At AWP, I attended a panel called “Love at First Query: Agents and Authors Share Strategies for Falling in Literary Love” in which panelists discussed how to find an agent and maintain a healthy relationship. The panelists included agents Paige Wheeler, Gordon Warnock, and Michelle Brower, as well as authors Bret Anthony Johnston and Matthew Gavin Frank. Here are my gleanings:
How do you get an agent?
Referrals (I would venture this is the best way), writing conferences, and queries (carefully researched and crafted!) are all good ways to initiate contact. Agents also read articles, stories in literary magazines, and blogs and contact potential clients when they see something they like. Johnston emphasized that it is actually quite easy to find an agent but hard to find a great agent: writers should be careful and make sure they’ve found someone passionate about their work and that always returns your calls. Never ever simply Google agents and never ever pay an agent: agents only get paid if they sell your book. Also, a good agent will not ask you to make changes to your manuscript without first offering a contract.
How do you research agents? What are some good resources?
Agent websites (Folio Literary Management’s site includes a sample query letter), Writers Guide, Literary Marketplace, Guide to Literary Agents, Publishers Lunch, Publishers Marketplace (this last resource is more costly, but a useful investment right before you are ready to query, as it gives a thorough history of book deals). Also, the acknowledgement pages of your favorite contemporary books are a great way to find agents who might share an aesthetic with you.
What are agents looking for?
Agents on this panel emphasized voice: they want someone with a great writing style who knows what their story is about and can tell it in an enchanting way (even and especially during the two-minute elevator pitch). Also, this may seem obvious, but they want someone professional, honest, and with more than one book idea, in it for the long haul (although they advise against doing more than very briefly mentioning a second project in your query – focus on what is best and most ready to go). What else do they look for? Someone who can communicate, is willing to ask questions (they don’t expect authors to be publishing experts), and put effort in the relationship.
Two unexpected nitty-gritty bits I learned:
In the courting phase: It is common practice for an agent to ask for an exclusive look at manuscript. Since you will and should submit work simultaneously, all you need to do is shoot an email to the other agents saying that someone wants an exclusive look and let them know when that period will end (there should always be a time limit).
Early in the relationship and throughout the “marriage”: Find out how your agent prefers to communicate (by email? by phone?) and agree how frequent and how casual contact will be. Keep communication open. Sometimes relationships don’t work and it’s ok and maybe for the best to part ways, if that is the case.
And a note of hope:
Brower mentioned she does occasionally find clients in the slush pile. She sold two books and movie rights for an author who’d been rejected by 80 other agents!