|"Just take another step back, my dear."|
First, do you share common interests? An agent who usually represents military history may not be the best fit for your romance.
Last, but not least, does the agent charge “reading fees”? If so, don't even propose.
Your first stop for locating an agent is AgentQuery.com. As one of its many valuable services, AgentQuery maintains a database of 900 reputable literary agents. And it's free! If you are interested in researching a specific agent, you can search by name. You can also search by genre, AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives) membership status, and whether they are actively seeking clients. Agents who appear on this list have track records. (AgentQuery also provides a useful blogroll of agent, editor and other publishing industry blogs.)
Once you have made a list of agents who represent your genre, go to their websites to get an idea of how they operate. How many authors do they represent? How many sales have they made this year? What kind of books have they sold, and to whom? This will give you an idea of how active they are, and also how overbooked. An agent with a lot of clients will not have time for you. An agent who sells books exclusively to publishers you never heard of is someone who does not have contacts in the major publishing houses.
Your next step is to look up agents in Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Many library systems have copies, but if yours doesn't you can always go to Barnes and Noble and browse.) Although there are several other guides to literary agents, this book is the best source of detailed information. Why? Because it reveals their attitudes. Would you want to marry a person who describes suitors as “blowhards, bigots, braggarts, bitches, and bastards”? Admittedly, some writers fall into one or more of those categories, but chances are good that an agent who uses that much alliteration has a short fuse. Not all agents in Herman's book are members of the AAR, so make sure you cross-check them on AgentQuery.
Query Tracker is another great source for information about agents. In addition to contact information, how to send queries (snail mail or electronic), and genres the agent represents, you can read comments by other writers who have submitted queries. One the best features of this site is the "who reps whom" database which allows you to look up the agent for any author.
If you have been approached by an agent, and don't know if he or she is legitimate, go to their agency's website. If they don't list their clients, or have any sales, you can check them out on Preditors and Editors, a website maintained by the Science Fiction Writer's Association (SFWA), to see if there have been any legal actions against them, or other complaints.
You can also simply type the name of the agent (or the name of the agency) plus "absolute write" into a google search to read what other writers have to say. (Absolute write hosts a forum for writers - the watercooler - on which you can read the latest scuttlebutt.)
Armed with this knowledge, you can now propose.
(And remember: A writer without a literary agent is still a writer. An agent without clients is out of business. They need you more than you need them.)
Photo credit: Jared Platt.