Q: How do I know if a literary agent is great?

Q: How do I know if a literary agent is great?

A: Great is a subjective word, but if you do your research by going to the places I suggest in my course, you’ll start to narrow down who might be great for your work and who might not. For example, I believe GREAT agents are ones who are

1) LEGIT, meaning not scam artists – go to the resources I point out in my agent articles to double-check that they appear to be who they say they are and don’t charge fees, etc.,

2) Represent the kind of work you write (e.g., Picture books, or nonfiction, or novels, or all of the above)

3) Meet the criteria you have for an agent (again the see the articles for a list of criteria)

4) AND one who you seem to get along with. This last one is going to be your biggest indicator as to the word GREAT. You can do a lot to narrow down an agent that might be a good fit, but it’s not until you are offered representation, that you will have a real opportunity to interview them and figure out if you are a match. See my article on interviewing an agent.

9 thoughts on “Q: How do I know if a literary agent is great?

  1. Hi Cynthea,
    I just came across your wonderful site through SCBWI. I have had NO luck getting an agent, despite the fact that I’ve had 12 picture books published, a couple of adult books, and dozens of work-for-hire elementary texts. I was told by one agent that most don’t want to bother with picture book authors because they get only 5 percent royalty. What do you think?
    Thanks, Carole

    1. Hi Carole,

      It’s sorta true. Finding an agent who will rep strictly picture books is pretty hard to do. If you have a track record (hopefully a recent track record), that works in your favor, but if the new manuscripts you’re pitching to them don’t interest them, you might as well be back at square one.

      At any rate, a lot of agents find that picture books are 1) very hard to sell because there is so much competition out there when compared to novels and 2)to the agent’s point, the “take” is a lot lower for picture book authors unless the agent is repping an author/illustrator. The advances also tend to be lower for picture books than for novels. And since most books don’t earn out their advances, the agent’s time is probably better spent looking for novelists instead.

      But that doesn’t mean you can’t get representation! If no agent is biting at the work you’re submitting, pitch those manuscripts to editors directly and try something else with the agents. Getting an agent off of a picture book is possible! It’s just a lot harder than if you are a novelist. So going into it with the right expectations might help lessen your frustration.

      Here’s a link to a related article I wrote that addresses this subject as well.


  2. Hi Cynthea,

    I really love your tips. I heard that you don’t have to live in the same place as your literary agent. But my question is, if a literary agent from another city likes your script, how do you know they would not steal it or in general, how do you know what they are doing?
    I’m worried of agreeing with a literary agent, signing of a contract, and never hearing from them again. Also, long distance communication was never really my thing, so how do author’s do it and how do they know what the literary agent is doing if any, or do they in general keep in contact a lot?


  3. The best way to avoid this fear is to research the agents before you contact them.
    Most agents are not daft enough to steal your work because your stuff is already legally protected when it’s written. Who wants a lawsuit on his hands?
    You should interview your agent prior to signing on with them to ensure you understand what the working relationship will be. My agent is very good about communication. Other agents are not as apt to update as frequently and that may be fine if you are okay with that.
    You do have to put some trust into the process for sure. But spending the time to find a good agent is well worth the trouble!

  4. Hi, Cynthea,
    I have written a children’s book, And I am torn on the artwork, Some things I have read say include artwork. Others say no don’t, That the publishers don’t want the artwork or the story laid out with it. What do you think?

  5. Most major trade publishers ask that authors do not submit artwork with their manuscript unless the author is a professional illustrator and intends to also be the illustrator for the book.

    In *rare* cases, authors and illustrators submit a dummy together, but usually that illustrator is capable of doing the art that meets the specific needs of a picture book.

    If you do not have much knowledge about the demands of picture book art, it’s probably best you do not attempt to acquire that knowledge on your own. All major trade publishers are equipped and expect to pair your text with the illustrator they feel would be the best match to promote the salability of the book.

    Other publishers, like niche publishers or Print on Demand (POD) publishers or vanity presses may ask you to submit art with your text, but my web site’s advice is mostly aimed at readers who are focused on getting published by major trade publishers (HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, etc.) and smaller houses who have a history of getting placement at Barnes and Noble (e.g. Charlesbridge, Abrams, etc.)

  6. So, I realize it is rare, however we have a completed illustrated and written children’s book targeted to 3-5 year olds. We have gotten terrific feedback from local children booksellers, moms and children that indicate it is ready. Both the writer and I have backgrounds in creative fields that have lead to this joint creation, however neither one has published a children’s book before. My problem is I want to get the whole book in front of an agent. However, the guidelines for so many agents seem to be email bits and pieces. I feel like we have one change with each agent, I want to do it professionally and do it right the first time. Do you know a way around this or have suggestions to help us?

    1. If you have already gotten down this far in the path – e.g. a completed finished work – you might want to first start off with a query letter and see if there are agents interested in your book idea to begin with. You might want to note that you already have a dummy or a completed work and would like to share that with them, if they are interested. I would do that before trying to go through the expense and possible alienation of sending an agent your book, outright.

  7. Hi Cynthea,

    What a blast from my past to see that post from 2008! I have since had two agents (the first in 2009; the other for the past few months), who have sold several books – among them is a manuscript I wrote 15 years ago that will be published this fall. Persistence doesn’t replace talent, but it’s an essential complement.


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