The query process is daunting. Research, writing the query letter, finding agents, more research, rewriting that query letter a few more times, getting feedback from others on the query letter, etc. When it comes to the research and finding agents part, I think I might have some valuable input. (For good input on the actual query letter, you might want to start here or here.)
Where to begin? Finding literary agents is kind of like a game of hide-and-seek. There is no one all-encompassing reference, especially as agents come and go, switch agencies, or start up their own. There are many literary agent lists found in publications and online. Putting all that information down and keeping tabs on everything is a chore in itself.
You may already have a system for storing and maintaining a list of possible literary agents to query. How do you do it? Or you might rely solely on some writer websites to do the work for you.
I like to use an Excel spreadsheet. It's offline, can easily be added to, and has all the information I've gathered on one page. Whether you use a program like Excel or even just a simple notebook, it's important to keep organized and gather up as much information as you can in order to pinpoint the agents most likely to represent your type of fiction or nonfiction and to personalize those query letters.
What kind of information should you look for and record?
1) Full name of the agent and the agency she works for. Double check for things like spelling and gender.
2) The agency's address and website.
3) The agent's submission e-mail, website, or blog url. (Once you have this info use it. Follow their blog, check in regularly on their website when getting ready to query, keep tabs on submission guidelines.)
4) What the agent represents or is looking for.
5) Is this particular agent open to new submissions? Are they interested in previously published writers only or will they take on the unpublished? Sometimes agents become closed to submissions for a period of time. It's something to check into before you send out that next batch of queries.
6) How do they prefer they to get query letters? E-mail? Snail mail only? Any particular words needed in the subject line? What do they want included in the query letter? Do they want sample pages? A synopsis? Attachments or no attachments for an e-mail?
7) Tracking record of the agent. This can be membership in AAR, listings in notable databases like AgentQuery or QueryTracker, Publisher's Marketplace to see what the agent has recently sold, online interviews, etc. Can this agent be easily found? What sort of feedback and reputation does this agent have? How old or new is this agent as far as experience is concerned?
8) Who does this agent represent? Part of the query research is knowing where your novel might be shelved in bookstores. Who else writes your type of fiction or nonfiction? Who represents those authors? I always check the acknowledgement section of a book to see if the author has listed their literary agent. That little piece of information can tell you more than a dozen blog interviews.
I do recommend gathering this kind of information right away, even if you're not ready to actively query yet. In fact, if your not ready, this is the perfect time to do the research. If you're chomping at the bit to send out those query letters, scrambling to get all of the information listed above will seem even more daunting. It does take time. Is it worth it? Yes.
When we send out those query letters, we don't want to simply snag any old agent. We want an agent who loves the type of stories (or subject matter for nonfiction) that we write. We want an agent that we can work well with as a business partner. Sending out queries blindly handicaps writers. When an offer of representation is made, are you prepared to make an educated decision?
On the flip side, agents like writers who do their homework. Writers who follow submission guidelines and personalize their query letters to the agent show professionalism. Writers who know what a particular agent represents and likes are more likely to query the right agents for their work, saving time and frustration for both sides.
On Thursday I'll share a great blog dedicated to rounding up information on literary agents so be sure to check in then.
If anyone has other great tips for organizing agent research, please share it. There are some online writer services that allow writers to gather and list agents. I've yet to find any that compile everything on the list above, though. The fewer places one has to look for gathered info, the less hassle, in my opinion.