Let me start by saying that this post will not address the need for a literary agent, or even the pros and cons of traditional publishing. This post will simply describe a practical strategy to find a suitable agent, provided that you already decided that having one is what you need.
I’ll break this post down in two parts—the first one will discuss the reasons why you usually fail in finding a good agent, and the second part will analyze the way to find that agent. The first part will give you an understanding of the process and those weak points were it can break, and the second one will try to find ways to fix it.
Why You Failed Finding an Agent
Did you ever think about the fact that a lot of people put a bigger value on what they produce than what they actually are as human beings? Stay with me and I will give you my own thoughts about the psychology at play here.
We’ll use two analogies: dating and job hunting. Most likely all of us went through those stages at various points in our life and not once, but multiple times. That’s because we all need a companion and (most of us) a job, and both those processes are a heavy numbers game.
Fear of Rejection
I don’t think I ever heard of a person who went on two dates and then said, that’s it, I will be single forever. No, people simply assume that there was no match and move on. Most of the time, it is a human reaction to believe that it is somehow you that was the cause of the lack of match. It is something about you that made that date bad or that job interview to go the wrong way. It’s normal, because we are creatures who are statistically predominantly governed by fear and self-doubt.
However, things are completely different when we think about the things that we produce. Whether it’s a painting, a song, a sculpture, or a novel, the product of our artistic creation is always, always, in our minds, beyond Godly. It is the best thing that anyone has ever seen and everyone who sees it should be damn proud for being allowed in the presence of such greatness.
And that is the antithesis of the two mental processes: rejection in a date or job– my fault or at least partially my fault. Rejection of my work or creation—their fault for not understanding its greatness.
The fear of rejection becomes so great that it starts being a hurdle in the way of the search of an agent, which in itself is a major numbers game. So the number one reason why you fail in finding a good agent is the fear of rejection.
Patience, my dear Watson!
Number two is the good old patience. Beginning writers are not patient and that behavior rides precisely on the wave of our current society as a whole. Everything is available fast, now, live, on-line. Nobody wants to wait anymore, and everyone seeks instant gratification.
Well, you need to re-frame your vision about this process and understand that it is a lengthy process. You must jump straight to the acceptance stage and tell yourself that patience is what you need. We’ll see later how to manage that expectation.
Target the right people
Third reason why you fail in getting a good agent is because you are targeting the wrong audience. I won’t go into details here because we will discuss later how to target the proper agent. But just as applying to jobs that require you to be a Master Chef while you are a Chess Master don’t render any interviews, targeting the wrong agent won’t get you representation.
Listen to the rules
Fourth reason is failure to follow instructions. Personally I think that this flaw can be broken down in two distinct groups: people who lack focus and attention, and people with a giant ego who believe that they shouldn’t be fettered by some dumb restrictive rules. We’ll talk about each in a bit.
Whereas the first four reasons are related to your behavior, there are a few more reasons that do not depend on you. These are: the agent’s availability and workload, and a little bit of luck.
For the remainder of this post I will try to address all those things that when done well, increase your ability to avoid the mistakes above, and find a good agent to represent your work.
A Practical Way to Finding an Agent
Finish Your Work
The first and foremost rule I have is: finish your work. Don’t start approaching agents before you are done. If you do, you might get into various issues, but the most critical is turning an agent off when he/she actually likes your work. You submit, the agent replies and asks for the manuscript and you reply that it will be ready within a month. Don’t do that, you are only shooting yourself in the foot. Finish your work first and then start the agent search process.
Create an Outstanding Query Letter
Writing query letters is an art in itself. There are domes of books and articles on the subject, and I added a few links at the end of this article. Make sure you study the art of crafting query letters, but try not to follow templates literally. Use the concepts and methods described, but make your query personal and fresh. Remember, a good query letter may not get you representation every time, but a bad query letter will get you rejected in 99.99% of cases.
