Finding an agent

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One of the questions I get asked frequently is how I found my agent so I thought I’d share my thoughts and process. This isn’t a post about whether you should work with an agent (personally my answer to that is yes) but is more geared to how you go about finding an agent once you’ve decided you want to work with one.

Often I think writers are so excited about finishing a book and wanting to move to the next step that they begin to rush the process. This can mean short-changing the amount of time they take to revise their book (which is what I did with my first book) or not spending enough time doing research on agents. The very first time I sent out query letters (for a romance I wrote right out of college) I took the mindset that I had in ninth grade when asked if there were any boys I wanted to date: “I’m interested in any who are interested in me.”

As you can guess, that didn’t turn out well in ninth grade and, unsurprisingly, it’s still not a great way to enter into a professional relationship. But I do think the dating metaphor is apt — just because someone might be perfect for your best friend doesn’t mean they’re perfect for you.

When approaching agent research it’s important to figure out what you want from the relationship. Are you someone who wants a hands on agent who will work as an editor before passing along projects? Do you communicate better via email or telephone? Do you work better with more hand holding? Do you want a boutique agency or one that’s larger? A veteran agent or someone starting out? Someone who only reps your genre or whose list is broader? These are all the types of questions you can ask yourself to figure out what you want/need before starting your search.

The next step is creating a long list and there are a ton of resources out there for this:

1. AgentQuery.com: this database website allows you to search for agents in a variety of ways and also has a ton of resources for authors. There are several ways to set up your searches: either for genre or you can type in authors/titles you think are similar to what you’re writing.

2. Publishers Marketplace: this is a subscription database that probably has similar search capacities as AgentQuery. The biggest difference is that you can also search deal announcements to see a list of recent deals any agent has announced (I’ll talk about this below).

3. Acknowledgements: Sometimes one of the best ways to find agents is to look for books and authors that are similar to you. If you can’t find out who their agent is on their website or databases (or by simply googling) then check out the acknowledgements of their books — most of the time authors will thank their agent.

4. The Community: Other ways to find agents is through your communities — if you have published friends, who represents them? If you read blogs or visit message boards, who reps the authors you chat with?

I’m sure there are even more resources out there now that have sprung up since I went through this. You can often find these by reading author blogs or visiting author message boards (AbsoluteWrite or the VerlaKay Blueboards (a great message board for PB/MG/YA authors))

Once you’ve created a long list of agents, it’s time to narrow it down based on what you’re looking for. This is where you start to dig in and do more research. I admit that I did a LOT of research at this stage of the game but mostly that’s because (a) I started this process early and (b) I went through a lot of revisions so I had time to do research while waiting for crit partners to read and get back to me.

There are several ways to winnow down your long list by learning more about each agent:

1. Blogs/twitter: check to see if they have a personal blog/twitter or if their agency has a blog. This is a great way to get a glimpse into their personality and learn more about what they’re looking for. Unless it’s part of what you want from an agent, don’t be turned off if an agent doesn’t have a blog or a social presence online. When I was going through this process I was able to cross a few agents off my long list just because I could tell from their blogs that our personalities wouldn’t mesh. That doesn’t mean they weren’t fantastic agents, it just meant they probably weren’t right for me.

2. Interviews: Google their name and if that has too many results add the word “interview.” Like blogs, reading interviews with agents is a great way to get a sense of their personality and style.

3. Publishers Marketplace: this is that paid service I mentioned above (I think $20/month). I know a lot of authors who will subscribe for only a month in order to run searches. Essentially Publishers Marketplace, in addition to being a database of authors/agents/editors/etc and an aggregator of industry news, has a database of recent sales (generally in format that includes the author, a quick blurb of the book, the agent, editor and sometimes a range of the sale amount).

I’m not going to lie, I love this site and find it fascinating and, yes, addicting. You know how everyone says you can’t judge a trend by what’s on the shelves because those books likely sold 1-2 years ago? With Pub Marketplace you get to back that timeline up a bit and see what’s selling now but won’t be released for a year or two.

