There is a ton of excellent information online and in books about how to write the perfect query letter, the one that will wow your dream literary agent and set you on the path to publication. But in between giving your manuscript that final polish and digging into the finer mechanics of the elevator pitch there’s a step people do not write as much about: creating a thoughtful agent list.
For many people it takes months, even years, to find the right literary agent to represent their work. For me it was seven weeks from the moment I hit send on my queries until I signed with my agent. Believe me, I know this can be partially attributed to good luck. But I do believe that I hastened the process by doing months of research on agents before I sent out my first letter.
I know it took you years to finish your novel. I know you are ready to get it out there, NOW. I hear you. But I promise that doing the research before you start querying will be time well spent. Here is how I went about it.
Step one: Putting yourself out there–going to conferences, literary events, seminars and webinars
You cannot start this step too early. Writing conferences are the best place to meet real-life agents. You can learn about their quirks, interests and dislikes in real time. Many conferences offer opportunities to have your work evaluated by an agent. Do this. There is no better way to get feedback on your query letter and your first twenty or so pages. And you never know who you might meet. The year before I began querying I had a consultation with the agent Lisa Bankoff. During that meeting she suggested that I query an agent who had just moved over to her agency, ICM Partners. That was Alexandra Machinist, who is now my amazing agent.
If attending a conference is out of reach*, try taking a webinar. Writer’s Digest offers many webinars on both craft and querying, and they usually come with a consultation. Anything you can do to meet agents in a professional setting is helpful. And you will catch more attention when you are able to begin your letter with something personal like I heard you mention at the BookX conference that you wished there were more novels about beekeeping than if your query starts with I found you on the Internet.
Step Two: Research
I could write several blog posts on this topic alone, so I am going to keep it to what I think are the three best ways to find agents online.
So many agents are writing blogs these days. It is so wonderful to have access to the inner workings of an agent’s life. Read agent blogs widely–and not just the ones written by your dream agent. I write adult fiction, but in the months leading up to querying I closely followed the YA blog Literary Rambles, which has an excellent series of agent highlights. The more you know about the industry, the better. Just keep an eye on the dates of the blog posts–an interview from 2005 might not reflect an agent’s interests in 2015.
The most common piece of advice about how to find agents that might like your work is to go to a bookstore, look at books by authors whose work is in line with yours, and read the acknowledgements pages of those books to see who they thanked–writers always thank their agents! Publishers Marketplace makes finding out this information about a million times easier.
Publisher’s Marketplace is a subscription-based publishing news website with the world’s best database for querying writers. It is pricey–as I write this it costs $25/month–but when you are querying it is money well spent.
Here are ways I suggest using the PM database:
Start with looking up ten to twenty books you think are in line with yours, books with similar plots, or voice or genre. Find out what agents represented those books and write down their names.
Next look at the editors. Who published those books? Do the titles have any imprints in common? Do a search for those editors, and you will find out which agents sold them books over the last twelve months. Do a search for the imprints as well. Add those names to a seperate list.
Look up your genre–Who are the top fifty agents selling in women’s fiction? In mystery? Whatever kind of book you write, find out the top agents selling in that genre.
And finally–search for debuts. You want to find an agent who is excited about working with new authors and finding fresh voices. Print out the top fifty debut-selling agents.
You now have a ton of names. Time to cross-reference! I am sure you will start to find agents who are on at least two of your lists. Take out a highlighter and make a note of who fits more than one category.
Manuscript Wish List (or #MSWL)
Manuscript wish list was started by agent Jessica Sinsheimer. It’s a Twitter hashtag, a Tumblr blog and a website compiling agents’ wish lists–what they are actively seeking in client work. The agents can get wonderfully specific about what they are looking for. And they are all actively seeking new clients.
Step Three: Putting it all together
Hopefully by now you have a list of at least thirty agents you would like to query. Arrange your list into groups of ten or so agents, with your dream agents in the first group. You don’t want to query everyone all at once. Make sure the agents in each group are from different agencies, and try to mix up agents with different response philosophies. If you query only agents who are non-responders, I guarantee you will wear through the glass on your iPhone checking your email every thirty seconds.
Step Four: The final layer of research
When your query letter is ready to go, it’s time to dig a little deeper. You want to make sure you have the most up-to-date information about each person on your curated list.
Check out their agency page and make sure you know what their query requirements are. Some agents ask for twenty pages, some ask only for the query. Most agencies have rules about how many agents you can query at the same time. Make sure you follow all of their instructions to a T.
Look and see if they are on social media. Some agents will share online if they are open or closed to queries. Some will tell you where they are at in the slush pile. Some will tell you when they are on vacation.
Do a search on Querytracker and get to know their query response habits. Querytracker is an agent database that compiles up-to-date information about literary agents. Some agents respond to every query, while others only respond if they are interested in the work. You can also do searches on Querytracker that show you what the average response times are for the individual agent. If nothing else, Querytracker can help keep you from going crazy while you wait to hear back from agents. And it’s wonderful to connect with other querying writers out there. Debutante Heather Y and I actually met on QT and became friends before we were chosen as Debs!
I know this sounds like a lot of work. I did it a little at a time, when I needed a break from revising, so it never felt overwhelming. I actually grew to enjoy the research, and now happily help writing friends as they are building their lists.
Please feel free to leave questions in the comments section if you want me to elaborate on anything. Happy querying and best of luck!
*Many conferences now offer scholarships and work-study. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the organizers if money is getting in your way.