Know Your Market
You finished your book. You step into an elevator and an agent takes a trip with you down twenty floors. You see his tag and want to pitch your book. You have 30 seconds. What do you say? I am not joking, stop reading now and think what would you say, how would you convey the type of book, the target, the market, the genre to somebody? If you don’t know the answer of the top of your head, you are not ready to look for an agent.
Make sure that you know exactly what type of book you wrote. Know other books that might have similarity to yours. If I tell you that this book is “a fantasy story where Lord of the Rings meets The Wizard of Oz,” you may not get an exact image, but you do get some feeling about what it might be. If I tell you that this book is “like a Stephen King book written by Emily Bronte,” again, you may not know exactly what I am talking about, but you get some idea.
Get beyond that, and be as specific as you can.
Now that you know your market, you are ready to research agents. There are various ways to do this, but first let me start with two numbers: 50 (fifty) or 100 (one hundred). That’s how many agents you need to identify. Fifty is the lower part of the range, one hundred is the ideal number. Scary? It shouldn’t be.
Nowadays there are many methods to identify agents, beyond the classic Writer’s Market(s) books. If you still enjoy browsing through pages, suit yourself. Just get a big pack of post-its and a marker and start digging. My suggestion is that you use some of the multiple online resources available to you.
The online agent databases allow you to search by genre, geography, and many other parameters. In addition, many of the sites allow users to track queries and calculate statistics based on those numbers. So, you might be able to see things such as number of queries sent, responded, accepted, declined, etc. This will give you a good insight into how busy the agent is, and how stringent as well.
My favorite search website is QueryTracker.net, but there are others, presented below.
So, here are the logical steps I use when performing these searches:
- Is the agent requiring you to pay anything (such as reading fees, expense reimbursements, etc.)? Then strike that agent out immediately. This rule should never be broken: as a writer you should not have to pay ANYTHING to an agent. Not a fee, not a token payment, not a cent, not a penny. Nada. If they ask for it, walk away.
- Is the agent currently accepting submissions? If no, but all else is ok, I save this name for the future
- Is the agent a member of AAR – Association of Authors Representatives? This may not mean anything, but I like to make a mark and prioritize those agents that are members. I don’t discard the others, I simply put them at the end of the list
- Does the agent work in my genre, do they accept the type of manuscript that I wrote?
- Does the agent have an online presence? I am turned off by agents who do not have an online presence. It simply tells me that this agent is old fashioned or unable to get acquainted with the modern technology. I don’t completely discard these agents, but they are at the absolute bottom of the pile. I know some wonderful agents might be in that category, but that’s my rule.
- Did this agent publish at least a few books similar to yours, or is he/she representing authors that produce work similar to yours? If yes, it’s a plus, I push them to the top. I also write down the names of the books and authors and I will use them later in my query letter.
- Is this agent very overloaded with requests? If yes, he/she will have a lower priority.
- Does this agent allow simultaneous submissions (e.g. allows you to submit work to them, and other agents in the same time.) If no, this agent makes it into a special list called “loners.” Those agents will be contacted only if all else fails.
- Is this agent rejecting A LOT (high % of submissions)? If yes, de-prioritize
- Is this agent accepting A LOT (high % of submissions)? If yes, higher priority
Once you go through this exercise you will have a list of 50 to 100 names of agents, agency names, website addresses, phone numbers and emails. Now you will go to each agent’s website and continue your research.
Deepen Your Research
Your agent’s website address is a gold mine. Here you can find information about the agency and the agents working there, works and authors represented, and submission guidelines. All of this are critical for you, a new writer looking for representation.
First thing to do is check the submission guidelines to make sure that there is nothing there that disqualifies this agent. If there is, remove this agent from your list. The agent’s website is always up to date, while the research database might be delayed. So, an agent might note on their website that they do not accept submissions, even though this information was not present in other places.
Next thing is to check all the agents who work at the agency, and see if you indeed selected the best one. Use the same criteria above and you might discover that the name that you got from the website, although good, is not as good as someone else at the same agency. Pick the best that works but remember: always query only one agent at each agency.
