[by Karinya Funsett]

Your manuscript is finally finished. It’s been revised, agonized over, critiqued, and revised again. It’s ready to take the next step. It’s ready for an agent. And because you want nothing but the best for your manuscript, you know you’ve got to find the best agent possible. The biggest name, the top seller, the power player. Right?

Well, not necessarily. Many superstar agents are great at what they do – that’s how they became superstars, after all – but they’re not the right agents for every project. Sometimes the right agent is one you haven’t heard of yet.

Five reasons you might consider a smaller agency

1. You may get to be the big fish
A big, well-established agent will have lots of contacts, yes. But he or she will also already have lots of clients who need attention, and you, as a first-time author and new client, may not always be at the top of the priority list. New agents often don’t have as many pre-existing commitments, and may be able to give your work more time and attention.

2. “New” doesn’t mean inexperienced
Just because someone has only been working as an agent for a short period of time doesn’t mean they’re new to the industry. Many agents earn their stripes by working for years as assistants to established agents, or they’ve handled things like foreign rights for an agency. Others have recently transferred from other arenas of the publishing field, and have experience working as editors or publicists, for indie presses or big New York publishing conglomerates, or for literary magazines or film companies. And even if their publishing resume is short, most young people who enter the field today come in extremely well educated – a large percentage have advanced degrees in business or creative writing, and some have a law degree on top of that – so they have a head start.

3. They’re hungry
Agenting is a tough business and agents who are just starting out are serious about making the deals that will establish them as an agent – and pay the bills.  New agents are often willing to take on more difficult, challenging projects if the book is something they really love. Not only do they have the time and energy to devote to it, but they may also be eager to develop their reputation as someone who represents fresh, unique material, and to prove that they can close even the tough deals.

4. They’re open-minded
Not that established literary agents are a bunch of sticks in the mud, but new agents are more likely to experiment with and embrace new ideas, from submissions systems to publicity techniques to networking methods. Sometimes the old ways are the best. But not always, and new agents are less likely to get stuck in that this-is-just-how-it’s-done rut.

5. They’ll be there for you
Nothing can be guaranteed, of course, but if you’re an author just getting started on a long writing career, it’s nice to have an agent who will likely be in business for a while. It’s also nice to have a legendary agent, but if that legendary agent retires in a year or two you may be back to square one. Getting in on the ground floor with an agent ups the odds that the two of you will be able to share a long, productive working relationship.

It’s up to you, as the author, to evaluate what qualities you value the most in an agent, but don’t be scared to take a chance on a new or young one. With some simple research you’ll be able to find information about the agent’s education, experience, and tastes, and you may find one that’s the right match for you.

Some great resources for researching literary agents

Open to the idea of working with a new agent, but worried it might be risky? You can greatly reduce the uncertainty by doing a little bit of homework first. Below you’ll find a few valuable resources to help you determine if the agent you’re interested in is a smart pick with industry experience, sales (either on their own or as a co-agent or foreign rights agent), and the support of more veteran agents, or an unprincipled predator out to make a quick buck at the author’s expense.

Recommended agent resources

  • Publishers Marketplace: Anyone can view agent and agency profiles on the Publishers Marketplace website, but only members of the site ($20/month) have access to the deals database, where agents report their sales and you can see who represents whom. Not all agents report their deals here, but the majority do, and it’s a good way to verify sales and see what kind of projects the agent has had success with
  • Writer Beware: A publishing industry watchdog group sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Writer Beware website is a great place to acquaint yourself with what you should be looking out for (agents who charge fees, have out-of-the-ordinary contract requirements, no verifiable track record, etc.) and what agencies to avoid. The Writer Beware Blog, run by author Victoria Strauss and friends, is frequently updated with information about questionable agents and publishing scams.
  • Compare Notes: message boards like the Absolute Write Water Cooler can be great for seeing what experiences other authors have had with a particular agent. We caution against using something like this as your only means of research, as message board comments should usually be taken with a grain of salt, but it can be a helpful way to round out your agent research.

Finally, never be intimidated or afraid to ask the agent directly, “What sales have you made?” or “May I speak to one of your clients?” New agents who are serious about their careers will be happy to speak candidly to you about their experience and sales.  There is always a small risk inherent in any business relationship, but by doing a little bit of homework you can increase the odds that the partnership will be a successful one.


author avatar
Karinya Funsett Associate Editor
Karinya Funsett is a developmental editor and traditional publishing support specialist who enjoys women's fiction, romance, magic realism, and creative nonfiction.