How to spot an agent in the wild

All right, I have clambered down from my philosophical high horse: back to practicalities. Today, I am going to take you through how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. (For a discussion of why this is a good idea, see two postings ago.)

It has always surprised me that this information should be difficult to come by, but it undoubtedly is, at least without paying for access to an industry database. Many agencies do list in their blurbs in the agent guides what books they have sold recently. However, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar names. Not terribly efficient.

Sometimes you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, too, can be very time-consuming. A standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about the work, every article in which the author is mentioned, and prompts to buy the book at Amazon or B & N. Wading through all of this information can be very frustrating, and does not always lead to what you need.

If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews that are often excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews. (In case you do not know, the industry reviews are the advance press — Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book. They appear considerably before the release date, and it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance review from the print queue, so that the book may be revised again prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public.)

The writers-conference wisdom on the subject dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and just start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, the speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving swiftly from one publishing house to another.

In many ways, this is good advice, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common wisdom goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up in conference discussions much.) However, with the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all.

Then, too, agents are increasingly hip to the fact that aspiring writers who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work are still sending them letters beginning, “Since so ably represented Author, X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…” To minimize the resulting avalanche of queries, many agents ask their clients NOT to include their names on the acknowledgement page, or at least not to identify them as agents. This is why you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan…”

Here again, the value of your time becomes an issue. As I said, the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with five or ten names, but that’s really only enough for one or two rounds of simultaneous queries. Out comes my broken record again: if you are cold-querying — that is, soliciting agents whom you have not met at a writers’ conference or through personal connections — you will almost certainly add months, if not years, to your agent-finding process by querying them one at a time. It is not uncommon for cold-querying authors to try a hundred or more agencies before striking lucky. Unless an agency lists SPECIFICALLY in its agent guide listings that it will not consider simultaneous submissions, you will offend no one by respecting your own time enough to send out to many agents at once.

Take my advice: divide your list into reasonable increments — say, 5-8 names at a time; any more, and it will become hard to craft individually-specific query letters for each — and send your queries out in batches. (Do not, however, take your quest for efficiency so far that you resort to generic “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Agent” letters. These almost always are rejected unread.) When a rejection comes back, immediately send a new one to the next agent on your list; I always advise my editing clients to send a new query on the same day, in order to prevent themselves from wasting energy sitting around and stewing about the rejection. Keep impeccable records, of course, but try to keep 5-8 queries out and circulating at all times.

So how is a clever writer without a lot of time to generate a list of 40-50 agents in order to launch upon such a strategy? Well, there are several websites that will provide you with access to agent databases for a fee. Usually, you ostensibly join a sort of club, and one of the perqs of membership is database access. Almost invariably, you buy membership in time increments, rather than per-use.

I use the Publishers Marketplace database, which has a very straightforward WHO REPRESENTS function, very easy to use. You can also track individual agents, to see whom they represent and what they have sold in the last few years. If you sign up for the for-pay Publishers Lunch e-mailings (which isn’t a bad idea, as pretty much everyone in the industry reads it; it’s a great way to get a basic idea of how the biz works and how swiftly publishing fads change without a major time investment), you will gain access to this database. There is, I understand, a free version of Pub Lunch, but you don’t get updates so frequently, nor do you gain database access.

PM charges month-to-month, so if you are strapped for cash, you could easily generate a list of authors, join for a month, search to your little heart’s content, then cancel. Or you could corral a few of your writer friends to go in on a subscription with you.

Even then, you might find it a little spendy. Before you dismiss the idea of spending money on database access, do sit down and figure out how much your time is worth, because the practically-free method of acquiring the same information that I am about to suggest is so time-consuming that $20/month may start to look more reasonable.

The sale of a book is a matter of public record, and as such, publishers must provide information about who represented the author to anyone who asks. Pick a book, call the publisher (there is often a number listed in the book, to facilitate further book sales), and ask to speak to the publicity department. You may encounter some incredulity once you reach a publicist, but do not let that deter you: ask who the agent of record was for the book.

See why I thought you might find it too time-consuming?

Next week, I shall talk about how to generate leads for agents, after you have queried those who represent your favorite authors and exhausted your personal leads and conference sightings. I know that it is tempting just to start querying every agent who seems remotely interested in your genre, but believe me, that’s neither efficient nor necessary. One well-targeted query can do far more good than ten random ones.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini