By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Figuring out which agents to query can be daunting. There are so many out there, and not all of them are good, let along legitimate, and it's not always easy to tell some of them apart. So without further ado...
The Handy-Dandy Guide to Picking Agents to Query
Make a list of potential agents.
If you're a hard-copy person, pick up a copy of Writer's Market or The Short Story and Novel Writer's Market, or Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. If you prefer the web, Agent Query and Query Tracker are two popular sites. They both have ways to search for agents who rep the type of book you write.
Narrow down the list of agents
There are several ways to do this. First, take all those names and cross reference them against Preditors&Editors. Yes, I know this will be a ton of work, but this will tell you who is a scammer and who is a legitimate agent who can potentially sell your book. You also want to check Writers Beware, which will give you a lot of great info and warn you about known scams.
Once you've eliminated the bad agents, start looking at the others. If they have a blog, start reading it, and read through the archives some, especially where they talk about their books or what they look for in queries. Check their websites and find out who they represent (not all post a client list, but many do). Look for books that are like yours in some way, be it style, subject matter, tone, voice, etc. This takes time and effort to research, but don't skip this part. You want to target your query as best you can. Many of these agents will be at the same agency, but right now it's fine for the list. You'll just need to do more research on those to narrow down the best one at that agency for you.
You'll now have a basic list of all possible agents for your book. You could stop right now and start querying, but I'd recommend doing a little more research.
Check out their sales
Publishers Marketplace is a great resource. You can get their free email newsletter to keep on top of the industry and see a weekly update of recent sales. For a small monthly subscription fee, you can search their database and find out who has sold what (and often for how much). Even if you only sign up for a month, it's well worth the investment. Not all agents list their sales, but enough do to make this a great resource to see who's selling what and if those books are like yours.
Check out their clients
Okay, not the clients per se, but pick some books on the agent's client list and read them. Even if you only do the "read inside" feature on the online bookstores, get an idea of what kinds of books and writing the agent is taking on and selling. Definitely read anything similar to yours, because A) if they liked that, they might also be interested in you, and B) if they have a client that is too similar to your book, it could be a conflict of interest. If you have a choice between agents at the same agency, you might query the one who doesn't have a client with a book similar to yours.
Finalize the list
By now, you have have a solid list of agents targeted to what you write and how you write it. They're all legitimate agents, and offer something you feel will be valuable to you in your quest for publishing. It's time to decide how you want to start sending those queries.
A common system is to break the list into batches, around 8-10 agents per batch. That lets you test your query and gives you the opportunity to fine tune if you don't get a good response. Of course, you can always send them all out at the same time, or in larger batches, or whatever works for you.
To save you stress later, if you can make a list/spreadsheet of the response times and when to expect to hear from them, do it. Querying can be quite a nerve-wracking experience, and having a date to focus on can help ease those "when will I hear back?" moments. And keep you from constantly checking your mailbox--email or snail mail.
Some Things To Remember
The best agent for you is the one who loves your work and will work hard to sell it. That isn't always the biggest name or the one with the most sales. A brand-new agent working at a reputable agency might be the perfect person to sell your work and grow your career as they grow theirs. Don't write off an agent just because they're new or young or small. New agents work with established agents, so they have the full weight of their agency behind them.
Query one agent per agency. Many agencies share queries, so if the one you queried doesn't bite, but they think a colleague will, they'll often show that query to another agent.
Before you query anyone, make sure your novel is the best it can be. You only get one shot here, so don't blow it by querying too soon.
Make sure your query is the best it can be. Check the query labels on this blog for more info on how to write a query and other resources to help you make it shine.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
It's not uncommon to query and realize you goofed on something. Spelled a name wrong, sent the wrong version of the synopsis, whatever. Don't freak out when this happens. If it's a tiny mistake, don't worry about it. These things happen and agents know it. They won't reject you for it if the hook is good. If it's a bigger mistake, simply send a new query, making it clear that you're correcting the goof. Mistakes happen.
Thoughts on Re-Querying
If your query doesn't get any bites, you'll likely re-work it or the novel and resend. Basic rule of thumb is to wait one to three months before re-querying an agent (or another agent at the same agency). If an agent gave you feedback and you made those changes, mention that in your new query. It shows you're open to revision and listened to what they had to say.
However, if no significant changes were made to the book and/or the query, odds are it'll get the same response. Make sure a re-query feels like a new book, not just an edited version with the same hook in it. Unless the query was really bad, there's a strong chance the hook is what got the rejection, not the query itself. Do your best to be objective here.