The great agent search: “I’d like to thank all the little people…”

Since I spent yesterday’s post lecturing you fine people on why, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this, you should keep querying other agents until the ink is actually dry on the contract, I shall spare you further blandishment on the subject today.

Except to say: I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.

Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours. I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach.

Why, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach. And if you’ve never heard an agent rail on the subject, let me fill you in: nothing insults them more than being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books.

This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.

And this, in case you were wondering, is why the mere sight of a query beginning, “Dear Agent,” rather than addressing the targeted agent by name, will make your garden-variety agent so crazy that she wants to put her fist through the nearest window with the query letter still clutched in her bloody fist. Seriously, they tend to react to this kind of salutation as though the querying writer had just kicked their grandmothers: at minimum, they regard it as rude. Agency screeners are uniformly ordered to reject such letters without reading them.

If you’ve been sending out “Dear Agent” letters, go back and read that last sentence again. Fifteen times, if necessary.

The single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them. (Later in the week, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected.) Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

May I assume that this is old news to most of you, though? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents at conferences unless they have a track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre? Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out second-round agents to query. If you attended a conference this summer, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those whose client lists do not include books like yours. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book, check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. (If you attended this summer’s PNWA conference, I did profiles on all of the attending agents back in March and April, to make the research process easier for my readers. You’re welcome.)

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

Okay, if you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield five or eight more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours. Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous. Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

More on this ever-absorbing subject tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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