For those of us who either don't like to shmooze, or don't have the opportunity (see: Shmooze or You Lose 11/12/12), finding an agent can be quite a challenge. But whether your childhood sweetheart is married to Donald Maass, or you are a dead ringer for Brad Pitt, you'll need to do some research before you sign on.
Getting an agent is somewhat like getting a spouse. It has to be a good match to work. First, does the agent represent your genre? An agent actively looking for romance novels may not be interested in your treatise on postage stamps. Second, do you want a hands-on agent who will critique your work and constantly ask you to revise it, or do you prefer someone who lets you drive? Last, but not least, does the agent charge “reading fees”? If so, call off the wedding.
Your first stop for locating an agent is AgentQuery.com. As one of its many valuable services, AgentQuery maintains a database of 900 reputable literary agents. And it's free! If you are interested in researching a specific agent, you can search by name. You can also search by genre, AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) membership status, and whether they are actively seeking clients. Agents who appear on this list are reliable. (AgentQuery also provides a useful blogroll of agent, editor and other publishing industry blogs.)
Once you have made a list of agents who represent your genre, go to their websites to get an idea of how they operate. How many authors do they represent? How many sales have they made this year? What kind of books have they sold, and to whom? This will give you an idea of how active they are, and also how overbooked. An agent with a lot of clients will not have time for you. An agent who sells books exclusively to publishers you never heard of is someone who does not have contacts in the major publishing houses.
Your next step is to look up agents in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Many library systems have copies, but if yours doesn't you can always go to a Barnes and Noble and browse.) Although there are other guides to literary agents, this book is the best source of detailed information. Why? Because it reveals their attitudes. Would you want to marry a person who describes suitors as “blowhards, bigots, braggarts, bitches, and bastards”? Admittedly, some writers fall into one or more of those categories, but chances are good that an agent who uses that much alliteration has a short fuse. Not all agents in Herman's book are members of the AAR, so make sure you cross-check them on AuthorQuery.
If you have been approached by an agent, and don't know if they are legitimate, always go to their website. Do they even have one? If they don't list their clients, or have any sales, you can check them out on Preditors and Editors, a website maintained by the Science Fiction Writer's Association (SFWA), to see if there have been any legal actions against them, or other complaints.
Armed with this knowledge, you can now shmooze.
(And remember: A writer without a literary agent is still a writer. An agent without clients is out of business. They need you more than you need them.)
Photo credit: Jared Platt.