Disclosure: I received a free 6-month subscription to Agent Hunter in exchange for writing this review. However, all opinions are mine and The Writers’ Workshop didn’t see the article prior to posting.
The Agent Hunter website, launched in September 2014 by The Writers’ Workshop, is a subscription service that allows writers to search for UK literary agents and publishers. In theory, it’s a one-stop-shop that dispenses of the need for writers to trawl the internet in search of suitable agents.
The site features profiles for each agent, literary agency and publisher, each accessed via search pages. Emphasis is placed firmly on individual agents – while there are 14 search filters for an agent search, there are only 3 for agencies and publishers. The unique selling point of the website is the inclusion of a ‘transparency index’, which assigns a rating to individual agents based on “how much info a given agent chooses to release into the public domain”. This rating is not applied to literary agencies as a whole, or publishers.
Searching for individual agents
As of 1st October 2014, there appear to be around 390 UK agents listed. Other than searching directly for an agent by name, using the search filters is only the method of customising this list. The search filters are as follows, with my notes:
- Genre — These are broadly defined and a little idiosyncratic. For example, it includes ‘Paranormal romance’, but not ‘dystopian’ or ‘post-apocalyptic’.
- Agent experience — Is this something that writers consider important at the search stage? Might the ability to order search results in order of number of years’ experience be more useful, rather than eliminating agents on this basis?
- Client list status — This is hugely important – after all, there’s no point submitting a manuscript to an agent who has a full roster. However, the dropdown options here are subtle – what’s the difference between ‘Keen to build client list’ and ‘Open to new clients’, as far as the writer is concerned? Why are they exclusive choices? Is it even possible to be ‘keen to build client list’ without being ‘open to new clients’?
- Number of clients — It feels that this should be a sliding scale rather than a selection of exclusive choices. What if I want to see agents with between 10 and 30 clients, rather than ‘up to 30’?
- Who represents who? — This seems like as fundamental a query as ‘Find an agent’ and therefore ought to at the start rather than among the search filters. More frustratingly, I receive null search results for several high-profile and up-and-coming authors, even though their agents are included in the database.
- Search by specific likes — This is another idiosyncratic filter. It’s not the same as genre (‘young adult’ returns far too few results), but also doesn’t include plausible-sounding ‘likes’ (e.g. ‘time travel’ or ‘speculative’). A free-text search doesn’t seem the right way to interrogate this data, which is necessarily limited by information that agents have posted online.
- Search by specific dislikes — Would writers want to search by this field? Regardless, it suffers from the same problems as above. After several attempts to second-guess keywords, I gave up.
- Opportunities to meet — This feels like a minor consideration, at least at the search stage, and it’s difficult to imagine eliminating agents on this basis.
- Twitter / blog — Ditto. I understand that these aspects factor into the ‘transparency index’, but are they meaningful individually?
- Size of agency — Another important filter, but frustrating in implementation. Like ‘agent experience’, it should probably be a sliding scale.
- Takes email submissions — A straightforward filter, useful and clear.
- AAA member — This refers to membership of the Association of Authors’ Agents. It’s not something I’d have thought of considering, but it’s another clear filter, nevertheless.
I’ve missed out one search filter. It’s the big one: Search by transparency index. A recent Bookseller article described this feature as follows: “…takes into account factors such as whether the agent provides a photo, a client list, a biography, guidance on literary likes and dislikes, or any nuggets of advice to writers, and whether the agent blogs or tweets”.
Now. Is that as useful as it at first sounds?
Playing around with the transparency index (the only filter with a sliding scale) produces strange results. Firstly, it’s difficult to imagine choosing to select agents because of their low T.I., so using this search will always be a matter of selecting the lower limit of T.I. that you’re prepared to accept. So I took a punt and set the slider to a T.I. between 60 and 100. Hey presto, agents eliminated. That’s useful, right?
Maybe. But it depends on what the writer considers important. For many, the issue of whether an agent is actually likely to respond to a submission query is probably more important than whether they have a photo online, or even whether they tweet. ‘Transparency’, to me, evokes straightforwardness, rather than literal visibility. An agent who responds in a timely and polite manner seems worth my consideration more than one who simply tweets and blogs a lot.
So, I’m not sold on this feature. But that shouldn’t prevent Agent Hunter from being a useful tool. So on we go.
Let’s try a case study, with a manuscript that I shopped around at the beginning of 2014.
Case study 1 – Agent search
MS: ‘Mercy’ – 73k words, YA, SF thriller
Keywords: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, dystopia, urban
These are the filters I selected and the results:
- Genre: SF and YA – still more than 100 agents listed
- List status: ‘Keen to build list’ – now 40 agents (NB at this point, ordering by number of clients might be useful, but I didn’t want to use that filter and eliminate agents on this basis)
- Transparency index: 60 to 100 – now only 5 agents (two of whom are from the same agency, so couldn’t both be contacted)
- Opportunities to meet / Twitter: ‘Yes’ – makes no difference to the search results, presumably as these are factors that have already contributed to the agents’ high transparency index
- Takes email submissions: yes – now only 3 agents
Instinctively, this seems a very low number. To recap, I’m looking for agents who are interested in SF/YA, who are also open to new clients, accept email submissions and have reasonable transparency. Frustratingly, a different set of 3 suitable agents are listed if I set the list status to ‘Open to new clients’.
