choosing an agent

Over on Romancing the Blog (a group blog I used to write for), Dee Tornio takes the mike today and asks about AgentQuest. She imagines it as an adventure/comedy movie. Personally, to me it sounds more like a video game and as if it should be said with exclamation points and a fading echo. In any case, she’s apparently about to take the plunge in her search.

Earlier in the article, she says she asked her writer-friends:
“What was the criteria that they considered important in an agent? How on earth did they decide which agents to contact?

Then I went to the usual, Preditors and Editors and several other reputable lists. There was a LOT of literary agencies to consider. Then there were websites to read. And agency blogs. And FAQs.

It got blurry very quickly.”

I wonder…. is it indeed so dizzying? It used to be that there were only a couple of places to find out about agents (Jeff Herman’s guide, etc.) but now it seems there’s information all over the internet. Based on the queries I get, I keep trying to hunt down conflicting online information about my own interests and correct them, but there always seems to be more. I imagine it grows when one is looking at multiple agents/agencies.

At the end, she asked the following:
“What was the deciding factor for you when selecting your agent? Did you jump at the first offer? How might you choose between one or the other? What would make you say no to an agent?”

She’s already getting some interesting comments which I hope people will read. But I admit to some curiousity about these questions myself. Every agent is well-aware that given the way the system is set up, authors will most likely be querying multiple, er, targets (I really didn’t want to use that word but it seemed appropriate). On some occasions, authors therefore get multiple offers of representation, and have to make a decision. I’m giving a workshop at an upcoming conference that’s about how to choose an agent that’s right for you (some people learn the hard way that not just any ol’ thing will do – and that’s from both the agent and the author side). But I don’t often get the opportunity to hear writers talk about it from this angle, so I am reading the comments she’s getting and also invite you to answer those same questions.

33 responses to “choosing an agent

  1. I think once you’re fully ’emersed’ in the industry– aka, you’ve really networked, you keep up with publisher’s marketplace, you pay attention to those authors who you like and who have similar work to yours–a large batch of agents will come up again and again. I could rattle off 12 agents right now who i would query if I went agentless for any reason, becuase I know their clients, their sales, and their agencies. I read agent blogs, too

  2. hrmmm
    I think I ‘cheated’ when choosing an agent, since I basically thought to myself, “self, who among all the people you’ve been arguing with for the past decade would you want arguing FOR you?” [i.e. picking their battles and working for a real result, not just to say ‘I argued for you,’ not pissing off the publisher, etc].
    That gave me a short list, and then I narrowed it down to “of these, who do you think gave their clients useful and productive career advice? If this person told you to do something or not do something, would you trust them to be right?”
    And then I had three, and the final question was: do I actually like this person enough to be in a long-term and intensely personal business relationship with them?
    And then I had two to query. One wasn’t in love with the project I was working on and said no (in retrospect, it wouldn’t have been a good match). and the other said yes, and here we are. 🙂

    • Re: hrmmm
      Blimey – you were very lucky! Well done!

      • Re: hrmmm
        Well, less luck than using my years ‘inside’ publishing as my own personal agent database. As an editor, I got to see how an agent’s mind worked during negotiations, and they saw how I approached business, so we’d been pre-screened, as it were.
        The luck came in having the right project at the right time when said agent was still building her list. Now, who knows?

  3. I’ve also found that there are myriad places online that list my preferences; unfortunately they’re mostly incorrect. I’ve been getting a lot of spirituality and self-help queries of late and for the life of me haven’t been able to pin down where that erroneous info got posted online.
    Do you have luck getting places to fix or change your information?

  4. Yes, it’s hugely dizzying. I’m grateful for P&E and for The Water Cooler so there are places to check before querying but for a Brit trying to find an agent it’s hard and frustrating.
    I have the writers’ handbook each year but – being print – it’s not bang up to date, I use the American version too, and Agent Query. So many times I’ve read articles on “how to choose an agent that’s right for you” but the thing is, it’s not really us that do the choosing – it’s the agent.

    • it’s not really us that do the choosing – it’s the agent.
      I don’t entirely agree. Yes, the agent chooses what they want to read and to whom they wish to offer representation. However, you choose which agents you query and submit to, and ultimately who you say “yes” to. I can certainly understand how difficult it might be to say “no” when an agent offers to work with you but it’s still a choice.

