irst, let me dispel the myth that agents are gods and goddesses opening gates to Nirvana, the Garden of Eden or Shangri-La. Some are hard working people, others are not. Some are honest, and others are not. Some know what they are doing, and others do not. Of course, that doesn’t make you feel any better considering you don’t know beans about literary agents. Yet, you’re expected to let them manage your story-baby you’ve birthed and nurtured for months, if not years.
As editor of FundsforWriters with newsletters and a website that reaches thousands of writers, I receive emails asking for guidance on many topics, including how to find an agent. Usually, however, the email goes something like this… “I just finished my novel and I’m seeking an agent. Would you please send me a few names to contact?”
I’ve answered this question so often I ought to create a form letter, but I hate such things since editors and agents use them, so I hammer out yet another explanation that seeking agents is like picking your therapist or gynecologist. You just don’t want anybody handling your business.
“...seeking agents is like picking your therapist or gynecologist. You just don’t want anybody handling your business.”
Locating the Agents
No, you don’t Google “literary agents” and send your manuscript to the top six names. Just paint “novice” across your forehead and beat it against a brick wall somewhere. It makes just as much sense as dropping your story in the mail to anyone with “agent” on their website or in their title. Let’s locate some agents first.
Resources to get you started include:
- Writers’ Market or www.writersmarket.com. Buy the book or sign up online. I prefer the Internet version since it’s updated more frequently than the annual book, although the chapters in the book are quite informative.
- Agent Query, www.agentquery.com. I like this site. It lists individual agents within agencies and what types of writing they prefer to review. It tends to lean toward the larger agencies.
- AAR, The Association of Authors’ Representatives, www.aar-online.org. The AAR accepts agents into its ranks after they’ve proven themselves through time, sales and success. AAR members are bound to an ethics code, and its agents are quick to let you know they belong to this organization since it hints of credibility. In reality, sticking to an AAR agent decreases your chance of scam.
- Published authors. My radar stays honed on the success of other writers and who represented them in their contract deal.
“I expect an agent to be online.”
Culling the Agents
You have all these agents at your disposal. Now do your homework. I prefer agents with websites. While my logic is my own, it provides me some comfort knowing that an agent is embracing the Internet. Many book sales are made online, every book expected to be on Amazon, and authors are expected to have a heavy online presence. So I expect an agent to be online. I perk up when they also blog.
Go to those web sites. Study every single page.
Learn the following:
- Who they’ve represented.
- What titles they’ve sold.
- What genre they’ve sold successfully.
- What genre they’re seeking presently.
- What do they expect in a submission.
- How long do they take to review submissions.
- What professional organizations they’re affiliated with.
- Where they are physically located.
Now realistically decide what you seek in an agent.
Answer questions about each agent like:
- Do they represent your type of book?
- Do you want an agent from across the country or one closer to home?
- Do you want an agent who regularly handles movie rights as well as book rights?
- What attracts you to this agent?
- What don’t you like about this agent?
- Do they accept online submissions?
I’m currently shopping my first novel to agents. I’ve pitched forty of them with three still reading the manuscript (fingers crossed). Authors have told me this isn’t unusual. I’m not concerned one way or the other since I want a match made in heaven. Besides, I’m getting to know the agents, whether they know it or not.
My novel is a mystery with a female protagonist. It’s the first of a series. It has a taste of humor. My goal is to find an agent who appreciates that type of book, that culture. I’ve lived throughout the United States, but I was born and reared in Dixie. My book is set in the South.
In an agency with multiple agents, I might seek a woman instead of a man, or a Southerner in lieu of a New Jersey-born individual. I read each agent’s biographical information and see if he or she has represented mystery writers, humor writers or Southern writers. I am middle-aged, so I note whether the agent has restricted herself to young writers. I might even consider whether a twenty-something would appreciate my age or long history of Southern culture. I might prefer East Coast to West Coast to lessen travel time. I study to see how many first-time novelists an agent has represented.
Then I do an online search for their names, which will locate any negative remarks on forums, blogs and web sites. Once I found an AAR member bashed on a forum. I immediately pondered whether the budding author just had a sour-grape mentality over being rejected. My personal experience of that agency paralleled the comments on the forum. Unprofessional and amateurish.
“No two agents want the same thing.”
My spreadsheet now has a list of names, web sites, addresses, query style preferred and a “spark of interest” category. That last category tells me what attracted me to a particular agent or agency. For instance, I pitched to a previous agent of Janet Evanovich, an agent originally from Georgia, an agent who brought authors in for a day-long power meeting, an agent who handled a mystery writer I know, and an agent who also was an attorney and represented a women’s fiction author I admire. Those “sparks” show a new author has studied before submitting.
Now comes the time to study the format necessary to attract the agent. No two agents want the same thing. One wants purely a one-page query letter. Another wants a query and a three-page synopsis. Another wants a query and a chapter while yet another needs a query, a two-page synopsis and three chapters.
