How to Get an Agent: A Top Ten List

Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone (a fantasy epic published by Henry Holt in 2012), identified her ideal agent by reading a blog profile, and went from an initial query to a book deal in just over a month. Christine Brodien-Jones, who’s published middle grade fiction with Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Random House, found her agent through pure serendipity: a cold query to a major publishing house, an unfortunate editorial departure, a form letter, and then a happy reunion with the editor-turned-agent who’d loved her writing. Susanna Leonard Hill, who writes children’s picture books, met her agent during one of her daughter’s playdates (the agent just happened to be the mother of a classmate!). An author of YA novels who blogs as “Feaky Snucker” landed her agent via #Pitchmas, a holiday-time Twitter feed that matches authors’ novel pitches with agents looking for new clients. And the diverse list goes on.

For every agented and/or published author, it seems, there is a different story about how that vital connection with an agent was initially forged. My own story involved years of writing (of course), a lot of research, a series of targeted and customized query letters, a bit of luck, and finally a call from the world’s greatest agent, who worked with me for two years before I produced a manuscript she felt ready to sell.

Chances are your kids aren’t going to have a playdate with the children of a literary agent any time soon, and few these days would recommend querying editors at major houses directly. As for Twitter opportunities like #PitchMas and #PitMad, as many aspiring authors who have participated will tell you, they can be as much a shot in the dark as the normal querying process, if somewhat more exhilarating. So in a world saturated with advice, much of it dated, naive, or unwise, what are the wisest ways to pursue and secure representation for your novel? How to wade through the mountains of advice out there to identify the most effective way to find an agent?

In lieu of dispensing my own advice, what follows is a modest attempt at curation. I’ve read probably hundreds of posts and articles on the subject over the last five or six years, often obsessively so, and though I’m now lucky enough to have an agent, I continue to follow many threads related to writing and publishing, particularly for aspiring and debut novelists. As the pub date of my own debut novel approaches, I’m having more and more conversations with friends, colleagues, and relatives seeking representation for their fiction, and I’ve found that these are the sources I most often send their way.

Much of the advice you’ll find in these posts and articles will start to sound familiar after a bit of reading around: making sure your novel manuscript is complete and as polished as it can be before querying, avoiding gimmicks at all costs, querying just a few agents at the same time (“small-batch querying,” as Bardugo helpfully calls it in the post linked above), expecting and handling lots of rejection, and so on. Some of the pieces below are now several years old and may not show up at the top of Google searches, which is one of the reasons I decided to write this post. Please note that the position of these links on the list isn’t a reflection of their value as I perceive it. The first several links provide general overviews of the process, with more or less information depending on the nature of the post. The next few discuss how to identify and target the right agents and understand what agents do in relation to what you hope one of them will do for you. Next come what I believe are some of the best resources for producing a perfect query letter, followed by a special retro treat at the end. Please let me know of any other particularly good resources out there for finding an agent, and I’ll link to them in an update.

10.   How I Got My Agent.  You might begin by reading a selection from this series of guest posts by published authors hosted on the Writers Digest site. Here you’ll find debut novelists as well as established bestsellers discussing their invariably idiosyncratic experiences in seeking representation. There are now dozens of contributions up, going back to May of 2009.

9.    How To Find A Literary Agent.  A reader-friendly and non-intimidating introductory post by Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar series for Dial (Penguin USA) and a former agent with Curtis Brown. Not too detailed, but it gives a great overview of the process if all of this is new to you.

8.    How To Find A (Real!) Literary Agent.  This article by bestselling sci-fi author A.C. Crispin was posted on the website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America in 2010. It’s a much more detailed overview of the process than you’ll find in Bransford’s post, with lots of helpful advice about patience, bogus agents, and other relevant topics.

7.   A Step-By-Step Guide to Finding Representation for Your Novel or Nonfiction Book.  This extensive on-line guide is hosted at Writer’s Relief, a commercial submission service that helps authors “make well-targeted, professional submissions to literary agents and editors.” Though the company charges for its hands-on services (you have to write for a “rate quote”), they’ve quite generously posted piles of free and sound advice here for those seeking representation, including their own respective clients.

6.   Targeting Agents by Hallie Ephron at netplaces.com. Ephron is a highly-regarded suspense writer (HarperCollins/William Morrow), and this succinct no-nonsense post gives some of the best tips for identifying particular agents to approach: scanning book acknowledgments, getting referrals from unexpected sources, attending conferences (though selectively), and others.

5.  “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents.  Posted at The Millions, this wonderful article by Michael Bourne (fiction writer, poet, and contributing editor for Poets & Writers) combines an honest appraisal of his own experiences of rejection with some anthropological investigation at Folio Literary Management, where he watches as overworked New York agents reject aspiring writers at dizzying speed. A clear-eyed but ultimately optimistic and extremely helpful take on the subject of representation.

4.  The Impossible Dream: How to Find Your Perfect Agent.  The premise of New York Times-bestselling author Jennifer Crusie’s post is an eye-opening one: “Most beginning writers (and many experienced writers) think that all they have to do is get an agent, any agent, who will sell their books and all their problems will be over. But if they get an agent who only sells their books, their problems are just beginning.” An unusual but clarifying take on the subject from an author and teacher who cares passionately about the craft and business of writing.

3.   AQ Connect: Examples of Successful Queries. This link, hosted on AgentQuery.com, will take you to a discussion board that’s chock-full of models for successful query letters across many genres. Here you’ll find successful authors sharing the epistolary prose that got their feet in the door, posting their agent-getting letters with drool-making subject lines like “Query that got me 18 full requests and 5 offers of rep” and “Query that’s working (Updated): 3 fulls and 2 partials in 4 weeks.”

2.   What Agents Really Want.  This old post by Natalie R. Collins (a novelist and nonfiction writer) at writing-world.com consists of a rapid-fire sequence of responses from eight well-regarded agents speaking to both long-term and immediate strategies for appealing to a potential agent. What’s helpful in this post is the consistency of the responses to particular questions.

1.   Agent Protocol and No No NoIt’s not just about the query letter, of course. These links will take you to two categories of posts that appeared on the immensely popular (and now inactive) blog by “Miss Snark,” a New York agent who was blogging in the mid-2000s. What’s particularly good about her advice is its capacious range and brutal honesty: she’s writing not simply about how to send out those initial feelers, but also about the etiquette of following up, the perils of multiple submissions, the art of pestering, and so on. You can find a full index of her legendary posts at The Snarkives.

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