      • I agree with you. In the beginning of my query process, I thought I would take anyone who came along. But my requirements became much more firm as I learned about agents.
        I would be loathe, for example, to work for an agent who was slower on getting back to me than I would like. There were agents who asked for partials and fulls and took a VERY long time to give me feedback. That’s a poor match for my temperament, and I’d be willing to hold out for someone a little more in line with my idea of timeliness.
        As authors, we often feel like we’re coming forward with our hat in our hands, but as in the case of seeking a job, we really are hoping for a good fit, and we don’t have to settle.

      • There’s an old saying that goes “When it comes to sex, women are the hosts and men are the guests.” Which is, of course, a bit of a throwback to inequality and not-a-little chauvinistic, but it’s often the way I think of agenting/editing. To wit: while there are now exceptions and it may or may not be the general way of things, men did the courting concerning romance, while women did the receiving. Because, basically, to put it in a bar setting, you choose whom you approach as well, right? Which immediately puts the power of rejection (which is, as powers go, just about super, I think) on the pursuee.
        So while you may disagree, and rightly note that we choose to whom we query and submit, it’s worth pointing out that you’ve got the power in the prospective client relationship. You know you sometimes say yes. You know you pick up books, and you know you have a large and rather diverse (and awesome) client list.
        On -our- end, though, very often the only thing we hear is ‘no.’ And our ‘no’ is different from yours. When you say ‘no,’ you know you still have 250 queries per week to sort through. When we say ‘no’ (without already having another offer of representation on the table), well, it was often a long and grueling process to get to you in the first place.
        And yes, the amount of information is positively dizzying.

        • I do agree with you that the perceived power dynamic throws off the way the equation looks. It’s definitely relevant that agents get to pick and choose who they work for. I’m just saying they’re not the only ones.
          And thanks for the complimentary comment on my client list.
          As for the 250 queries a week issue — yes, there will apparently always be more writers, but not finding what you’re looking for can be downright depressing, no matter which side of the query wars you might be on. Not that I’m trying to downplay how long and grueling the process may seem — but again, it’s applies to both sides. And it’s still true that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.
          (A good agent who may not be your perfect agent is more of a grey area.)

  5. Query Tracker is my home town. It’s got that seductive little database…
    What I’ve learned. Of course, like a job seeker, I will send out to many agents, some of them more likely matches than others. I’ve learned a lot about the agents through that, like who they rep, the kinds of books they publish, what they care to read. All this will help me make better, more informed decisions about who better matches my work and who to submit to.
    I would prefer to find the right agent the first time, but that didn’t happen in my job search, and I’m not sure it will in my agent search, so I wonder if the concept of starter agent is a bad one.

  6. With the advent of the agent blog, I don’t see why that wouldn’t be an authors primary tool in searching for an agent that would fit them. If nothing else, I’d drop by an agent blog and ask what databases he or she would recommend searching for accurate information other than simply Jo Shmo’s Google-search-found website. Beyond that, while I think suricattus’s approach is truly impressive, relying on the likelihood that querying only two agents will yield someone interested in your book is a pretty big bet. Then again, there’s something to be said for shooting for the stars.
    Nancy D’Inzillo

    • while I think suricattus’s approach is truly impressive, relying on the likelihood that querying only two agents will yield someone interested in your book is a pretty big bet
      Also thrown into the mix, as I said, was that I knew most of the agents I was querying, professionally and personally, and they knew me. Hence, my skewing the data curve.
      If I were starting from scratch, I would have tried more at the onset, but the narrowing-down process would have been the same no matter what.

  7. After a fair amount of dithering I’ve now jumped into the querying pool with both feet and new determination.
    I used as my primary source, downloaded about two hundred profiles, websites, submission guidelines, and other websites, am organising them into a database, and I’ve started to send out two pages, five pages, query, short synopsis, 1-page synopsis, 500 word synopsis, synopsis making clear the theme and events of the story, first one, two, and three chapters, biography, and paragraph detailing my experience and goals.
    Not all to the same agent, of course.
    For me, I found that concentrating on the dream agent(s) was counterproductive – I picked them *because* I wanted to work with them, and felt dissappointed they didn’t want to work with me.
    Many legitimate agents I’ve never heard of will *also* prove great to work with – this time round, I’m giving them all a chance. We’ll see what comes of it.
    I’ve found that I could not find much on google for some agents who rep Really Big Names; others showed a different side in posts on Absolute Write than they present on their website.

