Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 5, 2017

How to research a literary agent

So. You have a finished and polished manuscript for fiction or a finished and polished nonfiction book proposal for nonfiction. You want a book deal. You need an agent.

Now what?

It's tough out there for an author. There are literally hundreds of agents. Some are incredibly powerful and can transform your destiny with a few emails. Some are scam artists (knowingly or unknowingly) who are worse than having no agent at all.

How can you tell the difference? How do you figure out who you can trust?

Here is how to go about researching agents and compiling a target list for querying. And veteran queriers, please supplement this post with your favorite tips in the comments section!

Before you begin

Before you start the search, make sure you know the goals of your research:
  • You need to create a list of reputable agents who represent your genre 
  • You need to know their submission guidelines so you can then query them
  • You need to personalize your query, so keep track of tidbits you can use in your query.
    • (Think: "I chose to represent you because I'm a huge fan of [Author agent has represented]" or "Anyone who has trained their goldfish to do tricks is fine by me.")
And I have a present for you. Here's a Google Docs spreadsheet that you can copy and use as you go about your research.

Now then. On to the search!

Know (and be honest about) your genre

Agents specialize. While they have some flexibility and autonomy around what they represent, they almost all have certain genres they do and don't represent.

Why do they specialize? The advantages include:
  • It allows agents to focus their networking on the editors and publishers that acquire certain genres.
  • It's hard to keep track of genre conventions, trends, and personnel for every single genre out there.
  • Agents tend to have a better "eye" for certain genres than others. For instance, when I was an agent, I had a really hard time spotting good picture books so I didn't represent them.
  • It's more enjoyable to specialize in genres you like.
You should know the genre of your work before you begin.

"BUT BUT BUT..." some of you are sputtering. "How can I POSSIBLY classify my unicorn paranormal science fiction novel that has a fantasy story arc with magic and the characters go back in time to the Civil War for a while AND THERE'S ROMANCE TOO. Also dinosaurs."

Sure, your book may touch on a couple of different genres. But there really is only one question you need to answer when figuring out your genre: On which shelf would your book sit in a bookstore?

If you can't answer that, you may have bigger problems than finding an agent.

Start in the obvious places

Okay. So. You have your genre and you're ready to start.

There are two places to look first:

1. Who represents your favorite authors in your genre? You can use the ol' Google for this one, otherwise a good place to look is in the acknowledgments sections of books.

The only exception to this is that you may want to avoid agents who represent something *too* similar to your work. Same genre? Cool. Eerily similar plot line? Might want to steer clear.

2. Who do people in your network recommend? Ask the people you know who have agents or who are connected to the business for recommendations (and by "people you know" I mean "people you actually know in real life who are familiar with your work").

See if you can compile an initial list of names.

Supplement with databases

The agents who represent the books you love and who you've been recommended may well comprise your initial "top tier" of agents. But you want to do more research than that.

There are a few databases out there that can help. All of them allow you to filter by genre:
  • Publishers Marketplace - This is a great place to see who agents represent and what they sold. Many agents have created their own pages with lots of good information.
  • The AAR Database - The Association of Author Representatives is a good place to look for reputable agents. All the agents abide by a canon of ethics, and have to meet certain criteria for membership. Not all ethical agents are members of the AAR so don't necessarily write someone off if they're not in it, but the agents in the AAR should be real.
  • Agent Query and Query Tracker - These sites will allow you to cast a wider net, but you'll definitely want to supplement your research to make sure the people you're finding are reputable.
Combing through these should give you a long list of people to query. Next you want to start winnowing your list down.

Confirm an agent's bona fides

So. You now have a list of 100 agents you could potentially query. How do you know they're real? Better yet, how do you know if they're right for you and your unique book?

First off, make sure you know your rights as an author. Learn to spot major red flags.

There are two main buckets of agents you are looking to query:
  1. Established agents who have a substantial track record of selling books to the five major publishers. Those five publishers are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. These publishers have about five million imprints (e.g. Knopf is a part of Penguin Random House), so it can be just a tad confusing to figure out the agent's track record by what's on the spine of a book alone, but this infographic should help you if you're in doubt.
  2. Young agents who have put in a few years apprenticing for established agents. Everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes young agents can be a good fit because they're hungry and actively looking to build their list. But you want to make sure a young agents has learned the ropes from someone who really knows what they're doing and didn't just hang out a shingle. For instance, by the time I started taking on clients I had worked at Curtis Brown Ltd. for over two years, had sold audio and other subsidiary rights for bestselling authors, and had already worked with some of the biggest names in the business.
Another good place to look if you're in doubt is Writer Beware.

Follow an agent's submission requirements

Aside from making sure someone is reputable, make sure you know how they like to receive their queries. This may be via their work email, a dedicated submissions email, a third party querying service, or good old fashioned snail mail.

Follow. The. Procedure. If the agent put the info out there they did it for a reason.

Can't find any procedure? Email the agent the query directly (though don't expect that you'll necessarily hear back -- they may not be actively looking for clients).

Prioritize and PERSONALIZE

How should you rank your top prospective agents, the people you will query first? Go with your gut.

Get a feel for the books an agent represents. Follow them on social media and get a sense of their personality.

Rank your list, and plan to have your query out to about seven agents at a time.

You can't know in advance who the perfect agent will be, and don't get your heart set on any one agent, but you can get in the ballpark by getting a sense of whether you think you'd enjoy working with them.

As you're doing this, TAKE NOTES. You can use those to personalize your query letter. (I'll have a post that details how to personalize a query on Thursday).

Whew. Are you ready to start querying? Time to write that bad boy: How to write a query letter

If you need more personalized help on all of this, a service I highly recommend is Query Mastery, which was started by my friends Natasa Lekic and Rachel Stout.

And let me know your favorite research tips in the comments!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Full disclosure: I receive an affiliate commission via the links to NY Book Editors and Query Mastery, but I believe in these services. I mean, Natasa and Rachel met at a party at my apartment, and I've provided feedback on both services. Click freely!

Art: Haystacks by Vincent van Gogh


Autumn Rinaldi said...

SUPER helpful play-by-play I can bookmark for the future. Going to Gateway Con in 2 weeks, so your post comes at the perfect time!

Dana Bailey said...

It's also a good idea to use some sort of tracking software. Chrome has a lot of good extensions, but I'm sure people could make excel work too. It's just a good idea to keep track of who you query and what date, especially if you're not submitting all at once.

Sarah said...

One of my favorite resources (as a children's writer) was Literary Rambles' Agent Spotlight feature. They'd compile agent info, interviews, and links into one blog post. AND they have it divided into PB, MG, YA.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

"BUT BUT BUT..." some of you are sputtering. "How can I POSSIBLY classify my unicorn paranormal science fiction novel that has a fantasy story arc with magic and the characters go back in time to the Civil War for a while AND THERE'S ROMANCE TOO. Also dinosaurs."

Sounds like 'VALLEY OF THE GWANGI' plus unicorns. I'd read it!

But seriously, Nathan, thanks for this.

Cristen Bopp said...

extremely thorough and informative blog, thanks!

Jane Yolen said...

If you do childrens' to YA books, join SCBWI and get their list of agents. Best starting place ever.

Jane Yolen

Barbara DiMarco said...

Great info! Very cool Nathan.Fan alert.

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