Three Tips for Finding the Perfect Agent

So you’ve finally written that book. (Well done!) What’s more, you’ve decided you’d like to get it published by a traditional house. (Go you!)

But then your momentum comes to a screeching halt. The next step in the process is a doozy:

Finding a literary agent to represent you.

For many would-be authors, the hunt for an agent seems like the hunt for a unicorn: An endless search through forest and glen, with nary a glimpse of the mythical creature you seek.

So who are these agents, and why are they so very hard to catch?

Agents are your gateway into traditional publishing. Most traditional book publishers accept only “solicited”—a fancy publishing term for “agented”—book submissions. There are two main reasons why.

First, it helps publishers avoid litigation. Back when unsolicited submissions were still welcome, piles of manuscripts sat around the office awaiting review—often for months. Too many times, an author would claim to have sent in a manuscript on the same topic as the publisher’s most recent bestseller.

Cue the lawsuit.

Agents make sure this doesn’t happen by documenting the process of manuscript submission. Their presence keeps relations between authors and publishers friendly.

The second reason publishers prefer agented submissions is because they’re usually a whole lot better than what comes in “over the transom.” (More publishingspeak for submissions sent in directly by authors.)

If a trusted agent says a manuscript is good, that increases the chances that it actually is good.

But an agent is so much more than a middlewoman for the publisher.

If you think of an editor as an advocate for the book, a literary agent is an advocate for the author. She helps you choose the right publisher, the right editor, the right path to take so your career will continue to grow.

A great agent is there for you, in whatever way you need them to be. Literary agents can be friends, as well as de facto therapists, career planners and life coaches.

So—how do you get one of these fantastic people to mother you all the way to the New York Times list? Rumor has it that it’s a long, hard slog.

But that’s only because it’s usually a long, hard slog.

We hate to say it, but finding an agent can sometimes be harder than finding a publisher. But we’re here to help. Follow our three easy tips to make your unicorn-hunting a little easier.

Tip #1: Find the right fit.

The good news is that there are lots of agents out there—which may also be the bad news. There are thousands of agents, and each has their own specialty areas. Some only work on novels—you would be wasting your time to send them your self-help book. Others only do children’s books.

Which means you gotta do some research. You need to find out which agents are right for your particular book, and what submission guidelines they require.

The website PublishersMarketplace.com is an excellent resource to discover agents that work on your kind of book. You have to pay a membership fee, but it’s low and infinitely worth it. The website allows you to search through all the recent deals within your category (fiction, self-help, memoir, etc.) and see who has agented similar projects to yours. It will then provide you access to the agent’s contact information and website, where you will be able to find submission guidelines.

If you don’t want to spend the money, agentquery.com is another excellent resource. It’s a free, searchable database of agents, and it provides a bit of social networking so you can see what experiences other writers have had with various agents.

Finally, head on over to your local bookstore and pull books off the shelves that are similar to your book in some way. Any author who had a good experience with their agent will thank that person in their acknowledgments. Voilà! You not only have a great agent recommendation, but you have a nice opening line for your query letter. “I noticed that you agented Jane Doe’s book Enlightenment in Three Easy Steps, which was a book I loved…”

Tip #2: Follow their lead.

In addition to having their own specialties, each agent has their own way of doing things. And guess what? They expect you to follow their rules.

An agent gets hundreds of queries every week. One easy way to cull the field is to filter out anyone who neglected to follow their specific guidelines.

So once you’ve made a list of agents you think would be right for you—and it should be a long list, 20 or 30 or even 50—do research. Google their websites and look for their “submission guidelines.”

These days, most agents want to receive emailed query letters, often with some specific wording in the subject line. Some agents want to see ten sample pages, some want 50. Others want none at all.

Remember: The submission process is a process of elimination. Make sure you follow their guidelines to the letter so the agent actually reads what you send them.

Tip #3: Choose wisely.

All right. You’ve followed the first two tips, and you’ve got ten agents begging to represent you. Rock on! But now, how do you choose? Make sure you consider these factors:

1) What percentage of your publishing income are they asking for? The standard percentage is 15% of all the deals they make for you. If an agent is charging more or less than that, something unusual is going on. Be sure to investigate further.

2) What do they have to say about your manuscript? A good agent should also be a good editor, and they will have ideas about how to make your manuscript more saleable. Do you think their ideas are good ones? Do they make sense to you?

3) Do you get along? Ideally, your agent will be with you for your entire writing career. Make sure you like them—both as a person and as a colleague.

4) Are they making you any promises? This may seem counterintuitive, but don’t believe an agent who is “guaranteeing” you anything. The publishing business is like the weather; both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. Any agent who says differently is either inexperienced or untrustworthy.

So—are you ready to go out and capture a unicorn of your very own? Tell us all about it on Facebook! We would love to hear how the process is working for you.