Some Thoughts on Lists

Since Ann and I published the Twenty Worst Agents List, people have been asking us why we don’t also publish a Twenty (or Thirty or Forty) Best Agents List. As helpful as it is to know whom to avoid, they tell us, it’d also be useful to know whom to approach.

There are several reasons why we prefer to stay away from recommendations.

One size doesn’t fit all. Just as every writer has his or her own particular subject, genre, style, and tone, every literary agent has his or her own particular skills, specialties, interests, and way of doing business. For the best results, there needs to be a good match between what the writer brings to the table and what the agent has to offer. The best agent for one writer may be the worst agent for another.

It’s just common sense that if you’re a fantasy author, you won’t query an agent who specializes in romance, or if you’re a commercial fiction author you won’t query an agent who specializes in literary novels. But less obvious issues are also important. How active a role do you want your agent to take in steering your career? How important to you are particular kinds of subrights sales? How much do you want your agent to work with you on editing? Do you prefer the clout of a large agency, or the more informal style of a smaller, boutique agency? All these things need to be carefully considered. Labeling an agent “best” for the sake of a stellar track record (which would be the most obvious criteria around which to build a Best List) fails to take any number of equally important factors into account.

It really is best for the writer him or herself to choose whom to approach. That’s why, instead of recommending specific agents, we prefer to recommend a research technique that’s designed both to help you identify appropriate agents, and to exclude the questionable ones from your query list.

Change happens. Good agents don’t always stay good. Not that they wake up one day and poof, turn into scammers–but agencies get sold, come under new management, switch specialties, or just, sometimes, go into decline.

It’s not our mission. Writer Beware’s mission is to provide general and specific warnings about literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls, and to collect documentation on questionable agents, publishers, and others. There are only two other organizations we know of that provide a similar tracking/documentation service–and as far as we’re aware, the detailed warnings on our website are unique. By contrast, there are many, many resources to help writers locate and identify reputable agents and publishers.

Our data doesn’t support it. While we actively follow the publishing industry and keep track of reputable agents and publishers, we do so mainly in order to keep current with legitimate and accepted practice. We don’t have anywhere near the kind of detailed documentation on good agents that we do on questionable ones.

We don’t want to appear to be endorsing people or services. For obvious reasons, Writer Beware avoids recommending fee-based services (this is why, if you ask us to suggest a reputable freelance editor, we will say no). But for the reasons noted above, we feel equally uncomfortable recommending agents and publishers. Even if we didn’t use the words “recommend” or “endorse,” a Twenty Best Agents list would probably be taken as such.

As always, comments are welcome.

On a bit of a tangent, Writer Unboxed has just posted the first half of an interview with me–all about Writer Beware, bad agents whose names begin with B, and other interesting stuff (including the Top Ten Signs Your Agent Is A Scammer).


  1. I believe the ‘worst’ agents list is a wonderful public service. As for the best? Well, that’s a great idea, but what are the criteria?

    I’ve found a web hosting company that, for a fee, allows my writing to remain on the internet indefinitely – so I may leave my poetry and fiction for my family. Especially since I’ve yet to find an agent. Just a heads up, I’ve begun to build my site, with passwords for only my family and general pages for agents and people to read my writing.

    Check them out.


  2. On the other hand, if you’ve got a list of 20 worst publishers in the works, I definitely look forward to seeing it! I really appreciate the work – and the courage – you used to piece together the 20 Worst Agents list.

  3. A very wise course to take!

    I found my first agent via a writer friend, my 2nd agent by way of another writer friend.

    I tell neos to try to find a writer whose work is similar to theirs, then ask who reps for them.

    It’s only common sense, but they act like I’m Moses just back from that mountain vacation!

  4. I would have to agree that the “20 best agents” would be a myriad of headaches waiting to happen. Singular research really is the only way to discern real compatibility… And checking their roster and sales doesn’t hurt one bit either! 😉

  5. Also, the 20 Worst Agents list doesn’t really list agents. It lists scam artists posing as agents.

    A “List of 20 Worst Agents who actually are legitimate agents, just not very good at doing their job” would be a whole different list.

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