Once you have an initial list of agent names, I recommend using a spreadsheet to collate and organize your research about WHERE to submit. You might include columns like:
- Agent name: I typically recommend addressing agents by their full name (e.g. “Dear Julie Scheina”) or first name (e.g. “Dear Julie”) in order to avoid potential honorific mistakes. Copying and pasting the agent’s name from their website can help to avoid spelling errors. You can also use this column to list the agent’s preferred pronouns, if provided.
- Agency name: As with the agent’s name, copying and pasting the agency’s name from their website can help to avoid spelling errors.
- Agent and agency website address(es): As mentioned last week, try to go directly to the source as much as possible when you are researching agents; agents will generally update their website more frequently than third-party databases that collate information from a variety of sources.
- Relevant social media: If you’ve been following the agent or agency’s Twitter feed, Instagram feed, their blog, their newsletter, etc., you can keep track of those details in your spreadsheet if desired.
- What the agent is currently looking for: This can be found on the agent or agency’s website and includes categories (e.g. picture book, middle grade, young adult) and genres (e.g. fantasy, realistic fiction, mystery), as well as any other specific interests (e.g. “loves books about gymnastics, horses, and space travel”). If you write (or hope to write) in more than one category or genre, note whether the agent represents all of those categories/genres.
- Notable clients: The agent’s clients can generally be found on the agent’s website as well as in deal databases like Publishers Marketplace (see last week’s letter for more information on Publishers Marketplace).
- Similar titles the agent has sold: Agents will generally highlight some of their recent sales on their websites, though a deal database like Publishers Marketplace typically includes a more detailed list. For newer agents who may not yet have a robust sales history on their own, take a look at their sales as well as their agency’s recent sales; ideally newer agents will be supported by an established literary agency with recent sales in your work’s category.
- Submissions instructions: These should be listed on the agent or agency’s website and will include how to submit, what material to submit, formatting requirements, and any other key details.
- Whether to expect submissions confirmation: If the agent’s submissions system sends an automatic response confirming that your submission was received, this is usually noted in their submissions instructions.
- Response policy: Does the agent respond to all submissions, or only those they are interested in? If the latter, at what point is no response considered a pass? If the former, do they allow follow-ups after a certain amount of time? These details are usually noted in the agent’s submissions instructions or on a FAQ page.
- Sequential submissions policy: Agencies typically do not allow simultaneous submissions within their agency—meaning that authors should submit a project to the one agent at each agency who they feel is the best fit. However, if that project is rejected by the first agent, some agencies allow authors to submit the same project to another agent within the agency; other agencies have the policy that a pass from one agent is considered a pass from all agents at the agency. The agency’s policy is usually listed on their website, either in the submissions instructions or on a FAQ page.
- Date you submit to the agent
- Agent’s response to your submission
When you are making your initial spreadsheet, try not to limit yourself to only a handful of agents. I generally suggest that authors submit in small batches (e.g. to around 5 agents at a time), but have a long-term goal of submitting to between 50–100 agents in their category. For instance, you might start with a list of 20–30 agents and use your spreadsheet to rank them in querying order. You can then set a goal that fits your schedule, such as querying 5 agents every week. This methodical approach helps to avoid rushing through each submission; gives you the opportunity to make changes to later queries based on any feedback you receive; and allows you to add new agents to your list as you continue your research.
Taking a more focused submissions approach also allows you to reserve time to continue writing. Many authors find it helpful to work on a new project during the submissions process; mentally, it can help to focus on something that’s within your control while you’re waiting for news that’s out of your control. Working on a new project during the submissions process can also help you to maintain your writing practice, which can make starting your next book seem less daunting than it might otherwise.
Though signing with a literary agent is an exciting milestone in an author’s career, it’s important to find the right agent-author match. This means finding an agent who is excited about your work; who can connect your work with the right editors and publishers; and who you can ideally work with over the course of your writing career, whether or not your first book together sells to a publisher. While it’s frustrating to hear, making the right connection often comes down to timing, personal taste, and luck. You might be surprised by how many published authors found their agent on their 35th or 50th or 100th query—or on their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th project.
Given how slow, unpredictable, and opaque the submissions process is, it’s easy to be impatient or to be tempted to sign with the first agent who expresses interest; however, not having an agent is ultimately better than having the wrong agent. As mentioned last week, Writer Beware is an excellent resource that can help you to be aware of potential warning signs early on, before you decide whether to sign with an agent.
There are also many intangible considerations that go into a successful author-agent relationship. To get a sense of some of these factors, I highly recommend reading agent Jim McCarthy’s list of questions to consider asking a prospective agent. For many of these questions, there isn’t one “right” answer, and it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what your ideal agent relationship looks like in advance. Still, having these questions in the back of your mind may be helpful as you are deciding which agents to send query letters to—a process we’ll dive into next week.
Your Editor Friend,
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