However, there are a couple of caveats: (1) just with announced print runs, sometimes the deal announcements can be a bit puffy in terms of the size of the deal (and not all agents/publishers will announce the size of the deal) and (2) not all deals are announced, nor are they announced as soon as they’re made (frex, we never did announce the third book in my Forest of Hands and Teeth series nor have we announced my next deals yet).

When I was researching agents I liked to use this site to see what kind of deals an agent made, not necessarily in terms of size but to see what kind of houses they sold to (i.e., did they seem to have a broad range of editors or were all their sales to just one/two people/houses?).

4. The Community: If you’re part of a writing community you can chat with them to hear their thoughts on various agents.

Once you have a short list, it’s time to do even more research. This is when I started to hone my google-fu in terms of looking for interviews and reading up as much as I could on each agent. I checked out their clients’ website and maybe even read or thumbed through their clients’ books. I started making notes about their submissions guidelines (and any sub pet peeves they might have mentioned in interviews/blogs) so I could make sure to follow their rules.

After all of that, I queried. And I realized that while I’d done a ton of research, I still didn’t really know that much about the agents I was sending letters to (at the time I wrote a blog post about that here.) I learned that while you can do a lot of research on the front end, often what will help you figure out who’s the best agent for you is by talking to them. Sometimes you do this at a conference or by interacting with them online or by chatting with them on the phone if they offer to represent you.

I can’t stress enough that latter point: I had several agents that seemed wonderful on paper (and I’m sure are wonderful agents) but once we talked I realized we just weren’t that well suited for each other. That’s when I ended up (a) talking to their clients to get a feel for how the agents worked; (b) talked to other friends in the community to get a sense of the agent’s reputation; and (c) tossed all the research aside and go with my gut (a truly terrifying leap of faith).

At the end of the day, I signed with an agent I love. I have several friends who ended up with agents that didn’t work out for them and they’ve switched to new agents and while that was stressful for them, it wasn’t career ending. Sometimes that happens — no matter how much work you put into trying to find the right match, it doesn’t work out and that can be okay.

What’s funny is that my agent would probably tell you that I tend to over-think things and you can see from this post he’s probably right πŸ™‚ There are plenty of authors who went about their agent search in a different way and ended up in a place that works for them. And maybe I did go a bit overboard in my approach to my own search, but there’s one thing I kept in mind: once an agent sells a book, he or she (or their agency) has a right to 15% of that book for life (the length of time may change from agency to agency). To a certain extent, this means that you become partners in your career and it’s important not to rush that step but to make sure you end up in a situation you’re happy with and that works for you.

Happy agent hunting!

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13 comments to Finding an agent

  • Carrie, this is the *most* organized and fullsome post on finding an agent I’ve ever read. Kudos! I did very little of this when looking for my first agent. Of course, there were none of these resources back then except Marketplace, and it cost 35 bucks a book, needing to be replaced every year, and out of date before it hit the press. (shakes head) That was a lot of money for a kid in college back then. I lucked out. Your method takes much of the luck out of the picture. I like! I’m liking it to my FB too.

  • Thanks Faith! This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages — I get asked this question a lot and there are so many great resources out there!

  • Great list, Carrie. The only thing I’d add to your list is necessary resources is “tenacity.” Just today I read an essay by the author of the novel “The Help” and she mainly talked about how she got 60 rejections before an agent finally agreed to represent her. And with the markets and the economy being the way they are right now, I think that need for tenacity is more true than maybe ever before. I’m sure that’s not the kind of resource you had in mind when you put your list together, but there it is.

  • Terrific post, Carrie — one that every aspiring writer should read. You point us to some great resources and, as Faith has said, organize all the information so coherently. Thanks for this. I take it that you wound up with an agent you like and trust. Have you had only the one agent, or have there been some bumps in the road along the way?

  • Carrie, great post and excellent list of resources. Querytracker.net is another useful site to search for agents, often linking directly to agentquery and publishersmarketplace, plus authors can enter their submissions and responses data to provide statistics on agents. My only beef with querytracker is that the response data is voluntary so incomplete. Nevertheless, another tool if used with that knowledge in mind. Absolute Write is gem, and Backspace Writers Conference equally so.

    I’ve kept personal notes over the last year of querying, particularly agents who don’t respond with even a form rejection. I will shuffle them down my list for my next book. I know they’re busy, everybody is, but not responding and leaving things in the air to me is sloppy. A few times, I emailed to see if my query became lost in the internet void and received a response back, but most of the time not even a response on the email. To me that’s a lack of professionalism. It says their time is more important than my time and that’s not the type of relationship I want to get into, regardless of their reputation.

    When does one decide to stop querying a project? From the responses I’ve received on my partials for SHADOWSLAYER it seems to need major revising or a serious improvement in high-concept. I’m thinking of trunking it, but not sure when to quit querying.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • Edmund — excellent point about the tenacity! I think that’s a huge part of this business at every stage!

    David — I ended up with an agent I love and I’m still with my first agent. I feel rather lucky, actually, because I added him to my list when I searched Publishers Marketplace for any agents who’d recently sold a zombie book. Up until that point I hadn’t heard of him and it turns out he reps some fantastic YA authors. He was definitely my gut choice. Interestingly, several of my friends who have left their first agent have ended up with him πŸ™‚

    NGD — this is a great question and such a hard one to answer! I think every author will have different thoughts but I’ll share mine from my own experience. I think I was quicker to trunk novels when I started out because I knew so few people who actually sold their first (or second or third) books. I figured it was unlikely I’d sell my first and I looked at it as sort of a learning experience. I did query with it but then I trunked it when I realized (a) it wasn’t likely to sell and (b) even if it did sell I didn’t want to brand myself and keep writing western historical romances.

    With my second book I knew as soon as I typed up the query letter that I’d need to do more revisions than I was able/willing. There was a fatal flaw in the book from the first chapter and the premise and I just couldn’t bear rewriting the entire thing.

    It really wasn’t until my third book (The Forest of Hands and Teeth which was my first published book) that I really understood the importance of deep revisions and I spent as long revising that book as I’d spent writing it. I also spent several months researching the market and agents. I was lucky in that I signed with an agent fairly quickly and I don’t know how long I’d have kept querying. (I do think that finding an agent quickly was due, in part, to having a very revised book and a very targeted approach to querying).

    I think there’s a balance between tenacity on a project and moving forward. If you want a career as a published writer then basically you can’t just write one sale-able book… all of your books have to be saleable. I think it’s easy to fall into thinking “this is the one” and spend years querying one project when the truth is, even if that book IS the one, the book after has to be the one as well, and the book after that and the book after that.

    If you don’t have more than one saleable book in you, it’s going to be difficult to have a career as a published author.

    How many you query before getting that point will vary from writer to writer but I tend to be a fan of (a) writing the best book you can, (b) revising it the best you can, (c) giving it the best chance you can, and (d) moving on to the next.

  • Apropos your response to NewGuyDave: when is it appropriate to mention other projects to an agent? Say the agent is reading a manuscript, and you have another manuscript in the revision process, and a third story in outline form–at what point should you mention these projects to the agent? πŸ™‚ Thanks for the break-down!

  • Razziecat

    I recall reading a piece of advice somewhere (I can’t remember where) that suggested writers submit their work to publishers, and when they got an offer to publish, they should then contact an agent; the idea being that the agent would be more likely to represent the author when a published had shown an interest in the book. Aside from the optimism of that “when they got an offer”, this seems kinds of backwards to me. Does anyone know of a writer for whom this approach worked?

  • Razziecat

    Oops, I meant to type “publisher” not “published”….long day..*sigh*

  • Carrie, *thank you* for such an extensive, thorough post! I tend to overthink things, too, so this is perfect.

  • Razziecat — While there are exceptions to every rule (I know some authors who signed with agents after getting an offer from a publisher) my advice is that if you want to work with an agent, approach them first. There are several reasons for this:

    (1) generally response times from agents will be faster (it can take publishers up to a year or more to get back to you) (Let me insert a caveat here that I’m thinking more about the larger publishers here — it could easily be different with smaller houses.;

    (2) some publishers require an exclusive which means that’s a year you can’t be doing anything else with that manuscript;

    (3) unless you REALLY know the industry, it would be difficult to know what publisher/editor to send it to (whose list is open, what house is looking for that kind of book, which editor you’d get along with, etc);

    (4) even if you did know the industry and felt like Editor A would be PERFECT, it’s unlikely they’ll read your manuscript if you send it to them — that’s usually a job left to interns;

    (5) agents tend to get faster responses from editors — they develop relationships so that when Editor A knows that Agent B sends great stuff, she’s likely to move it to the top of her pile.

    Editors use agents as gatekeepers and a lot of houses simply won’t consider unagented material. Furthermore, part of what an agent does is figure out who would be the best editor for your work — not all houses and editors are the same. This is one of the reasons you’ll hear about agents and editors going to lunch a lot — it’s so agents can get to know the editors and what they’re looking for.

    As I said before, there are always exceptions (but my motto tends to be: if you think you’re the exception to the rules, buy a lottery ticket because it’s easier). I’m not as familiar with how small houses work and there are some houses where authors often don’t have agents (HQ is one of them). Two of my friends who signed first deals without an agent both regret it because their contracts had terms that could have easily been negotiated in their favor if they’d had an agent.

  • LScribeHarris — this is a tough question and I think many authors and agents would have different answers (and you could probably figure out what particular agents felt about that by reading interviews with them).

    I tend to think that when you’re querying you’re focused on that book: that’s what you’re using to get the agent attention and there’s really no reason to throw other projects into the pot. If they love the book they’ll sign you; if they want revisions, they’ll ask for it; if they love your voice but not the book, they’ll ask to see what else you have. If they reject you but invite you to send other projects — that’s genuine (an agent isn’t likely to invite more work on themselves — i.e. additional submissions — without reason).

    Part of my answer might depend on why you want to tell the agent you have other books in various stages because if one is being revised and the other outlined, neither is ready to be sent for their consideration. For that reason it sounds like what you really want to say to the agent is, “Look, I have these other projects which proves I’m dedicated to this — I’m not just a one book writer.” This is something I can totally understand because I felt the urge to make sure agents knew from my query letter that I was Serious and Committed.

    And then a friend pointed out: if you’ve gone through the trouble of writing, finishing, revising a book and then researching agents and querying then you’ve already proven that you’re serious. Honestly, I’d imagine most agents would assume an author submitting to them would have other books (unless it’s a memoir or something).

    So from my POV the times you’d want to tell an agent you have other projects is this: (a) if you have an offer of representation you might bring it up to see if that agent is interested in what you’re writing generally; (b) if you’re getting close to the representation stage you can slip it in an email if it seems relevant; (c) if you get rejected with an offer to submit more and you feel like sending a thank you email you might could add a line that you’re in the process of revising something and are looking forward to sending it on when it’s ready (I prob wouldn’t send a thank you to a form rejection, though).

    I’d be curious to know what others felt about this, because I don’t know if this is how most agents feel about this.

    You might be able to find the answer to this question on various agent blogs:
    Bookends blog
    Kidlit.com
    Pubrants.blogspot.com (Kristin Nelson)
    Miss Snark’s old blog
    Nathan Bransford’s blog

    You could also check the ask an agent thread at absolutewrite.com — Literaticat is a fantastic agent who spends a lot of time answering questions there (or used to).

  • Maureen

    This is such an excellent post, and I find it quite encouraging to know that there are things I can do to have a better shot at finding the right agent πŸ™‚

    I have two questions that are completely unrelated to each other. First – you mention personal contact to the agent, and in a post on this site from about a year ago, I read that conventions can be absolutely vital in speeding the process up (or sometimes in even creating a process in the first place). Now, I write in English, but live in a non-English-speaking country. I certainly wouldn’t be able to afford plane tickets to conventions in GB and USA – I wouldn’t even know where to look for them. Does this mean I’m doomed? Are my chances so far down the gutter now that I might as well join them there?

    My other question is possibly slightly ridiculous. The fantasy story I’m working on right now is a project that I’m putting all my heart into, but it’s also a Trilogy. Will agents even consider my book if I pitch it to them as the first of three, which don’t really work that well individually, or is this a no-seller for first time authors?

    I have no idea if you can help me with any of this, but obviously I’m eternally grateful for any kind of advice you can give me. I find this agent business quite daunting, and while your post has helped me a lot (and actually calmed me down a fair bit), I’m still chewing my fingernails too much.