You've gotten the call (or e-mail). An agent read your query. He/She wants to READ YOUR SAMPLE CHAPTERS!! Or - better yet, he or she wants to talk about representing you!
It's the news every writer hopes and prays for, and it can be so easy when that call comes to get caught up in the "Thank G-d! Finally!" feeling and forget just how important it is to look out for yourself and your manuscript. Far too often I'll get a letter from an author I've worked with at some point letting me know that he's signing with Literary Agent Q, and I cringe, because now it's my job to tell that author that Literary Agent Q is a scam artist. It becomes my job to dash that author's spirits in order to protect him. I hate that part of my job.
I've been in this business long enough that I recognize the names of many of the agents - good and bad - who writers ask me about. But I certainly don't know everyone in publishing (not even close!). What I do know is how to find out the essentials in ten minutes or less.
1. Preditors and Editors. Start here. Look up the name of the agent and the name of the agency. Any warning signs? Consider that a big giant red flag - and consider running in the opposite direction. Only once in my entire career have I come across a report on Preditors and Editors that I felt was unfair - and it's since been removed.
2. Google. The first thing you're looking for is anything with the agent's name appearing on http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ or the Writer Beware Blog (http://accrispin.blogspot.com/). If your agent is a relative unknown or has a questionable reputation, chances are you'll find information on him or her here. On the other hand, if your new agent is amazing and has a super-agent reputation, you'll likely read about that on the Absolute Write forums too.
3. Agent's site. Here's what you're looking for here: a professional-looking site, submission guidelines, AAR membership*, and SALES**. If your agent hasn't sold anything, you need to start wondering if this is really the agency for you. This isn't to say new agents can't or won't sell your book. Finding a newer agent who is backed by a reputable agency can be like winning the jackpot for an unknown writer. But an unknown agency with no sales history and no AAR members should be a big red flag - if they haven't sold other books, how do you know if they can sell yours?
4. Publisher's Marketplace. Many, although not all, agents list their latest sales and offerings on Publisher's Marketplace. If you're serious about finding the perfect agent, I recommend ponying up the $20 for a month-long membership. You'll be able to see who is selling what to whom for how much. If your potential agent doesn't list new sales on his or her website, chances are they're listed here.
No information on any of these sites? Does is seem like the internet has never heard of your agent, ever? BIG RED FLAG. Proceed with extreme caution - ask the agent for a list of books he or she has recently sold. A legitimate agent will have no problem with giving you a list of authors and sales. Use Amazon.com to check the titles and authors. Are the publishers legit? Are they all small publishers that allow authors to submit unsolicited manuscripts? You may have to dive back in and research the smaller publishers to get the full picture (come back for next week's feature, "Researching the Small Press").
And finally, if you can't find anything anywhere - shoot me an e-mail (editor at murdockediting dot com). Best of luck!
*AAR memberships are VERY expensive and have strict qualifications. It's not unusual for the junior members of an agency to operate without membership, especially if more senior agents are AAR members. Just because an agent isn't an AAR member doesn't mean they're no good - but if they are members, it's a good indication that they know their stuff.
**Just because an agent has sales listed on his website doesn't mean they're GOOD sales. Keep researching - run the titles through Amazon.com, find the publisher's name, and Google them too. If the agent is selling to Random House, well, now you can start jumping for joy. If your agent is selling to a POD publisher like LuLu - keep querying.