Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)

RESEARCHING AGENTS

Get personal and establish a connection.

by C. Hope Clark

I clicked from website to website, one blog to another, all telling me my chances of finding an agent were slim in the current publishing environment. Statistics spouted success rates of one half of one percent. One agent read 8,000 queries in a year and only signed five new clients. Some agents even posted the number of queries they received each week versus the number of manuscripts requested. All too often the percentage equaled zero. Hellbent on beating the odds, I devised a plan to find my agent.

Throughout the course of 20 months, I submitted 72 queries, opened 55 rejections and received invitations for seven complete manuscripts. I landed an 88 percent response rate, and finally, a contract with an agent. How did I do it? I got personal.

WHERE TO FIND AGENTS

Many writers cringe at the thought of researching the publishing business. You must be better than that. Embrace the research, especially if it leads to representation. The more you analyze the rules, the players, the successes and failures, the more you increase your chances of signing a contract with a representative. Set aside time (i.e., days, weeks) to educate yourself about these professionals. You have your manuscript, your synopsis, a list of published books like yours and a biography. You’ve edited and re-edited your query so it’s tight as a drum. Now focus. Whom do you see as your handler, your mentor, your guide through the publishing maze? And where do you find him or her?

Agency websites

Most literary houses maintain a website. They post guidelines and books they’ve pushed into the marketplace. They also inform you about the individual agents on staff—including bios, favorite reads, writing styles they prefer, photos and maybe where they attended school. Read all the website has to offer, taking notes. If any agent represents your type of work, record what they prefer in a query and move on to their blog, if they keep one.

Blogs

Agent blogs reveal clues about what agents prefer. While websites are static in design, blogs allow comments. Here agents offer information about publishing changes, new releases—even their vacations and luncheons with movers and shakers in the industry. Some agents solicit feedback with dynamic dilemmas or ethical obstacles. Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary, Mary Kole of Movable Type Literary, and Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary have been known to post short contests for their blog readers, if for no other reason than to emphasize what they seek in a client. For a complete list of agent blogs, go to the GLA Blog (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog) and see them on the right.

Guidebooks and databases

The Guide to Literary Agents is a premier example of a guidebook resource. Use it to cull the agents who seek writers just like you. PublishersMarketplace.com and WritersMarket.com offer online, fingertip access to the websites, addresses and desires of most agents—and also point you in other directions to learn more.

Facebook and Twitter

Social networking has enabled writers to see yet another side of agents. These mini-versions of agents’ lives can spark ideas for you to use in a query as well as help you digest the publishing world through professional eyes.

Conferences

Margot Starbuck, author of The Girl in the Orange Dress and Unsqueezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, met her agent at a writers conference. “He had given a seminar that was essentially themed, ‘My Perfect Client,’ describing the type of writer he’d want to represent. When I got home, I crafted my letter to his own specs!”

It’s easier to query an agent you’ve met, whom you’ve heard, who has articulated what he likes. That subtle Midwestern accent you would not have heard otherwise might trigger you to pitch about your travel book or romance set in Nebraska. A one-hour class might empower you to query a particular agent after hearing her pet peeves and desires.

Online interviews

Google an agent’s name and the word “interview.” Authors, writers’ organizations, magazines and commercial writing sites post such interviews to attract readers. A current Q&A might prompt you to reword that query opening and pique an agent’s interest. The agent might express a wish to read less women’s fiction and more young adult novels these days—information not spelled out on her website profile. She might reveal a weakness for Southern writing. Reps also hop from agency to agency, and a timely interview might let you know she’s changed location.

THE PLAN

Not wanting to collaborate with a complete stranger, I began dissecting agents’ information to get a better feel for them. After noting 1) name, 2) agency, 3) query preferences, and 4) an address for each potential agent on a spreadsheet column, I dug down more for what I deemed the “zing” factor—the human factor. As a previous human resource director, I knew the power of connection. An applicant attending the same university as the manager often warranted a second glance. A first-time interviewee who played golf might reap a return invitation. Why couldn’t this concept apply to literary agents? I was a job seeker; they were hiring. How could I make them take a second look at me and the fabulous writing I offered?

I reread bios and Googled deeper; I studied interviews and deciphered blogs. I read between the lines, earnestly seeking what made these people more than agents. Just like I canvassed the doctors and hairdressers in my life, I investigated these people for characteristics that bridged their preferences with mine.

Zing factors

The human connection between you and an agent is what I call the “zing” factor. These agents receive hundreds of queries per week, most skimmed or unread. You never know when an agent has been up all night with a sick child or arrived at work fighting the flu. You have no control over the timing that places your query in an agent’s hands. What you can control is a creative opening that doesn’t echo like the 30 before it and the 20 after, and rises to the top even if the reader hasn’t had his coffee.

