Building the Agent List

Warning: The following post is not for the weak hearted.

A question I’ve heard countless times at conferences is “How do you start to find an agent?” The poor author blinks and waits for the quick, simple response. HA! Unfortunately folks, it’s not an easy answer. The process of finding an agent can be as involved (and as frustrating) as completing a novel.

See, there’s a ton of information out there, but none of it is easy pickings. I’ve queried a couple times and this is how I’ve developed my lists: Build the list, Trim the list, Send to the list.

Here are some methods I’ve had success with:

Just tracking down names is mind-blowingly difficult. So don’t discriminate too much when building this list…if there’s a glimmer of possibility, jot the name down (don’t worry, you’ll refine the search later on). I also like to make sure I include the agency as well as any clients or books they rep, just to remind myself why they’re on there in the first place.
1. Sign up for Publisher’s Marketplace: I’ve been a member for a while ($20/month) and they send a daily email with all the most current deals, categorized by genre (down to YA, Middle Grade, Picture Book, etc). For 99% of the deals, there’s a brief description of the newly sold novel and then the names of the editor, the publisher, the agent, and the agency. They also have a terrific search function which includes a search for “Who represents   ” and “Search most recent deals by                .”

2. Join SCBWI: And check out their online list of agents. ‘Nough said. 
3. Go to conferences’ webpages: Psst. You don’t actually go to the conference, but the faculty list will give you some names of agents who’re likely looking for clients – it also means they’re fairly legit, if the organizers see fit to bring them aboard. Also, the big conferences (such as the semi-annual SCBWI Internationals) often have blog archives of the conference sessions, which is 2nd to being there. 
4. Acknowledgement pages: Pick some of your favorite books and flip to the back. If there’s an acknowledgement page then the author’s agent will likely be thanked (and, if not, it’s a small red flag anyhow). 
5. Boards: Like Talia suggested. Just listening in on what people are saying about particular agents will give you a good idea of whether they’re worthy of being added to your list. 
6. Writer peeps: Go to a conference or reach out to your friends. I know not everyone has a Talia in their group (and you can’t have her, she’s ours), but other people have done this sort of research before. They have their own lists and might be able to suggest some good agents to look into. 
7. Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market. This is a terribly thick book with a huge amount of info – and not just about agencies. It's worth a read if you're interested in the business side of the children's publishing world.

Once you’ve got some names, the real work begins. Time to asses which agents on this massive list could really be a good match. I do this by:
1. Visit their websites: I know this seems obvious, but it’s critical. You may find lots of stuff about what they’re looking for on Publisher’s Marketplace or hearsay through a board, but I only consider what’s on their site as official. Often they have bios, blogs, or client lists which help to smell out a match. 
2. Read interviews: To find interviews, search for an agent or sometimes they have links from the agency’s website. Also, there are some good sites such as Literary Rambles which collect a ton of info. 
3. Look at the books/authors they Rep: From the client lists or interviews, take a stroll around your local bookstore or cyberspace and check out the titles. You’re not looking to see if they have something exactly like what you have, but if you’ve got a Zombie Wedding book and they only do Christian Prayer books…you may not want to waste anyone’s time. 
4. Predators &Editors and the AAR: There are plenty of sleaze bags out in the world, including *gasp* children’s publishing. Doing a quick search of this website will give a quick assessment of the d-bag-ness. Also, see if the agent is a member of AAR (Association ofAuthor Representatives) who have an ethical code of conduct…which includes not charging reading fees or providing paid editing services.

Now you’ve got a solid list of very good agent matches, so you’re ready to go? Not by a long shot. I’ll assume you’ve put together a super polished manuscript, an amazing query letter, a tight synopsis, and a stellar author bio (each of those are different posts for a different time). After all those are nailed down, there’s still more to do:
1. Check the Query Requirements: Unfortunately, every agent wants different objects when they look at a query packet…it can even differ between agents within the same agency. And – ugh – sometimes what it says on the agency’s general submission page is contrary to what’s on the agent’s blog (in this case, I always default to the source closest to the agent…the blog). Don’t let them say No-way, Jose off of a technicality.
Note: I know some authors who just get fed up with all the different or conflicting requests in queries and just ignore all the rules. THIS DOES NOT WORK. The first test agents put us through is whether we can follow instructions...actually, it’s not a test at all. They receive so many submissions, they have to formulate a system to filter through them all. Ultimately, this speeds up their response time and creates an apples-to-apples comparison methodology. 
2. Professionalism matters: Show that you’ve done your research, don’t address your query to “Whom it may concern,” but rather to “Mr.                       ,” or “Ms.                         ,” And make sure you spell their name correctly. I’ve heard many agents say that they don’t get past the opening lines if those things are incorrect. Simply put: being professional won’t land you an agent, but it’ll give you a shot. 
Note: Gimmicks don’t work. As much as we want to stand out in the crowd, sending flowers with the Query might be nice, but ultimately it won’t get them to represent you any quicker. In fact, they may smile about it and never even open your letter. 
3. Double check the query requirements: Did they want three sample pages or the first chapter or the first page and a brief synopsis? With so many requirements at so many agencies, it’s very easy to crisscross things. Moments before I send a query, I revisit their requirements page to double check that I got everything. I also like to keep track of their response policy, just so I have an idea of when (or if) I’ll be hearing from them.

Whew! And now comes the most difficult part of all…
You wait...
And wait...
And wait…


You've got some great tips here.

I love going to the bookstore, perusing the shelves and thumbing through the Acknowledgments. Query is helpful and I adore Literary Rambles.

I'll definitely be referring new writers to this page, Bret. It's so comprehensive!

Query Tracker IS fantastic. Joining is free, it has lists of new agents, it has a great blog and other resources plus links to agent/agency websites and other offerings. I use this more than any other source.

One more AMEN to Query Tracker. You can search agents by genres they represent. Each agent's profile includes links to their website/blog/Twitter, their page or a search for them on Publisher's Marketplace, the page for them on P&E, sometimes a few interviews. You can also track how fast they respond, how often they request (from reporting QT members), when you query them and responses--and that's all on the free account.

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