I talk a lot about finding the right agent for you, rather than just any agent. You want someone who gets your vision, who knows how to sell books like yours, and whose personality gels with yours, which means finding the right agent is a pretty personal task. That said, there are a few consistent qualities we should all be looking for:
Some writers don’t find this important. As long as the agent can sell their books and make them money, they don’t care if they have a comfortable working relationship. Fair enough. If, however, you’re looking for someone who is invested in your work and your career, with whom you can feel a partnership, then choose an agent who is on the same page. This is almost impossible to discern ahead of time, but once someone offers representation, make sure you understand the types of edits they envision, how they plan to pitch your book, and that it all makes sense to you. Then request references. (If they balk, bad agent alert.) Ask current clients if their emails were returned and how they like working with their agent in general.
They have a strong sales record.
It does require a paid subscription, but Publisher’s Marketplace lists background information and deal history for most agents and also allows you to find who represents specific authors. I definitely think it’s worth it while you’re on the hunt. As a bonus, their news and analysis can help you understand the industry. Of course, not everyone reports their deals to Publisher’s Marketplace, so if their profile doesn’t show deals, but their clients are publishing new books, they’re reputable.
But what about newer agents? As long as they have the right contacts, a newer agent can be an excellent choice. They’re likely to be actively looking for new clients, probably have a lot of passion, and will be able to make you a priority. Ideally, though, if an agent doesn’t have a lot of experience, you’d want them to be at an established agency with a good record. That brand new agent who just started working out of her home in Boise? Probably not your safest bet.
They’re not an idiot or an asshole.
If they have social media accounts, make sure they’re not blasting out inflammatory messages that make them – and you – look bad. A while back, an inexperienced agent took to Twitter to rant about writers and made herself look incredibly unprofessional and difficult to work with. I told one of my clients that if she’s this combative, she’s not just losing potential clients, but she’s probably not getting a lot of meetings with editors. Fast forward to now, I just tried to find a link to this rant and the hubbub it created, but not only is that agent's twitter account gone, it also seems she's quit agenting altogether
I know it can feel like you need an agent so badly that any agent will do. Please trust me that a bad agent is worse than no agent. Or just ask an author who is unhappy with theirs. Once an agent fails to sell your book, it’s going to be hard for anyone else to approach the same publishing houses again.