Monday, May 11, 2009

How to find an agent: a starting point

Note: Do NOT query an agent until you have a FINISHED, REVISED manuscript. That means you have finished it completely and have had someone else (usually not your mother) read it and give you critical feedback. Once you have done that, though, you will need the following information:

1. Go to and open the advanced search options. Click on the appropriate genres/age groups that describe your work. Now you have a list of possible agents to research. Agentquery is pretty well updated and a great place to start.

2. Take the list of agents you are interested in and check them against Preditors and Editors ( As Hagrid would say, “Not all agents are good.” Most are, sure, but there are a few scam artists out there, too. Basically, money flows to the author (ALWAYS remember that!) and if they want to charge any upfront fees, or seem to have any kind of kickback deals with people who will edit your ms for a fee, or if they are involved in both editing and agenting themselves (a conflict of interest), steer clear. Agents earn a commission on works they have sold, not on fees charged over unsold books.

3. See what people like yourself have to report on the agents on your list. Check them out at the forums at or (the latter if you write children’s books).

4. Get a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace ( It costs about $20 and you will have to unsubscribe if you don’t want to be charged for another month. But it is worth it. PM lists the widest number of agent sales. Not every sale is listed, but it will give you a much greater view of what the agents you are interested in are actually selling. Why is this important? Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a young adult (YA) fantasy. So you find someone in agentquery who reps plenty of adult authors, but they say they are also interested in YA. You go to see the sales they have actually made, and interestingly enough, ALL of their sales are in adult, and NONE are in YA. You might think about this. Likely the agent wants to expand. That is not necessarily bad. If they’re selling plenty of urban fantasy for adults, it’s not a stretch to pick up some YA along with it, since they’re already familiar with it. It might be a great fit for you.

However, let’s say you do more research and find that they haven’t read any of the popular YA titles in that genre. Never read Twilight, never read Scott Westerfield, never read Libba Bray. you should be concerned. If they aren’t familiar with these titles, they don’t know enough to sell your book. They will have no idea how your title fits into the current market.

On the other hand, you may find an agent who is expanding into the YA market who has been reading it all along, even if they haven’t been selling it. I ran across an agent like this who, in interviews and in his agentquery page, showed his familiarity with MG novels in a way that showed he’d likely have success (and he has gone on to do that). If I’d had a humorous MG boy book, I would definitely have queried him. So you see, it’s not always bad—you just need to get the full picture.

One more scenario, and then we’ll go on. Let’s say that the agent is great with paranormal/urban fantasy, sells your YA of that genre, and everything is great. Until you write your next book, which is a midgrade (MG) historical novel about orphan trains. Um. Now you may have a problem. The adult paranormal agent dipping into YA might not have any contacts for MG markets. And suddenly you find yourself parting ways with your agent because they can’t sell your new book. Are they a bad agent? No. But you now have a bad fit. So look at the full range of what they are comfortable with, what they know, and be honest with yourself about the full range of what you see yourself writing. Getting a Bigname Agent who doesn’t cover your writing field of interest will not do you much good in the end if they don’t have the contacts.

Okay, so you have your list of agents you’re interested in. Look at what they want you to send them, and FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. They get hundreds—thousands—of queries. Do you really want to give them an easy reason to toss yours?

You will have to write a query. Maybe send more. Agentquery has some nice samples of these, and you can always (and probably should) go to the late, great Miss Snark’s blog ( and check out her crapometers. Look at 100 or so with her snarky comments and you will start to see what works (and doesn’t) and why. Basically, you need to let the agent know the title, genre, age group, and word count for starters. You need a brief bit about yourself (which is pretty brief if you haven’t been published before—and this is not bad, everyone has to start somewhere). And most importantly, you will need a hook. A hook is a brief paragraph (like what’s on a book jacket) that tells what the book is about. I love Miss Snark’s formula for this (although not every book will fall into this formula—but this is one way to do it):

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

In other words, you need to say who the principal players are, and what the conflict is. With specifics. There are a zillion books out there about saving the world. The specific, personal conflicts are what make your book different.

Don’t be needy, do spell correctly, and remember that your query is your professional introduction. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview with peanut butter on your t-shirt (and you probably wouldn’t wear a t-shirt in the first place), and you wouldn’t give a long sob story about how no one else will hire you, so you might as well try here. No, you’re going to want to look confident, friendly, and professional. Make your query equally professional.

6. A last word about responses. Most people query multiple agents at once. I think everyone in the field expects that. If there is interest, an agent will probably ask for the first three chapters (a partial), and from there, either reject it or ask for the full manuscript. (See, this is why you need to have it finished and ready.) A few agents will want to look at your manuscript exclusively. Put a time limit on this (3 weeks? 6 weeks?), after which they are welcome to keep looking, but it will no longer be exclusive. If you get offers from more than one agent, tell everyone in the running that you’ve had an offer (no need to say from whom), and give them all a week or so to read/express interest/whatever. And hopefully you will have a great agent and go on to sell many excellent books together.