I keep riffing on the idea of “finding” someone; someone who’s lost, or someone you didn’t know existed. You can even “find” yourself, as many of us, through writing, perhaps, have done. But it seems to me there’s not much that’s poetic or philosophical about finding a literary agent.

Well, maybe that’s not true. It’s just that it’s challenging to look through the websites of hundreds of agents, wondering which one might take a chance on an unknown writer, and then gather the gumption to send your work to them.

Luckily, there are many tools to help you out.

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

This article, from Media Bistro, gives you the schtick in five easy steps: follow agents on Twitter, look in the back of your favorite books, Google your favorite authors, ask your friends, and subscribe to Publishers Lunch. I was pleased to see this article this morning because, minus Twitter, I have done all of the above. Whenever I read a book I like, I look to see who the agent is. I Google authors I like (sadly, Cheryl Strayed’s agent does not accept unsolicited submissions). I’ve also talked to friends. Lisa Rosenman, over on Lisa the Word Nerd, has been very generous in sharing her own experiences with me.

And then there’s Publishers Lunch, or rather, Publishers Marketplace (the lunch is a specific email they send you weekly when you sign up), which is a huge database of agents and deals. You pay $20/month, but once you have a subscription you can, if the urge hits you, camp out twelve hours a day looking at the “daily deals” and researching every agent in the Biz by name, by genre, by recent deals, etc.

I decided the $20/month was worth it, but if you’re cash poor, there’s the almost-as-awesome Agent Query, where you will also find a fantastic, comprehensive database with tons of links and also, helpful tips. The disadvantage of Agent Query is I don’t think you can see recent deals.

With either site, once you’ve researched an agent, you should of course double-check everything by Googling said agent and finding his or her Website. I do this also to get a sense of the place. You might get to see a photo of your agent, or notice that the agency is bi-coastal, large, and impersonal. Or maybe it’s boutiquey, actively seeking new writers, and warm.

But what, exactly, are you looking for?

As far as I can tell, here are the basic questions you should start with when looking for an agent:

1. Does the agent represent my genre? (No point sending memoir to someone who solely represents fiction.)

2. Is the agent accepting new clients/submissions? (Again. Don’t waste your energy!)

3. Have they sold any books recently?

After that, it’s anyone’s guess who’s a good fit. I like to read an agent’s blurb and get a feel for the person. I must admit I have a bias toward agents who respond to every query; nothing like radio silence to make you feel terrible. I also try to get a vibe for an agency or agent–a difficult thing to do over the Internet. This might mean that even if the agent has sold very little memoir, but has sold some interesting fiction and likes memoir, and grew up in Boston or lives in the Bay Area–who knows–I’ll put her on my list. I find myself attracted to agents who don’t vociferously specialize. Some say they “like a great story” or similar, and then I think, put them on the list.

Amazingly–or not–this all takes a ton of time. Searching friends have told me they routinely send to ten agents a week, but since starting this several weeks ago (and half-heartedly researching agents all along) I’ve only identified eight people who seem promising, and sent out to three (three more coming this week).

Why so selective? Can’t you just query everyone?

A friend asked me this this week, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. My optimistic answer was “what if they all wanted it?” That would obviously be a great problem to have, but I still don’t feel comfortable blanketing the world with queries. I think it’s best to choose carefully, because if you’re just farming out the queries, agents will likely figure that out. Several, in their guidelines, ask about the number of agents you’re sending to. Best to be a little exclusive—and respectful of an agent’s time. After all, you’re hoping to develop a relationship with this person. My two cents.

So then what?

Once you have your query letter template, and your list, you need to personalize, because everyone wants something slightly different. Some agency Websites have elaborate forms to fill out. Some have forms that are so sparse you want to tear your hair out; how, in two sentences, are you supposed to land an agent? Others are laid back: query letter via email, twenty pages, done. Some ardently declare they don’t want any excerpts. One agent said she would accept a query only over snail mail, but if you sent it via email you could send up to 50 pages as an attachment (50 pages of what, she didn’t say). You’re constantly making choices (snail mail or email? Which excerpt?), tweaking your letter, noting any connections to the agent you might have, rewriting the letter.

Which makes me realize I’ve left out something important: start with who you know. I’m sad to report that the few agents I had connections to are no longer on my list, because I sent to them during my first round, a couple years ago, when the book wasn’t strong enough. So now, I’m in the “cold call” phase. Not ideal, but it’s what I have to work with. If you have a family member who has a friend who’s an agent, or a friend who has an agent and is willing to share, by all means respectfully approach that person!

Last step: Deep Breath, Prayer

I find I can research all day, tweak all day, but then I have to wait a day before sending out the query. This may just be me, but I agonize over what might be the best day of the week to send the letter, and whether I might need to proofread it again. Everyone has her neuroses.

So when you’re good and ready, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and hit send.

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