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six steps to finding an agent

Six Steps To Finding An Agent

You’ve finished your first manuscript, or maybe your twentieth. Maybe you’re having trouble getting an editor’s attention through the slush pile or conference interviews. Maybe you know that an A-list agent can cut through the bureaucratic hurdles and get your book into the hands of a decision maker. For whatever reason, you’ve decided that your next step is getting an agent.

The question is: how do you find, and “land”, an agent who’s right for you?

1. Find out what you want.

Before you start researching who’s out there or using a “shotgun” approach, hitting every agent you can think of with a query letter, figure out what exactly you’re looking for in representation. Answer the following questions: do you want an agent who is “hands on” and gives editorial input? Or do you want an agent who only does negotiation for the contracts and does not touch your proposals or manuscripts? Do you want to sign a long term agreement, or do you want to work project-to-project? Do you want to have the agent represent all of your work, or do you want him/her to handle only some of it? say, all your single title work, but not your category work? All your fiction, but not non-fiction? How many books do you want to write per year? Where are you in your career? And where do you want to go?

2. Find out who is out there.

There are several books that list agents, such as the Literary Market Place (LMP): The Directory of the American Book Publishing Industry. You’ll find a staggering list of agents who represent romance, Chick Lit, and women’s fiction, as well as a little statement of likes and dislikes. It is hard to tell from these lists who has actually sold recently and what sort of deals they’ve done. A fantastic online resource is Lunch Weekly, an email newsletter that publicizes book deals in every genre that happened that week, as well as a little key suggesting how much money each deal went for. If you go to Karen A. Fox’s website (www.karenafox.com) and look under “Romance Deals,” she has the romance & Chick Lit deals from Lunch Weekly archived as far back as two years. This is perfect for research. See what sort of deals (and how many) each agent is coming out with, and see if there are authors you recognize and admire. This will help you come up with your target list. Also, if you have “role model” authors (i.e., authors who are successful in the genre you’d like to write, or authors you admire), find out who their agents are. They usually dedicate at least one book to their agents, so that’s a good place to start. When you’re finished with this, you should have an “A-list” of between three to five agents.

3. Find out their background.

Once you’ve got an A-list, do a Google search on each agent. Often, agents have their own websites or a website connected with their agency. Some even have their own blogs, which can give up-to-the-minute “likes/dislikes” and what they’ve just sold. Search for interviews they’ve done or conferences they’re going to be attending. This will give you a better sense of what they are looking for, and it will give you something to sharpen your query letter. (More on that later.)

4. Find out what people are saying.

I’ve often said that in some of the major writing email loops, when an editor drops a pencil, someone posts about it five minutes later. You can look at your local RWA chapter group, or one of the larger loops like CATA-romance or Deanna Carlyle’s Chick Lit loop. In the subject, put “Agent Research” or something similar, and then ask very politely if anyone can give you information about the agents you want to query. Include your private email? you don’t want to clog the loop, and people generally don’t want to answer on a public forum (especially if the feedback is negative.) Thank people in advance for their time. You will get a lot of responses, and several will be secondary? they “heard from a friend” that an agent was either an angel or a demon. Use your best judgment when filtering through feedback.

5. Find current clients.

Your best bet is to find people who are currently represented by the agent you’re targeting. This takes some chutzpah, but believe me, it’s worth it. Send an email to the client, saying that you’re researching the agent and would appreciate any information the writer can provide. Then ask the following questions: how long have you been with this agent? (Because a new client will still be in “honeymoon” phase, you’ll want to find clients who have been with the agent for preferably several years.) What were you looking for when you decided to go with this agent? What is the agent’s approach to career strategy? How much editorial input does the agent give? How do you feel about the agent’s negotiation skills? Assure them that all information will be kept strictly confidential.

6. Help them find you.

Once you’ve gotten all this information, you should have a good idea who you want? Usually narrow it down to three. Now it’s time to go hunting! You should know if they like email or hardcopy queries, but either way, you need to write a killer query letter. It should be like a resume, restricted to one page? It should be succinct, and it should show that:

  • A) you know what the agent wants
  • B) you have something the agent wants, and
  • C) you’re a client the agent will want.

I usually stick to three paragraphs.

  • The first is a brief one, showing you’ve done your research. “In this article, you mentioned you’re looking for?” or “One of your clients mentioned you really like?” (Note: only reference client information with the client’s permission.) This shows that you’re not just sending a form query to a bunch of agents.
  • Next, describe the project you’re querying with, making sure that it relates to what your target agent is specifically looking for. If they like romantic comedies, emphasize the humor. If they like paranormals with albinos, start off with “my albino werewolf?”
  • Finally, the last paragraph is why you’d be a good client. Say where you are in your career. List how many books you’ve written, any contest wins. If you’re a published author, say you’ll be happy to forward your sales numbers and copies of your previous books. Include an SASE and your contact phone number. Say you’re looking forward to speaking with them.

Follow these six steps, and you’ll be that much closer to signing with the agent of your dreams!


Cathy Yardley
I didn't plan to be a writer. But, like the quote says -- if you want to be a writer, try being anything else. My life is a portrait of all the "anything elses" before I came to my senses. I graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a double major in Art History and Mass Communications. I moved to L.A. with the full intention of figuring out what job I wanted to do, doing it until I could retire, and only then seriously considering writing a novel. Why? Because real people didn't write books for a living. (Stephen King , Nora Roberts, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, they're not real people. In fact, I don't think they're human. Haven't you wondered?)

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