UPDATE 5/31/14 - Michael Cader, PubMarketplace Guru, stopped by the blog and left a very nice comment clarifying some of my points and giving a peek behind the curtain. So I've corrected the post a tiny bit accordingly - and if you want to know more, please do check out the comments section!
Publishers Marketplace (hereafter known as "PM") is a subscription-only publishing news website that also has a listing of new deals updated daily. This database is a quick way to tell who has sold what and to which publishers, and who might rep the kinds of books you write. There's also a much-more-basic free daily roundup, "publishers lunch" available by email -- but to get into the full site and really dig around, you'll have to subscribe. It costs $25 a month, and a month-long subscription is a tool that might help your agent search a lot. I personally use PM to look up book world news, editors interests and see who-reps-who nearly every day!
However - there are caveats:
* The PM deal database is a very good resource - but it isn't the only resource. Remember this is a self-reporting service, and not all agents report all sales. In fact, I'd go further and say that most agents don't report all sales, and some agents don't report any sales at all. A sparse record on PM is NOT necessarily an indication that a given agent is "bad" or a schmagent. . . plenty of EXCELLENT agents and agencies do not report regularly.
* Use your good judgement and follow up questionable claims with more research. Each of these announcements is read by the PM staff, but they are not the deal police. If Josie Q. Schmagent "sells" a book for $1. to Joker's Wild Press in Someguysbasement, NV and wants to report it, she can. A record on PM does NOT mean that an agent or publishing company is automatically good, or good for your book. If something sounds dubious, dig deeper.
So why DO agents report sales?
* It can sometimes be a way to drum up some early foreign or other subrights interest. Sometimes.
* They are agents who are still establishing themselves and want to show that they have a number of sales to big-5 publishers.
* Or they are agents/at an agency with a specialty or who otherwise want to be sure that potential queriers can easily discern the types of books they rep.
* Or they simply have a competitive streak and enjoy seeing a good number next to their name - (Guilty!)
* They have clients who have a big social media presence and they want to have something "official" to brag about.
Why might agents NOT report sales?
* The publisher has asked them to hold off for some reason (for example: they want to do a big publicity push closer to the date of release, it's a new imprint that hasn't been announced, etc).
* The author has other stuff going on that might be considered competitive or deadlines for other books coming up or some other conflict that the agent would rather not get into a scheduling tango over.
* It's a topic/theme that is SO timely and important that they want to be sure nobody knows about it in advance.
* The agency or the author are old-school and prefer not to air their beezwax in public, or they or their author are superstitious and prefer to wait on bragging until the book is closer to being available.
* They don't need or want new clients, and don't care what the interwebs say or don't say about them.
* They are busy and forget.
What else should I know about PM?
* PM has it's own "house style", to wit, all deal reports have to be in one long sentence without superflous editorializing; Agent-submitted reports are edited by the PM-sters, and the agents can't get in and re-edit the listings themselves -- so, if you notice sometimes the listings sound peculiar, it's not that the agents are just dum-dums who don't know how to sentence. (See what I did there? It's hard to put a lot of info in one sentence, y'all!)
* The infamous money ranking system is not used by everyone. What do I mean? There's a place within the deal where PM encourages the deal reporter to use their lingo to rank the size of deals.
|$1 - $49,000
|$251,000 - $499,000
|$50,000 - $99,000
|$500,000 and up
|$100,000 - $250,000
So my own reasoning for rarely using this wording: There is a HUGE FLIPPIN DIFFERENCE between ONE DOLLAR and FORTY-NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS. How are those two the same category? Also, what exactly constitutes a "deal"? There's no saying that that "major deal" is really what you think it is -- an agent might include every possible award and bestseller bonus as part of the "deal" even when it isn't officially part of the advance that the author will actually see, just so it will sound grander and knock up into the next category.
Personally, I prefer to leave the money part off the announcements -- but privately I do refer to this oldie-but-goodie from Scalzi: Real World Book Deal Descriptions.
* PM is not aimed toward writers. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the majority of people who read PM are agents, subrights agents, scouts and editors. Then writers. In other words - while this might be a tool that proves useful to you, is not necessarily FOR you, and it might not always be interesting to you. If you want writer-oriented info, there are other places to obtain it.
* PM is not PW -- easily confused, I know! PW = Publishers Weekly. This is a print and digital trade magazine that also collects and reports on book world news but is read by lots of booksellers and librarians as well as editors and agents (and writers). Subscriptions to the proper magazine are quite expensive but you can get newsletters like the "Children's Bookshelf" twice weekly for free, and some big deals are announced there as well. This is more like a press release for the general reading public -- listings in PW tend to be more detailed and have author photos and such... So, PW may be more fun to read - though less useful as a down-and-dirty research tool.
Hope that helps! If you have other questions, put them in comments. xo