  8. Eenie-Meanie. 🙂
    When you first begin doing research it’s very daunting. I think it takes a long time to really get a feel for what an agent’s goals are and if you and them are maybe going to click or not (thank the book gods above for agent blogs).
    For me it’s a matter of being patient and hoping the ones I choose for my top choices will connect with my work like I connected with their other clients’ work. I guess it’s like dating. You may have this huge crush on a guy, but if he’s bugged by your laugh then you’re screwed–and really there’s not much you can do about it. But then, maybe…just maybe…the one that comes along next will be “the one.” 🙂

  9. Oddly enough, I’m looking forward to the day when I can set forth on an AgentQuest. I’m between agents at the moment, and unfortunately I probably will be for a while.
    Before I query anyone, I need to finish up some (shared-world) projects under contract, then finish the manuscript on a creator-owned story. In the past, I’ve queried agents about a story before it was finished and ready to send, and that’s not something I’d do again. Not the proper sequence. Time and effort wasted all around. And so on.

  10. I’m just starting the agent search process. Thinking about it makes me want to scream in primal terror. I figure my reaction’s not too uncommon.
    But I’m combing through all the information out there, and I’m finding a few common threads in my search. First, yes, a website does matter to me, and one with clear and updated information on it to boot. Having a blog matters to me.
    E-queries are a must. The agent must not be intimidating, but approachable and open. I want a dialogue, not a vending machine. I’d like an agent with good editorial support, and one who understands how to build a career. I want one open to questions.
    Experience is nice, but not a dealbreaker. Everyone was new once. I just hope the agent I find for myself remembers that about me!

  11. It was dizzying and overwhelming and *frustrating* when I started looking two years ago. Now that I have P&E bookmarked, and a number of agent blogs bookmarked, and I’ve been reading blogs and agent websites off and on for a year… (and a few journals on LJ, obviously) it’s less overwhelming.
    I did some conference agent interview/pitches and may I just say that process sucks? Toss together speed dating, job interview, adrenaline (five minutes or less!), ego, and desire to publish. Will It Blend? In a word, no. Not for me, anyway.
    I’ve been trying to query five agents at a time, and wait for their responses before I query again. I built a list of A-plus (please please), A, B, C, and “if nobody else responds” agents. That list is hardly perfect, and I’m still working through the As and upper Bs.
    What I *haven’t* done is read books in each of the agents’ lists, as they suggest. And I know I should. But Dear Goddess. Let’s say two books a list, out of 50 agents? I haven’t made myself take the time.
    What pushed me over the “dizzying and overwhelming” hurdle was pulling up my big-girl panties and accepting that this was part of the job. Marketing myself is my *least* favorite activity, because I’m horrid at it. That doesn’t mean I can get away with not doing it. If I’m unable to market myself to an agent, how can I convince an editor I can market my book?
    uh… what was the question again? *grin*

  12. The hardest part for me is not the amount of information available; it’s my monogamous nature.
    I know it is expected, even necessary, to be a query player. But since I’m looking for a long-term commitment (not a one-book fling), it’s hard for me not to wait in case an agent I’m already courting is the One.
    So, while I’m not sending out 5 or 10 queries a week, I am making an effort to get Out There a bit more. I suppose, since several agents are now reading my manuscript, I’m “seeing other people” for the first time in my life. *snort*

  13. I think one way an unpubbed writer can allow themselves some choice (if they’re lucky enough to be in this situation!) is by taking the “bird in the hand” offer to other agents considering the manuscript and ask if they are interested in making an offer as well.
    I would be curious to know an agent’s perspective on this. When you’ve made an offer, how do you feel if a prospect tells you they are interested but need to check in with other agents before making a decision? And if you are that “other agent,” how do you feel being contacted in this situation (do you feel too much pressure to review the submission quickly)? Thanks!

