Researching the Right Literary Agents for You | Jane Friedman

Researching the Right Literary Agents for You | Jane Friedman

Today’s post is by editor Christopher Hoffmann from Copy Write Consultants.

You’re all ready to go: Your manuscript is complete, edited and polished to perfection. Your query is a masterpiece of concise, articulate marketing that both encapsulates the heart of your work and gestures at its inexhaustible profundity. Your synopsis … Well, it clearly states what happens in the book, let’s not pretend they’re ever that sexy.

So the next step is simply submitting to agents, right? No big deal. There are agents, who are at agencies, and they, uh, want stuff, and you … have something …

You start researching literary agencies. Wow. There really are a lot of agents. Like a lot. Do that many books actually get published? When was the last time you’ve even seen a bookstore?

So how do you decide to whom you’re going to submit? Full-on shotgun approach, every single agent for whom you can find an email address? Or a targeted, absolutely surgical strike, approaching only those agents with whom you’d love to work and you just know would love to work with you?

The thing is, there isn’t a best or only way to go about deciding on a list of agents you’re going to query.

If you have mountains of spare time and a love (or at least a high tolerance) for tedious tasks, indiscriminately querying gobs of people has the advantage of putting your work in front of all sorts of agents, including agents who might not have been interested in books in your genre/category/subject until they came across yours. But given that most agencies ask that you query only one agent at the agency, you’ll still need to make some decisions.

On the other hand, if you’d rather spend time with your kids, catch up on your Netflix queue, drown your sorrows at the local boozemonger, or, I don’t know, do anything other than cut and paste agents’ names into 250 emails followed by a meticulous accounting for each and every “no response” on a spreadsheet, a little work toward identifying agents who might be a good fit for you is probably worth the effort. Sure, you might miss that one agent who has never repped a fiction book in her life, never even read a work of fiction, but certainly would have been dying to rep yours had she seen it—but hey, those Rusty Nails aren’t going to drink themselves.

Fortunately, there are some strategies you can employ, regardless of your approach, that can help you decide whom to query and whom to ignore.

One of the most important ones, one that we employ when generating agent lists for our clients, is to be careful to not overweight what agents claim they want and to rather pay close attention to what they actually sell.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you ignore an agent’s posted wishlist or send an agent who explicitly states NO WEREWOLF ROMANCES your lurid tale of forbidden lycanthropic love, but instead that, for a variety of reasons, what an agent asks for might not always be what they sell.

An agent may simply have not updated her preferences—in 2019, when she last edited her wishlist, she wanted a Kristin Hannahesque, great-outdoorsy, semiautobiographical potboiler, but these days she’s actually looking for a Where the Crawdads Sing-style, genre-crossing, creepy-real-life-elements page turner. Okay, so maybe that’s not that much of a stretch, but you know what I mean.

An agent might also be looking for a very particular take. If her wishlist states that she would really love to rep a “new spin on the courtroom thriller,” but she’s never repped a thriller of any type, and 90 percent of her sales are in nonfiction, it may just be that she’s looking for something very specific or unique and hasn’t come across it yet. Does that mean she’s a good candidate for your list? Maybe, if your legal thriller subverts, expands, or transcends the genre in some way. But maybe not, if it is an excellent but dutiful adherent to the tropes and requirements of the category. Having a realistic understanding of your work can help you narrow down your list.

There are a variety of ways to determine what/whom agents are selling. A rather clunky one is to look at an agency’s website and check their clients list. Another way is to check QueryTracker’s Who Reps Whom list. This can be most helpful if you’re trying to find out who reps a particular author, as the list is set by authors’ names. It’s not a particularly comprehensive list, though, and is not always up to date.

A more targeted method is to use the deal-tracking functions on Publishers Marketplace. PM has a searchable database of deals, reported by the agents and editors who made them, that goes back to the early aughts. Along with author, editor, and (when applicable) agent, each entry includes a blurb regarding the book’s contents. Coupled with the keyword search, this allows you to find deals (read: agents) that relate to anything you feel is relevant.

When searching for agents like this, you might want to consider how large the market is for your work and whether you’re adding to an agent’s list or competing with it. If you’ve identified the only agent out there who’s sold a book on the therapeutic power of dryer lint, which just so happens to be the subject of your own work, you might not bother querying her—“I’ve already got a dryer-lint guy, you think I want two?” On the other hand, if your work is aimed at a large market and you’ve focused on an agent who reps several authors in your genre, that’s probably a good sign.

You can also cross-reference agents and editors to discover who tends to work with whom; if the agent for one of your comp titles regularly sells to a particular editor or two, what other agents do those editors consistently buy from? Those agents might make good additions to your list.

On the downside, PM is a subscription site, so this method requires a financial outlay (at least $10 for a day pass). Additionally, not all agents report deals, and the ones who do might not report every deal; this means that while there is a lot of fantastic information available on PM, it is by no means a complete picture.

It’s also important to remember that while every deal on PM represents someone getting a contract with a publisher, not every deal goes on to get published. Much like some fully completed movies or second seasons of beloved television programming at the big streamers these days, some manuscripts are simply put out to pasture for reasons that are rarely clear. Checking to see that a deal was actually published is important if you want to use it as a comp title. It is a good idea, as well, to look a little deeper at titles you’ve located: blurbs can be misleading. Sometimes you discover that the what-sounded-like-a taut thriller you found in the Debut category is actually cozy mystery or a supernatural romance, and as such, maybe the agent who sold it is not such a good pick for your list.

So you’ll need to outlay a modest sum and do a little homework, but this method can save you a lot of time in the long run—there’s no need to waste energy and attention getting ignored or rejected by agents who never have and never will sell works like yours.

Putting wishlists in the back seat (but not ignoring them) and focusing on what agents actually sell can help narrow your query list, grounding it with a quantitative strategy that puts less weight on what agents may or may not be looking for and more on what they actually find and sell. The time you save can be spent ranting in fan forums about The Nevers being cancelled after only a single season or complaining to your bartender about his ratio of Drambuie to scotch. Or, you know, writing.

Need help compiling an agent list? Check out Copy Write Consultants.

Christopher Hoffmann

Christopher Hoffmann graduated from Harvard Divinity with a Masters in Theological Studies and is the co-founder and co-director of Copy Write Consultants. He has mastered a variety of languages from antiquity (such as Biblical & Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine & Patristic Greek), historical-critical and other textual research tools, and communicating complex concepts in clear, precise terms. Christopher has always enjoyed helping others express their ideas in the best manner possible. He also enjoys cooking and the arcana of bicycle repair.

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