Nicola Morgan: How to find a good agent

Nicola Morgan
It's SCBWI's London Agents Party this evening so to accompany Michelle Newell's excellent party tips we thought it would be timely to repost this similarly excellent advice from Nicola Morgan. 

I want to help you choose a good agent, an agent who will do what good agents are supposed to do. But first, let me tell you what a good agent does.

Over the years of being published by different publishers in different genres, I have gleaned some knowledge about contracts and rights and how to fight for mine. Yet, if my agent decided to hang up her stilettos, I’d throw myself at the feet of another. Why? In short, because I want to write, not fight for my rights. And my agent, as all good agents will, does all the things listed below and does them so much better than I could.

...if my agent decided to hang up her stilettos, I’d throw myself at the feet of another.

Since agents only earn a percentage of their clients’ income, they have a vested interest in maximizing that income. That seems to me not a bad thing.

  • Gives honest, expert feedback on your work, and makes you improve it if necessary – lessening the chance of rejection and egg on your face.
  • Knows where to send your work – including individual editors and their preferences – and sends it for you, so you never have to worry about a submission again; discusses you with publishers who trust her judgment.
  • Negotiates the best deal, including every aspect of the contract, having a finger on the pulse of what other agents are negotiating, especially in the changing arena of digital rights etc.
  • Sells subsidiary rights – such as foreign, film and TV, and audio.
  • Understands royalty statements and queries them if necessary – royalty statements are a minefield for writers. I tend to come over all faint when I see them. 
  • Has an eye for new opportunities – publishers, particularly in educational and children’s markets, will tell agents what they are looking for and your agent can pass this information to you.
  • Manages your long-term career, guiding you in sensible directions.
  • Deals with problems, niggles and disasters. These things will happen.
  • Plays bad cop with your publisher, so that you can play the part of lovely, calm, reasonable author.
  • Increases your earnings – authors with agents earn more than those without.
  • Allows you to write.

  • Create publicity for you – other than the obvious plugging of your name where possible.
  • Organise your event programme.
  • Edit your work – all agents should suggest important alterations, but detailed editing is not their normal job, unless they actually say it is.

You will hear people say that agents are sharks and will drink your blood dry. As with all professions, the bad drag down the reputations of the good. Find yourself a good one and you won’t regret it.


Being an agent is not a job for amateurs. Obviously, every agent must start somewhere and acquire a first client – but this can only work if that agent already has substantial experience of dealing with publishing rights in another professional capacity. For example, many agents were publishers for years before they became agents and that is a good way into the business.

It’s also important that you actually like the agent. A perfectly brilliant agent simply might not be right for you and it’s important to allow instinct to come into play. So, meet your agent if possible. At the very least, have some phone conversations and remain sober during them.

So, what should you be looking for? Here are some questions; some you must ask directly, while others you may find out through asking around:

  • What other authors does the agent represent? Check that these authors are properly published and have some success.
  • What previous experience of publishing led to his becoming an agent? If there is no previous proper experience, run.
  • Is this the agent’s only job? If not, how serious is he and how much time and energy will the agent have for you?
  • How does the agent sell foreign rights? For example, he might use sub-agents or scouts, but there should be some clear answer to the question. Similar question for TV/ film rights, and merchandising rights if you write for young children. But avoid sounding as though you think your book merits TV/film/merchandising opportunities.
  • Is the agent a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents? It’s not essential to be a member, and smaller independent agents often aren’t, but you should ask if the agent at least adheres to its code of practice, a code which you can read on the AAA website. In Scotland there’s also the Association of Scottish Literary Agents.
  • Can you see the contract that you would sign? Get it checked by someone who understands: perhaps another agented author, or the Society of Authors if you are a member.
  • Is the agent asking for money up front? If so, run a mile. An agent should not charge a reading fee, though they are quite entitled to charge for things like photo-copying. Such extras should be specified in the contract.

In short, be astute and cautious. 

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2013

Nicola Morgan is a multi-award-winning YA and children's writer. She has published nearly 100 books. She also writes about the publishing industry and about how to get published. Her book Write to be Published, and her blog Help! I Need a Publisher! are renowned for their straightforward advice. Her other guides for writers include the ebooks Write a Great Synopsis and Dear Agent. She has also self-published some of her own books, including republishing her debut novel, Mondays are Red, as an ebook with extra material.

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