Finding an Agent


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.)


10 comments to Finding an Agent

  • […] blog today is up here at Magical Words on finding an […]

  • For those interested, the awesome Diana Pharaoh Francis posts her “How I Got My Agent” story here with a great follow-up on “Questions to Ask an Agent” My recent blog “How to Talk to Agents” includes links to a couple of other stories:

  • Thanks for tackling this, Lucienne. We’re had a couple of requests for a post on this topic, and of course no one is better suited to writing it than you. Thanks as well for the links.

  • Thanks, Lucienne. I’ve found that I always have to double check the AAR listings against the agency website for guidelines, openness to submissions, etc. However, AAR is still more up to date (and free) than Writer’s Market so this time around I’ll be saving my money and just using the AAR to get started.

    Can you address the issue of exclusive submissions? It seems to me that if agents are going to take 3-6 mos to respond to a query then it’s not reasonable for them to ask for exclusivity, but maybe I’m not seeing it from their perspective.

  • sagablessed

    I think this, plus your advice on queries, rounds out the subject nicely; I agree with David…who better to adress it than an agent? I shall follow those links when time allows, and thank you Lucienne for including them.
    Thank you again for this post!!

  • Julia

    Thank you for this post, Lucienne! In addition to the resources you noted in your post and links, I also often check to make sure a prospective agent does not appear on Victoria Strauss’ “Writer Beware” website — especially if I cannot find much information about them online. It’s at the SFWA site, but available to all, even if you are not a member.

    On a related note to Sarah’s question: It’s my understanding that it is acceptable to query multiple agents simultanously, and that this is standard practice among writers. Yet I once read a post from an agent that seemed to indicate that writers should let agents know if they are also querying other agents — in the initial query. She presented this as “common courtesy,” and I suddenly felt like perhaps I’ve been a great heel for not stating outright that I’m also sending query letters to other agents.

    Just to clarify, I understand that things could be different if an agent had indicated substantive interest in the work or requested a manuscript. I’m curious about the initial, unsolicited, cold-contact query letter. In your opinion, should I be explicit that I’m also querying other agents, or does this go without saying?

  • Sarah, you’re right – three to six months seems unreasonable to me for a single submission. They’re not often asked for and when they are should be in the context of an expedited response. When I used to ask for single submissions, it was because I would promise to get back to the authors within a month’s time. With over forty authors currently on my list, some of whom write multiple books in a year, I can’t necessarily promise that any more, and I don’t expect exclusivity. However, if someone asks for it and you don’t want to grant it, you can let the agent know that as much as you’d like to submit, you have the material out elsewhere. Politely inquire about whether the agent still wants to see your material. Chances are, he or she will say yes, though the submissions they have on exclusive will probably come first in their reading piles.

    Julia, at the initial query letter stage, most, if not all, agents expect that you’re querying multiple agents. However, each letter sent out should still be tailored to the individual you’re approaching and not be a blanket “To Whom it May Concern” with fifty pros in the header. Once someone has requested a partial or full, its definitely polite to tell him or her if the material is out with others. It’s also polite to let the agent know right away if you get an offer of representation, either to give him or her the chance to read the material quickly to see if he/she is interested (preferred) or withdraw the submission before any of the agent’s time is spent on it if you’ve already signed with your dream agent.

  • Julia

    Thanks, Lucienne! That’s what I thought, and I’m glad to have it confirmed.

  • John Allan

    Very helpful stuff, Lucienne; thanks for that.

    The majority of UK agents ask upfront for letter, synopsis and sample chapters, but I have never thought it relevant to mention other submissions unless asked for. Should I? I do tailor letters – which is probably why it has taken me six months so far to query a handful, more-or-less.

    And as a Brit resident in SEA – probably not relevant – with a novel set in the UK and France, is it worth my querying a US agent?

  • John Allan, it’s just fine in the US market for novels to be set in the UK or France or wherever. It’s fine for the authors to be overseas as well. What matters is the writing, the characters, the accessibility and originality.