Then, read what they write about the agent, or what the agent writes about themselves. Search on the web and see what other people say about that agent. Try to assess the agent’s “drive” on a scale from 1 to 10. It’s a subjective judgment, but still a valid one. Does the agent have a blog, a facebook page, other online and off-line activities? Does he/she participate in conferences, workshops, and so on? In other words, how involved is this agent in the industry? The more involved the higher the rating.
Curate Your List
Now you have a list, ideally in Excel or other similar tabular system, with 50 through 100 rows. Make sure you have a Notes column at the end where you can add some additional information (like, “this agent is out of country for the summer,” and so on.)
Your list is ordered on priority, priority which you established based on the criteria described above. The next step is to divide your list in groups of 10 agents.
When you have a tie between agents, put first that agent that statistically responds faster; this information is usually available on their website or on the research databases.
Submit your work
I can’t stress enough how important it is to follow the submission guidelines of the agent. Make sure you read them and follow them EXACTLY. If they ask for 25 pages, don’t send 27 because you felt like they are missing your twister on page 26. Follow what the agents says, to the t.
Send your work in the best form: clean paper, good printout, nothing folded more than it needs to be folded. And, please, don’t try to adapt a package and apply it to all agents. This is not a “lets throw **** on the wall and see what sticks.” This is your change to find an agent. Treat each one as a separate relationship and follow their rules.
Avoid these pitfalls (you can read more about these in articles that talk about how to write a query letter):
- Don’t use unusual paper, colors, fonts or any other visual gimmicks
- Don’t use fancy mailing, like FedEx or DHL. Use regular mail. If you want to track the receipt, make sure that you do not require a signature at delivery.
- Do not put anything other than your work in the envelope
- Make sure everything is personalized to the agent (you can learn a lot about this in the query letter tutorials)
Now that you have 10 envelopes ready to go… let them go.
Then wait two weeks. You will probably receive some rejections right away. Learn from them, don’t get mad. Read what they say and figure out if there is anything that you can do to fix that (if it is relevant.)
After two weeks passed, send 10 more. And again, and again.
Tracking Your Work
Make sure you mark when and what was submitted to each agent. If you have 50 names, you are looking at 10 weeks, if you have 100 you are looking at 20 weeks. During this time, you will receive responses. Mark the responses in your tracking worksheet; especially mark down when you received a response and how many days since you sent them the query. This will be useful in the future, when you make other queries, because you can improve the priority list using first-hand information.
Keep a Positive Attitude
During this entire process, you must keep a positive attitude. Learn how to develop a thick skin and don’t take rejections to your heart. Instead, learn from them. See what the agents are telling you. Thank agents for their consideration and generally be nice in your communications. Politely ask for more information about why your work was rejected.
More so than not you will find that your work is rejected simply because the agent doesn’t have enough time to deal with a new client. Make a note of that and don’t query that agent again for the next few months.
As you can see from this process, it may take many months or even a year to get an agent. The research explained above is paramount. It avoids you wasting your time and the agents’ time; it creates a solid framework in which you know where you stand in terms of your submissions. You give enough time between batches so that the agents with high priority have time to respond.
Actually, if you want, for the first few batches you may wait even longer. This is to prevent an agent with a lower priority to accept you and get your work, only to be approved by a higher priority agent a week later when you can no longer void your contract. Again, patience plays a big role here.
Beware of scams
This is not the subject of this article, but it’s worth mentioning. When you do get accepted by an agent, do a thorough research on their credentials. Do your due diligence, which means you may have to contact an attorney before you sign your contract. Don’t get yourself locked into a bad deal. The idea is that the game is not just finding a good agent, it’s also getting a fair deal from that agent. The official AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) is a great resource, and so is Preditors & Editors. Do your research well because getting a bad agent is far worse than not having any agent.
Now that you read so far, please share your own views on this process. I’m curious to hear your story, how did you find your agent, how many rejections did you go through? Give us the dirty details. Sharing helps everyone get better at it!
Agent lists and information:
On writing query letters:
Other posts about getting an agent:
Good luck with your search for your next literary agent!