Do Your Homework: Tips for Finding a Literary Agent

Today, we’re continuing the #Publishing Law for Writers mini-series on finding the perfect literary agent to represent your work.

While not every author needs an agent–author-publishers and those who want to work only with small presses may do equally well with a lawyer’s help instead–authors who want to publish traditionally, with larger publishers, normally do better with the help of a literary agent. (However, all authors do better with some kind of legal or literary representation.)

Many times, authors who want a literary agent struggle to find one. This struggle may have a variety of causes, from the author’s work not being ready for publication (it does happen, hard as it is to accept) to a business or personality mismatch.

One important way to shorten the agent search, and ease the process, is doing sufficient “homework” before you query.

I learned this lesson the hard way, incidentally. I sent my first few manuscripts out with a “nuke ’em from orbit” approach–the querying equivalent of carpet-bombing every agent in the industry who represented historical fiction. And, possibly, a few who didn’t. (Sorry ’bout that.)

When I switched to writing mystery, I took a different approach. I’d often heard agents say that successful queriers “did their homework” and that the agent could tell when this was the case. I decided to give that a try.

But first…I had to learn what “do your homework” means in the querying context.

Authors often hear agents saying “do your homework before you query” but many authors struggle with understanding that assignment.

Tailoring queries properly–both in content and in recipient choice–dramatically increases an author’s chances of success at finding an agent. The content aspect of querying is covered widely (and well) in other places–Janet Reid’s blog, and her QueryShark archive are fantastic sources of information. (Many other good resources exist, but those two are reliable and more than enough to get  you started.) 

Here are some useful tips for figuring out which agents might be a good fit for your work & query. (Note: these tips can be useful for independent authors seeking smaller publishers and author-publishers seeking editors as well):

1. Pitch or query only to people who represent works in the genre where your manuscript belongs. Note: this requires knowing what genre you’re writing.

Protip: every work has a genre–sometimes more than one, but ultimately, it needs to be shelved somewhere. Figure that out BEFORE you query. Even if you’re writing a speculative-historical-mystery-YA/MG-romance…one (2 at most) of those are primary. Know your genre.

The first step in finding proper agents to query is narrowing the list of “all agents/mentors in the universe” to “those who want to represent MY genre.” No matter how well you write, you won’t convert a romance specialist into a mystery lover–or vice versa. Do not try, even if you really think your personalities would match. The easiest way to rejection is querying agents who don’t represent the type of book you’re offering.

2. Check the agent’s bio, website, or posted wish list (if any) to find agents who want the type of book you’ve written. 

Finding the right agent for your work involves more than simply a genre match. Huge diversity exists within genres. You need to find an agent who likes the type of book you’ve written (e.g., cozy mystery) rather than something on the other end of the genre spectrum.

Many agents also use the “ManuScriptWishList” (#MSWL) hashtag on Twitter to let people know what they’re looking for. Check this too.

3. If you can’t tell exactly what the agent is seeking, look at the agent’s client list and see if your work fits into that “group.” 

It’s tempting to just send queries out to every agent in your genre, but don’t. It wastes a lot of time and effort for everyone. It also makes you seem like a novice, who doesn’t understand how the system works.

Determining whether your work fits into an agent’s client or wish list requires honest self-reflection about yourself & your work. “Is Agent A a cool person?” isn’t the same as “Would Agent A love my book?” These are not the same thing.

A side note: Over the years, I’ve become friends with many literary agents. The tips I’m giving come largely from things they’ve told me. 

4. Google the agents you want to query and read interviews and articles in which they talk about works they want to represent.

I decided to pitch my agent because I read an interview in which she mentioned being drawn to character-driven mystery. Since that’s what I write, I thought my work might be a good fit (and history proves me right–pun intended). 

Reading interviews and articles takes time, but also gives great insight into whether an agent might be a good fit for your work. Also, these sources can reveal a lot about the agent’s personality and business practices, which also need to be a match for yours.

If an agent you want to query has a blog, you should read it, and not just a single entry. Check the categories and archives for entries that talk about what the agent likes (or doesn’t like) in manuscripts (and queries).

5. Tailor each query for the individual agent to whom it will be sent. 

Agents can tell the difference between a cookie cutter query and an individual, tailored approach. (Can’t you recognize spam ads in your inbox?) Taking the time to treat the agent as an individual shows respect, and earns it in return. It takes more time to write individual queries, but if you do your homework properly, you won’t have as many to write.

The query process isn’t just about sending a thousand missiles into the night and hoping one of them hits a target. “Aim” comes before “fire” (or “send”) in queries as well as warfare.

6. Remember that you’re looking for a business partner, not a wish-granting genie. Give the search the time and energy it deserves.

It’s admittedly faster to carpet-bomb queries out to all agents in your genre and “see what happens”–but it isn’t normally more successful. A well-crafted, properly targeted query has a much higher chance of success.

The more thorough your research, the better you will be able to target your query list to agents who are likely to love your work.

Finding the right literary agent isn’t about the number of queries, it’s about identifying the best match for your work. To some authors, it seems counterintuitive to send out fewer, but more tailored, queries–but you only need one agent.

What’s your experience with querying and finding an agent? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.