Having a literary agent has been one of the major first steps of writers seeking publication for decades. Getting an agent was sometimes harder than getting a publisher, and writers agonized over no one ever taking them on as a client. But in today's changing publishing landscape, many writers are questioning whether pursuing an agent is necessary, or the right path for them. There's no right direction here, it's just what you want for your writing career.
If you choose to go the agent route (still the preferred method for those seeking a traditional publishing path), here is a handy-dandy guide for finding an agent.
Step One: Make a list of potential agents.
Sites like Agent Query and Query Tracker are my two favorites, and have solid lists of agents and what they represent. 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. The goal here to is write down any agent who fits your genre and market. For example, if you write horror, you'd look for agents who say they represent horror. If you write YA horror, you'd look for agents who say they represent horror as well as young adult.
Step Two: Narrow down the list of agents
Once you have your list of potential agents, you want to make sure they'll all legitimate and worth your time. Anyone can throw up a sign and claim they're an agent. Luckily, there are some fabulous watchdog sites to help writers avoid people trying to take advantage of them.
Take your list of names and cross reference them against Preditors and Editors. This can be time consuming if your list is long, but well worth the effort to avoid bad agents or scammers. Another good site to check is Writers Beware, which will give you a lot of great information and warn you about known scams. Eliminate any agent who shows up with a warning.
Why do this? Imagine having an agent offer to sign you, spend six months or more submitting your novel, only to find out later you're their only client and they've never sold a single thing. Or worse, you get an offer of representation and are then asked to pay all kinds of fees.
Step Three: Research them for compatibility
Now it's time to find the agents who would be the best fit for you and your work. Their listing might say they like and represent science fiction, but if their tastes run to soft sociological sci fi and you write hard military sci fi, odds are they aren't the right agent for you. This takes time and effort to research, but don't skip this part. You want to target your query as best you can. It's okay at this stage if you have multiple agents at the same agency on your list. The goal here is to determine which one is best for you. Look at:
Websites: Check their websites and find out who they represent and what they've sold (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. If they say they take historical fiction, but there's not a single historical fiction title on their client list, you might consider another agent who has more historical fiction clients (or you could decide you're the perfect writer to fit that gap in their client list).
Blog: If they have a blog, start reading, especially any posts where they talk about the books they like or what they look for in queries. You'll often find posts on their preferences and what they're looking for, and what they don't like to see.
Social Media: More and more agents are tweeting and Facebooking about what hooks them in a query and what they're looking for.
Client Books: The sample feature at online bookstores is a writer's best friend when looking for agents. Pick some books on the agent's client list to get an idea of what kinds of books and writing styles 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 who 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.
After your research, you'll have a solid 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.
Step Four: Check out their sales
Not all agents list their sales, but enough do to make it worth taking a quick peek to see who's selling what and if those books are like yours. Publishers Marketplace is a good resource for researching sales. You can get their free email newsletter to keep on top of the industry and see a weekly update of recent sales, or 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 often well worth the investment.
Step Five: Finalize the list
After all your hard work, you'll end up with 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 it 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.
Some Things To Remember
There is no "perfect" agent: 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 or have one person who reads and sorts them. If the agent you queried doesn't bite, but they think a colleague will be interested, they'll often show that query to another agent.
Be ready to query: 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 also the best it can be: Don't spend years writing and polishing your novel, and then dash off your query in an afternoon. Make sure it's just as polished and strong as the novel it represents.
(Here's more on how to write a query letter)
Step Six: Send out the queries
While some agents still accept snail mail queries, odds are you'll be querying by email. Check out how an agent prefers to receive queries, and if they have a query submission form on their website. And above all else--follow their guidelines.
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 novel's hook is good. If it's a bigger mistake, simply send a new query and make it clear that you're correcting the goof. Mistakes happen.
(Here's more on how/when mistakes in our submissions hurt us)
Thoughts on Re-Querying
If your query doesn't get any bites, you'll likely re-work it (or the novel) and resubmit. 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.
How did/do you search for an agent?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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