Pub Rants

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With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is. 

The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA). 

Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry. 

In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation. 

Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership. 

Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:

  • Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
  • Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
  • An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you. 

The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest. 

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4 Responses

  1. Martin Herman said:

    I am a self-published Connecticut author with 5 mystery/thrillers, a biography of a CT musician, a book of short stories, and a historical novel currently in print. I have just completed my 9th manuscript and am searching for an agent and publisher. Before the pandemic I appeared from 200-225 days a year signing and selling my books all over New England. I have sold more than 15,000 copies in the past few years and built a faithful mailing list of more than 4,000 readers. How do you recommend I conduct a search for the bet agent for me?

  2. Karen Lin said:

    It is nice to have such a list to go to. And even better to see exactly what an agent is supposed to do or not do. As you suggested, I know of agents who have chosen not to join for a variety of reasons and a few who do belong but have behaved in highly unethical ways. Probably true for most professional organizations. I like checking out the acknowlegments pages in books I love. They tell something about the agents and what they sell well. A good conference also assesses its guest agents. A lesson I’ve learned over time is not to judge an agent by how long they’ve been in the business or even one hit book they’ve represented, but by the enthusiasm, their connection to editors, their negotiation skills, their passion for your work. And for me, I prefer an agent who will represent my career, not a single book. A great agent is a very important element of the complicated publishing journey even now with easy accessibility to self publishing.