  14. A deciding factor for me will be to know what their vision for my career is. Does it match up with mine? Is it better? Does it stray WAY off course? Is this someone I won’t question has my best interest at heart?
    I think that’s why it’s important to talk to current and former clients of an agent. You can pretty much find out within five seconds if it was sour grapes, or just a bad match.

  15. I will query first a) my friends’ agents, b) you, and anyone else I know from the blogosphere and c) the agents for books similar to mine — tricky, since presumably agents want variety, but OTOH the best info I have on what they like.
    I can’t really imagine having multiple agent offers to choose between, but I would consider whether they also represent other genres that I am interested in, whether we communicate in compatible styles, and what their reputation is. Also what edits they’re asking for — which isn’t to say fewer is better, just do I agree the changes improve the book.

  16. I wish I had ever felt much in control of the process. I started querying back in the pre-internet days, when I’d pour through the print guides and try to find the agents for writers I admired. I was writing science fiction exclusively at the time, and even then the phrase “no science fiction” was common in most agents’ entries.
    I had the screwy experiences. An acceptance for another writer arriving in my SASE, and my repeat query going unanswered. My query resulting in a rejection sixteen months later. The agent I finally landed getting fired two weeks later. Another agent getting run over, returning after six months, and then getting fired. My third agent running off to direct plays and not letting me know.
    I finally sent my latest manuscript off to a publisher in frustration; it is being published this month. I hired a publication attorney to review the contract. Perhaps getting published gives me more leverage should I want to find an agent now. But after having three agents who never sent any of my work out, I’m not sure I want to. I obviously have no instincts when in comes to selecting agents!

  17. I’d actually like the opportunity to choose one at all, thanks. I’ve read everything I can lay my hands on about how to query, and I’ve polished and polished and polished, and I just wish I knew what it is that I’m doing wrong so I can fix it.

  18. criteria
    I like to go through the agent’s entire client list and pick out the authors that write in my genre (which should be a large percentage of their list – why bother with an agent who doesn’t like/rep my genre?). I google every client to find their website or blog, and I read them.
    What I’m looking for, if the clients are multi-published (as opposed to just starting out), is have they quit their day job? Are they at least making a living – supporting themselves with their writing?
    Are the majority of their clients published in hard-cover? Or in soft-cover or ebooks?
    Another criteria: Are the majority of their clients writing 2-3 (or 4!) books a year? Are their clients complaining a lot on their blogs about being under an incredible amount of pressure to produce 2-3 (or 4!) books a year?
    There’s a huge name agent at a huge name agency whose clients are miserable (I read their blogs), and few if any are making a living. I’d never query that agent, and should that agent ever make me an offer for representation, I’d say, (a polite) “No.”

  19. I’m still working on my first novel, a fantasy, so I’m not ready to start querying yet. However, I am very much ‘in’ to research. So, while I continue to write my novel, I do research. Knowing nothing about the publishing industry, I began with searching for info related to the publishing process. This lead me to understand the need/benefit of agents and their role in the industry.
    From there, I began searching for agencies. I did this two ways:
    1)I googled (I LOVE google)for fantasy agents. This yielded multiple links – mostly forums. I wrote down all agents stated as representing fantasy.
    2) I found an agent query website and searched for all agents representing fantasy.
    With the list I constructed from these sources, I searched for websites of all agencies employing these agents. I scanned the agent bios verifying that they do represent fantasy and that they are currently accepting queries.
    I also discovered Publishers Lunch and subscribed to that. From within there, I queried all agents selling fantasy in the past year. (Jennifer, you came out number 1 with a huge margin!)
    I used that to pare down my agent list, as many of the agents representing fantasy sold only 1 or 2 novels in the past year. Some didn’t sell any.
    Through a bit more research I found that several of the agents from my final list have blogs. Guess it’s obvious you’re on my list, huh? Anyway, I read those blogs regularly to get a feel for the agent – personality, schedule, process, existing clients, etc.
    So, from a list of over 50 agents that I started with, I have a priority list of about 7 agents. I am WELL aware that querying only 7 agents isn’t the smartest thing to do, given the odds against getting an agent. However, that is my priority list. I still have the info from my original list, but these 7 are the ones I am focusing on.
    I expect to have my novel completed by the end of this year. I’m giving myself another 6-9 months for revisions/re-writes. Then another few months of letting it ‘simmer’ before picking it up again and reading through to see if there are more changes I want to make. So, hopefully in a year or so, I’ll be ready to start querying.

