Thursday, August 2, 2012

Basics about finding a literary agent

by Stephanie Morrill

I've been receiving lots of emails recently about when the next Go Teen Writers contest is going to open up. The short answer is SOON. Like mid-Augustish, after I'm back from vacation. Sorry contests have been unofficially on hold this summer. We had a decent amount of travel happening in the Morrill house, plus some family health issues, plus the contest for the NextGen Writers conference (which is going on right now, yay!), so I just couldn't figure out how to squeeze in another contest until mid-August.

But our next contest will be pretty sweet, I can promise you that. We've noticed that, um, something really cool is about to happen, and we're going to celebrate that something-cool by doing a ... er ... bigger contest than normal. That's all I'll say for now...

A writer emailed me saying she's about to start querying, has been on, and has some questions. They're questions that I assume many of you might have:

Am I supposed to have a certain agent/publisher in mind, or is it okay to just query a bunch and go with whatever turns up?

Back when I was querying, I had a big book that listed literary agents. A lot of those directories have moved on-line, but you can still buy the books too. I went through and marked every agent who was interested in new clients and who represented YA.

At that time, queries still happened through snail mail, so I picked my top 5 and sent out 5 letters. Then I waited.

Out of my first batch, I had two ask to see more and three rejections. (That ratio was beginner's luck, because I never had that happen again, so don't despair if you're getting all rejections.) So I sent the requested chapters to the two, then sent out three more query letters.

While it's okay to query multiple agents, it's not okay to blast them all with a generic email. Relationships are key in this business, so address them by name ("Dear Ms. White...") and I think it's good to say why you're querying them. ("I know you represent Sarah Sundin. Not only is she one of my favorite authors, but I also write historical romance and....")

It's important to keep in mind that not all agents are right for you and a bad agent is way worse than no agent. Just because they're listed in a book or have a website doesn't mean they can get you a book deal. And if they ask you for reader fees or any kind of money - run!

Are agents connected to certain publishers, or no? I've never heard of most of the agencies listed, does that mean my book would get taken on by a no-name publisher?

This is a great question. As much as it may not feel like it during the query process, agents work for authors. Good agents have relationships with editors. Editors rely on agents to find good talent for them, but agents get paid by you (they typically get 15% of whatever you make) and therefore they work for you, not publishers.

If you've never heard of them, it doesn't mean much. I had never heard of any agents until I started querying. But if editors and experienced writers have never heard of them or the authors they supposedly represent, that definitely means something.

Here are a couple questions that this writer didn't ask, but that others have:

How do I find an agent?

In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See has this great quote that writers whining about how to find a literary agents remind her of girls sitting in a bar whining about how to find a boyfriend. The whining is not only fruitless, but off-putting.

There are three main ways to find a literary agent:

Querying through email: I'll be honest, the success rate of this isn't all that great. I have friends who found their agents that way, but not many. Most writers I know met their agent at:

A writer's conference: There are always literary agents at writers conferences, and usually part of the deal is you get to hang out with them for lunch or for a 15 minute one-on-one appointments. This was a much more successful route for me as well as many of the other writers I know.

Referrals: This is when a writer friend who's already agented recommends you to their agent, or another agent they happen to be friends with. This is awesome when it works out, but I don't recommend hitting up every writer you know and asking for them to refer you. Awkward for both parties.

When is the right time to query an agent?

Most writers start querying before they're really ready. This writer included.

After your manuscript has been through several drafts and you've written up a book proposal. And, hopefully, after you've had a critique partner give input.

Any other literary agent questions I can attempt to answer?

Other posts that might interest you:
What does the perfect query letter look like?
Download a sample book proposal of Jill Williamson's
8 Tips for Getting What You Want
What Teen Writers Should Know About Pitching Their Book


  1. I had to do a lot of thinking about agents (again) last summer, about what I wanted and needed. I'm still pretty shocked I ended up signing with one I cold-queried by email, LOL. And a legendary editor-turned-agent no less! Though I seriously doubt the results would have been so awesome had I not already had a contract...

    1. Lol - yeah, my second agent search was a bit different as well :)

  2. Thank you Stephanie, you answered my questions:)

  3. This was a fabulous article. Especially when I am about to start querying:) Thanks a million!

  4. It really is up to us to do our research before hand, isn't it?

    A couple of questions i have:
    Conferences are the #1 way but if you really can't get to a conference is there anyway to increase you queried e-mail chances?

    Learning about agents there are the big names & smaller or begininer names and the same is true of publishers. I know for Jill"s posts (or I created my own opinion from them :) it may be wiser to accept more doable advances so you earn out instead of chancing a large contract. It makes me wonder the same of agents. Small isn't always bad but if you aren't wise, it can be. Are there any tell tale signs of a good vs bad "smaller" agent? Do you know what im asking ?

    1. I think the biggest thing you can do to increase your email query chances is to establish some sort of connection. By which I mean, if that agent has a blog, haunt their blog. Tweet it, comment on it, etc. Consistently. Agents are far busier people than me, of course, but I recognize the names of people who do this for Go Teen Writers, and it makes a difference when the email me questions and stuff.

      If they don't have a blog, read a couple of the authors they represent, and mention it in your query letter. "I know your represent so and so, and I love their books."

      Regarding your other question, yes, I think I know what you mean. Again, if they have a blog - it's a good idea to follow it. I've worked with 2 agents now. Before I signed with them, I had an idea of what kind of person/agent they were from reading blog posts and emails on the ACFW loop and stuff. So even before I worked with them, I had an idea of who they were, and both times my impressions were pretty dead on.

      All agents have to start somewhere, so a shorter client list might just indicate that they're new. What you want to look for is their connections - have they been in the industry for awhile? Would they know which editors to contact?

      Is that helpful?

    2. Yes, thankful!
      So I need to find an appropriate level of stalking ? ;). I think I can do that. I'm not big on twitter but I can follow agents & such. Im not big about putting my name out there for everyone to see though but I know something cutesy isn't the best idea to agents, so I'll have to think.
      Do you think they see through the people who ONLY tweet to agents & about writing?

    3. Simply commenting on their posts or retweeting it (Great post from @agentname on editing!) is fine, I think. It serves them and doesn't drain their time.

    4. Hope you have a great vacation!!

  5. Is it harder to get an agent when you wrote a novella?

    1. Alyson, it's tough anytime you write a genre that isn't wildly popular. Agents are looking for something they can sell to editors, something that editors are looking for. So sometimes they'll shy away from those riskier genres.

  6. Do you continue using the same agent for more than one book? Like, after #1, do you go with a different one for #2, or do you stay with him/her?

    1. Most of the time when you sign with an agent, you're agreeing they'll represent all your writing projects.

  7. I am deaf and it is difficult to get skilled interpreters for writing conferences. Would email queries still work for my novel?

    1. I wonder if you talked to the conference organizer they would be able to make some accomidations if they can't find an interpreter. Like give you a longer amount of time so you & the agent can write down things or something else that would work?

    2. Marisa, there are many writers who find their agents through query letters, so I'm sure it could.

      That's a good question about the conference, Tonya. I doubt they would have a problem with you bringing a family member or someone who could help, Marisa.

    3. About the family members...all of my siblings and my parents are deaf, too. I guess I'll just have to work harder on my query letter, (going to start soon!)

  8. Also, your post for the NextGen Writing Conference was really helpful. So, thanks for all of this that you do to help us aspiring authors!

  9. Oh, I loved this answered all the questions I didn't know I had.

    And I'm really looking forward to that next contest!