I want to answer this question thoroughly, but I hope not to step on too many toes. If I offend you, please feel free to comment.
First, there is no course, no test, no certification to be an agent. This is not known to all aspiring authors. There are bad deals out there. Now, I do not think people are out there trying to “cheat” authors or lead them astray. I think all these well-meaning people are trying to help authors the only way they know how, but there are right ways to do it and wrong ways. I want to help you see the difference.
If you are going to query, you must target your agents first. Do not send your teen romance novel to a man who is seeking motorcycle non-fiction. You will automatically be rejected and you will not only have wasted your time and his, but now you feel like your work has been rejected by an agent and isn’t as good as you thought. Needlessly.
Agents have to reject up to 99% of all their queries. They receive tons of good books, but what they are looking for is the needle in the haystack: the next best-seller. If you are wanting to get published traditionally and you don’t believe your book is the next best-seller, rewrite before you submit. The agent has to know that they have the connections to get your book in the door. For an agent without connections, it is just as hard to find a publisher for your book as it was for you to find the agent. They are sending blind pitches to publishers that they have targeted, hoping for a sale.
But even if an acquiring editor chooses your book, many times they are required to take the manuscript to a table meeting where it is discussed around the room. If the vote isn’t in your favor, you are back to pitching. Unless you are asked to revise and resubmit (also called R&R), once you have pitched a manuscript to an agent or publisher, you cannot resend it to them no matter how much work you’ve done. And many agencies say that a “no” from one is a no for all.
So make sure you are starting with your best work. Edited, proofread, beta-approved, and ready with a good query, a synopsis, and a sample of your work. This is the most important thing. You have seconds with an agent before they pass on your query. Make it stand out, make it sound like you, frame your awesome story in the best possible way and present it as the next thing since sliced bread. Ask questions. Make them curious. Make them want to read on to see if they like the synopsis, and if it’s already great, your sample writing will seal the deal.
So, back to the original question, how do I find this perfect agent?
I have talked about going to www.manuscriptwishlist.com to find the agents looking for what you’re writing, and I do want to suggest that in the beginning, when making your list, you go there first. Also www.mswishlist.com and www.querytracker.net. Make a list of all the agents who you are interested in, and that accept your genre. *This step is very important.*
Next, take that list and make sure you aren’t sending to more than one agent per agency. Put the “extras” aside, because if this round of agents say no, and the agency will let you submit to another agent, you can submit to them after the one you queried first responds.
If you are querying, I highly suggest you buy a subscription to www.publishersmarketplace.com. It is available for a monthly fee of $25.00, registration is month-to-month, requiring no long-term commitment. This is the site where agents record their sales. Once you are a member, the bar on the left of the screen will have a tab called “dealmakers.” This is where you can search for agencies or specific agents. It will list their sales for the year, and overall. It lists the books they published, what they were about, which editor acquired it at what publishing house.
When you look up an agent on Publisher’s Marketplace, you will know, “Has my prospective agent ever sold a book before?” And also where they sold it. It answers the questions of what kind of books they have success with, who their contacts are and if they’ve been able to sell to Top 5 houses or only small presses. This is important information. It takes time to build up a client base, and just because a person has been an agent for a few years, doesn’t mean they have any experience selling a book in your genre.
Now, you can wait and do this research on any agents who accept you, meaning, you throw the net wide and see what you catch, THEN look them up. But not only is that time-consuming work, it’s also wasting your time and the agents’. Know that you are querying agents that you desire to work with. It is time-consuming to get an agent, and once you do, it is extremely disheartening to look them up and find out they are not what you wanted and can’t do what you are hoping for.
Look for agents at established agencies, ones that have been around long enough to have lived and learned the game of publishing. Look for agencies with more than one employee, with more than one sale, with more than two years experience. That is my *personal* recommendation. There are many agencies, especially smaller ones, that formed when a person woke up one morning and said, “I’m going to be an agent.” They started referring to themselves as an agent, maybe they made a company, and put out an opening for interns and/or apprentices or junior agents. They built a staff out of nothing, and their employees may not even know that they are flying by the seat of their pants. People will flock to an opening in the publishing business, no matter who you are. They are often not researching the agencies either.
The freshly made-up agency hires on their workers as independent contractors, and get to work on making connections in the industry. These same agents may be at your writing conferences, taking pitches and giving workshops on what they’ve learned as an agent so far. They are judges behind your favorite writing contests online and may pick your pitch on Twitter. LOOK THEM UP. I am not saying these people are bad. Not at all. But are they wrong? I think so. At least in the beginning, before they have the experience that makes them a trusted agency. People believe they are in experienced hands, when they are not. And that is wrong. Unfortunately, at this time, there is no one to hold them liable.
“Real” agents come from agencies and have been through a phase of internship (maybe an apprentice-hood), and are actively selling books to Top 5 houses or their imprints. Not that they don’t also sell to small houses, but they must have the connections to be able to sell to a big publisher, or you aren’t getting a deal with one.
And no agent is going to tell you this information about themselves. This is stuff you have to find out on your own. Sometimes too late in the game. Hence, websites like Publisher’s Marketplace. Now, not every agent reports every sale to them. Some agents get very busy and don’t record sales so it looks like they are doing nothing when in fact, they are working their tails off. Look at their overall sales. Email them and ask; their contact info is listed on the site. Check their website, email one of their clients and ask, “Do I want this agent? Are you happy with their work? What would you change?”
Get an idea of who you are sending to. Do not query through the site (Publisher’s Marketplace), and don’t automatically send queries to the email on the site. Always check the agent’s official website for submission guidelines and contact emails, first. Then submit accordingly.
“But, this is going to take sooooo looong.” I hear the whining already. Yes. It is. The publishing game is a very slow process. Even slower when you do it the right way and explore all avenues, making decisions before you even query. BUT, the chances of you scoring an agent rise significantly if you A.) have an outstanding manuscript, B.) know exactly who you’re sending to and why, and C.) know that the agents you are querying are the best choices for you and your book.
I have already given my opinion on small presses versus large houses in a previous blogpost: https://jenniferhaskin.com/2019/02/09/agent-questions-fifteen-when-to-stop-querying/
Let me assure you, though. Taking the time to do it right the first time will be so much more beneficial to you as an author. Know the game. Know what you want and find out how to get it. Don’t settle on your dreams. And don’t blindly choose the person who will help you reach those goals. You wouldn’t choose a mentor without knowing you agree with their methods and motives, yet we choose the ambassadors of our work, our precious book babies, with whoever we can get and send out mass queries to people who have no interest in them.
Don’t end up having fired an agent and being stuck in a contract that wasn’t negotiated well, that you can’t find a way out of. Don’t regret settling on your debut just to see it published, then realize later what a mistake you’ve made. Make the money you earn. Plan. Prepare. Double-check. Then submit, but know who you are submitting to; know you want to work with them and why. It takes more time to get started, but you won’t ever be sorry you took the time to do it right.
Do you have a good or bad experience with publishing and/or getting an agent? Feel free to tell us your story in the comments.