I talk a lot about my querying process, but one thing I haven’t talked as much about is HOW to find the agent in the first place.
It takes a bit of research, but most of us writers are pretty comfortable with research, especially if it means we’re putting our manuscript in front of the ‘right’ person. It’s a little time consuming, but ultimately not usually challenging.
Step One: Pick a list of literary agents
Where can you find a list of literary agents? All over the place.
The main places I look for agents are:
- Guide to Literary Agents [YEAR] – found on Amazon, in bookstores, or at your local library, this is a print(or Kindle) edition of vetted agencies. It’s fine if it’s a couple years old.
- The Manuscript Wish List – A website associated with the twitter hashtag #mswl. This list is lightly vetted and tends to be where you’ll find the more social media adept agents.
- Query Tracker – A website to track your queries, response rates, and more. You can also FIND agents to query here, with a pretty handy search feature.
- Your genre magazine! Yes, they print a magazine for most genres listing the books that recently sold, what agent sold them, and interviews with the writers, agents, and editors. I write fantasy, so I look at Locus Magazine (for SF/F)
- Publisher’s Weekly – check out the book deals and look for agents selling books that sound like yours.
- Your bookshelf! – Open a book you love with a comparable genre to your manuscript (preferably one published in the last 3-5 years) and see who they thank in the opening. Who the listed agent is!
- Google! Just look for literary agents.
Step Two – Make Sure They Represent Your Genre
When you’re looking at this list of agents, make certain that your genre is listed as something they represent! Otherwise, you’re asking for a short trip to the rejection form letter queue.
Feel free to add all the agents you want to your query list, though! I suggest creating a large list and ranking them 1-3.
It can take up to 100 no’s before you get that ‘yes’.
For me, 1’s are the agents whose bios spoke to me, who listed some of my comps (comparison novels) as favorites, or request a theme I feel is strong in my book.
2’s are the agents who sounded up my alley but didn’t have any specific requests that my novel fulfilled.
3’s are the agents who represent my genre, didn’t give enough detail for me to know if we’d be a good fit but didn’t list any specific dislikes that fit my novel. They could be AMAZING and just didn’t use their bios to their full potential.
Because a lot of these lists are just that- lists of agents’ names and represented genres.
And worse? Sometimes these lists are out of date.
Step Three – Visit Their Agency’s Website
No matter where you get the name from:
- Go to their agency website
- Visit their profile
- READ it.
Often, this is where you’ll get a list of their preferences, their tastes, their favorite books. This is where you get a taste of their personality so you can evaluate if you think they’d be a good match for you. Use this information when ranking these agents for querying.
Plus, you can find out their experience. Are they young and hungry? Where did they work before? Do they talk about their editorial feedback or are they just going to start selling your book right away? Are they experienced and only take on the rarest of new writers? Do they want to sell a book, or start a partnership that will last throughout your writing career?
And most importantly, are they currently open to queries!?
Step Four – Vet Them
Once you’ve decided an agent sounds right for you, don’t stop there. Check out both the agency and the agent!
- Writers Beware – A SF/F run site, but can have lots of information on vanity presses, scams, and more.
- Query Tracker – Do they have a success rate (many agents don’t track here, but can be a clue. Check out what other writers have to say about working with them, their response times, etc)
- Absolute Write* – Forums and posts about agencies, agents, and issues with any of them.
- Plain out google them. Check out their twitter or blog.
Some agencies are glamorized vanity presses. Remember, you should NEVER pay to be published traditionally.
Some agencies basically just help you self-publish. If you’re self-publishing or indie-publishing, you might end up paying out of pocket for your own editor, cover art, and print/e-formatting. Is it worth it to you to go through them?
Remember that a lack-luster sale on a self-published work or through a small publisher can be strikes against you in the future if you do try traditional publishing.
If you’re a blow-away success, you can find a publisher or agent easily. But the number of people who’ve gotten a book deal that way can be counted about on one hand.
Step Five – Deciding Who To Query First
It’s recommended to send out queries in batches of 5-10. I usually do batches of 3-5, but I’m cautious and nervous.
For an untested query, I like to do a mix of 1’s and 2’s. I feel the 1’s are a better match, but I don’t want to use a query that performs poorly on all of them, because once they say no, you should NOT re-query, unless you’ve substantially revised your manuscript.
NOTE: If you’re getting a lot of form rejection letters, you should look at your query and opening pages and see if you can make improve them.
Requerying will typically just get you rejected faster, and possibly added to that agent’s blacklist.
Step Six – Follow Their Submission Guidelines
I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel, edited it, revised it, and gotten feedback at LEAST twice before you even THOUGHT about submitting.
If it takes you even more rounds of beta readers and revisions, that’s fine! Especially for a first-time novelist. You only get one debut novel.
You should have written your query letter — keeping it under at least 300 words, and preferably under 250 words — concentrating on the emotional arch of the main character(s). CHARACTER wants SOMETHING, but SOMETHING ELSE stands in their way.
You should have created your synopsis.
However, no two agents or agencies have the same guidelines. So what do you do?
- Go to the agency website
- Click the ‘Submissions’ tab
- Read the directions
- Follow them
Really. It’s that easy.
Plus? Their guidelines are kinda a test. If you ignore their directions, they’re going to assume you’re a pain in the butt to work with. They get dozens of queries a day and you just made it really easy for them to say no.
Some are going to have you fill out a web form. Some only accept snail-mail submissions. Some want you to email a specific address.
99% of email submissions do NOT accept attachments. Adding one anyway will get your query deleted without being read. Often, you’re going to copy and paste pages or even chapters AFTER your query letter, directly into the email.
And make sure you spell the agent’s name right. Don’t ask me how I know this one.
Now you know how to pick agents to query! Best of luck in the query trenches.
Thanks for tuning in! Feel free to subscribe and I’ll be back next Thursday for more Writing Tips and Writerly Musings.
*Edited to add Absolute Write. I knew I was missing one!
Reblogged this on Viv Drewa – The Owl Lady.
Very good post!
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Late to the party, as usual, but this is indispensable information. I have been guilty of querying all willy-nilly (and Willie Nelson, even) and the result is I’m still in the hunt. This is good, practical information I wish I’d had something-something years ago.
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So glad you found it helpful! (And don’t forget to give your horses some beer, maybe they’ll get you here sooner next time. 😉 )
Best of luck in the query trenches!
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