Research: Finding a Literary Agent

February 18, 2008 at 7:44 am | Posted in agents/ editors, Jessica, research, writing | 7 Comments

For the past three years I have been involved with my home chapter’s annual conference. It is one of those volunteer activities that gives back in lots of ways. I have a separate article that I’ve written on what I’ve learned from my conference planning experiences, but the one thing that I’m most grateful for and what I want to share with you this week is what I’ve learned about researching the industry – namely, how to find the agents who represent what you write.

Before I got involved in conference planning I had heard a lot of the tips that I’ll pass on today, but I didn’t ‘get it’ until put in the position of trying to identify the industry professionals who would offer the widest array of possibilities to the hopeful writers attending our conference. The trial-by-fire and the pressure to build a satisfying conference forced me to pick up these trade secrets in a hurry.

Some of my advice might sound pretty intuitive, and if that’s the case then, Congratulations! You have a pretty steady handle on how to conduct your market research and make educated decisions about the best agents to query or pitch to for your material. But for those of you who haven’t yet entered a comfort zone with this stuff, I hope the following tips will help get you on your way.

Other than read, read, read, read, read and write, write, write, write, write . . .

The primary task I want you to do is to really think about the project you want to shop around. Where does it fit in the market? If you write paranormal romance, do you write hot and sexy vampire suspense like J.R. Ward or chick lit time travel like Marianne Mancusi? Perhaps it’s more like YA witches as found in Kelly McClymer’s books or a YA ghost hunter found in Marley Gibson’s new series? Whatever the case, I suggest starting by identifying at least THREE books that most closely resemble the project you want to sell. (The more books you can identify, the greater your market research will be.)

To my way of thinking, if an agent represents a certain kind of book they would likely represent similar material. So your end goal is to find out who represented (and who bought) those three books (or more) that most closely resemble yours.

1. Many, but certainly not all, published authors thank their agents and editors in the acknowledgement pages of their books. So the easiest (and free!) place to start is to go to your local bookstore and thumb through the acknowledgment pages of each of those target books.

Once you obtain the information, go to the Writer’s Reference section of the bookstore and look at the most recent edition of Jeff Hermann’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. He updates this resource every year, to include the names and addresses of agents and their agencies and what they are looking to acquire along with instructions as to how to query them.

2. What to do when the information is not contained in the author’s acknowledgement page? The next resource I’d recommend using is not a free service, but at $20 per month I think it’s one of the best investments you can make on the business side of your writing career. That resource is an online subscription to Publishers Marketplace.

With a subscription to PM, you can search the archives for every deal reported back to the year 2000 – searching by author name, agent name, editor name, agency, or publishing house. This tool is invaluable not only to search what projects have most recently sold by and to whom, but to also determine if an agent shows a historical pattern for representation. A great example is the historical romance market. For the past few years I’ve heard many people in the romance industry say that historicals were dead. Well, some people were still buying and selling historicals during that period, and a quick search of those authors’ names will yield the agents and editors involved in the deals.

Publishers Marketplace is also a great resource for publishing news – especially when an agent or editor leaves her current agency or house for another one. Or if an editorial assistant gets bumped up to start acquiring her own list or an agent branches out on her own.

I understand when budgets are tight, so if a subscription to Publishers Marketplace is not feasible at the moment, the web site offers a free watered-down version of industry news called Publishers Lunch, which comes out every Monday. Anyone can subscribe – free – to Pub Lunch by signing up on the PM home page. Monthly paid-subscription holders receive the full Lunch version every week.

PM has other cool features – such as the opportunity to register yourself on the site. Not all authors are registered, however, which is the one downside when searching for deals concerning them.

3. To get a sense of an agent’s preference or style, conduct a web search on the agent’s name and their agency. The web sites often have bios for each of their agents as well as a list of the authors they represent and titles sold. Agent blogs are also a great learning tool when it comes to style and preferences. A list of many agent blogs can be found on the Absolute Write web site.

4. Historical Author, Cynthia Sterling, also has a great newsletter whereby she shares Market News on what’s happening in the romance genre. Her information is timely and accurate and often gives me great scoop when I cannot find the information elsewhere. And after every RWA National Conference, she posts a wrap up of all of the publisher spotlights – a great way to find out what kinds of projects the editors are looking to acquire. I highly recommend subscribing to this free newsletter by clicking on last left-hand link on her web site.

And certainly those aren’t the only ways to arrive at your list of choices, but I hope those tips give you a place to start. Some people will advise you to start with a much larger list and narrow down from there . . . which I think will work, too.

As an aside . . .

Jessica Faust of BookEnds LLC posted this recent blog entry on finding the interpersonal connection in your agent search.

And Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, also has a blog post where she lists some potential questions to ask that agent when you get THE CALL.

One other note – a reputable agency will never ask you for money up front. If an agent tells you that you need to pay them a chunk of change before they will represent you, my advice is to run far and run fast.

I believe that selling your book is all a matter of luck and timing – getting the right project into the right hands at the right time. The bigger the net you cast, the greater your chances.

And it’s never too early to start your research!

I hope this information helps and that it will lead to finding a good home for your book! And the best thing you can do when sending out queries and awaiting responses? KEEP WRITING!

Check out Bria’s take on organizing your search HERE




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  1. I know I haven’t showed up around here for months (and I sort of wonder if any of you remember me), but this post is refreshing and encouraging and refreshing and encouraging!
    Thank you for sharing your great advice with us!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Caro! I appreciate your feedback about today’s post. Welcome back – we’re glad to see you!

  3. The perspective I just got fro author Steve Almond is that you may not even need an agent at all; he says more in this interview:

  4. […] (the sequal) February 20, 2008 at 11:31 am | In Bria, agents/ editors, career, writing | Jessica did an amazing job of of telling us where to get the information and how to use it. But for me, I […]

  5. Very interesting and helpful post.
    I add your interesting blog in my Google Reader! 😉

  6. Thank you for adding us to your Google Reader account! We look forward to seeing you again, Womens Shoes!

  7. We’re not the only ones blogging on How to Find a Literary Agent. For more tips and insider insight, check out a recent post from Nathan Bransford by clicking HERE.

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