This is something most moderately-successful commercial authors get asked about frequently. In fact, I think it’s the thing I’m asked about most frequently after “where do you get your ideas?” and “are there going to be more books in this series?” Even more than “will you read my book?” and “Why don’t you have a TV show like Charlaine Harris?” (to both of which the answer is an inarticulate mumble–more about that another time.)
In the interest of doing this only once for the many many people who’ve asked, here’s the skinny:
First off a caveat: any given writer can only tell you what their path was or what they’ve learned personally from missteps or conversation with others. The latter is second-hand info and it can be misleading. The first-hand info is only helpful so long as it’s kept in perspective. That is to say, it’s the experiential info-dump of one example. That said, here goes…
Before you go looking for an agent, finish and revise your novel. Fiction agents don’t rep unfinished work or short stories as a rule, nor are most of them interested in helping you revise. You need to have a complete, readable, and interesting manuscript that is not less than 50,000 words long for the Young Adult market and not less than 70,000 for the regular adult market. (Non-fiction and published authors who already have representation and work in print may be exceptions, but that’s not the point for this discussion. We’re talking about getting you an agent for your first novel.) Got your MS? Revised, sexy, complete, and all ready to go? OK, let’s proceed.
Next, you have to know what genre your book falls into. Is it a Romance? SF/F? Literary Fiction? Mystery? Historical? Whatever genre is most prevalent in the book is likely to be where it will sell, so you’ll need an agent who’s familiar with that genre (and yes, “Literary” is a genre) and has made successful sales to reputable publishers in that genre (or is working for a reputable agency with sales to major publishers, preferably in that genre.)
Now you’re wondering how to find these agents in the first place, aren’t you? There are several routes and I recommend looking at all of them:
- You can search the print or online versions of Writers Market (WM) or Literary Market Place (LMP) for agents who list your genres as interests. This is easy with the online data bases and it’s pretty cheap (about $3-6/month for a subscription to the site), or a bit harder and more time consuming with the print versions, but you can use them at the library for free. Either way, you get a nice list of possible agents who handle your genre or genres (if you are writing in a cross-genre niche or interested in writing more than one type of genre, you may want an agent who represents several of the genres you’re interested in.)
- Search the Internet for “literary agent” and the genres you’re interested in. Save the resulting search list.
- Go to conferences or conventions about writing or the genre you are interested in and check the presenter/panelist information for agents who work in your genre of interest. Make notes.
- Look at the dedication pages and websites of authors who write in the genre(s) you’re interested in. Chances are good they mention their agent. Write those names down and note which author/book is associated with that agent.
- Check the lists at Agent Query for the names of agents who are “actively looking” and filter by genre.
So, now you have lists of agents. Pretty long lists. Now comes the “vetting” stage. This is where you look at the list and start eliminating people and prioritizing the ones who remain. The easiest way to check out agents at this level is online. Search for their website–every agent or agency has one and they are easy to find by searching for the agent’s name or the agency name if you have it. If you are writing SF/F or Mystery, you should also check Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware, two related and wonderful sites that have already done a lot of the hard work for you.
When running these searches, you are looking for agents who:
- Handle your genre(s) of interest.
- Are actively in the business (not retired or out of business).
- Have made recent sales to reputable publishers in your genre.
- Are operating in the country you desire to be published in (sounds silly, but with the exception of Canadian agents who sell into US and UK markets, you really do need an agent in the US of you want to make a US sale, or in the UK if you want make your initial sale there.)
- Have a clean reputation and are not listed as “not recommended” with P&E or under investigation as scam artists with Writer Beware.
- Are actively looking or open for queries. (more on this later)
- Do not charge “reading fees,” “editorial fees,” or act as a front for editorial services, promotion services, or vanity/POD presses. (Nothing against POD or Vanity press, but they aren’t agents.)
- Are AAR members or abide by the AAR Canon of Ethics (my own agent is not a member of AAR, but he does abide by their CoE guidelines.)
- Don’t give you the creeps or leave a bad impression with you with respect to their professionalism or actions. (If something the agent espouses, does, or is offends you or makes you lack confidence in their ability to represent your book fairly and professionally, they aren’t the agent for you.)
Once you’ve vetted your list and thrown out the scam artists, closed agencies, inappropriate agencies, and agents who just give you a bad feeling, you’ll probably have a list of anywhere from 6-60 agents. Consider who they represent and what their recent track record is and prioritize them with the “dream agent” on top and the rest down the list from there.
Now, if you have the opportunity, you may be able to meet some of these agents in person or on online and get to know more about them and what they are looking for. Writer’s and genre conventions are great places to meet agents and find out more about them, but unless you have an appointment or an invitation to do so, don’t “pitch”. Just make the connection, get their card, and gather info for later.
