Finding Your Agent Match
It’s often said that the agent-author relationship is a ‘business marriage’, and it’s certainly true that querying literary agents is a lot like online dating. You read their profile, and get that tingly feeling that maybe they could be the one. So you take a deep breath, and send them a message.
Sometimes they don’t respond. Sometimes they politely say thanks, but no thanks (‘Thank you for your submission, which I read with interest. Unfortunately…’). Sometimes, they want to get to know your book better (‘I would be grateful if you would send me the entire manuscript’) – but ultimately decide not to hook up. Sometimes they’ll say they’re just not that into you (‘I wasn’t passionate enough about it’) sometimes they’ll say it’s not you, it’s me (‘Unfortunately I just don’t have room on my list’). But sometimes…. Sometimes… the planets align, the fireworks ignite, (‘I’ve now finished your manuscript. Please can we arrange a time to speak on the phone?’) and then it’s time for your Mum to buy a new hat.
As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot about the query process that is out of the author’s control. But, we can give ourselves the best shot by paying attention to the things we can control. The second of these is WHO we query.
Do The Right Amount of Research
Bachelor number two enjoys nights at the opera, long country walks, and fine dining.
So why the hell would you send him a message asking if he’d like to go to an inner city rave and grab a McDonalds? You wouldn’t, right?
It should go without saying (but judging by the amount of literary agents I’ve seen ranting about it on Twitter, it doesn’t) don’t send your query to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre. It’s a waste of everyone’s time – including your fellow authors, who have to wait even longer for responses because agents are sifting through completely inappropriate submissions.
If an agent is seeking ‘cozy mysteries’ – don’t send them sci fi. You may be thinking, ‘but they just haven’t read the right sci fi. If only they read MY sci fi, they’d change their mind.’ They won’t. It’s not just about personal taste, though obviously that’s a big part of it, agents who rep certain genres do so because that’s the market they know. They know the editors who might be interested, they know the current trends. Even if you send Ms Lit Fic Agent a contemporary erotic space opera, and by some miracle she actually reads it and loves it, she is NOT going to offer to represent it, because she doesn’t haven’t the contacts/market knowledge to do so effectively.
So, do your research. Most agents list the genres they represent, and often the type of submissions they are actively looking for, on their web sites. You can also look at their existing client list which can give you a good idea about whether they’re a match for you and your manuscript.
The Fine Line…
Don’t over-research. For your own sanity.
Imagine you are sending a hopeful ‘hello’ message to a potential love match. It’s a good idea to have checked their profile, made sure you have stuff in common, first. (And BE SURE they are legit – see ‘Schmagents’ below) But, it is NOT a good idea to have looked for every single scrap of information about them that has ever been posted online, ever.
It’s far too easy to build a particular agent up as ‘the one’ before you even send an initial query. So, think of it in dating terms. If you knew a person’s entire life history, the fact that they tend to eat at Nando’s on a Thursday, the names of their five dogs and the tube they take every day, before they’d even replied to your ‘hello’ you’d be considered a little bit stalky, no? Moreover, you’d be waaaay too invested in an image of them that may not even be true – and the rejection/lack of response is going to hurt much more than it should.
Thing is, we writers tend to be quite good at research. We have to be, to make sure our stories ring true. I once spent hours ‘virtually’ walking through London streets (thanks to Google Street View) in order to visualise the route my character would take. I’ve bugged various tourist boards with odd questions. I’ve got a search history that would leave the FBI severely bemused. But, before you send an initial query, just focus on what you really need to know:
Does the agent rep your genre?
Are they a legitimate agent, with legitimate clients/sales?
Are they currently accepting submissions?
Does your manuscript fit with the books they already represent?
Do they seem like someone you could work with?
If the answer is yes to all of the above, send them a query (according to their guidelines). Then try to forget about it. The time to do a little more research is if they ask for a full – that way if they offer representation you will be prepared with all the questions you need answers to before you accept/decline. If they show interest, it’s a good idea to look at their ‘dating history’ (current/previous clients). Are they the type that likes long term commitment (repping an author for their whole career – come what may)? Or are they more into casual hook-ups (repping on a book-by-book basis)? Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong – but it has to match your needs.
Listen To Your Gut
If something, deep down, tells you that you wouldn’t feel happy working with a particular agent if they offered, just don’t query them. You wouldn’t send a flirty message to someone you had no interest in. You don’t have to be completely sure they’re The One (you can’t be at this stage!) but you need to at least feel there’s a possibility.
Equally, if they show interest, remember that this is a two way street – just like dating. You are not required to jump into bed with someone just because YOU were the one to initiate conversation. A query is a ‘Hey, you seem nice. I’d like to see if there might be a connection.’ – It’s the equivalent of offering to buy them a drink. If they enjoy having a drink with you (reading your submission package) maybe it’ll progress to dinner (full request). Maybe the dinner goes well, and conversation flows. But, none of this means you have to say ‘yes’ if they propose (offer representation). Similarly, they don’t owe you anything – not even an explanation (though hopefully they’ll give you one – but often not) if they don’t want to take things further. Even if they seem really keen, sudden ghosting can and does happen – a lot.
Schmagents (Author Beware!)
These are the catfish of the querying world. They are the exotic princes who are totally in love with you, and if only you could wire them your life savings they can come and live with you forever. They’re the twenty-four year old CEO who wants to wine and dine you, but when you turn up at the restaurant they’re really a fifty-six year old laybout who wants someone to wash his pants.
Reputable agents will not charge upfront fees. Reputable agents do not charge you for editing. Legitimate agents charge commission (typically 15% domestic 20% foreign – but this can vary) meaning they don’t get paid unless you do.
Be absolutely sure you are not querying schmagents. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than getting ‘the call’, only to find out they are actually trying to sell you their editing service? (Hint: These types likely make ‘The Call’ to EVERYONE who queries – they’re making their money from selling their editing service, doesn’t matter much to them if you get published or not. And it’ll likely be not if you sign with them).
If an agent ever asks you for money upfront – run a mile. And shout it from the rooftops on the sites dedicated to protecting authors from scammers (e.g. Predators and Editors, Writer Beware, Absolute Write)
Also, check out this excellent blog post from Rights of Writers to help you avoid falling for the top six scams targeting writers.
Wherefore Art Thou, Agent?
So, now you know what to look for in an agent, and what to steer clear of, WHERE are you going to find these potential literary soulmates?
Here’s a list of some (not all) of the best places to find literary agents who are seeking clients:
Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook – My absolute favourite resource (and where I ultimately found my agent). It’s not free – but worth the investment I think (or put it on your Christmas list!)
Manuscript Wish List – A list of what agents are currently looking for. Plus search #MSWL on Twitter for updates.
Query Tracker – designed to help you keep track of sent queries, but also great for finding agents who rep your genre
Writers’ Digest – Often features agent profiles, and new agent alerts.
Thanks so much for reading, happy agent hunting!