How to Choose Your Future Literary Agent

I wish it were as easy as reading a list of potential agents and picking out your favorite. Unfortunately, the agent has to pick you back. But if that happy day of acceptance ever does come, you don’t want to have that sinking feeling that of all the agents you queried, this really wasn’t the one you wanted. You want to be excited about everyone you’re querying, and it’s a lot easier to achieve this goal now than ever before.

Back when I first started querying, it was a lot harder to research potential agents because many of the agencies didn’t have websites. I would buy a copy of Writer’s Market and look for the agents that were interested in young adult, juvenile, or children’s lit (middle grade didn’t even exist back then). Some of the well-known agencies listed their big-name clients, although most didn’t. And often the list of agents was far from complete. I would just have to take a stab at it, with no idea if my story was at all appropriate for the person I picked. Those days, I figured that if I stirred up any kind of interest, I would be happy and call it a day with my search.

I think that’s why I was so eager to sign on with my former scammer agent. I never considered that an agent might not be right for me. But after ditching the scammer and looking for legitimate representation again, I decided that I might want to research the next steps. If I were to luck out and land a real agent, what would I expect? What I found kind of surprised me. Not about the publication process but about the courting process.

You see, rarely does an agent send a “Sign on the dotted line – I’ll represent you, and we’ll make millions!” response to a query. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened (although if it does, beware). I’m just saying that an agent may want to see more of your manuscript but then get cold feet. Or – Lord help us – several agents may be interested, and then you’re faced with the daunting job of choosing. Although a positive response is a great alternative to an outright rejection, it doesn’t mean you’re done with the querying process. Only now, the ball’s in your court. It may turn out that only one of these people you thought you liked is really the right fit. It might be that you don’t like any of them and have to keep looking. Kind of depressing, but you don’t want the wrong person representing the fictional world you’ve worked so hard to create.

If you’re building a list of agents to query, the tools are out there to help you find a great match, and I’m going to give you a couple examples of how I’ve used this information to narrow my search. I am strictly giving my opinions of the following agencies. What looks good to me may look horrible to you, but I’ll try to explain as best I can, so you can make an equally informed decision.

First, check out The Bent Agency’s website (click here). Simple but appealing (to me, at least) with bright colors and a stack of books. But the copy is what shines; it certainly sounds as if they’re enthusiastic about their authors. And not only that – enthusiastic for submissions, too. Each agent has her or his own page, and of all the sites I’ve checked out recently, these have the most personable bios. I know exactly which of these agents I would like to have a cup of coffee with. One even has an invitation to her blog. These aren’t people sitting in a tower, looking down on the masses of unpublished wannabes. They’re real people, and they’re not afraid to mingle with us other real folks.

Contrast this with Sterling Lord Literistic (click here). Sterling Lord is the actual name of one of the agents. His parents must have known he would go on to have an agency that would represent the likes of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, not to mention famous children’s books, such as Corduroy, The Berenstain Bears, and Fancy Nancy. SLL has a gorgeous website. It screams, “Professional! We know what we’re doing! We’ve spent big bucks on our marketing, and you’ll see why when you read our author list!”, but it can also be a little off-putting. From their submissions page: “Sterling Lord Literistic is highly selective in offering representation to writers. We receive an extraordinarily large number of unsolicited submissions and can seriously consider only those with merit.” Sounds kind of like, “You’d better think twice before you waste our time.”

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe I was also a little bit rejected by them two years ago. (But I do give them props for actually mailing my rejection via SASE rather than making me guess.) That didn’t stop me from looking at them again. After all, they have new agents on staff, and if you’re seriously looking for an agent, then you know that your best bet to get your foot in the door is usually with an agent who is trying to build his or her client list.

The problem is that while The Bent Agency’s list of agents made me feel all cozy and warm and encouraged, the deeper I looked into Sterling Lord Literistic, the more I realized I was out of my league. Sure, to be represented by them would be amazing, but none of their bios really spoke to me. I may be able to put on a good front, but I’ll always feel like a toddler walking in my mom’s big-girl shoes with these kinds of people. Maybe they speak to other authors who will go on to sell millions of books, but not this girl.

I would still love to sell millions of books, by the way, but if I ever do, I want my agent to be someone that I feel I can be myself with. It’s one of those trust your gut instinct kinds of things, and I’m at the point where I don’t want to waste my time querying someone who doesn’t excite me.

So I’m being picky. I’m using the internet as a tool to delve deeper and deeper and find the agents with whom I hope to connect. (I’m also vetting them on Preditors & Editors – don’t worry! Do yourself a favor, and always check reviews of literary agents before querying them.) Instead of looking for agencies that sell big name authors, I’m looking at agents who are enthusiastic about what I write. I’m looking at agents who are maybe a little quirky and have a sense of humor and who don’t know exactly what they want because they’re willing to have their minds blown by something totally unexpected. (Not saying that’ll be my story, but I do like that kind of agent.) I’m looking for agencies who take a chance on new authors that I’ve never heard of before. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll be one of those authors.

It’s liberating to feel that I have this choice. It’s also nerve-wracking and scary to put myself out there and not know if what I’ve done is good enough. But it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing for my story, which at the end of the day, is finding someone who cares about it as much as I do. For everyone who is looking for representation, I suggest that you settle for nothing less.

For a great place to start, check out Writer’s Digest‘s Editor Blogs/Guide to Literary Agents (click here). You’ll find all kinds of helpful articles, as well as the bios and submission info for new literary agents.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!