How Do I Find An Agent?

How do I find an agent? In the last month I’ve had two people ask me that question. I think they wanted a short, easy answer (the secret). They looked disappointed when I start talking about going on-line and finding which agents represented the type of book they’ve written; checking Writers Beware   for any warnings; writing and sending out query letters according to each agent’s specifications; sending out more queries; keeping track of responses; talking to interested agent(s) to make sure it’s a fit (of personalities and expectations); and on and on.

Sometimes finding an agent (especially the “right” agent) is pure luck. Sometimes it’s tenacity.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Make sure your book is finished (before you start looking for an agent) and is the best you can make it.

Agents no longer have time to hold your hand while you learn to write a book. They’ll help you perfect it, but you need to have a sellable product before they’re going to take the time to work with you.

2. Be prepared to make revisions

If you don’t want anyone touching what you’ve written (agent or editor), then self-publish. An agent’s reputation rests on what she/he sends to publishers. They want to send out the best version of your work. Sometimes (often) that means they’ll ask you to make revisions. If you’re not willing to make any changes, you’re going to have a problem. (Either you’ll need to find another agent, one more in tune with your vision, or self-publish.)

3. Consider if you really need an agent.

Does your story have wide appeal? Traditional publishers (The Big 5) are corporations. They want books that will make money, the more the better. If an agent doesn’t think your story will have wide appeal, the agent may not be interested in representing your book. (There are always exceptions.) But even if one of the big 5 wouldn’t be interested, a smaller press might publish it, and most smaller publishers don’t require an agent.

4. Look for agents who represent the type of story you’ve written

5. Write a really good query letter

  • Make it personal: Write the letter or email using the agent’s name (correctly spelled) not To Whom It May Concern; mention if you met him/her or how you came up with the her/his name, and why you feel the she/he would be the best person to represent your work.
  • Make it one-page
  • In a paragraph or two, indicate the major characters and the conflict that must be resolved in the story.Use a hook (a question that begs an answer or a situation that is different)
  • This is your first impression, so no spelling or grammar errors. Give a sense of the book’s tone (somber/humorous), and of your writing.
  • Don’t apologize if you’re not published, but if you do belong to writers’ groups or have had relevant material published include this information at the end.
  • Make sure the agent knows how to contact you: email/phone

6. Once you have a list of potential agents, make sure you check out each agent’s website and follow those individual guidelines.

No generic query letters and submissions.

Don’t try to be cute or different. Agents get hundreds of query letters during the year. They’re looking for stories they can sell/writers they can work with. At this stage, they want to know if you can follow directions.

7. Send out around 5 queries a week.

  • Don’t send just one and wait
  • Keep track of: to whom you sent a query (and any other materials, such as chapters), when you sent it, and the reaction.
  • If you’re asked for a full, keep track of those dates and responses.
  • If asked for the full manuscript, limit how long the agent can have an exclusive
  • If more than one agent asks for the full ms, let them know if it’s being considered by another agent.

One reason to do 5 at a time is if you keep getting rejections, you may want to rework your query letter along the way. Sometimes a different slant is all it takes to create interest.

The other questions I’m often asked is: How many agents you should query? (I think the subtext is: Before you give up.)

The answer is: as many as it takes (to find one that says yes or you do give up).

I know of writers who have queried as many as a hundred agents and publishers before they found the right one. Keep looking, but while you’re looking, write something new. Sometimes book 1 doesn’t get published until you’ve published books 2 and 3…and sometimes book 1 ends up pushed under the bed. (My first book will never see daylight again, but I learned a lot from it.)

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22 Responses to How Do I Find An Agent?

  1. Zara West says:

    This a great post, Maris. You really cover all the important considerations. But here is one thing I learned the hard way. Never send your query as an attachment. Paste everything into your email, then do what formatting is needed to get it to look right and make it easy for the agent or editor to read.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good point, Zara. Most agents are wary of attachments due to viruses, so unless an agent (or editor) specifically asks for materials to be attached, what you said is right: put it in the body of the email.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    Very cute having your “book published under your bed!” As you pointed out, many of the small publishers aren’t looking for agents as much as the quality writing that agents are also looking for. Why not query both!

    • Maris Soule says:

      The problem I see, Melissa, is if the agent is selling to a small publisher (who normally doesn’t require the material to go through an agent), you’re paying 15% when you wouldn’t need to. On the other hand, if the writer is looking for an agent to guide his or her career, then using the agent for a small publisher is simply one step in a longer journey.

