Once you’ve determined that you want to pursue traditional publishing and are ready to submit to literary agents, the next step is deciding WHERE to submit by researching agents who might be a good fit for your work.
While there are many websites that provide information about literary agents (see below for some of them), one of the best places to start is with your own recent reads. What books with similar audiences, genres, or themes would you love to see next to yours on a shelf? For agent research, perennial bestsellers (e.g. authors like Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, and Mo Willems), books by celebrities, and older books (published more than 5-10 years ago) are not as helpful as newer books that aren’t yet household names.
Once you’ve identified some comparable titles, look for the literary agents who sold them in the authors’ acknowledgments (where many authors thank their agents) or on the authors’ websites (agents are often listed on the contact or FAQ pages). These agents and agencies will serve as a starting point for your literary agent search, and your list of comparable book titles will be helpful in the querying stage (more to come on that when we get to query letters).
Though this exercise requires more effort than simply typing “literary agents” into a search engine, I think that it’s a more effective way to begin your search. For one thing, it allows you to start with a manageable list of titles and agents, rather than facing the seemingly endless amount of information available online (like Google’s 721,000 results for “literary agents”). Starting your search slowly will encourage you to spend more time considering each agent—who they and their agency represent, what they are looking for, what their submissions requirements are, etc.—rather than trying to rush through a lengthy list of agents that may not be up-to-date or relevant to your work.
This exercise also encourages you to be familiar with the current literary landscape and to think about where your work’s target audience, genre, and themes fit within that landscape. All of this will be invaluable to you during your agent search as well as in your publishing career. How are books similar to yours described and sold? What section of bookstores and libraries are they found in? What ages are they recommended for? Are there other book titles mentioned in their descriptions, in praise from other authors, or in online “related titles” sections that could be a good match for your research list?
If you haven’t read many recently published books in your category, this is as good a time as any to start! Reading recently published books is a necessity for authors. As Stephen King put it in On Writing: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Beyond strengthening your writing and helping with your literary agent search, reading will help you to pitch your work. As anyone who has worked in a bookstore or library can tell you, one of the best ways to interest readers in an unfamiliar book is to tell them other books that it is similar to. This is one of the reasons you’ll often see books described as perfect for “readers of SERIES” or “fans of AUTHOR A and AUTHOR B.” If you are struggling to come up with a list of comparable titles, try asking your local librarian or bookseller or seeing if they offer an online recommendation service.
Lastly, this exercise ensures that you are targeting legitimate literary agents—those who are actively selling their authors’ work to publishers. Seeing what legitimate literary agents share on their websites and request from authors will help you to get a sense of what is standard practice in the industry, as well as what is not. For instance, a legitimate literary agent should never ask authors for payment in order to consider their queries. If you are unsure whether something is standard practice, the website Writer Beware is a helpful resource that shares other red flags and warning signs.
When you are ready to expand your agent search beyond this initial list, there are a variety of resources that can help you identify agents who might be a good fit for your work. However, it’s important to ensure that you are getting information from accurate and up-to-date sources, such as:
Publishers Marketplace: Publishers Marketplace has the most comprehensive deal database in the industry; it lists the titles, authors, agents, editors, and publishers for recent book deals, as well as the rights sold. Database access does require a paid subscription (currently $25/month), but in my opinion it’s well worth subscribing for a month or two in order to see recent sales in your category. You can also view many agents’ member pages on Publishers Marketplace for free.
PW Children’s Bookshelf: PW Children’s Bookshelf is a free email newsletter with a variety of industry news, including weekly book deal listings (though these deals are not easily searchable).
Printed Market Surveys: Printed publishing market surveys are often available in public libraries’ reference sections, including Literary Market Place and Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. While the limitations of print mean that these aren’t updated as continually as online resources, they are another initial tool that can help you discover agencies and agents to research further on deal databases and agent/agency websites (which agents generally ensure are kept up-to-date).
Other Market Surveys and Compilations: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) provides an agent directory in their publication, The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children, which is free for SCBWI members. The website Manuscript Wish List also compiles information about what agents are looking for. As with printed market surveys, I recommend using online compilations as an initial discovery tool and then going directly to agent/agency websites and deal databases to complete your research; agents will generally update their website more frequently than third-party databases that collate information from a variety of sources.
Next week’s letter will discuss information to look for in your literary agent search; how to organize this information; advice for approaching the submissions process; and other factors to consider about the author-agent relationship.
Your Editor Friend,
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