Finding a literary agent is a research project that’s best conducted by you. So, while some ways to find an agent might include: stalking them on social media, soliciting referrals from other writers who have agents themselves, and throwing darts at a cork-board, this is just a starting point. Selecting an agent is a lot like selecting a spouse. You could leave it up to your meddlesome, matchmaking aunt (“he’s handsome, he’s tall, if only he was rich…”), but you’ll probably be happier with the results if you examine the candidates closely for yourself.
A Few Things to Consider
Dreadful as it seems to those who like to think of themselves as artistes, marketing considerations play a big role in selecting an agent and ultimately getting a traditional publishing contract.
Why? For one thing, because you are marketing your work to the agents. The vast pool of agents in the world are your marketplace. And those agents themselves will be marketing your work to publishers. And the publishers will (if there’s any deity in heaven) be marketing your work to their readers.
So to successfully find an agent, you need to understand which ones are in your target market. And those in your target market are the ones who can successfully market to their target market: the publisher with whom you ultimately want to work. See, this is what economists would call the supply chain. Authors are at one end of the supply chain, the producers. Like farmers and widget factories. Readers are at the other end of the supply chain, the consumers. In between are agents and publishers (and other stuff, like booksellers, but we’ll keep this simple).
So you need to understand the commercial potential for your work, the marketability, and where your book exists in the publishing ecosystem. Is your book “big” (suitable for Big Five traditional publishers like Random-Penguin and HarperCollins), or is it “quiet” (suitable for mid-size and small presses)?
Check out PublishersMarketplace.com and study the deals that get announced. And have a look at Manuscript Wish List, where agents/editors specifically spell out what they want. Both will keep you up on trends and give you insight into what commercial publishing looks like in “real time.”
Do You Really Need a Literary Agent?
This is not a question to be taken lightly, because it’s a big unpaid time commitment to find an agent.
And the answer is… Maybe. Probably yes. If you want to be published by one of the major New York houses, probably 80 percent of the books those publishing houses acquire get sold to them by agents. So yeah, you pretty much need one—and want one on your side. Book contracts from major publishing houses are no joke. They’re only slightly less lengthy than the King James Bible, and only slightly less intelligible to the average human being. Agents negotiate the best deal for you, protect your rights, ensure you get paid, and run interference when necessary between you and the publisher. And you want someone like that in your corner, who speaks contract-ese and has a financial incentive to get you the best deal possible.
But that same profit motive can work against you too. If you’re writing for a niche market or wrote a distinctly “literary” work (a la Beckett, Woolf, or the contemporary equivalent of Ulysses), then you might not need an agent. Agents are motivated to take on clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If your project doesn’t command a decent advance, then you may not be worth an agent’s time, and you’ll have to sell the project on your own.
Do Your Research
As I mentioned above, finding an agent is a lot like finding a spouse. The best agents become career-long advisers and managers, the sort of people to whom authors dedicate the lives of their literary offspring.
As such, a good place to start is your local book store. Take a notebook and look up all the books on the shelves that are remotely like yours. In the industry, these are called your “comparables” or “competition.”
(I know, indies don’t like to think of other writers as “competition,” but you’re trying to get through your target agent’s slush-pile ahead of the next guy. I’m not sure what other word really applies.)
Be that as it may, narrow down your search to the kind of book you’ve written. Then look inside and note down the title, author, and publisher or imprint in your notebook. Then look at the Author Notes or Acknowledgments section. You’re looking for the note where the author thanks the literary agent that made it all possible. When you find it, note the agent’s name and agency. Now you have a list of potential agents who have actually sold books like yours to legitimate publishers who get books on shelves.
PublishersMarketplace.com is the best place online to research literary agents. Many agents have member pages there, AND you can search the publishing deals database by genre, category, and/or keyword to pinpoint the best agents for your work. Some other resources to consider:
- AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process.
- QueryTracker.net. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings.
- WritersMarket.com. About 400 to 600 agent listings. $5.99/month subscription fee.
Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is also an excellent resource for news and views related to literary agents.
Narrow Your List
A long list of literary agents in your genre is great. But are they accepting work like yours right now? Are they accepting any work right now? Do they have specific guidelines for queries and submissions? Do you have the correct spelling of their name? Do you know their wife and kids’ names? Do they like the Yankees or the Mets? Rangers or Islanders?
Not that I recommend taking this to an extreme, but a bit of light stalking is in order. Gobble up every bit of information you can find about your potential agents and build a short list of those most likely show interest in your book.
This all serves three important purposes.
First, it gives you some ammunition for the opening paragraph of your query. Nothing screams, “n00b!” like “To Whom It May Concern” or a misspelled agent’s name, and establishing a personal connection to your target agent is just good business.
Secondly, it breaks down your long list into manageable chunks. Because this is a time-consuming process, and you have better things to do (like writing). So break up your long-list into chunks of twenty, narrow that list down to the best five, cycle the remaining fifteen to the back of your queue, and focus on those best five markets this week. Then next week, take the next twenty, and repeat.
Lastly, it targets your submissions to the markets that are most likely (for whatever reason) to accept your work right now. The sooner you get through this process, the sooner you get on to the important bit: selling your work. Why waste your time sending your SciFi epic to a Romance agent whose name you don’t know and who isn’t accepting manuscripts right now anyway?
Once you have that short-list, the next step is the Joy of Query Letters! Whoo-hoo! Tune in next week for more about that!