What Makes a Literary Agent Tick?

This week the Debs are sharing stories about their agents, editors and or publishers.querycon

Note, this is a repost of a blog post I wrote on Sep. 26, but fit perfectly for this week’s Deb topic.

A few months ago, I wrote a big long article on the Grub Street blog on how long it took me to find an agent and how I eventually connected with the amazing Amaryah Orenstein at Go Literary. I even shared a list of questions to ask any prospective agent you are considering having represent you. So for this week’s Debutante Ball post, I thought I’d spice it up a little and ask Amaryah for her best tips on finding and engaging with a literary agent.

Let’s start with Amaryah’s DO list:

DO research agents before you query!

  • Different agents rep different types of work. It is imperative that you find the ones who are interested in what you’ve written about and target only those agents. It’s a waste of your time (and the agent’s) if you query one who doesn’t represent the type of work you’ve written. It’s also a surefire way to guarantee a needless rejection.
  • I highly recommend two great resources to assist you in this stage of your research:
    • Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com)—widely considered an essential read for industry insiders—allows you to search book deals by a number of categories so you can get a sense of what a particular agent is selling or who the top agents in your genre are. (Note from Crystal…this was invaluable for me when I was looking for an agent!)
    • Poets & Writers has a great agent section under its “tools for writers” menu (pw.org/literary_agents) that lists agents’ interests and provides links to their websites so that you can get a clear sense of who reps what.
  • This stage of your research—you mean there’s more?! Each agent/agency has specific submission guidelines and some won’t read your query if these aren’t followed to a tee. So you absolutely MUST check each agent/agency’s website for these. If none is listed, double check the agent’s social media, personal blog, or do a quick Google search to see if you can find an interview (much like this one) in which the agent mentions his or her submission preferences.
  • Mine are pretty simple, really. Emails should include only a description of your work and a brief biographical sketch, and should be sent to submissions@go-lit.com. I’ll request your ms (in whole or in part) if I think it might be a good fit for me.

DO write a strong query letter!

  • A query letter is your one chance to entice an agent or editor into reading your manuscript. Needless to say it must be just right. A couple of pointers:
    • DO include a proper and personalized greeting. Make clear that you’ve done your homework and are querying this particular agent for a reason. (You didn’t think all that research I pushed above would go unnoticed, did you?)
    • DO cut right to the chase. Don’t waste the opening paragraph of your query letter introducing yourself. Instead, hook the agent with a brief (1-2 paragraph) summary of your work. Introduce your protagonist + his/her conflict, lay out the stakes, the choices he/she has to make, the obstacles he/she faces.
    • DO edit your query before sending it. And then edit it again. And again. A well-crafted and error-free query is essential.

And what about the DONT’S?

DON’T be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help!

  • The Internet is laden with advice on how to write query letters—some good, some bad, almost all of it conflicting. The best advice comes directly from agents (many offer query tips on their website or have written blog posts about what/what not to do, some offer online tutorials) and people who’ve successfully landed one. WritersDigest offers online webinars and individual critique services. So does GrubStreet.
  • Writing conferences are probably the best place to meet literary agents face-to-face. Not only can you establish a personal connection by attending an agent’s talk (Dear So and So, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the X conference…) or introducing yourself (lots of conferences have cocktail receptions or other social events built in to facilitate such encounters) but many conferences also offer agent evaluations or pitch sessions. This is an invaluable opportunity to get feedback regarding your query letter and/or opening pages before formally querying any agents. And, who knows, it could also be the moment in which you meet your future agent! I have signed several clients after meeting them at conferences.

DON’T get discouraged!

  • Finding an agent is just like dating—it’s all about finding the perfect match—so don’t give up if the first agent you query isn’t “the one.” It may take some time, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you. Though, if you’re receiving the same feedback over and over, do consider revising your query/work before continuing your search.

You talked about your submission guidelines. What about your wish list? What are you hungry for right now?

Ughhh, I actually have so much trouble with this question because I really don’t know I want something until I see it. I can’t say I want a book about X, set in Y time period, which considers Z, because there are just so many other factors that determine how I feel about book. I could read a hundred submissions that fit that description and not care for any of them. And most of the time I’m swept up by a book precisely because it tells a story I’ve never considered. I would never have known to say I want a book about the world’s first foodie (because, really, who could have imagined this other than you?!) but as soon as I read it, I knew I wanted it. I guess this is my way of saying I want books that wow me, that I can’t put down, that make me feel—whether it be happy, sad, angry, and/or, in FEAST OF SORROW’s case, hungry—and that shed light on people, places, things I haven’t really considered or that make me reconsider what I already know.

Thanks Amaryah, for hanging out with me on my Monday blog!

To learn more about GO Literary and Amaryah, visit the website, Twitter or Facebook.

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Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.