Ask D.I.: How do you find a literary agent?

How to find a literary agent.
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So you’ve just finished writing something—a poem, a short story, a novel. You’ve revised it, shown it to friends, revised it, shown it to family members, revised it, cried, and revised it again. Now, all that hard work has finally paid off. You finally have a draft that you’re happy with, and you’re ready to start querying agents. But how do you find a literary agent in the first place?

The inspiration for this post comes from a message sent by one of my Tumblr followers, who has just finished her first book and is unsure how to break into the publishing industry. In this post, I’ll provide some general tips on how to find a literary agent.

          Wait a second. Do you even need an agent?

If you’re a writer of individual short works—poetry, short stories, articles, or essays—you might want to hold off on looking for an agent. Typically, reputable and experienced agents don’t represent work of this type. (Collections of short works are a different story.) If you’ve written a poem or essay that you’re proud of, try entering it into a contest or submitting it to a literary journal.

You also just might not be interested in traditional publishing. Self-publishing (formerly known as vanity publishing) has lost its stigma, and retailers like Amazon make it easier than ever to publish your own work without needing a middleman. If this is something that you want to pursue, don’t worry about getting an agent to represent you.

Step One: Research.

So you’ve decided that you do, indeed, need to find a literary agent. First, you’re going to need to make a list of potential agents. Start your search by consulting a broad market resource. Check your local library or search online retailers for any print market guides that might be available: for example, Writer’s Market (for the US), Writer’s Handbook (for the UK), and Canadian Writer’s Market.

These books provide detailed information about editors, publishers, and literary agents currently active in the industry. Note: these guides are typically updated regularly, so make sure to grab the most recent versions.

You should also consult online resources like Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, and QueryTracker. You can search these sites by genre in order to find agents who represent your type of work.

Another thing you should do is visit bookstores and libraries to find recently published books that are similar to yours in terms of subject and style. Check the acknowledgements page for any mention of an agent, and write that name down. This is an easy way of locating agents who might be interested in your work.

Step Two: Protect yourself.

Like many fields, the publishing industry is full of amateurs and frauds. The amateurs aren’t consciously malicious—they just don’t know what they’re doing, and could end up preventing you from getting your work to an interested publisher. The frauds are more insidious: these are con artists who are interested in fleecing aspiring writers for all you’re worth.

Check your list of potential agents against professional membership organizations—in the US, that’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). In order to join these groups, agents must abide by a specific code of practice. Because of this, membership in these organizations can be a good indicator of reputability.

However, this is only a general guideline. There are plenty of AAR members who regularly receive complaints of unethical behavior, and there are plenty of non-AAR members who are perfectly trustworthy.

One excellent resource is the “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check” board on the AbsoluteWrite forum. Here, many writers discuss their own experiences with literary agents (both positive and negative) and provide warnings about unethical business practices. If you want, you can also create an account and post your own questions about an agent you’re interested in.

How to find a literary agent.
Write the query letter.

Step Three: Query.

After you’ve made sure that a potential agent is trustworthy and that they represent your genre at work, begin researching the agent in depth. Look at their personal website, their Twitter feed, their Tumblr blog. Agents will usually be very upfront about what kind of work they’re actively looking for—if you don’t fit the criteria, reconsider submitting to them.

Design and redesign your query letter using websites like QueryShark as a guide. And above all else, be businesslike. Silly query letters (e.g. letters written from the perspective of the protagonist) tend to end up in the reject pile.

Note: Do not query only one agent at a time. Occasionally, agents will request exclusive submissions, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Step Four: Wait.

I’m not going to lie: the querying process takes a while. Expect a four to eight week wait before you get a response to the original letter. If the agent then requests a full or partial manuscript, expect to wait another couple of months for them to read your work and decide if it’s right for them.

This part of the process is perhaps the most difficult and soul-crushing. The best thing to do while you wait for a response? Get to work on your next book.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions for a writer trying to find a literary agent?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

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