The annual Guide To Literary Agents, published by Writer's Digest Books, is probably the source most aspiring writers go to in search of literary representation. In the 2000 edition of the guide there are about 325 book agents listed. Fifty-four of them are grouped in the fee-charging section. Aspiring authors who have been unable to secure nonfee agents often look for representation among the fee chargers. No one likes to pay a fee for a service others in the field do for nothing, but the fact an agent is listed in the guide is sort of an endorsement that the agent is at least legitimate. Unfortunately this is not a valid assumption, therefore, the writer needs to know how to spot the phonies.
If a writer applies the "you get what you pay for" maxim, the best agents would be the ones who charge the highest fees - like doctors and lawyers. However, on the theory that the more successful agents don't have to charge big fees because they make their commissions from the sale of their clients' manuscripts, the least expensive agents would be the best. In fact, the form and amount of an agent's fee tells the writer virtually nothing about how a particular agent stacks up against the competition, or whether or not an agent is nothing more than a fee collecting imposter.
In selecting a physician, assuming one has the choice and the money, the doctor's record of performance is the most important factor. How many times has this surgeon performed the relevant operation, and what were the results? The aspiring crime novelist, for example, would want to know how many mysteries a particular agent has sold. If this agent hasn't sold many mysteries to major houses, or if this information is not available, paying this person an up-front fee is riskier than betting on a long-shot horse. In selecting an agent, the most important single piece of information is the extent and nature of the agent's recent sales list. In the Writer's Digest annual guide to literary agents, each agency listed is asked (not required) to furnish this important information under the heading "recent sales."
Of the fifty-four agencies categorized in the 2000 Guide to Literary Agents as fee-chargers, fourteen indicated that they preferred not to share this information, two said they would provide this data on request, and two honestly stated they had no sales to report. (Of the 268 nonfee agents listed, eighty, almost one-third, do not provide recent sales information.)
Even more disturbing than this lack of vital information in a directory designed and marketed to help aspiring writers is the fact that of the thirty-four fee-agents who identified some of their recent sales, sixteen included at least one title they had listed the year before. Five of these agencies listed the same sales three years in a row, and two firms included the same books every year since 1997. One agency with a one-book sales list claimed, under the recent sales heading, to have sold two titles the past year. The titles this firm listed in the 2000 guide as a recent sale had been listed in 1999, 1998, and 1997. Another agent who had "sold 40 titles in the last year," only listed two titles as year 2000 sales, both of which had been listed the previous year. Surely the editors of the literary guide don't expect users of their directory to check current recent sales data with lists of the past. Knowing that aspiring writers rely heavily on this reference source, this is a task the editors should undertake. They owe this to people who buy their book.
An agency in the nonfee section of the guide that chose not to identify any of its recent sales, boasted that ti had "sold 65 titles in the last year." A check with Bill Martin of Agent Research and Evaluation (AR&E) in New York revealed no history of sales for this outfit. No wonder this agent "prefers not to share information on specific sales."
The 2000 Guide to Literary Agents is loaded with outstanding literary representatives, but until the pretenders are culled from the real practitioners, the directory will not be entirely credible.