If you ask an author about their agent or which agents they might recommend, the author’s response is not a personal referral. After all, the author doesn’t know you or your work so can’t–and won’t–refer/recommend you to their agent. That implies some kind of positive support. What you will get, if the author responds, is simply a name or list of agents the author thinks are professional, reliable, appropriate for the genre, and probably open for queries. That’s all. Just a list. Just “these guys are good/don’t suck.”
A tip: younger/newer agents are often a better bet for first-time novelists than older/more established agents. They usually have more room in their client list and are more aggressive about selling their client’s work since they work on commission and have fewer possible revenue streams. They also tend to have more time to spend with each client to help explain the vagueries of publishing and contracts to their writers. If they are junior agents at an established agency, they have the benefit of the agency’s older, wiser heads to consult with. Older agents have more contacts and longer track records, but they often are not accepting new clients, so the junior agent of your dream agency may be a very good bet. New independent agents are rare, but many of them have prior experience as assistants, editors, book packagers, or publicists and thus have good contacts and relationships with the industry, even though they may have few clients. These young agents often have another job somewhere to pay the bills, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on your side and won’t make time for you. Vet them first, but don’t write off the youngsters just because they are new.
Back to the main point…
Querying (formally, in writing) and pitching (informally, in person) must be done with a professional attitude and approach. Pitching in inappropriate situations (like… convention bathrooms, workout rooms, parking lots, airport shuttle buses etc.) or forcing your material on agents and editors by slipping it under doors and into briefcases or hands, will only hurt you. (Yes, I have seen/heard all these things and no one likes it, so don’t do it!)
The same goes for blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Everyone has one or two of these accounts these days, but pitching in those venues, unless the agent has made public or private invitation to do so, is just as tacky as cornering them in the loo. Just don’t. Ask questions about their agency, their query requirements, their current client list, their professional interests, their favorite (non-client) writer, and so on, but don’t pitch until they say “OK, tell me about your book.” Once you have a personal contact, you can use that in your actual query to remind the agent who you are and this may help move you up their reading pile a little faster, but if you made a bad impression you stand a better chance of ending up in “the round file.” Keep it professional.
If you have the opportunity–and I mean a gracious and professional opportunity, not the above–to pitch in person at a conference or meeting (even in an elevator if you can do it well), be prepared: practice ahead of time, do it clean and fast, get the agent’s card and give them yours, and go on your way as soon as the session is over. Don’t linger around unless invited to and do follow up as soon as possible if the agent has asked you to.
If you can’t pitch in person (or if you’ve been asked to follow up on an in-person pitch) you’ll have to query by mail. Whether you have a contact or not, once you have the names and addresses of the agents you want to query, check their website to be sure they are open for queries and what form they want those queries in. (If you’ve been lucky enough to be invited to query, you can do that even if the agent is officially “closed” to queries, but only with such an invitation will you escape the dreaded rejection.) Compose a really fantastic query letter (there are lots of sites that will help you with that, so I’m not getting into that here) and send it as per the instructions on the site or agent’s information sheet (if you met them at a conference). Do exactly what they tell you, and send only the materials they tell you to send, in the format they tell you to send them in. If they say “no e-mail queries” that applies to you, too, no matter how much you think it doesn’t (unless the agent told you otherwise, directly to your face.) Don’t get creative with the formats and materials.
A note about “closed to queries”: this is usually a temporary situation due to overload. Don’t despair. If Dream Agent is closed to queries, they will reopen eventually. Many of them update on Twitter or FaceBook or other social network sites as well as on their websites and blogs, so keep checking. And if you happen to meet the agent, it’s all right to ask, politely, when they think they might be open again.
Part of the purpose of the query process is demonstrating that you are a professional who can follow directions (as a commercial author, you’ll have a lot of instructions to follow in your career and you need to start out well) as well as being a heck of a fine writer with a really cool story whose time in now and which is ready to go. It’s not a sexy, fun, or cool process, but it demonstrates: your control of language (you don’t have a lot of words to get your idea across); your clear understanding of your story and ability to express that to others; your ability to write and submit materials to requirements; and your willingness to put yourself out and work your buns off while maintaining a professional demeanor in public.
Personalize each query. Don’t send a mass-produced, identical packet to every agent on your list and don’t use an automated query system. Send the agent what they asked for and include their name and why you are contacting them (you met them at Writer Con, or your book is in the same category as their client So-and-So’s, or you talked to them on Twitter during #askanagent last Wednesday). So now you have your query ready to go. It’s just the first of many. Send it out right away. Then send some more. Queries are not the same as “submissions” so you can send out as many as you like at one time. Just don’t send more than one to any one agency–agents do talk and discuss their queries within agencies and a flood of queries from the same person is very much a bad idea. If Agent 1 thinks it’s good but can’t take it, he or she may pass it on to Agent 2, so don’t query Agent 2 at the same time.
