creative writing community, craft and inspiration
Now that you’ve come up with your brilliant Elevator Pitch, drafted your query letter and the dreaded synopsis, it’s time to face the part of the process over which you have little control: actually finding an agent.
Not only “an agent” but the RIGHT agent. Not all agents are the same, and not all agents are right for you. Some represent only children’s books or nonfiction, so there’s little point in querying them if you’re offering an adult novel. Some love debut novelists. Others prefer to work with authors with a track record. Some are really wonderful editorial guides who will dig deep into your work with you before sending it out to editors. Others really want a ready-for-sale manuscript. Or, worse, some agents think they’re terrific editors but actually aren’t good at all and can lead you astray and confuse you. A lot of these particularities you can find out online – through the agent’s websites and valuable lit-chat sites like Preditors and Editors. Other things, you can only learn through firsthand experience – yours or a writer-friend who will share their tales.
The agent-author relationship has often been compared with a marriage. And as many of us know, marriage is hard work and often not exactly made in heaven. As desperate as it may feel, one thing to remember is that you are actually hiring the agent, not the other way around. You need to know what you’re getting into (as much as realistically possible) before you sign on the dotted line or officially accept that agent’s handshake.
The first place to look, short of having a friend make a personal introduction? Check the acknowledgements of your favorite authors’ books, especially those most similar to your project and writing style. If you’re writing literary fiction, knowing who reps Stephen King might not actually help. Or it might. Agents often have a variety of writers on their lists. And almost every agency seems to have their big-name bestseller who basically makes it financially possible for the rest of us to exist. Still, finding a “comp” – comparable author or book – is more than picking the hottest bestseller. You have to dig deeper and be more subtle and realistic with your expectations and comparisons so that the agent you contact will know you understand their tastes as well as the market realities.
One of the best resources is the Literary Marketplace. Their website has lots of valuable information, but beware that they seem to send you down a rabbit hole of circular web links until you register. In the old print-only days, the LMP was only available for a VERY hefty cover price – hundreds of dollars for an annual copy. So I would go to the New York Public Library and photocopy what I needed on my lunch hour. I’m not saying don’t register for fear that there may be a fee to use their service. (Everyone needs to support everyone in the literary business, including the business folks.) But be aware that you may end up having to pay.
Another option is the Poets & Writers’ Agents Directory. P&W is very literary and caters mostly to MFA students and grads. But even if you see yourself as a more commercial writer, they’re a reliable resource with plenty of useful information. You might also look at their archive of articles and interviews with agents and editors. My editor did one a while back that was extremely insightful.
Writer’s Digest is another valuable resource, focusing on the more commercial publishing market. Along with articles that tend toward “How to Write a Bestseller!” (I honestly don’t believe there’s any instruction manual for that!), I’ve discovered some extremely helpful advice and plenty of up-to-date information. There are also useful lists and information on agents at Writer’s Market and Agent Query.
Finally, take a look at this article about “Bad Literary Agents” from the LMP site. It’ll give you an idea of what NOT to get involved with. There are scammers out there, as in any industry. So before anyone asks you to pay ANYTHING to represent your book, make sure you check them out. There’s a good website (terrible web design, but the information is valuable) called Preditors & Editors. I always look up the agents I’m dealing with to see what the chatter is. There’s also the Association of Authors Representatives. All AAR members abide by certain basic best practices which means they won’t charge you and are generally the “real deal.”
Once you’ve done your research, you should have a list of the best agents for you, in order from “dream agent” to “I’d be happy with” and so on. Don’t be too dazzled by top houses like William Morris or ICM and don’t disdain smaller, even one-person agencies. Sometimes you get lost in a big house even if you land an agent there, whereas you can often get more personalized attention with a boutique agency. You simply have to start sending queries out to your list and see who bites.
All agent websites should list their query requirements. FOLLOW THEM EXACTLY. Don’t send the full manuscript or even chapters unless they say you should. You are presenting yourself not only as an author at this point, but as a professional business person. Anyone will tell you that you don’t wear a pair of ripped jeans to a corporate interview. If you treat the query and submission process with the same care and respect, you will make a great first impression.
Start with batches of four or five, then wait a reasonable time before checking in with a quick, polite email – generally three to four weeks later, unless they tell you otherwise on their website. Agents can take a long time (months, even!) to respond, especially when reading partial or complete manuscripts. Though many bluntly that state no news is “No thanks!” It’s harsh, but remember, this is business. But if they’re interested, they often respond fairly quickly.
DO NOT CALL THEM. You’ll only end up speaking with the receptionist or intern anyway, and look over-anxious and unprofessional in the process.
Once you’re heard from them – or NOT heard from them in about a month – it’s time to send out the next batch and see what happens.
Remember, a rejection isn’t always a critique of your writing. It may be that they simply aren’t the right agent to place your particular work. Accept the rejection as an opportunity to find the right agent for you.
If you get a bite, follow their instructions precisely. Be professional and, while you gnaw your fingers to the nubs, save your anxieties for the safety of your writers’ circle! They’ll be the first to cheer you on when you get that agent at last and – better yet – when the wonderful day comes when you finally get a sale.