The Path to Publication: Finding the Right Agents to Query

The Path to Publication: Finding the Right Agents to Query

You hear so much information from agents and fellow authors about doing your research before you query, but I haven’t seen a lot of posts that really get down and dirty with how to go about collecting said research. It’s a rather daunting task though, isn’t it? I mean, where do you even begin? I’m not an expert by any means, but for everyone out there embarking on the quest for publication, ready to dive in but not quite sure how to start, I’m going to share my process.

  1. Make a list. I personally like using an Excel spreadsheet, and I like to color code it for different things as I go through. (Warning: Depending on what you write, it’s going to be pretty long. That’s okay. The longer it is, the better you’ll feel about weeding people out once you start comparing.) I started with QueryTracker (querytracker.com) (I’m going to talk about this more later) and Preditors & Editors (http://pred-ed.com). Select the category/genre you write in on QueryTracker, and a ginormous list of agents will pop up. Pages and pages and pages. I focus on the AGENCY first, not the individual agents, because some agencies have more than one agent I’m interested in, and for organizing purposes, this was easier. Check out their track record on P&E to make sure they don’t still owe someone a million dollars or something, because that would suck, type in the agency name and add a link to their website, and move on—no need to go deeper yet.
  2. (My favorite part!!) Go look at all of your favorite books on your bookshelves or at your local bookstore or library. Your best bet is anything in the category/genre you write in, but a lot of agents represent multiple categories, so look at everything: children’s/ya, adult fiction, non-fiction. All that matters is that you loved the book and that the agent that represented them loved them too. Feel free to read the whole novel again, but what you’re looking for are the acknowledgements/thank yous in the back. One of the first people almost all writers thank is their agent or editor. You’re looking for the agent here. Make note of the editor too, but the agent comes first (usually) in the publication process, and the right agent will know the right editors to get your novels in front of. Books you love are fantastic. Books you love that are in your age group and genre are even more fantastic. These are the agents you want at the tip top of your list, and I like to give these guys their own special color on my Excel chart.
  3. At this point, I like to go though the agencies and agents one at time, which is where it gets tedious and time consuming (like the list wasn’t), but I promise it’s worth it. Google and the agency websites are your besties forever here.
    1. Agency websites: Read them. All of it. Really. Do they have a blog or faqs page or give any query tips? Start a new word document and copy/paste all of these awesome things in there (yes, all of them) to look at later when you’re working through your query and edits. Look on their submissions guidelines page. See what they want to see and how they operate. Go to the “About the Agency” section, and then, the big one, the “Agent Bios.” Some will have more, some will have less, but anything you can find that you can connect with, you want, and you want it somewhere you can find it again because there are too many agents out there with their own personal tastes to try to keep track of it in your head. (Here it’s a good idea to start organizing. I made a new “book” in Scrivener for mine, but maybe you like Word documents or writing in your notebook and those colorful little stick-tabs. Whatever poison you prefer, start it now before things get nuts, and don’t forget about your Excel spreadsheet. That’s super handy now, too.)
    2. Now it’s time to play with Google. First things first: The Interviews (my personal favorites are “The First Five Frenzy”, “Query, Sign, Submit”, “Query Questions with Michelle for Laughs”, and the Writers Digest ones, but there are other really good ones out there, too). Interviews can be tricky—check the date, and keep that in mind as you read: an interview from 2007 might still be valid, but an interview from 2014/2015 is going to be more relevant—but you’ll find wish lists, what they’re looking for, how they operate, favorite books/movies/tv shows, what they look for in their clients, how editorial they are, etc. You want that stuff. Also, see how they answer the questions. They’re looking for voice in your novel; you’re looking for voice in their interviews. Do they seem like someone you’d like to work with? Are they knowledgeable about the industry? Hungry? A fighter?
    3. When that’s done, it’s time to Google their wishlists. www.mswishlist.comand www.agentandeditorwishlist.com are what you’re looking for here, and remember, if you find something in here that’s a perfect fit, you need to mention this when you query them and include #MSWL in the title of your email. (Please respect the agents and yourselves with this one though, guys: if it doesn’t fit, don’t try to sneak it in. They’ll find out eventually that you’re lying, and it never pays to be rude.)

So there it is: my super in-depth, make you want to poke your eyeballs out with your salad fork 3-step program for agent research. But…you wrote a book. This is nothing compared to the blood and sweat and tears you lost slaving over that, and if you power through it, you will get it done, and comparing and contrasting will be that much easier.

With all that said, here are a few things to keep in mind before you query:

  1. (For real. Don’t shoot me.) Age and experience. Have they been an agent for 50+ years? That’s awesome…are they going to retire or die soon? Messed up, maybe, but something to think about. On the flip side, do you want someone just starting out, who will be growing with you? Like all things, there are pros and cons, and most of the whittling comes down to personal preference.
  2. I’m putting these together: Agency Size + Agent Client List: Are they a small boutique that rarely takes on new clients? Mid-size? Super huge, going to take over the world with their agenting? What about their clients? Do they have 5 other people they have to deal with regularly or 105? If they have 105, will most of your correspondence be with them or an assistant? How does all of that make you feel? (Yes, it’s officially therapy time.)
  3. There’s only so much you can gather from reading about someone online. When it comes time to actually choose an agent, talk to them first, as an agent and a person, because you will be working with them, hopefully, for a very, very long time. Some agents don’t have a lot of interviews out there and they don’t participate in #mswl, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t awesome.
  4. QueryTracker: Do it. Pay for the premium or whatever. It’s about 25 bucks for the entire year, and it’s totally worth it. I use this more later, when I’m actually knee deep in the query trenches, but I like it for 2 reasons while I’m doing my research: the “Data Explorer,” which gives me a better idea of expected response times from each individual agent, and the “Clients” tab, which you should always verify, but sometimes I’ll glance at it and another author will pop up that I love that I hadn’t realized they repped too. Also, the “Comments” can come in handy, and it’s another handy way to see what genres they represent. Some agency websites don’t embellish as much and you might not see your genre there, but you can see that they’ve requested 5 full manuscripts from aspiring authors in your genre in the past year. (Also, this is where I met my super awesome critique partner, the sometimes morbid but always splendid Bionic Banshee. Totally worth 25 bucks.)

Good luck everyone!

–THE TEENAGE WITCH

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