Track all your queries and know where they went and when. Track your results too. Writer’s Market and LMP both have areas their subscribers can use for manuscript tracking, so you don’t even have to make your own spreadsheet unless you want to. But whatever you do, track them all. It’s really embarrassing to send a new query to someone who already rejected it. Trust me: agents remember this stuff because they keep spreadsheets too.
When you get a rejection, don’t take it personally. Just log it and go on. Most rejections have little to do with you or your project and a lot to do with timing, market forces, agency business and so on. None of them are personal attacks on you–at least they shouldn’t be. If you get notes from the agent about the submission, that’s great–take heed. Otherwise, just keep on querying your way down your list and if you run out of list, look again.
At some point you may be asked to submit a full or partial manuscript. If this happens, you should do so immediately and in the requested format. The agent’s website will usually tell you how long it will take for them to get back to you. Whatever it is, double it–people get busy and pestering the agent with “did you get it/what do you think?” will piss them off. If the usual response time has elapsed, then you can–gently and only once–ask if the requested materials arrived. The agent will say yes or no and so it goes….
If you get very lucky, you may have several agents ask for submissions. This is the infamous “simultaneous submission” situation. In the past lots of agents have stated they didn’t want simultaneous submissions–it means someone else is looking at your material at the same time, so there’s competition–but in the digital age and with fewer people reading more manuscripts sent via e-mail and so on, most agents are looser about this now. However, as the writer, you should check the website to see what the agent’s policy on sim-subs is, then send a note saying that you already have materials on submission with Agent X and asking if Agent Y minds accepting a simultaneous submission. Usually the answer is “that’s fine, send it,” but if not, say thank you and that you’ll send materials as soon as Agent X is done with them. And that’s what you’ll do. If you do have your material out with several agents simultaneously, you should let each agent know that other agents are looking at your material. If they find out through the grapevine, they may be a little upset and that is something you want to avoid.
Once your material is “on submission,” you wait until it’s either rejected or the agent calls you (they always call or e-mail if it’s good news, never snail mail) to offer you representation, or conditional representation (that is to say, they’ll represent you if something is changed that is giving them pause.) If you’re very, very lucky, you might have more than one agent to choose from, but that’s rare. If your manuscript is rejected, you go back to the query process. But if it’s accepted, you now have an interesting situation….
Now this is where things get a little strange. Your first response to “I’d like to represent you/your book” will probably be “Yipeeeee!” which is cool–congratulations! But before you sign a representation agreement, there are a couple of considerations.
You’ve already vetted the agent before you sent your query, so you know he/she is a pro who can do a good job, but are they the right pro for you? An agent is your adviser, representative, and professional guide to this crazy industry, but the are also your employee and as such you need to feel comfortable with them and with the contract you are being offered. If you find you really don’t like/trust/agree with/feel comfortable with/understand the agent, or you’ve changed your mind about what your requirements are for representation, you may be better off refusing representation with this particular agent. Then you will have to start over, but it’s better to have no agent than a bad one. If you love the agent, then it’s on to the contract stage.
If you’re in the happy situation of having more than one offer of representation, congratulations: you’re in the catbird seat! But whether you have one offer or three, consider both the agent and their contract with care. You want to pick an agent with whom you have rapport and in whom you have confidence. Someone with enthusiasm for your book, not a reluctant willingness to show it around. You should also look hard at the contract. If it demands the right to control all rights-licensing connected to any sold project in perpetuity with no reversion for unsold rights, if it demands fees up front, if it demands representation of all works regardless of sale, if it gives the agent rights to sever the agreement but doesn’t give them to you, or similar clauses, then it isn’t a good deal. Ask questions about anything that’s unclear or makes you uncomfortable. If you aren’t happy with the answers, look elsewhere for representation.
Agents are very useful to writers, but bear in mind that they are supposed to help and advise you, not dictate to you or intimidate you. Don’t think you have to work with someone if you’re uncomfortable, just because they’re the only one who offered. Keep trying until you find someone who is not only good at their job, but good for you.
Last notes about acquiring an agent: The publishing world is very small and close-knit. Word gets around, so act like a pro. Don’t rant in public when you’re rejected (it’ll happen), don’t call names or say mean things about the agent or editor who rejected you, don’t send them rude notes, and don’t take things personally. Stiff upper lip and all that jazz. After all, you wouldn’t want to hire someone who doesn’t really like your book or who doesn’t like you. Would you?