Agents hate to be taken for granted or treated like an anonymous personality (i.e., “Dear Agent”). The attention you give to zing factors will demonstrate that you respect the agent as a person. Suddenly you have that magical connection that holds his attention at least long enough to read your dead-on synopsis.

What makes for a great conduit between you and your agent? Anything and everything.

CLIENTELE—Signing good authors and landing great contracts make an agent proud. If you intend to become part of an agency’s stable of authors, become familiar with who occupies the neighboring stalls. Recognize agents for what they have accomplished.

Author Tanya Egan Gibson not only emphasized her knowledge of Susan Golomb’s clients, but she contacted one of the authors and asked permission to use him as a reference after meeting at a conference. The query won her representation and, later, a contract with Dutton Publishers.

Christine Chitnis introduced herself to other authors at a retreat where they shared critiques and ideas. Once she completed her manuscript, she pitched to the agents of those authors, knowing they could vouch for the quality of her work. She acquired an agent after two attempts.

PREVIOUS MEETINGS—A dinner table discussion with an agent at a conference could provide the lead for your next query. Make a point to meet and greet agents at these functions. They expect it. Give and take in the conversations. Don’t smother them with your views. Listen for advice. Be polite. Afterward, before the experience evaporates, record notes about the topics discussed, the locale, maybe even the jokes or awkward speaker. The zing factor becomes instant recall when you remind an agent you met over dinner, during a fast-pitch or over drinks. You evolve into a person instead of another faceless query.

RECOGNITION—In your query, include where you found the agent’s name. Congratulate him or her on recent contracts for books that sound similar to yours. You’ll find this information through a website called Publishers Marketplace, or on the agency’s website, blog, tweets or Facebook page.

FAVORITE READS—Agents are voracious readers, and, like any word geeks, they have favorite genres, authors and styles. Website bios often mention what sits on their nightstand, and blogs might post writers they admire. Note where you uncovered this information and marvel at your similarities.

GEOGRAPHY—All agents aren’t born and reared in New York. With the ease of communication these days, agents live everywhere and telecommute. They also come from other places, and those roots might mirror yours. A New York agent who grew up in Georgia might have a soft spot for Civil War nonfiction.

PERSONAL INTERESTS—Agents have lives and off-duty pastimes. When author Nina Amir first contacted her agent, she also noted a mutual love of horses—in particular, a desire to save ex-racehorses from slaughter. The agent immediately called her.

In pitching to literary agent Verna Dreisbach, I revealed a common interest in mentoring teenage writers, knowing Verna founded Capitol City Young Writers, a nonprofit for youth interested in writing and publishing. Because my proposal was a mystery and I married a federal agent, I also admired her past work in law enforcement. Later, when asked if those initial items caught her attention, Verna responded in the positive. “Of course it made an impact. Writing with a degree of expertise in any field is crucial, including law enforcement. I looked forward to reading your work. I choose to represent authors that I have a connection with, and your interests and aspirations certainly fit well with mine. As I expected, we hit it off immediately.”

PASSION

Nothing, however, replaces the ability to show passion in your work. Genuine excitement over your book is contagious, and agents spot it in an instant. Carole Bartholomeaux unknowingly personalized her query through her passion. Her agent, an expectant father at the time, was touched by her story about a small town putting their lives on the line to save a group of Jewish children during World War II. You are the biggest advocate for your book, with your agent a close second. Everyone in your path should feel that energy. When agents sense it, they jump on your bandwagon knowing that readers will do the same.

When asked which grabbed her attention more, the personalization or the writing, Dreisbach replied diplomatically yet succinctly: “Both are equally important—authors who are personal and professional. Just as in any business, it is important to stand out from the crowd. I do not mean by being bizarre or unusual, but through the expression of a writer’s passion, honesty and talent.”

Don’t cheapen yourself, though. Nathan Bransford, former agent and current award-winning blogger, gives his opinion about personalizing a query: “The goal of personalization isn’t to suck up to the agent and score cheap points. As much as some people think we agents just want people to suck up to us, it’s really not true. There is an art to personalization. Dedication and diligence are important, so if you query me, I hope you’ll do your homework, and sure, if you’ve read books by my clients, mention that. Just don’t try and trick me.”

So be genuine. Be your passionate self and the person who obviously has done the research. A relationship with an agent is to be entered seriously and practically, with both parties sharing excitement for a common goal.

PHOTO: Gary W. Clark

C. HOPE CLARK is the founder of FundsforWriters.com, chosen by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past 10 years. Her newsletters reach 40,000 readers weekly. She’s published in numerous online and print publications, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer Magazine and many Chicken Soups. She is the author of the Carolina Slade suspense series from Bell Bridge Books. Hope speaks at several writers conferences each year, and you can find her at hopeclark.blogspot.comtwitter.com/hopeclark, and facebook.com/chopeclark. She writes from the banks of Lake Murray, S.C.