Now that you've crafted a truly stellar query letter, you're dying to send it off to some agents. But who to send it to? The world of literary agents, for most of us, is a pretty faraway and mysterious one. Finding one who would be interested in your book can seem like a daunting task.
Fortunately, there are some easy ways to discover the literary agents that would be a good fit for you.
Step 1: Identify Your Comps
What books are comparable to yours in genre, style, subject matter, and/or tone? You probably already know some of these books, because they're the ones that inspired you to write your book in the first place, or they're the well-thumbed books on your nightstand, or they’re the books you can’t stop raving about to friends.
Make a list of 10–20 books that are similar to yours in content, tone, or theme. This works best if the books are recent, as you'll be using these comps to track down agents who are still active and selling your type of book in the marketplace today. However, you can still use older books to track down agents – just be aware that some of them may now be super-agents, may be retired, or may even be deceased.
If you're having trouble finding good comps for your book, hit up your local library or BookPeople, and scan the bookshelves where you hope to one day see your book (for me, this was the YA section of BookPeople). Take some time to read and get familiar with novels like yours that have come out in the past few years.
Step 2: Track Down Who Represents Your Comps
Now, which agents represent the books that are similar to yours?
The easiest way to find this out is to flip to the Acknowledgments page at the back of the book and see if the author has thanked the agent there. If they have, all you need to do is scribble down the agent's name and then head to the internet to look him/her up.
If the agent isn't listed in the Acknowledgments or there isn't an Acknowledgments page at all (boo), you’ve still got resources at your disposal.
Often, the author will mention their agent on their "About Me" or “Contact” page, and sometimes they even helpfully provide the agent's email address or website.
On this website, you can enter in author names and book titles, which will sometimes (but not always) lead you to the literary agent who represents those authors/books.
For example, if I type in "Joy Luck Club," that takes me to Sandra Dijkstra's page and tells me that she represents Amy Tan. That page will also link to Sandra's website, where I can learn what other kinds of authors she represents.
You can also do a more general search by genre – for example, if you're writing a mystery, you can search for agents who primarily represent mysteries; if you're writing historical fiction, you can search for agents who specialize in historical fiction.
QueryTracker is an even better website where you can search for agents. If you click on the "Agents" tab and then select "Who Represents Whom," you can quickly find the agent who represents the author your feel is similar to you.
QueryTracker also offers extensive information on each agent's submission guidelines and preferences, and there’s also a Comments sections where writers can report on their interactions with certain agents or agencies. This is a great place to feel out whether an agent will be a good fit for your query.
Publishers Marketplace ($25 monthly fee)
Publishers Marketplace is a stellar resource for tracking agent and author information. In addition to telling you who represents whom, Publishers Marketplace can also tell you about the types of deals agents have negotiated (for example, how many six-figure deals they've closed), the rankings of particular literary agents, agents who specialize in particular genres, and much, much more.
Publishers Marketplace will give you the most extensive information on an agent's client list. However, agents don't necessarily report all their sales or clients here. You may want to check out Publishers Marketplace first, and then head to the agent's website to get a more complete picture of the authors they represent.
There is a $25 monthly fee to use the site, but it's worthwhile to sign up for the month or two that you'll be querying. While you’re signed up, you'll also receive a weekly newsletter that tells you about all the recent deals being closed in the publishing world. If you've been locked in your room writing a novel for the past few years, this is a great way to get a glimpse of the outside world of publishing.
Step 3: Study the agent's website
Once you have the name of a particular agent you'd like to send to, head to their agency's website to study up. Most agency websites are very informative – they'll feature a list of their agents as well as agent bios (which often include the types of submissions each agent would like to see). Here, you can get a good sense of the type of literature this particular agent represents and the type of literature the entire agency represents.
Most agency websites will have a page called "Agents and Submissions" or something similar. On this page, you can find out what each agent at that agency is looking for, their particular submission guidelines, and their email address (or snail mail address, if they prefer mailed submissions).
Step 4: Create a wish list of agents
After all your research, create a list of the top agents you'd like to send to. Be sure to include several "tiers" in your list:
The Ideal: the agent you would love to have, but who may be a little out of reach. You should definitely include this agent, because – why not? Querying is free and you should give it a shot.
However, be aware that these agents may have extremely long response times, and their attention may be harder to snag. In fact, most established agents have assistants who sort through their query pile for them, so it will be the assistant – not the agent – who reads your query and decides whether it should be plucked from the stack.
The Excellent Fit: the agent you think would really dig your work and seems to still be looking for new clients.
This agent has closed several successful deals, but is still building his/her client list. The query pile is still a thing of interest for them, and they may even still read their queries themselves.
The Approachable: the agent who is looking for work like yours and is hungry for new clients.
This agent may not have a large client list or any client list at all, but they work for a reputable agency and are actively seeking new clients. This is the agent whose attention you will have the easiest time getting.
Start at the top tier and work your way down. If you get an immediate response from your top-tier agent, bingo! You can stop querying and start celebrating. However, if you’re receiving a lot of "no"s or just no responses at all, consider dropping down to your next tier and seeing if you get a response there.
Step 5: Craft your submission to suit this agent's submission guidelines
Agent submission guidelines will vary – some want to receive queries by mail, others only by email or via an online submission system. Some want to receive the first ten pages of your manuscript, others just the first five pages, and others no pages at all.
Whatever the guidelines, be sure to follow them exactly when querying. Showing that you’ve paid close attention to the guidelines will reassure the agent that you’ve chosen them carefully and aren’t just sending out your novel to every agent whose email address you can find.
Since you'll be using the same basic template for your query letter but changing parts of it each time (the salutation and the reasons why you’re sending your manuscript to this agent), be very, very careful to proofread each individual letter. No agent wants to see the wrong name at the top of a letter or a different agent's preferences described in the query. Take your time when revising your letter, and reread it twice (or more!) before sending.
Start slowly. Send a few letters a week, rather than 20 letters all at once. You should be carefully choosing each agent and thoughtfully querying them – so go for quality rather than quantity in your query submissions. Also, from week to week, you might find small ways to tweak or improve your query, so moving slowly gives you a chance to improve your game as you go along.
Don’t query two agents at the same agency, as this can create a conflict of interest if both agents want to represent you. Some agencies will allow you to query a second agent at the agency if the first agent you queried there rejected you. However, some agencies adhere to “a rejection from one of us is a rejection from all of us” policy. Make sure you know what the agency’s policy is so that you don’t waste anyone’s time (including your own!).
Keep track of your queries. I recommend putting together a sheet similar to this one, which helps you keep track of the particulars of each query. That way, when responses start rolling in, you can keep track of who has responded and what they’ve said.
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, a company offering top-notch editing and writing services.