How to Find the Perfect Agent

Today we continue our Publishing 101 series with a look at finding the perfect agent.

“Finding the perfect literary agent” starts – like everything else in publishing – with understanding the author-agent relationship.

The author-agent relationship includes much more than merely selling books and negotiating contracts. In fact, a functional author-agent pair looks a lot like a business partnership, with each person fulfilling important related tasks.

In addition to identifying the proper publishers (and editors within the house) and making the publishing deal, the agent often functions as the author’s sounding board and advisor. Agents provide their author clients with guidance and advice on everything from the best next novel to how to structure a writing career. In addition, agents act as the “buffer zone” between the author and the publisher, making the case for cover art input (or changes) and anything else that might disrupt the author’s relationship with the editor.

Some agents offer editorial input on clients’ manuscripts. Other agents prefer to work with clients who find that input elsewhere (via critique partners or independent editors).

Some agents work best by telephone, while others prefer to communicate by email.

The key to finding “the perfect agent” is realizing that agents are people, and people aren’t perfect–but somewhere out there is an agent whose style will work perfectly for you.

The agent who works well for another author–even for one of your author friends–might or might not be  the perfect agent for you. Recommendations and an agent’s reputation offer critical starting points, but your goal in finding an agent isn’t just “finding the one who might, someday, possibly, say yes.” You’re looking for the proper match on several business levels — and love for your writing is only one. The others include communication, editing style, professional experience and personality. All of these need to match for the author-agent relationship to function at optimal levels.

“But how do I find that agent?” you ask.

Lots and lots of research.

Many authors mistakenly think that “finding an agent” means getting a list of every literary agent who represents the author’s genre and firing a shotgun-style blast of identical queries into the heart of the pack. This method can find you an agent (just as shooting blindly into a swamp might–once in a while–hit a duck) but it’s far from the best of methods.

In fact, “obtaining a list of the agents in my genre” is actually just step 1.

Once you have that list together, step 2 is to research each agent individually and find the answers to the following questions:

1. Does the agent charge any up-front fees or reading fees? This is a deal breaker. Legitimate agents work on a commission-only basis and do not charge fees until they sell your work.

2. Would your book be appropriate for this agent? Does the agent represent similar works and express a preference for books like yours? An agent who represents cozy mysteries might not be the best choice for your horror-noir. On the other hand, an agent who loves strong character-driven mysteries could be the perfect choice for your ninja detective.

3. How does the agent express himself or herself in public? Read interviews, check Facebook and Twitter – see if this agent’s personality seems a match for your own. Also, interviews often offer insight into the agent’s preferences and professional style.

4. Sometimes, an agent’s clients will answer questions about the agent’s working relationship and style. Don’t be intrusive – a published author may have deadlines and other obligations – but many authors are glad to answer simple questions about their agents’ working style. I’ll repeat for the record, however, don’t be pushy. Remember that you’re asking about a personal relationship as well as a business partnership, and some information is probably confidential.

Do not ask the agent for referrals to existing clients before you have an offer of representation. However, if you know an agent’s client (for example, through Twitter or Facebook) there’s nothing wrong with asking whether the author would answer some questions, either before or after you query. Again, however, respect the relationship and don’t be pushy.

Once you’ve researched the agent as thoroughly as possible, make an honest decision about whether or not this agent is a possible match for you and your work. The key here is “honest decision.” It’s hard to decide not to query an agent who represents your genre, but a mismatch is worse than having no agent at all. More importantly, a query to an agent who doesn’t represent the kind of book you’ve written will only earn you rejection anyway.

Once you’ve put together a list of the agents in your genre who are possible matches for your book, your business style and your personality, it’s time for the real work to begin: the query – and that’s the topic of next week’s post!

Between now and next week, your homework — if you’re seeking an agent — is to put these steps to work and research 2-3 agents in your genre. Get ready – the query-writing starts next week!