Monday, June 29, 2009

Researching Literary Agents - It's Never Too Soon

Reading all my favorite writer's blogs, and your comments at this site, I notice that many of you are looking forward to the agent search when your book is finished. In fact, it's never too soon to start.

The process of deciding what tack you'll take, what agent query site, doesn't start when you've decided your work is ready - it starts now, because it takes a long time to vet each agent.

Here's my method, just to get you started. You'll soon find out what works best for you and devise different approaches, perhaps.

I used Query Tracker. I asked for results for Women's Fiction, and opted for New York* agents, because I'm only an hour away by air, brightly thinking I'd be handy to the wonderful being who'd committed to represent me, in case they wanted to have a quick coffee, shoot the breeze.

The truth is, many writers never meet their agents. Just about everything is done online now, and sitting down face-to-face is probably long gone. We all know that agents are busy, busy people, and I doubt they could manage regular meetings with their writers without seriously disrupting their attempts to find new ones. (However, if you make them heaps of money, I'm pretty sure they'll at least have a coffee with you.)

*Originally, I did research British agents, as Hafan Deg's setting is divided almost equally between Britain and Australia, but so few of them take email submissions - old-school traditionalists that they are. I managed to find only two who appealed to me, one of whom took me on, but that was late, late, in my querying, the submission almost an afterthought.

Once Query Tracker gave me my list of choices, those who didn't take email submissions were marked 'Disregard'. Perhaps I missed out on some great ones, but I have neither the time nor inclination to be running to the post office with hard copy. If things got desperate later, I could always return to them.

From the reduced list, I read the comments left by other Query Tracker users. It doesn't take long to skim down and see whether or not an agent is efficient in responding, or prone to losing manuscripts, etc. More 'Disregards'.

With the remaining list, I then looked more closely at each agent. I checked what their response stats were, what other writing sites like Publishers' Market had on them (linked from the agent page). If things looked reasonable, I went to their website.

This is where the real stuff is - their clients, perhaps (not always), to see what books they've handled and if yours is a good fit; their reading likes and dislikes; their personal genre favorites; their agenting style - warm and friendly, or cold and intimidating. I made notes here (on the site page) to be used in my query for that personal touch. More agents were marked 'Disregard' at this point.

The website is also where you examine their Submission Guidelines. It would be great if agents could agree on an industry standard - where all accepted a brief query letter, one-page synopsis, and first three chapters - or even just five pages - to see your actual writing, but they don't. Each one has his or her own set of rules.

The one-page query is mystifying. What can really be assessed there? How can the quality of your unique book be judged by a few paragraphs? I sent nine of them, of course, receiving just one request for a partial, and NO responses to the others. If you go this route, you'd better have a magical letter. I thought mine was perfect...

In many cases, when I came across condescending or what I called Bossy-Britches guidelines - we must do this, and must do that, or off with our heads! - I dropped them from my list. I mean, I'm not a child, and if most agents feel it unnecessary to treat me as one, I don't need to deal with those who do.

Once my list was more or less complete, I added them to My Query List. I began Googling them for their blog sites, to get a closer understanding of them, and more personal references for the query letter.

So, out of hundreds of names, I ended up with a list of perhaps 40 that took ages to produce, and even longer to analyze. And that's why you need to start now. Devoting some time to it, when you're taking a break from your writing, will give you a well-considered group to query when you're finally ready. If you're really ambitious, you could do draft emails to each of them, ready to go. You'll have spent so much time with them, perhaps following their blogs, and having articles about them delivered to your Reader, that they will feel almost like friends when you send that email off to them.

Now - your way - your brilliant book is going to just sit, while you mess around with your agent research at the end. Best start now. It's fun. It also could reveal some important points that need to be incorporated into your manuscript.

As to your query letter, that should be done and dusted. It's been tweaked and polished to a finely-tuned work of art in itself by now, right? Set it up in a draft email. All that's necessary is to pop in those personalized bits. Send one to yourself at your other email site. Pretend you're an agent, opening it.

Interestingly, you'll find that doing these things - having your agents' list, and the query all ready to go - will make you more confident in the writing, even more determined to stick to the schedule you've set for yourself.


By the way, I'm not so egotistical as to think that I am through with querying agents. Strachan's Attic, so close to completion, could be of no interest to the agent I'm signing with for Hafan Deg. And this same agent could well throw in the towel in a few months, if he can't find an editor for the first one. So I'm keeping my list up-to-date. Things happen. I'm always a realist.


I know my stats are of less importance now, as Hafan Deg's been picked up, but would you believe that an agent I really liked, who had my Partial, finally asked for a full submission? It hurt to have to turn her down, but a Full doesn't guarantee an offer, and I'm committed to signing with my new agent as soon as the paperwork arrives. One thing that came out of it - I now have her direct email address for anything else I'd like to submit to her in the future (she found my writing 'lovely'). This means not having to go through the usual crowded portal with other queriers, if I do need her down the road.

I'm on another hot-hot roll with Strachan - 11,000 words over the last four days, 80% finished, and not wanting to stop. It won't be long now.

That last wistful comment, incidentally, recurs throughout the novel, used as it was by so many waiting for World War II to come to an end.

6 comments:

Helen Ginger said...

What a thorough and complete job you did. Way to go! And thank you for sharing.

Helen
Straight From Hel

cathryngrant said...

Thanks very much for posting your approach to the agent search, and especially for noting it's not too soon to start.

I've been trying to work on my query letter, pitch, understanding my novel's place in the market simultaneously with the final re-writes and polishing. My hand has been slapped a few times with "finish writing it first"! But I want to be ready to hit the ground running when the book is "finished".

Someone asked recently what my novel's about, and I realized I couldn't answer in a single sentence ... working on that now.

Fran said...

Hey, I waited until AFTER finishing Hafan Deg, and regret that. Of course, it could have been Mild Avoidance. I used to get that ailment a lot.

Stuart said...

Fran,

Thanks for the post. I found much of what you said extremely useful. For one, it drove home the importance of the query letter. I really struggle with it but now (once again) realize that I need to work on improving this.
Thanks again.

Fran said...

Glad it helps, Stuart. We need all the tips we can get. I'm still learning that.

Johanna said...

Great post...full of helpful tips! Thanks!

I also have trouble talking about my work...got to work on that!