If I try the search again without using the transparency index, I get 36 agents (over both ‘open’ list statuses), which feels much more of a useful list. My kneejerk reaction is that I’d rather interrogate this list myself, using ordering, rather than trusting Agent Hunter’s transparency index.
However, there’s another concern. Even this list of 36 agents doesn’t include several agents that I sent this particular MS to earlier in the year. Based on my own internet research, all of those agents were suitable. In fact, a few requested full manuscripts and gave useful critique comments.
Searching for literary agencies
Initially, I was surprised that Agent Hunter places emphasis on individual agents rather than agencies. Submitting manuscripts to more than one agent within an agency is usually frowned upon, and agents don’t work in isolation of their agencies. However, I suppose the reason is that Agent Hunter is built around public information about individuals rather than agencies. Information about the latter is far more general.
Searching by literary agency rather than agent gives search filters that are dramatically less useful – the only options are Size of agency, Takes email submissions and AAA member.
Searching for publishers
There appear to be around 430 publishers listed here, which seems substantial. However, once again the search filters are few:
- Type of publisher – Including odd distinctions, though. Is ‘Major house’ necessarily exclusive from ‘Childrens’? Is ‘Indie’?
- Unagented submissions – Vital, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine an unagented writer searching for ‘agented submissions’.
- Keyword search – Another free-text search, and as difficult to second-guess as in other cases.
Only UK publishers are listed. For agents, this restriction makes sense. But if a writer you’re considering going indie, you may well be open to US-based publishers.
Case study 2 – Publisher search
MS: ‘Carus and Mitch’ – 17k words, psychological horror
Keywords: post-apocalyptic, female protagonist, first-person, novelette
Firstly, it seems peculiar that I can’t identify the genre of the MS to aid my search.
These are the filters I selected and the results:
- Unagented submissions: ‘Yes’ – still more than 100 publishers
- Keyword: ‘horror’ – 0 publishers
- Keyword: ‘apocalypse’ or ‘apocalyptic’ – 0 publishers
Effectively, the only useful search I can perform is to find publishers that accept unagented submissions – then I can use the dropdown to check the various types of publisher. For adult fiction submissions, the only relevant options are ‘indie’ and ‘major house’. The latter results in only 4 publishers, whereas ‘indie’ results in 32 publishers. While this is a useful list, it would remain the same list regardless of the genre and wordcount of MS.
The list includes some publishers I’d identified myself (e.g. Snowbooks), but misses off other suitable UK publishers (e.g. Jo Fletcher, PS Publishing). It omits all US-based publishers that might accept the MS, including ebook publishers (e.g. Amazon Kindle Singles, Tor.com The Imprint) and US-based print publishers (e.g. Omnium Gatherum, who will actually publish this MS as a novella in February 2015).
Several pieces of information covered on the agency profiles would be useful as search filters:
- Location – surely an important consideration, especially for writers not based in London. Ideally, this would include ‘within x miles’ option.
- International – e.g. is there a US office?
- Submission package required – Does the agent/agency require the first five pages? Three chapters? If not a filter, then the information certainly should be included somewhere. This information certainly appears on the agencies’ own websites.
- Average response time
This information appears on agency profiles, but not in search results. Moreover, the ‘average response time’ is dictated by the information on agencies’ own websites, but this isn’t empirical data. It’s not trustworthy.
The only way I can think of gathering data about response time (and another, linked query: ‘Will the agent respond at all?’) is via crowdsourcing. If you’ve ever used The Submission Grinder, you’ll have seen this type of thing in action. The Submission Grinder’s database of publisher responses (geared more around short fiction than novel-length manuscripts) shows results of users’ story submissions, updating daily and therefore becoming more trustworthy over time.
A system like this, showing users’ actual responses from literary agents, would be outstandingly useful. In my opinion, this empirical data would genuinely pull back the curtain on the workings of literary agents. That, to me, would be true transparency.
There’s no doubt that Agent Hunter provides a useful service. While not exhaustive, it collects together a great deal of information about a great deal of UK agents. By and large, this appears to be the same information produced by trawling the internet and visiting literary agencies’ own websites, but many will be willing to pay to access the information in one place. Subscriptions cost £5 for 1 month, £8 for 6 months or £12 for a year.
As I’ve already made clear, my main frustration with Agent Hunter is the lack of ability to usefully interrogate the data. Some of the search filters are counterintuitive, or ambiguous, or broken. I wish that the website included the ability to track users’ submissions, and for this data to be absorbed back into the dataset. I know that this isn’t Agent Hunter’s mission statement. But I wish that it was.
Before Agent Hunter, I found the process of submitting manuscripts to agents laborious and frustrating. Each week I add to a spreadsheet that (currently) lists 110 agents and 115 publishers, which also includes pivot tables to track my submissions. Now that Agent Hunter has arrived, I’ll certainly use the website as an additional tool, a rich additional dataset, but it won’t replace my own internet searches.
Of course, it’s early days for Agent Hunter. I have faith that the dataset will become more reliable over time, and that search filters will be amended or added. Clearly, there’s potential for a website like this to become an authority on UK agents, and I wish The Writers’ Workshop well in this new project.