Disclaimer: I do not have an agent, but I am looking for one, and I have accumulated a lot of information in the process which I am willing to share so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Do you even need an agent?
If you have written a book which you want traditionally published, your chances of achieving your goal go up by submitting through an agent. The reason why is so many people write and so many books are bad. Publishers need an avenue of filtering out the worthless stuff so that they don’t waste their time looking at it.
Publishers depend on gatekeepers. Here are the most common kinds:
Readers. Many publishers have readers who look through the “slush pile,” the ever-growing stack of manuscripts submitted “over the transom,” or without invitation. The readers are often unpaid English majors. I met one who told me she did it because she wanted to see for herself what the criteria were that qualified submissions to land on an editor’s desk.
Editors want to see well-written, captivating fiction with action that starts on the first page and doesn’t let up till the end, and which takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster. They want nonfiction written by celebrities or by experts with experience and credentials who can articulate their points in a compelling fashion.
Readers are tasked with looking at the first few of pages of a manuscript and deciding in a couple of minutes whether it merits a closer look. 95% of the manuscripts in the slush pile never get seen by an editor. Their authors may or may not ever get any response at all, not even a rejection slip.
Editors at conferences. Many publishing houses regularly send editors to writers’ conferences to meet with serious new talent and see what authors are working on. Conferences are an excellent place to network, and especially to learn what publishers are looking for—and which ones might be open to your project.
If you connect with an interested editor—one who invites you to submit your manuscript—be sure to follow up promptly. Mark your mailing envelope “requested at the XYZ conference” to remind the editor he/she was interested, and in your cover letter, include a detail that will spark the editor’s recollection (ie., “At the conference, you mentioned my story reminded you of your grandmother’s immigration experience”).
Agents. Agents are on the lookout for manuscripts that they not only like, but that they can sell. They collect 15% of what you earn, but 15% of zero is zero. If your project has good potential for success, an agent will be your greatest advocate. But if none of their contacts at the publishing companies are looking for another book like yours, they will pass.
So the short answer is unless you have the time, money, and temperament to travel around the country to conferences where you can sit down one on one with editors and pitch your book, then, yes, you need an agent. Or maybe you should self-publish.
Where can you find a good agent?
There are lots of ways to find agents. Here the best resources I’ve discovered:
QueryTracker. QueryTracker features search engines for literary agents and publishers. You can choose specific criteria, such as genre, country, and gender to filter down to the most appropriate agents for your project and preferences. The database contains links to each agency’s website, where you can peruse each agent’s specialties and credentials and procedures for querying. You then decide which agents you want to query, and eliminate the others from your list.
As you submit, you enter the date and query method and then update when you receive a response. Then, when coming back to your list, you can see at a glance where your query is still under consideration. The bad news: most agents apologize that they are unable to respond to all queries, and after a certain amount of time with no response (typically 12 weeks), you may assume they are not interested. You can start using QueryTracker for free. I soon signed up for the premium membership, which enables you to track queries for multiple projects.
Writers Digest. Subscribe to the magazine, or visit the website. Writer’s Digest often offers articles on new (hungry) agents, and also agents searching for particular genres. Use the search engine on the website and enter “agents seeking.”
Guide to Literary Agents. This annual guide is the quintessential resource, with articles and indexes and listings of agents and conferences.
Pitch Wars. Pitch Wars is a contest for completed manuscripts. The prize is a mentor, who is either a published author, an editor, or an agent, who will work with you to make your manuscript into something an agent will want to snap up. The contest is limited to middle grades, young adult, new adult, or adult fiction. If you’re working on a project right now, get it finished!
The submission window is in August, the selection of the accepted mentees is announced in October, and the submissions are open to agent scrutiny in February. Follow the Pitch Wars blog for more information.
Writers and Illustrators. If you write or illustrate for children, Kathy Temean’s blog features frequent interviews with agents (as well as writers and illustrators).
And, of course, polish that manuscript. Good luck on your agent quest!
Guest post contributed by ARHuelsenbeck. Former elementary general music teacher ARHuelsenbeck blogs about the arts and the creative process at ARHtistic License. She is currently writing a YA mystical fantasy and a Bible study guide, and submitting a poetry chapbook, with mystery and MG drafts waiting in the wings. You can see some of her artwork, photography, and quilts on Instagram.