  3. Much as I’d like to be represented, each time I signed with an agent, they didn’t sell my books. I ended up doing all the selling myself.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I’ve had an excellent agent (until she retired) and a terrible agent (until I fired her). Sometimes it is best to do it yourself.

  4. paula says:

    Thanks! This blog post is getting filed for future reference in my sub-folders. See you soon.

  5. Jen J. Danna says:

    My agent was #144 that I queried and in the end it came down to 2 simultaneous offers. It wasn’t that she was #144 on the list, she was just #144 that I found to query. So yes, tenacity is very important.

    As far as whether you need an agent – Do you want your books on bookstore shelves? Then yes, you probably do. Do you want someone who will negotiate your contact catching any disadvantage to the writer and negotiating a better advance? Then yes, you do. Do you want someone in your corner, talking to editors, finding out what they are specifically looking for and then sharing it with her clients so they make more deals? Then yes, you do.

    My agent does all of this and more. She’s sold to a small press, but gotten me way more money than I would have gotten on my own. She had lunch with the editor and a much larger house who then bought my next 3 book hardcover series because it was exactly what he wanted. That sale never would have happened without her. She does long term career counseling and brings new opportunities to her authors. I can’t imagine being without her. Is she worth her 15%. YES.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Excellent summary of the value of a good agent, Jen. I had an agent like that for 18 years. Loved her, and she was worth every penny of the 15% she took.

    • Brenda says:

      Jen I may be interested in hiring your agent. I loved my previous agent and she was well worth the percentage she was paid! See my comment below 🙂

      • Jen J. Danna says:

        The biggest issue with so many agents right now is whether they are taking on new clients, and I have to admit I don’t know if Nic is. But if you want to look her up, it’s Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Never hurts to query and find out!

  6. Maris, What a nice,long, detailed, and informative answer as to how to snag an agent. All very true because I really tried. Agents are more elusive than publishers, I think.

  7. Marjorie Stedron says:

    Thank you Maris Soule for this informative post. I emailed you back in Feb. of this year and I am now on Chapter13 of my 20 Chapter novel. It is the first thing I’ve ever written in my life. Finding an agent is something I hope to do once this is all written and polished up. My goal is to start searching in September.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Sounds like you’re making good progress, Marjorie. One word of warning. Setting deadlines for yourself is good, but don’t rush the process. If you’re ready in September, go for it. If your ms isn’t quite ready, keep working on it until it’s the best you can make it.

  8. June Shaw says:

    What an excellent post! Thank you for sharing. After I had an agent who wasn’t selling my work, but I was, we gently parted ways. I’ve been selling on my own since then but am rethinking an agent. I’ll keep what you wrote and refer to it. Thanks!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, June. We writers have more options nowadays than we had a couple decades ago, but if we want to be picked up by one of the “big” traditional houses, that agent is almost a necessity. Good luck to you.

  9. Gina Conkle says:

    Maris, this is great. You have a wealth of experience and knowledge. I’d add “attend small conferences” if you can. There’s something about meeting a person fact-to-face that tells you much more about them than what’s on paper. My agent search began with a list of about 30 agents. I sent my queries out in small batches at a time. Some never responded, while others declined representation. Finally, I had the chance to attend a conference where my top three agents would be in attendance. The one glaring truth was how different each agent was in person. It became clear – I didn’t connect with two of them -at all- and something clicked with the third agent. Intuition told me she was the one (Sarah Younger of Nancy Yost Literary Agency). Communication flowed. I felt like “she gets my writing” (for this con you were supposed to bring a small writing sample). I left the meeting feeling like “this is it!” Less than 30 days later I signed with her. I’d also add that I’ve met unagented authors who signed contracts without knowing the dangers of option clauses. Anyway, I’ve gone on long here. Great post, Maris!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Great comment, Gina. Yes, I should have mentioned the advantage of face-to-face at conferences (big or small…but small is usually cheaper). A writer really needs an agent who “gets” the writer’s voice/style/personality.

  10. Brenda says:

    Maris, I am already a published author (2009) and I am working on my next book – a totally different genre. My agent just told me her husband passed away and she is retiring. She also said all of her good referrals are also not taking on new projects. When I told her about the book idea, she said she would snatch it in a heartbeat since it is the kind of thing that “sells” and that people like to read. I know the ins and outs of publishing, deadlines, contracts and all of that and both publisher and agent were very pleased to work with me. (The new book is also out of the previous publishers genre). Could you email me and give me your thoughts? I know how crucial finding a good agent is but I have no idea where to start. My query letter and book summary are close to completion. (The entire book is already in my head!)