A Guide to Fine-Tuning Your Literary Agent List

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You didn’t think typing “The End” into your manuscript was really the end, did you? Not if you want a prestigious publisher to fill Barnes & Noble with copies of your book, which may be tougher than writing it in the first place. To achieve that, a literary agent is your best bet—in fact, most major publishers won’t even work with authors who aren’t represented by agents. 

You’ve probably heard you need an amazing query letter. Literary veteran Keith Gessen says, “I judge writers on how they write queries. If you’re a good writer, you’re a good writer.” So, your query letter isn’t something to haphazardly type into a word processor in 10 minutes. Luckily, you can call on experts in query letters. Then, to know who to entice, you need a list of prospective agents, which takes some serious research. We also compile agent lists, saving you time and effort. 

For some insight into creating one yourself, read on. 

Matchmaker, find me an agent!

There’s an army of working agents out there, but only some of them will be a good fit for you and your book. Your book has its genre, and you have your personality and goals. Each literary agent also has specific genres they work with and, of course, their own personality.

If you live in New York City, you're probably neighbors with at least several literary agents—New York is the center of U.S. publishing. Otherwise, some common places to look for agents are websites like AgentQuery and Publishers Marketplace and the annual publication Writer’s Market. These sources provide a launchpad for more research. That’s right—you can’t just stop digging at this stage and send out a generic query letter en masse to every name you come across. Well, you can, but it’s not a good idea unless you love rejection and being ghosted.

Think outside the box, too. Pop into the bookstore and find recent books similar to yours. An author will often thank their agent on the acknowledgments page. Note the names and see if they’re accepting new writers. 

Focusing your list

A good way to fine-tune your agent list is to research further and get a feel for their personality. At the very least, you should get along reasonably well with your publishing agent since it’ll be a working relationship; it won’t be good for either of you if you hate each other. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Are they credible? 

Anyone can call themselves an agent. You can look up agents in the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) database, but it isn’t all-encompassing. If your intuition tells you something’s off about a potential agent, you might want to abandon that lead.

Do they fit your genre? 

Do you know your genre and age demographic/category? An agent who mostly handles historical fiction and romance probably doesn’t want your epic story about Prince D’lareth and the river elves. You’ll find out their specialties in your research, but you first have to make sure you know your genre and target audience. 

Are they working solo or with an agency? 

It’s something to be aware of. An agency will have other publishing agents to help with ideas, but many successful agents are solo players. Consider whether you want the extra services of an agency or whether you’d be happy with a skilled solo agent.

What’s their social presence? 

Check their LinkedIn and other social media. Do they seem engaged with people in the publishing world? An agent with many active industry relationships might quickly come up with ideas for your book. A potential agent’s social media also offers invaluable insight into how they work and what they’re like as a person, allowing you to evaluate your compatibility.

Do they offer editing assistance? 

If you want someone to help with your writing as well as with selling it, look for editorial agents. Some agents focus more on strategy. However, you can always hire a capable editor

Utilizing your research

Yes, doing all this research will take time and effort, but it will pay off, both in narrowing your list and writing your query letters. Now you’ll be able to customize each one to best suit the literary agent. Agents are proud of their work and might have a distinct voice online or in media such as podcasts. It shows your diligence if you mention their accomplishments, and they will also know you didn’t just send out the same old generic query to all their colleagues. Before getting carried away, though, be sure you’re following each agent’s query specifications.

Finding a literary agent is an adventure. If you don’t have the time or desire for extensive research and letter writing, reach out to publishing specialists who’ll create a query package to save you time and spare you stress. 

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