approaching literary agents

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My good friend Kelly Bryson asked me to do a post on the correct way to research and approach the literary agent of your choice. I think it’s a great idea, especially in light of Nathan Bransford’s recent experience, which he blogs about here.

We tend to think of literary agents in terms of a National Geographic special: [voice over as the camera pans a conference]: Here we seek the elusive literary agent valued by writers the world over . . .

Literary agents really aren’t that mysterious or elusive.

Step one in locating a literary agent means research. Know your genre, know where your book fits in the great scheme of the publishing world, then begin researching agents who represent your genre.

Writer’s Digest has some excellent resources for locating literary agents including their 2010 Guide to Literary Agents. Literary agents are also listed in the 2010 Writer’s Market.

Like to do your searches online? The Publishers Marketplace might be where you need to start.

Step two is to make a list of agents you would like to query.

Step three is, whenever possible, visit the agent’s website. The agency’s website will give you up to date information about the agency’s submission guidelines, which agents are currently accepting queries, and a lot of times, what that agency/agent considers to be a good query letter. Some agents even go so far as to host blogs with sample queries that won them over.

Read those sample queries. If the agent is nice enough to post what they liked or disliked about a particular query letter, then read your query letter to make sure your query has some of the qualities that agent finds attractive.

Another plus to checking out the agency’s website is you get to see the clients that agent represents. Read some of these books so you have an idea of what type of novel or non-fiction a particular agent is interested in reading and representing.

If the agent has a Twitter account, follow that agent on Twitter. A lot of agents tweet publication tips (#pubtips) that will tell you a lot about an agent’s likes and dislikes in terms of queries and novels.

Step four is where you check out local writing and/or genre conferences/conventions to see if literary agents are attending. If a literary agent you like is hosting a workshop, take that workshop. I met my first agent at a science-fiction/fantasy convention.

If the convention or conference is offering manuscript critiques or pitch sessions with literary agents, then by all means sign up for one. Even if the agent isn’t interested in your current work, they will have a face and a name to put with any subsequent works you submit to them.

Make sure the face they recall is professional and polite. Whenever attending any type of conference or convention, make business casual your dress code for the entire conference. No jeans or Twilight t-shirts, and yes, Obi-Wan Kenobi may be your personal hero, but don’t go to a pitch session in costume.

How much money and time is spent attending these types of events is purely up to the individual.

Step five is probably the most difficult step of all, because this is where you have done your homework, polished your query letter, and you’re ready to take the plunge.

Test e-mail your query to a few friends with different e-mail addresses so you can see what your e-mail may look like when it has been received. Colleen Lindsay has suggestions for formatting your e-mail query, but even when I followed Colleen’s instructions, all the paragraph breaks were deleted from my e-mail, running all my text together.

I’m not sure there is a safe way to e-mail your query so that your formatting isn’t skewed by the various e-mail formatting protocols, so I’m hoping agents take that into account.

A quick checklist:

DO

DON’T

develop a game plan through research show up at a literary agent’s office unannounced
while working on your novel, visit agent websites to see who might be best suited to represent your work query until you are sure your novel is complete
follow agents on Twitter follow agents into the restroom or corner them in elevators at conferences/conventions
dress professionally (business casual) when attending conferences/conventions show up in costume of any kind unless you’re part of the entertainment
tailor each query letter/e-mail to each agent send out mass e-mails to every literary agent alive

 

Right now I’m following several agents on Twitter, and if they have public Facebook pages, I follow them there as well. Before you send a Facebook “friend” invitation to a literary agent, make sure that agent maintains their Facebook account for that reason.

Twitter is the best and least offensive place to start.

So when researching literary agents, what is your game plan? Or do you intend to avoid using a literary agent and submit directly to publishers?

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About T. Frohock

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8 Responses to approaching literary agents

  1. kat magendie says:

    This is wonderful – and I have a friend I am sending this to right now!

  2. Kelly Bryson says:

    I wonder about conferences and how that works. If people are hanging out after a workshop, is that a fair time to bring up your project? Or do you wait for the agent to ask questions?

    I wonder how much it increases your chances to meet with someone. My hubby comes home with stacks of resumes to look through and it boggles my mind even when there’s just twenty or thirty of them.

    Do you really have a shot just mailing out your query? My gut tells me it’s greatly diminished.

    • Teresa says:

      If people are hanging out after a workshop and the opportunity presents itself to talk about your project, you should do so, but let it be a natural part of the conversation. If you are professional, I’m sure you’ll stick out in the agent’s mind when you send them something else.

      Believe it or not, Alex Bledsoe says that he acquired representation by Marlene Stringer by sending a query and following her submission guidelines. So it does happen, probably far more than people think. Stay tuned, Kelly, I’ve got a great youtube video that will be in tomorrow’s links and it’s on the pitch!

  3. Beth says:

    Great post!

    I personally wouldn’t submit directly to publishers. First, because I wouldn’t know which specific editors to approach, and second, because publisher slush piles are enormous. It could take months, even years, to get read. (And many publishers won’t look at unagented mansucripts.) But the third and most important reason is because once a manuscript has been shopped around to publishers (and rejected), no agent is going to look at it.

    A good agent knows which editors to approach and can get faster responses.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Beth, I think you’re right. In addition to the reasons you outlined, there is also the sticky area of contracts, emerging e-book rights, and other copyright issues that I would feel more confident having a literary agent negotiate. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Kelly Bryson says:

    Thanks for the advice. I know a lot of people get in with just a letter. Perhaps my query distress has me looking for a way out!

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