Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Get An Agent (or anyway, how to look for one without going nuts)

So how do you go about getting a literary agent?

Well, the first step is to write an excellent manuscript, of course. But let's assume you've already done that.

Here's my recipe, based on experience gathered over the course of several agent hunts.

1. Define what you're looking for

This is really important! Don't tell yourself that “any agent will do.” It's not true. An agent will end up having the final say in whether and where you submit your work. You want to find someone you can trust with that decision.

Make a list of the qualifications you're looking for in an agent. Here's what my list eventually became:

  • Agent has a good sales record with middle grade fantasy
  • Agent has been an editor at a major publisher
  • Agent works in New York City
  • Agent does not have a significant online presence

There are, of course, many excellent agents who don't meet these qualifications. You'll want to make your own list of what you feel comfortable with. I just offer mine as an example.

2. Make a list of agents

You'll find agents listed on and Search for agents who represent your genre. The information on these sites may be outdated, so double-check everything. Make a list of every agent who reps your genre.

3. Annotate your list

Check your list of agents (step 2 above) against your list of qualifications you want in an agent (step 1 above). Google each agent on your list. Look for interviews and reported sales. Be sure to read the agent's webpage if s/he's got one. Take copious notes. The purpose of this is not to find connections you can mention in your query, but to help you make the right choice.

That's right. You're choosing them. They make a choice too, of course. But it's important to give full, non-starstruck attention to your own part in the choosing.

4. Divide your list

Now it's time to select the agents you feel you'd like to work with. Divide your now-annotated list into three categories:

= I should be so lucky.
= S/he would do nicely.
X = Alas, I fear we should not suit.

For the ♫ and X agents, make a note of why you put them in that category.

In my case, the ♫ agents were those who met all four of my desired qualifications. (Note that I don't call them “dream agents”. All I knew about them was what I'd found online... insufficient data for dreaming.) The ♪ agents met two or three of the qualifications. The X agents in most cases had no reported sales.

Take the X agents off the list and put them in a separate file. Later you may wonder why you didn't query them, so this will serve as a reminder.

5. Write your query

There are plenty of sites with good advice on how to do this, and alas, some sites with not-so-good advice. Janet Reid's Query Shark blog offers good advice, as does Absolute Write.

Polish your query to the nines. But not to the tens. Spend a couple weeks on it, but not three years. Ultimately, it's only a query.

6. Send your query

If this is your first time querying, or if you've never gotten a request in the past, pick just six agents off your list to query. If you know the ropes pretty well, pick ten. Check each agent's submission guidelines and tailor the query to the agent. Hit “send.” Note the date you sent the query in your records.

Bite your nails. Try to think about something else. Give it a month.

Increasingly, agents have a “no response means no” policy. There's not much we can do about this. Back in the day, you could avoid querying such agents, but that's probably no longer possible... there are too many of them.

Keep careful records of any replies you received, including dates of form receipts or form rejections.

At the end of the month, if you've heard nothing, don't nudge. Instead, get ready to send your next batch.

7. Send your next batch.

If all you got were form rejections or no response, there are two possibilities:

  1. There's something wrong with your query.
  2. You've written something that the agents (or their interns) don't think is marketable. A common reason for this is that a trend has suddenly become a glut.

Hard to tell which. But take another look at your query anyway, revise if necessary, and go on to the next six (or ten) agents.

By the way, I'd divide these batches between your ♫ and ♪ agents. You don't want to use up your whole ♫ list while you're still refining your query.

8. Reacting to requests

At some point, if you've gotten your query right and if you haven't written something for which there's no market, you will get a real live personal response.

If it's a rejection, read it over carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. If it's a partial or full request, make sure you have your manuscript ready to go. If that gets a rejection that's not a form rejection... same thing. Read the rejection carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. This is valuable data, especially if a consensus develops among several agents.

Never, ever say anything in response to a non-form rejection except, possibly, “thank you.”

9. The Offer of Representation

An offer of representation does not come via email. What comes via email is an invitation to talk on the phone. You may want to have a list of questions ready. (“What changes do you think my manuscript needs?” and “Where do you think you would submit it?” are two I would ask.) However, these conversations often seem to center on favorite books-- yours, his/hers. It's really a get-to-know you conversation.

After some talk in which you get to know each other, the agent will usually offer representation.

What should you do?

Now here's my advice, which differs from that of others:


If the conversation went well, that is, and if you have the impression that this is someone you would like to work with. Just accept.

Especially if s/he's one of your ♫ agents.

Contact the agent's references, sure. But you don't need to contact other agents so that they can move your query to the top of their pile and consider whether they want to make an offer. You don't need multiple offers, since the terms are the same industrywide (the agent gets 15% of your domestic sales, 20% of foreign). You just need one good agent.

If the offer is from one of your ♪ agents, and one of your ♫ agents is also considering the manuscript, you might want to contact the latter to see if s/he's interested. On the other hand, you're already talking to someone who's enthusiastic enough about your manuscript that s/he read it quickly and responded quickly. It's up to you.

But you want to write, not to spend your whole life looking for an agent.


  1. This is very helpful, and I appreciate your non-breathless, practical approach. Question: why did you want an agent with little internet presence? Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Deborah, I'm so glad you found it helpful!

    That last one was probably the least important of my criteria, since it mainly affected the query stage. (In fact, now that I look at that list again, I see that it came out, unintentionally, in order of importance.)

    I think the agents with large online presences are getting far more queries than the non-blogging agents, and one's chances of being plucked from the slush are that much smaller.

    Though I had a pretty good non-form response rate in all four of my agent searches, the response rate from the blogging agents was significantly poorer. In fact, I only got one non-form response, and it said, in effect, "I want you to know this is not a form response." I am not altogether sure it wasn't :-). So by my fourth agent search, I just abandoned them, though I have no doubt some of them are excellent agents.

  3. That makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience. :)

  4. Hi there, just wanted to say that I loved your 'Jinx' books, and I'm getting ready to query. Thanks so much for this, there's a lot of really helpful advice here.