There’s a well-known quote, generally attributed to Good Old Benjamin Franklin: “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.”
But there’s a little problem with this quote. Although its premise is pretty demonstrably true, a quick online search for the actual, original source of this adage yields no concrete proof that Ben Franklin ever said it. At least, not in those words. In fact, the earliest recorded use of this phase, or something very close to it, was by The Reverend H. K. Williams in 1919, in the periodical, “The Biblical World.” The website that gave me this information is called Quote Investigator, and to be safe, I also did a search on this website to ensure it was a somewhat reliable source. According to Wikipedia, Quote Investigator can usually be trusted. However, as most of you probably know, Wikipedia is an open-source, encyclopedia-type site that is edited and vetted by its users. So at least one more layer of research would be advisable, to be certain.
If I was writing a formal research paper or article using these facts, (or if I was say, querying an agent with a nonfiction project about quotes that have incorrectly been attributed to various famous people,) I would go to great lengths to back up my facts with source documents, as well as additional supporting information from alternate, independent sources. Otherwise, I could be proven wrong, and that would be embarrassing. As Ben Franklin (actually) said: “Look before, or you’ll find yourself behind.”
Now, let’s talk about how this applies to researching agents and editors, before you submit material to them. In the broadest sense, an ideal author/agent or author/editor relationship is based on mutual respect, shared interests, compatible communication styles, and similar big picture goals. At the basis of each of these factors, there is an implied trust. When you query an agent, you are essentially implying that you’ve already read and reviewed the “Terms and Conditions” of what that person represents, and that you are aware of who they are as a person–or at the very least, who they are in a professional sense–and how they generally do business. When you submit your work to an editor, you are telling that person you respect their experience, and that you trust them with your story, to a certain extent.
But…what if you aren’t, or you don’t, or you didn’t, or you can’t, or you shouldn’t?
What if an agent reads your work and offers to represent you, and you discover (after the fact) that they haven’t ever sold something in your category or genre before? Or that they lack credibility? Or you aren’t comfortable with submitting to the types of presses they regularly sell to? (Most of this information is publicly available online, and very worth researching before you query.) What if an editor you like wants to acquire your book, but the press they work for has a history of treating authors badly, or asking for money up front, or not living up to their contractual obligations? (These are all really good reasons to get an agent first, by the way. Just saying.) It’s not always possible to know everything there is to know, before you query or submit. But it’s certainly possible, and advisable, to have answers for the following questions:
Q: Does this agent represent what I write?
A: Check the Agent Bio on their agency’s website. (For example, here’s mine.)
Q: Is this agent/editor open to unsolicited queries/submissions?
A: Check the agency or publisher website. This information is usually found under Submission Guidelines. (Hint: you can always start by googling “Agent Name” or “Publisher” and “Submissions” or “Submission Guidelines” as a start.)
Q: Has this agent sold anything like my book before? Has this editor acquired anything like my book before?
A: Check the Deals page on Publisher’s Marketplace, look through the Acknowledgement pages of your favorite books (especially if they’re similar to yours) to find out who edited them, and Peruse the Deal Announcements on Publisher’s Weekly.
Q: Is this agent/editor interested in XYZ?
A: Google the agent/editor, read their agency profile page, follow them on social media (if they have a public profile,) and check out their current Manuscript Wishlist items.
Q: What if I want to just browse agents, because I don’t yet know exactly what I’m looking for?
A: There are a bunch of great resources to get you started, including: PW’s Literary Agent Database, WD’s feature articles on Agents Actively Seeking Writers, and Query Tracker.
Q: How do I know if an agency or publisher is “legit?”
A: This question requires levels of vetting, in my opinion. Like any business, an agency or a publisher is going to do business based on who is running things and what they believe. One way to figure that out is to talk to other authors who have previously done business with that agency/publisher. You can also read about them in publishing industry blogs, or look them up on the Better Business Bureau website. Start by googling the agency or publisher, and checking out their website’s About page. You can also find information on problematic businesses by checking out discussion forums on Author Organization websites. (More resources below.)
TLDR: Doing your research makes you seem more credible and feel more prepared. Research helps build trust between you and the person or publisher you’re planning to go into business with. Finally, and arguably most importantly, research protects you from having to take someone else’s word for it…especially if that someone else happens to be wrong.
Because, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to research, you research to fail.” Wait, no…..
Bonus! Here are some additional resources to get you started: