Surprise! I know this is Faith Hunter’s day, but she’s on the road (to Marcon, I believe, where I’ll see her in just a few days), so I’m stepping in. Hope you don’t mind the substitution.
It was suggested to me on Facebook that a blog on how to find an agent would be extremely helpful. I’m here to oblige.
First of all, there’s no one way. Looking over my current client list I see authors who have come to me via the traditional query route, who I’ve met via conventions, writers conferences or even a critique group, who were referred to me by other clients or industry professionals. There are authors who came with no credits, playwriting credits, short story credits, novels small or large press published and with offers already on the table. The only truism is that everyone’s path is different.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have advice to give. Perish the thought. To start, most publishing houses no longer accept unagented submissions. It takes too much time to read through them all with too little reward, generally. I’d say that approximately 80% of submissions are fairly quick rejections, either because they’re not right for the line or the person approached (like sending a query for a children’s book to an adult editor or imprint), because they’ve been poorly written, because the concept is too off-the-wall or too cliche, or because the author him or herself is off-putting (flat-out insulting in some cases, as though they’re casting pearls before us swine). Of the twenty percent that require more serious consideration, obviously they don‘t all make the cut. Some loose steam as they go along, some are competently but unexcitingly written, others develop too predictably…. These days, publishing houses mostly count on agents to be their first readers and to present them works that will be worth their time. And here’s a big (not so) secret: agents are always looking for new, wonderful authors to knock our socks off. Yes, some agents are hungrier than others, but there are several ways that you can improve your chances of making an impression in the right way, mostly by doing your research and behaving professionally.
I bet the “hungrier than others” line caught your eye. It’s true that younger agents have more room on their client lists than long-established agents, and thus they may be hunting for new clients more aggressively. However, while some agents might be closed to submissions at different periods of time, most are constantly looking for the next big thing, and there’s nothing more exciting than having it come across your desk. The best thing to do is be informed: check agency websites to see who represents your type of fiction and how to submit. Most agencies have websites and provide submission guidelines and contact information. (The websites will also tell you if the agent is closed to submissions at that time; if not, you’re good to go.) It’s important to follow the submission guidelines. Otherwise, it’s very possible that your query will be caught in a spam filter or your file untrusted and therefore not opened. It’s really not a test. We give out all the answers. However, if someone can’t pass it, it means they didn’t study, and if they‘re not willing to put the work in, it’s indicative about how they’ll be to work with. Following the guidelines is as important a part of the process as getting the query right.
How do you decide what agents to contact? You can browse the acknowledgements of authors who you feel appeal to the same audience you’re trying to reach. Very often, authors thank their agents and editors. Also, if your work falls within a genre like science fiction and fantasy, horror, mystery or romance, there are professional organizations (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Horror Writers of America….you get the idea) which might provide members with a directory that includes agents who’ve been vetted and are known to have verified sales within those fields. Publishers Marketplace is another wonderful resource. To get the full service there’s a monthly fee, but it will give you industry news and also tell you who’s sold what to whom, in what genres, how recently, etc. There’s also AAR, the Association of Authors Representatives. Agents who are members must subscribe to a canon of ethics, listed on the site. While that doesn’t mean each agent is right for you, it does tell you a certain amount about how they work. (Unfortunately, I haven’t found the AAR search engine to be very accurate or complete.)
I did a few blogs for Magical Words on the querying process (part 1, part 2, part 3), so I won’t belabor that here, but once you’ve got your manuscript all polished and your query letter as perfect as you can get it (query critiques are every bit as important as manuscript crits), and you’ve got an agent interested, you can ask any questions that you didn’t already encounter the answers to via your research, like whether the agent works editorially with his/her authors. You want to make sure that you and the agent will be a comfortable fit, that you’ll communicate well and that it will be a good partnership. Then you have to remember that communication is a two way street. Always keep your agent in the loop and you should expect the same in return.
(Two quick notes: I’ll check in today as time allows on comments, so if I don’t answer right away, please check back. The Knight Agency submission guidelines are here.)