I’ve got a piece of not-news that I’ve been holding back, hoping for actual news that hasn’t happened yet. But it seems like a relevant thing to blog about, so here it is: I am once again in the market for an agent, after leaving my previous agency over a year ago. How (and why) does one go about getting an agent, anyway?
Some people say the only way to get an agent is to go to conventions and meet agents face-to-face, or follow them on social media until you get an invitation from one of them to send in a submission. That’s probably an option if you’ve got the right kind of personality and can manage not to look too needy. I remember going to a World Fantasy Convention one year and attending a panel with a number of agents and editors, and seeing their looks of horror when the panel ended and people from the audience swamped them to pitch their manuscripts. I think you should be very careful about being that guy.
I did it the old-school way: I looked at a copy of the Guide to Literary Agents. (I also hit the internet and checked the listings at AgentQuery.com, just to be more comprehensive.) If you’ve never used anything but the internet to search for agents, here’s how you do it: look in the index under your genre. Go to the listing for the agents under your genre. Read the listings carefully so you know what they want. If they only represent writers who have been published by traditional publishers and you haven’t, find someone else. If they aren’t open to submissions right now, don’t write them a letter saying how awesome you are and they’ll surely make an exception for little old you; find someone else. If they say they represent your genre, and they’re especially looking for sassy villainesses with alien DNA and an axe to grind and whaddyaknow, that’s exactly what you write, put them at the top of the list.
Next step: once you find some agents that work with what you write, check them against Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. There are some scammy scammers out there, and you don’t want to get tied up with one of them.
The next thing to do once everyone on your list clears is to google them to check for updated information. If you found their name in a book, that book is out of date. (Yes, even the librarian in me is willing to admit that books go out of date, and despite the advantages to searching a reliable print resource, it’s best to verify the information against a website, which is as real-time as, well, the person maintaining it makes it.) Even a web directory like AgentQuery can be out of date. Check with the source. Make sure the contact information is correct – it’s best to use an agent’s name in your query letter, rather than “Dear Agent,” and nothing’s more embarrassing than addressing a query to someone who’s not there anymore. Except sending a query to an agent who’s closed to submissions, or who doesn’t represent your genre anymore, so check those things, too. There should be a “Submission Guidelines” link somewhere on the agent’s page.
This googling step can also tell you some things about the agent. For example, I’m looking for an agent who is comfortably navigating the changes in the publishing industry, particularly e-publishing, so I crossed a few agents off my list who refused to accept email submissions. Not that that’s bad, necessarily; it might simply be evidence that the agent has been around a long time and still does things the old-fashioned way. But it does make me wonder how comfortable they are with new media. And the agent who didn’t have a website at all went right off my list.
Back to those submission guidelines: double-check them on the website, and then follow them to the letter. If they want a query letter and the first three chapters, send just that. If they want everything copied and pasted into the body of the email, don’t send attachments. Your email probably won’t even be opened. Prepare some different documents to copy and paste from: a query letter, a short synopsis (about 2 pages), a long synopsis (about 10 pages), a three-chapter sample, and a five-page sample. Yes, this is annoying. You still need to do it.
If you need to write a query letter, there are only about a million resources that will tell you how. Generally, you need a one-paragraph synopsis of your book, a one-paragraph bio that highlights anything relevant about you and any previous publications you have, and a polite opening and closing. This is a business letter, so keep it professional.
Here’s how I did it. Between the Guide to Literary Agents and AgentQuery, and after ruling out the agents with bad recommendations and those with no email or website, I had a list of eleven agents I wanted to query. I divided the list in half, with the five I was most interested in at the top. I queried those five at the end of April.
One more thing to look for on those agency websites: what their response time and procedure is. Some said they respond to all queries in 2-4 weeks. Some said if you don’t hear a response in 6 weeks, you can assume that’s a rejection. They’re probably serious about this. Calling and pleading with them when you get no response is not the way to present yourself as a good business risk. If no response time is listed at all and you haven’t heard anything in 6-8 weeks, you can probably send one brief, polite email asking about the status of your submission. Then you have to let it go. That’s why you want a dozen or so agents on your list. Move on to the next one.
After two rejections and three past the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” cutoff time, I sent out the remaining six queries. That’s where we are now, waiting for responses. Be prepared to wait. Work on something else in the meantime, probably another project. (If you’re three books into a series that you’re querying, and you get an editor – hooray! – but your editor thinks it would be better to take the series in a different direction, you might be reluctant to throw away all that work. Don’t make more problems for yourself than you need.) I’m looking at some short stories to work on.
Next time, I think, I’ll go into the meat of some of these rejections, and why I’m looking at agents again, anyway.