  20. Dizzying. Absolutely.
    You know what’s the hardest thing for me? Tamping down my impulse to favor agents with a strong online presence. I love agent blogs and I love thorough agency websites; I could spend the rest of my days doing nothing but hanging out at these places. But then I go someplace like AgentQuery or LitMatch and I realize how many agencies — and agents — are below the online radar. Doing a fabulous job, thank you very much. Accept snail-mail queries only. And yet, client lists that must make publishers nervous as bejeezus when these agents show up at the door with a new client in tow…
    Back in the good old days of, as you say, Jeff H’s guide, and the hardcopy Writer’s Market(s) and Writer’s Guide(s) — back then figuring out whom to approach was complicated but manageable. You could hold the world of agents in your hand (or at least, convince yourself you could).
    Now there’s all this ruck and dazzle and flashy (however putative) thoroughness of the online sources. It’s hard not to be lazy, hard not to just skim the surface: hard not to just sigh, I’m running out of agents who accept e-queries, guess I’ll NEVER do this thing after all…
    The saving grace is sufficiently loving to write that winning the heart of an agent, let alone an editor, would just feel like gravy.

  21. Which agent and why?
    I think the biggest decision maker for most people is their own personal goals.
    While some may jot down any and every agent who even remotely represents something close to what they write, then blindly queries all, others take a more cautious approach.
    Again, even with a cautious approach, it depends on what you want out of your agent.
    For me, I want an agent who is going to be willing to help me build a career. I will bypass the huge – flash to success offers – for more staid and length sustaining career moves.
    Don’t get me wrong – everyone wants to be the next big thing, but I want an agent who likes my writing and believes in it and what I have to offer. I want an agent who will collaborate and make smart deals to make this a long standing career.
    My one big question -if I were offered representation – would be:
    Are you willing to work with me to make this my career?

  22. Ze Agenting
    Well, I have a pretty sizeable list of agents to query. That’s mostly because my subgenre (sci fi romance) is not as popular in publishing as I’d like, so I figure it’s going to be a hard sell.
    A few necessary things:
    1. E-mail. As much as I’d like to snail mail, my environmentalism AND the dastardly fact that I live in Japan makes sending things by post difficult.
    2. A similar writing style. Interestingly enough, I’ve found (through websites and blogs) that if I enjoy the way an agent writes or even designs their website, that I also enjoy the clients they represent. Which makes me figure I would be a good choice, too.
    IF I had the choice between two or more agents, I would have to go with the one who 1) LOVES my book, and 2) will let me choose the pace of my writing. Though I love being an author, it’s not my only goal in life. I, strangely enough, don’t want to live off my writing alone. I want to have TWO careers: writing and working abroad. This means that I only want to release one single title a year. Possibly supplemented by a novella.
    If an agent’s not OK with that, well, I know I can work on a deadline (wrote 90,000 words in thirty days), so I’ll see how a more intense writing schedule goes. But if it turns out I don’t like it, I have no compunction in saying “No, I apologize. I can’t.”

  23. Is it indeed so dizzying?
    Yes. It’s absolutely horrible.
    Let’s take the easiest path to finding agents: AgentQuery. You use the search engine to find someone who reps your category. Then you Google for her. The top results are other agent listings, giving you two different mailing addresses. If you’re lucky, she has a website (might not be on the first page of Google results), but odds are good that it’s out of date. If it’s up-to-date, it says that she doesn’t actually rep what AgentQuery says she does. (Must have checked the box at AgentQuery because she didn’t want to risk missing out on Stephen King, even if she’s never sold horror.) If she does represent what she says, you check the agent guidelines and find out that your story is too short or too long. If your story’s just right, you look at her blog, where she enumerates the things she dislikes in the genre, and you’ve got three of them in the first chapter. If you manage not to hit her squicks, you’ve got someone to query!
    And that’s one.
    That’s using AgentQuery. Print resources add about three layers of headache.

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