More updated advice for newbies--from the archives of INkwell Newswatch
Recently I cautioned against scam agents, but also noted that the ratio of legit agents to newbie novelists is approximately one to twenty-five gazillion.
So what do we do—throw mass queries at big-name agents, perhaps employing the services of a Mafia henchperson or Voodoo practitioner?
That would be a no.
One of the reasons the process is so gruesome is that beginners clog the query pipeline with clueless mass-mailings, making agents harder to reach (and way crankier.)
A little research saves everybody grief, and it doesn’t have to cost you. (I’m annoyed by mindless old-fashioned instructions to “read The Literary Marketplace.” LM is too costly even for strapped libraries to keep current copies, and in such a fast-changing industry, the latest version is out of date before it sees print.) Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s directories are less pricey for the starving writer, but also pretty much obsolete on delivery. You can subscribe to Writers Market online for about $4 a month, but I find free sites often have more current info.
For A-list agency addresses, the AAR website is up-to-date and free. To find new agents who haven’t been in the business long enough for AAR membership, check sites like Query Tracker, Agent Query and Freelance Writing Organization-International. The best sites will indicate which agents are actively looking for clients, and they do their best to screen out the scammers. Then follow a few guidelines:
1) KNOW YOUR GENRE
The most common mistake new writers make is querying agents who don't represent what they write. If you write romance, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, sites like RWA, MWA, and SFWA offer lists of genre-friendly agents
If you write stuff with murkier definitions, like literary, commercial, women’s, or mainstream, browse amazon entries for books similar in tone or subject to yours. Often amazon lets you look at the first few pages, where authors may thank their agents. (Or peruse your local bookstore.) Also, authors often mention their agents on their websites. Or you can do a search with the author’s name and keywords like “agent” or “represented.”
Note: if you don’t have an MFA and a/or friend on staff at the New Yorker, it’s probably best to avoid calling your book “literary.” It’s something of a closed market.
If you don’t know your genre, you’re not ready to query. This doesn’t mean your book isn’t good enough. It means you need to learn more about the business. Go to writers conferences, browse every writing site you find, and read, read, read.
2) VISIT THE AGENCY WEBSITE
This is imperative. The closer to the source, the more up-to-date the info. An agent who accepted queries last quarter may now have a full client list or an Everest-high mountain of partials she has no time to read. Submission guidelines change weekly. Someone who took e-queries six months ago may only accept snail mail after a barrage of spam. One member of an agency wants a synopsis with the query; another likes a few pages of text (pasted in the body of an e-mail—NEVER as an attachment.)
Look for new agents in established agencies who rep your genre and are “building a clientele.” They’re more likely to have time to read their slush piles
Of course, some agents don’t have websites. The venerable agency Curtis Brown had none until a few weeks ago. But some of their agents, like the wonderful Nathan Bransford, have blogs. A Google search will turn up an agent blog. Which leads me to…
3) READ AGENT BLOGS
OK, this can become something of an addiction, but blogging agents provide precious insider info—not just about their own likes and dislikes, but about the industry in general. They can be cranky and snarky, and you may see your own query ridiculed in front of the entire blogosphere, but they give up-to-the-minute news of sales and trends. They’ll tell you what markets are overfilled; what’s on their wish list, and what sort of faux pas will get their panties in a bunch.
Nathan Bransford is the reigning king of the agent bloggers. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ He is remarkably gracious and helpful. So is Kristin Nelson. http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ They both update almost daily and their archives offer mini courses in publishing. (Kristin’s series, “Agenting 101” offers a step-by-step picture of how a contract is negotiated.) Janet Reid, http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/ Bookends LLC http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/ , Rachelle Gardner, and Colleen Lindsay also offer must-read blogs. There are a whole lot more great ones coming along all the time. And for lots of great nitty-gritty info, there are the “Snarkives” of the late, great Miss Snark. http://misssnark.blogspot.com/
4) STUDY CLIENT LISTS
There’s a broad spectrum within genres: if an agent’s romance sales are mostly to Christian publishers, your gay vampire-demon romance probably won’t float her boat; and if all the mysteries sport pink covers, your hardboiled noir won’t make the list.
Check recent sales. The agency that sold mass quantities of chick lit in 2004 may only be selling steam punk now, and they’ll delete your chick lit query without a glance.
NOTE: it’s best to not to use the term “chick lit,” at all, even if that’s what you write. Call it “romantic comedy” or “women’s fiction.” Overbuying a few years ago has put chick lit on a publishing blacklist. Great discussion on this Rodney Dangerfield of genres at Carrie Kei Heim Binas’s blog http://heimbinasfiction.blogspot.com
5) SEARCH FOR INTERVIEWS AND PROFILES
Narrow your list further with a quick Google. Interviews, articles and guest blog posts can give valuable insight into an agent’s personality and needs. A fantastic blogger who provides regular agent profiles is Casey McCormick http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/
Finally, don’t take it personally if the “perfect” agent doesn’t respond. We’re in a brutal business. Go buy a lottery ticket. The odds will be more in your favor.
And there’s always that Voodoo practitioner…