Ready, Set, Query! Finding an Agent

Dos and don'ts of finding an agent - Expansive cloudy sky over a mesa

Although I work at a book publisher, I never deal directly with acquiring or editing manuscripts.

But as an aspiring author, I was curious about the confusing journey of finding an agent. I wanted some insider tips, so I turned to some friends who double as trusted publishing professionals. I asked what writers could do to improve their chances of getting published, what they wish writers understood about the process, and how to find the perfect agent. Although every agent and publisher is different, these are 10 things many agree on.

1. Perfect your query letter.

What is a query letter, besides two dread-inspiring words? Don’t stress about making it super clever or funny, but DO spend the time to make it great. A friend who worked for an agency said to keep it simple and to the point. The agent reading it might be on their 50th submission out of 200, so have pity on them. Don’t say the same thing twice. Avoid extreme statements. Don’t compare yourself to the latest bestseller or a classic author unless your writing is truly similar, said Chesalon Piccione, who worked as a book publisher’s assistant.

Query widely but do not bcc a bunch of agents the same letter.

A query letter is basically a cover letter for your book, including an intro, a pitch, and a short bio. It’s like a movie trailer for your book. The main goal is piquing the agent’s interest enough to want to follow through and find out how it ends.

2. Personalize your query to the agent.

At the beginning of the letter, you can mention something they’ve said they’re looking for or enjoy, something you have in common, or a connection. Perhaps your writing instructor referred you to them or you attended the same college. Query widely (about 20-25 agents) but do not bcc a bunch of agents the same letter.

3. Do your research.

Read agents’ websites, LinkedIn profiles and social media.

“Authors waste so much time querying hundreds of agents,” Piccione said. “Your time is much better spent thoroughly researching agents’ lists/website/preferences and writing individualized query letters to agents interested in similar books.”

Some agents like sample pages, and some just want the query letter. Some have specific email addresses for queries. Make sure to follow through with their requirements—i.e., “I have pasted the first five pages below, per your submission guidelines.”

4. Follow agents on Twitter.

“People will get in touch if they like your work,” Piccione said. “It will take longer than you think.”

Many agents tweet tips and helpful insights about their submission tastes. A friend who recently signed with a young adult (YA) agent followed many agents on Twitter and social media sites. She said this helped her find a list of agents she knew would be interested in her YA novel. Just make sure to avoid tweeting or direct messaging them when you’re actively querying. If you want to tweet them before you’re at this point, keep it light and friendly, i.e.: “I love Veronica Mars, too!”

5. Speaking of Twitter, use online resources.

Finding an agent is no longer a process shrouded in secrecy and confusion. Some helpful sites include:

6. Know that publishing is a slow process.

Several people I talked to who have worked for agents said it’s very important for writers to have patience.

“People will get in touch if they like your work,” Piccione said. “It will take longer than you think.”

It usually takes about two years (from submission to publication) for a book to get published, said Amy Rosenbaum, who has worked at multiple publishers. And remember that you’re not the only person that your agent, editor, publicist, etc. is working with, so try to be patient and non-aggressive.

7. Don’t discount small agencies.

I recently went to a panel of agents at BookCourt, a bookstore in Brooklyn. All were from smaller agencies. The advantage of smaller agencies, they all agreed, was they don’t feel as pressured to sign books with big commercial value and selling power. They also pointed out that young agents are eager to develop their lists and much more likely to take on new clients.

8. Handle rejection with grace.

Publishing is a small world. It’s actually kind of scary how small it is. Everyone knows everyone. Although you may have many questions about why your submission was rejected, don’t ask the agent why unless they offer you feedback.

9. Write what you want to read.

Don’t bother following trends.

“Books take more than a year to be published,” Piccione said. “If there’s a trend, by the time your book comes out, it will be old news.”

10. Educate yourself.

Agents are the ones sifting through piles and piles of submissions, looking for books that fit in with their tastes and what they’re acquiring. An agent is invaluable—they’ll be your book’s biggest champion. Especially because if your book doesn’t make money, neither will they. If an agent asks you for money upfront, they’re not legit!

Agents have built relationships and rapport with editors at publishing houses and will submit your manuscript to them for review. They also make sure your contract with publishers is fair, said Rosenbaum.

“Basically, a good agent is worth their weight in gold,” she said.

Phew. Finding an agent means so many things to consider!

When you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the entire process, bring yourself back to the core of why you started writing in the first place. It’s not about getting published or recognized or validated. It’s because you love your characters and they have important things to say and amazing lives to lead. If you’ve finished your book, you’ve already accomplished the most important part anyway. Writing is supposed to be fun, dammit!

Photo by Robert Aaron Maes.

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