Teresa's an editor at Tor Books (she's edited other places too over the years) and a weblogger besides -- http://www.nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/ -- and she knows publishing better than anyone else I've ever met. So I asked her...
Happy to answer.
1. If you're writing fiction, the True Secret Answer is "get an
offer." If you've got an offer, you can get an agent. If you don't
have an offer, you don't want the kind of agent you're likely to get.
a. If you're good enough to get published, having an agent may prove
helpful. If you aren't (yet), you definitely don't want the kind of
agent you're going to get.
i. There is no substitute for writing a book that people want to buy
and read. If you can do that, you can get published. If you can't, no
clever workaround will help, because we can't force people to buy and
read books they don't like.
b. Some ways you might get an agent without getting an offer: Be
obviously and extraordinarily good. Sell a lot of short stories. Have
some other seriously hot credentials.
2. Don't start by looking for an agent. Do your research first. Start
by learning about agents, submissions, publishing houses, the
industry, et cetera. Note: This is a huge subject.
a. No matter how you think it works, the publishing industry doesn't
work the way you think it does. This is true even for publishing
professionals. They know how their part of the industry works, and
they know a lot about adjacent areas, but the further afield they go,
the less reliable their expertise will be. People who aren't in the
industry generally don't have a clue.
i. A phenomenal number of articles about how publishing works are
written by people who don't know what they're talking about. This is
partly because writing about writing, or writing about publishing, is
what wanna-be authors do when they've given up on writing, but don't
yet want to admit it. It's also because a made-up version of the
publishing industry is going to be much simpler and more logical than
the real thing, and thus is easier to write about.
ii. Look askance at articles that credit some industry practice to the
stupidity of people working in the industry, who have failed to see
the simple and obvious solution the author of the article is about to
3. There are easily as many scam agents, useless agents, and clueless
agents as there are real ones. They all swap bad information with each
other. The difference is that the scammers know it's bad information.
a. You can't research this subject just by getting online and looking.
You have to stick to good sources.
4. Did I mention that any idiot can write a book about how to be a
writer? When you see someone who's never sold a book, but who's
written a book about how to get your book published, and said book was
published by a vanity house, and said author is nevertheless accepted
as an authority on the subject by a great many aspiring writers, you
know you've wandered into strange territory.
a. The scary part is that I've just described more than one
Authoritative Source of Advice about Writing and Publishing.
b. Any idiot can put up a website, too.
c. Check out your source's credentials.
i. It's always worth your while to assess the quality of the info
you're getting, because bad advice can cost you such an inordinate
amount of time and effort.
The Essential Resources:
The Association of Authors' Representatives
There are some legit agents that don't belong to the AAR, but not
many; and if an agent belongs, they're legit.
Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/
Preditors & Editors is one site in two places, mirrored:
Aspiring writers should read both Writer Beware and Preditors &
Editors. Reading them from start to finish wouldn't be a bad idea.
Further Agent-Specific Resources
Agent Research & Evaluation has a good reputation and a stern
Agent Query, http://www.agentquery.com/, is an online database of
agent info. I haven't used them. They've been casually recommended to
People who give reliable advice:
Victoria Strauss, who ought to get a Special Hugo or something. She
has a collection of very good articles on her website, a couple of
which are specifically about finding an agent:
Jim Macdonald, sometimes known as Yog Sysop. He hangs out at
AbsoluteWrite, fighting scammers in the Bewares Board, and teaching
writing in Learn Novel Writing with Uncle Jim.
Me (she said, modestly) mostly, unless I'm feeling irresponsible. You can usually tell.
Further down is a list of some of my Making Light posts about writing,
publishing, and related subjects. I put it at the bottom because it's
John Savage, a pseudonymous lawyer who specializes in law for writers.
He does a weblog, Surreality Check:
C. E. Petit, a lawyer who specializes in law for writers, has a weblog
called Scrivener's Error: http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/.
Kent Brewster, of Speculations/Rumor Mill, has overseen a great many discussions of publishing, editing, and agenting.
Andy Zack is a legit agent who answers questions online.
Selected other sites that track and discuss good guys and bad guys:
Speculations.com, the Rumor Mill:
especially see Speculations' "Search for the Killer Agent" thread:
AbsoluteWrite, the Bewares Board:
WritersWeekly.com, Whispers and Warnings
Sillybean's Publishing 101 has a good selection of current links on
writerly issues, and I'm not just saying that because it links to a
lot of my articles:
Internet-Resources.com is an oppressively compendious list of writers'
Avoid the list of agents at writers.net. Anyone can type in their own
The more you know, the more errors you see in the "Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing and Tinseltown Too" website. http://everyonewhosanyone.com/index.html
Stuff from Making Light, roughly in order of its relevance:
On the Getting of Agents
A Brief Note on Linguistic Markers (recognizing scammers)
More Linguistic Markers (more of the same)
Bad Advice on Cover Letters (Todd James Pierce's bad advice)
Taking Your Own Bad Advice (Todd James Pierce digs himself in deeper)
Varieties of Insanity Known to Affect Authors
If it amuses you, "Varieties of Insanity Known to Affect Authors" isalso available on assorted t-shirts, sweatshirts, and tote bags:http://www.cafepress.com/nielsenhayden
Cover Letters (a brief note on bad cover letters)
Nudge Note (short: waiting through a submission)
Extratextual Characteristics (on categories)
How Books Sell (addressing some common errors)
Squick and Squee (fanfic as an R&D lab of techniques)
Namarie Sue (Mary Sues, and other iniquities)
Is It Me -- (things the editor doesn't want to hear about)
>From Correspondence: Sneaking Out Under the Literary Radar
On Writing Genre Fantasy (brief)
The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot (cheap plot tricks)
The weblog post talks about and links to The Evil Overlord Devises aPlot, but the actual thing is at http://www.sff.net/paradise/plottricks.htm.
The fancy automated version of the Evil Overlord Plot Generator (with Murphy's Laws of Combat) is here: http://nielsenhayden.com/overlord/
Looking at The Writers' Collective (scam publishing)
Hanging Out In Someone Else's Argument (PC magazine)
Look Quick, Before It Goes Away (can't summarize it)
Yetanother Book -- (very brief, on stupid advice books)
Deserts of Vast Literacy (extremely brief)
Wocky Jivvy, Wergle Flomp (scam poetry competitions)
The Power of the Press, Sort Of (hapless vanity publisher)
Prose and Cons (scam agent Melanie Mills gets busted)
Yetanother Variant (touches on publishing scams)
Rowling vs. Stouffer (I thought it was interesting)
The Underlying Forms of Fraud (a general article on fraud)
Communicator Awards, and Other Coincidences (Cris Robbins Agency)