Before you even begin to approach an agent for representation, you will need a completed manuscript (or if your project is non-fiction, a fleshed-out proposal with sample chapters and an author bio if applicable) and a professionally written query letter with a polished synopsis. So let’s assume you have those two things ready to go. Now what? How do you go about finding an agent?
Do your research
The best place to start is with market guide books, which you can find at your local library or bookstore. Some of the most reputable ones are Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, 2013 Guide to Literary Agents, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 2013 Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market (for illustrators), Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2013 (a market guide to the UK) and its Children’s version. You’ll find that a lot of these books also offer a wealth of practical information on topics like copyright law, crafting query letters, self-publishing, e-publishing, submission guidelines, industry terms, and the publishing process in general, so it’s important that you use the most current copy available to you.
In addition to these guides, I recommend familiarizing yourself with these websites as well:
Agentquery.com offers a free searchable database of over 900 agent profiles. Along with query letter and submission basics, they have interviews, live chat transcripts, message boards, genre descriptions (if you’re unclear where your manuscript falls), networking opportunities, etc. It might be beneficial to read through their search tips before you dive in.
Query Tracker is a site where writers submit their querying experiences with specific agents. Once you register (it’s free), you can be privy to this information, including response times, treatment of authors, genres of interest, etc. (It’s important to remember, though, that publishing is a subjective business all the way around.) You can also organize and track your query letters through their site.
Lit Match is a site I’m not all that familiar with. It pops up a lot as a reputable source, I just don’t have much user experience with it. Like Agent Query and Query Tracker, you can search the database and track submissions.
Publisher’s Marketplace. Members can track deals, previous sales, reviews, agent and agency profiles, editor profiles and publishing news. You can also sign up for Publisher’s Lunch, a free newsletter that’s emailed daily and full of industry news.
Writer Beware offers some great information on contests and awards, self-publishing, small presses, agent info, etc. They also have “Thumbs Down” agency lists and publishers lists.
The Association of Authors’ Representatives, or AAR. Read their About page, Canon of Ethics, and membership criteria. Members must follow a code of ethics, but don’t check an agent off your list just yet if they aren’t a member (many reputable agents aren’t for varying reasons). Do continue to research them though.
The Guide to Literary Agents Blog at Writer’s Digest is a fun read and a fantastic resource for writers.
Do more research
Look at published books written in the same genre as your manuscript and try to find out who represented them. A few ways to do this is by checking the acknowledgement page in the book, the author’s website, or consulting Google.
If you’re a children’s writer or illustrator, join your local chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, or SCBWI. They often have conferences featuring agents and editors from major publishing houses, and it’s a great way to network with people who share your passion and quest for publication. (If you are a member, make note of it on your query letter because it signifies to agents that you take writing, the path to publication and the publishing industry seriously.)
Go to conferences and workshops, but be sure to do your research on these first. Many of the (good) ones will offer critiques by editors and/or agents and/or successful authors.
Read agents’ or agencies’ websites. Not all have them but a lot do. Make note if they’re open to submissions (if so, which genres?) and of submission guidelines, and follow these guidelines to a T.* There’s no quicker path to the trashcan for a query than by ignoring the guidelines set forth (and you can find those guidelines in many of the resources listed above. If you can’t, well, maybe it’s best not to pursue that agent.) The only exception to this rule is if you’ve had a direct request from the agent or agent’s assistant to do otherwise. It could be that you met them at a conference and they invited you to send in your full manuscript (in which case, be sure to remind the agent through your query letter where and when you met in order to jog their memory).
*Agents receive hundreds of manuscripts a month. That slush pile you read about? It isn’t proverbial. Every single manuscript to land in their office gets a look, and they all develop a system that works best for them in order to get through the huge pile(s) of submissions and assess your work in a way that’s fair to you and timely for them. It also proves to them that you know what you’re doing as an aspiring author, that you take their job and yours seriously and that you’ve done your research.
After you do your research, you should have a list of all the reputable agents who are open to submissions in your particular genre. And now you’re ready to send out query letters and play the waiting game. Good luck!
If you have a personal question on the agent/querying/publishing process, feel free to email me at joylovelyjoyblog (at) gmail (dot) com.
(I’ve tried to feature the best resources to my knowledge but if I’ve missed something, please let me know!)