Finding the right agent for the right book a the right time is hard. Like a literary form of Russian roulette, that can take years before the trigger is pulled. But once you find that perfect match, you will have a champion for you and your work that can become invaluable.
Some people ask if you NEED an agent. The short answer, no. Not always. The long answer is yes, especially if you hope to sell to one of the Big 5 Publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins). Agents are the gatekeepers, and most publishers do not accept unagented submissions.
If you want a quick and easy way to search for agents who are looking for your specific genre, try Manuscript Wish List. www.manuscriptwishlist.com. Here, you can search for agents and editors looking for any genre, and browse their profiles to see who might be the best fit for your work.
Additionally, you can try the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter, where agents post specific wish lists they want to see in their inbox at any given moment. It is the best resource for those new to the query trenches to check out who is out there.
One site that is quite helpful during the agent search is querytracker. This site will let you see how long agents usually take to respond, how often they request additional material, and the like. It gives you insight that can help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with the waiting game.
DO YOUR RESEARCH! Always vet agents and editors before accepting any offer. While those on MSWL are legit, you may come across some who are not and never want to find yourself trapped in a contract you are unhappy with or scammed. No matter how exciting it is, always consider if it is the best option for you before signing.
A good site to research agents is Publishers Marketplace. Here, there are profiles for agents and editors, as well as stats on deals they have made.
A helpful trick I have used is making a spreadsheet of agents I queried, the date I queried, what I sent, and their response. This way, you dont accidentally send your query to the same agent twice, and can keep track of successes.
Dont query ALL your top agents at once. Try going to batches of 5 or 10, and wait for feedback from those before sending out another batch. The reason for this is if many agents are pointing out the same flaw in your query or pages, you will be able to fix that issue before sending to the next group.
The BIGGEST point to mention in querying is to ALWAYS FOLLOW SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I am guilty of this when I first started, but it never yielded positive results by breaking the rules. It is the easiest way to get ignored or a rejection if you dont do as you are asked on their webpage, so please follow the guidelines. They are there for a reason.
Once you're ready with your list, make sure you have the following prepared:
Query letter. This is a one-page pitch letter that gives a brief description of your work.
Novel synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than one or two pages) of your story, from beginning to end.
Nonfiction book proposal. These are complex documents, usually twenty to thirty pages in length (minimum).
Sample chapters. When sending sample chapters from your novel or memoir, start from the beginning of the manuscript. (Don't select a middle chapter, even if you think it's your best.) For nonfiction, usually any chapter is acceptable.
You will receive either no response (dont worry, this is normal), a partial request, or a full request. If you are using a spreadsheet, track these as they come in.
The general rule of thumb for nudging agents regarding material varies. Some mention it on their website as part of the guidelines how long to wait before following up. With queries, it is rare to follow up. Those who use QueryTracker for submissions always respond, while those using their email vary. With partial requests, three months isnt unfair before checking in, while with full requests, I wouldnt check in before the 6 month mark unless otherwise stated on their guidelines.
If you are lucky enough to get an agent interested, you will get what is referred to as 'the call'. The agent will call you on the phone, discuss the book, your plans for your career, and any other novels you are currently working on or have at the ready. This allows you to get a feel for your connection, so be sure to make the most of it.
And dont be afraid to ask questions! You are interviewing them just as much as they are vetting you, so take the chance to get as much information as you can.
Things to ask can include:
- Sales track record: This is usually the number-one sign of whether you have a good agent. Evaluate her client list and the publishers she has recently sold to. Are the publishers she sells to the types of publishers you consider appropriate for your work? Ensure that your agent has experience and success in representing the type of work you're trying to sell. With new agents, this information may be non-existent, but please dont rule out a new agent because of this. New agents are great champions for new authors, growing their careers together.
- Consider communication: This plays on the personal connection aspect. With my agent we discussed things we had in common beyond books. Chit chat is fine, and establishes connections that are more deeply rooted. But always be professional!
- Enthusiasm: What is the agents feelings about your book? How excited are they to be the champion for you? While sales are the ultimate goal, agents need to LOVE a story to work for it, as they will be reading it multiple times over the next several months. What do they love about it? What do they feel needs work? Does their vision for your story match your own? Take these into consideration.
And remember, you never have to stay with an agent if it isnt the right fit. I adored my agent, and we got along wonderfully. But we were not the right professional fit, so decided to part ways. While it was a difficult decision to walk away after working so hard and so long to get a yes, you have to be true to yourself and what you want out of your career. Some authors change agents two or three times before finding that perfect match, and there is nothing wrong with it.
Think of the agent/author relationship like any other...you have to have a long term plan that matches, communicate, and work well together. If there are any issues, talk them out as best you can. And if a resolution cant be found, or it just isnt the right fit, its okay to say so.