Now my spreadsheet expands to include the following columns:
- Agent name
- Agency name
- Postal address
- Web site address
- Query letter requested
- Type synopsis requested (one-page single-spaced, three-page single, two-page double, ten-page double)
- SASE required
- Additional (one chapters, three chapters, thirty pages, fifty pages)
- Mailed date
- Follow-up date
- Spark of interest
You may have studied fifty agents and narrowed the list down to a dozen. Your odds just increased of your proposal being read. This process is no different than looking for a date. You know what doesn’t match with your desires, and you know what you prefer.
Submitting to Your Agents
Spend ample time preparing your various synopses and query letters. These are not to be written quickly. To write a query or synopsis fast is like being pregnant, doing all the correct things to bring a healthy baby to term, then not bathing the child, not feeding him regularly and not educating him while still expecting him to grow up and become a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Spend extensive time massaging the different synopses you will need. While you are writing one, you might as well write several. Then make every word of your query worth its weight in platinum. Envision that agent picking up your envelope, even opening it to read your cover page query letter. She has fifty more in the stack waiting for the same attention. Luckily, your envelope was neat enough to be opened.
She reads the first paragraph. Will she keep it or toss it? Doesn’t matter how profound your synopsis is. If that opening paragraph doesn’t grab a reader by the lapels, you’ve failed. Either create a phenomenal hook, or use the “spark of interest” column you prepared in your spreadsheet, telling an agent you did your homework and researched her past and desires.
Spend a weekend putting the packages together. Whether the agents accept online or postal submissions, get intimate with each one.
- Use quality paper.
- Use the highest quality printing level. Forget about saving ink.
- Type address labels or use your printer to address the envelopes. Handwrite nothing but your signature.
- Include a typed SASE for the agent’s response. Include proper postage. Use peel-off envelopes that do not require licking. Would you want to lick an envelope someone else has handled?
- Put the stamps on straight.
- Don’t send email attachments unless given permission to do so.
- E-mail in text format to assure that the document arrives legible and not jumbled with lots of strange characters breaking up your words.
- Type SUBMISSIONS or QUERY and your name in the subject of an email to avoid being overlooked. It also makes the email easily referenced from a saved file.
- Get the name and address correct.
- Do not include more or less than the guidelines require. This submission is a measure of how well you can follow instructions and present yourself.
- Include all your contact information. Some agents will email, some will mail, others may call. List all options.
“The agents are unknowingly auditioning for me.”
You don’t sit and twiddle your thumbs waiting. You write the next book. It keeps you sane, and it makes you credible when an agent asks, “So what are you working on now?” Once rejections started coming in, I dove even deeper into my second novel. I wanted that book completed at least in first draft by the time an agent said yes. Then I decided if my second novel gets completed before the first is sold, then I’ll sell the second one and note that I have a prequel already written.
The idea is to stay busy. Watching the mailbox is torture and a waste of your creative time.
Within two weeks, you’ll have some rejections. Don’t cry over them. Study them. I’m into my second round of agents right now, and I’ve noticed some characteristics about the responses.
- Some email and toss the SASE. That’s fine. I enjoy the personal touch and prompt response. I consider those agents efficient.
- Some use the SASE and send a personal letter. I save those letters. I will query those agents with my second novel.
- Some use the SASE and include a form letter with an original signature. I study the letter. If it’s well-written and neatly done, I consider the agent a keeper for future proposals.
- Some photocopy a poorly written and poorly formatted letter without a signature. In my mind, these individuals are not concerned about their image. Chances are they wouldn’t be concerned about mine either.
- Some put a sliver of paper, cut uneven, in the envelope without a signature, obviously designed by a freshman intern.
- Some do not respond.
The agents are unknowingly auditioning for me. Not that I’m million-dollar material, but I’m diligent, motivated and serious about my writing. I want to work with someone who is just as driven in their work and will work hard on my behalf. That agent’s image is my image if I sign on with her. I’ll now know which agents to return to with a query for my second novel, my third, maybe a nonfiction proposal.
Finding a literary agent is time consuming, agonizing work. So was your book. Why should contracting, selling and promoting your work be any different than the process in creating it? Call this one of my motivational pieces. I love to rant. But I also love salvaging a writer’s self-esteem. You pour your heart into your writing. Expect an agent to represent you as if the book were her own. Sticking to quality from beginning to end is what makes for a successful writer, and that includes selecting your literary agent. Don’t sell your soul to sell your words.
C. Hope Clark is editor and founder of FundsforWriters.com and author of The Shy Writer: The Introvert’s Guide to Writing Success. She’s published in national publications like Writer’s Digest and The Writer Magazine and trade magazines like TURF, Next Step, College Bound Teen, American Careers and Landscape Management. Writer’s Digest selected her web site in its 101 Best Web Sites for Writers, for the last seven years in a row.