy. Getting an agent is often harder than getting a publisher, and for a new author, it might be tempting to accept a dodgy offer, but as you rightly point out, it's far better to wait until you can attract an established agent than to take on a shark. Following some of those agents on Twitter is a good way to find out where demand lies and what the 'buzz' is.

anthony stemke said...

A very informative post, chock full of sound advice

Nancy Thompson said...

Those sources are good for the research part of finding the appropriate agent for your genre, but I suggest starting your search with the GLA or Guide to Literary Agents. It is extensive and published every single year with updates as agents come on the market, move, retire, or die. There are literally thousands of agents out there, but maybe only two or three hundred who would be appropriate for your genre.

In all the months I've been querying, I've never had any predatory experiences because I research my agents thoroughly. A quick glance at the Editors & Predators website can tell you if someone you've selected is in that category.

And if you can't find someone in the GLA, on AgentQuery or AbsoluteWrite or on the Publisher's Marketplace website, then forget them. They aren't worth your effort.

Karen Cioffi said...

Kathy, great post and list. I'll be linking to this in the newsletter.

I agree with Nancy. Checking the GLA is a great way to find reputable agents.

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Margaret Fieland said...

Kathy, great post, and good luck in your agent search.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Bookmarking this one Kathy and posting it round. Super info and so much research already done to start authors off on the right path. I have always worried about agents since a cyberfriend with a potentially great series lost years with her mss languishing in an agent's office.

Martha said...

What great information. Thanks for posting.

Donna McDine said...


Thank you for this indepth list, much appreciated!

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