How to find an agent
Do I need an agent?
Bad news: it’s probably harder to get an agent than to get a publisher. Good news: you might not need one. Stop and think about it. Why do you need an agent?
You don’t need an agent if you’re looking to publish at a small or mid-sized house, which is where most of us start. This is particularly true if (like me) you’re Canadian or intending to publish your book in a similarly small country. Most of our Canadian presses - even the big ones - work directly with authors. A friend of mine recently sold a picture book text directly to Tundra, one of Canada’s better known picture book imprints. No agent involved. Even in the US, everyone but the biggest of the big will read your work directly.
You don’t need - and won’t be able to get - an agent if your work isn’t likely to make serious money - say, more than $5,000 or $10,000 a book. There are whole genres ruled out there. Poets don’t have agents, for instance. (Well, Robert Pinksy probably does. But most of us don’t.) Think about it: is it really likely that you’ll make so much money from your book that a professional would be interested in working their tail off for 15% of it?
You will have trouble finding an agent who wants to work with you on just one book. Agents are investing in you, hoping you’ll start building a following and earning big bucks. So if you’re writing your memoirs, and have no intention of writing anything else, you might be stuck.
Here’s a thought: you can always get an offer from a publisher and use it to approach an agent. Nothing will get attention faster than: “Hey, Harper Collins wants to buy my novel for $XXX. I don’t have an agent. Would you be interested in working with me?”
What kind of agent do I need?
Most agents specialize. This is good: You want an agent who knows her way around particular circles, what house likes what, who’s buying when, which editor loves just your kind of quirky. And having a particular agent, or being with a particular agency, tells publishers a little about what to expect from your manuscript; it’s a kind of branding, if you will. This is why finding the right agent - not just an agent - is vital.
It does mean that those of us who write in more than one genre are stuck, though. I don’t have great advice on that. Myself, I have an agent for my children’s literature (the same agent for both novels and picture books) and represent my poetry and non-fiction myself.
Another solution is a good, all-purpose agency - a big one - which can rep everything, even if it takes more than one agent to do it. But I don’t have any experience with this path.
I’m sure I need an agent. But where do I start?
This is how I did it. There are probably other ways.
Go to the bookstore. Find the shelf you want your book to be on. Pick out your absolutely favourite things from that shelf - the books your books want to be when they grow up. The company you want to keep. I recommend a bookstore instead of a library because it’s more current, but check the library, too. Raid your shelves at home. (If you don’t read in the genre in which you want to publish, you’re in trouble. Start reading. A good independent bookseller or librarian can help you.) Pick, say, a couple of dozen authors to look into.
Now, find out who represents them.
This is the tricky part; agents don’t have their names on the spines. Start with the acknowledgements pages in the books themselves. Use Google. Eventually break down and call the publisher and ask them who represents such and such an author. Sometimes they’ll tell you, sometimes they won’t.
Write to your favourite authors in care of the publishers. Tell them: “My book wants to be your book when it grows up. I’m looking for an agent. Can you tell me who represents you?” Keep it short and sweet. Make it clear that you’re not asking them to introduce you to their agent - they don’t know you or your work, and can’t put their own credibility on the line like that. Perhaps ask them nicely if they have other agencies to suggest. Enclose an SASE. Wait.
You might not hear from, say, J.K. Rowling. But you’ll hear from most people. I did.
From this you’ll get a list of agencies to think about. That’s one way to start.
So what do I do with this list?
Find out about the agencies. Most will have websites. Agentquery.com has a great search tool. Writer’s Market publishes an annual guide to agents and agencies, which you can buy or look for in the reference section of most libraries.
What do you want to know? Who they represent, mostly. Check out the client list, if you can find it. Is that the company you want to keep? Does your work fit in with theirs? You remember this how this works: you’re the new kid, scanning the cafeteria. Is that the table you want to sit at? (Don’t worry about whether they’ll let you sit there. Just dream.)
What kind of agency do you want? Big or small? A powerhouse with letterhead or a boutique with a dozen clients? New go-getters or well-established king-makers? You don’t really know, yet, of course. But picture how you want to work with your agent. Think about these things. Make your best guess.
You also want to know, of course, if they are accepting new clients, and how they want to be approached - by query, by sample chapter, by whole manuscript - and whether they want to see your work exclusively. Find out these rules and follow them religiously.
Rank the agencies, roughly. Send your stuff to the one at the top of the list.
I feel lucky to have been accepted by the agency that came out at the top of my list. Most people I know - authors with twice my talent - were rejected at least a dozen times. Be patient. Be tough. (Ha! Processes like this reduce me to a cowering eighth grader.) Get a manicure to spare your nails. Keep at it.
But, but, but -
I know, you need to know how to write a query, whether simultaneous submissions are really verboten, all that stuff. Sorry, not an expert. I wrote exactly one query letter, sent it to one place, and it sold. Lucky me! I have no experience here.
That book I mentioned, the Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agencies, has a lot of good basic information. Read the pubrants series on Agenting 101 (scroll down the right nav box).
On queries, check out Evil Editor for good examples of what not to do:
To develop an insider’s feel, check out some agent’s blogs. Read the archives at the great but sadly defunct Miss Snark.
Check out this essay about dishonest agents (though if you’ve choose an agency who reps people you love, you’re probably safe).
And good luck!