Researching Literary Agents

When it comes to finding a literary agent, the most important step (yes, even more important than a snappy query letter) is researching which agents you intend to approach.

Think about it: your wonderful query and kick-butt manuscript will all be for naught if you’re reaching out to the wrong agents. And remember that the fastest way to get a rejection is to query an agent who doesn’t represent your genre or isn’t even open to new submissions.  And those are such easy mistakes to avoid!

So let’s lay out the important things to find out about an agent before you query:

  1. The genre the agent represents (e.g. cozy mysteries, science fictions, spy thrillers, etc.)
  2. The reading level the agent represents (e.g. young adult, adult, picture book, etc.)
  3. The submission guidelines (e.g. how to send the query letter, how many pages to attach, etc.)
  4. What the agent is currently seeking (e.g. “I want a futuristic thriller featuring clones”)
  5. Editorial input (i.e. the agent offers lots of editorial feedback on your manuscript or perhaps offers none)
  6. Agency size (i.e. is the agent alone? Part of a small boutique agency? In a large agency with tons of clients?)
  7. Experience (i.e. how long the agent has been in the biz?)
  8. Query response time (e.g. days to respond, weeks to respond, possibly no response at all)

That seems like a lot to find out, right? And in all likelihood, there are other things you might want to find out about a literary agent before you query—but this list is a good start for your researching endeavors. You always want to find out AS MUCH AS YOU CAN before you send out your query letters.

Now where do you even find all this information? Well, you’re best friend will always be Google. Once you have an agent’s name, doing a basic search on the agent can yield all sorts of valuable information. But then where do you even find agents’ names? Many people swear by Query Tracker or AgentQuery, and one amazing resource I swear by is Casey McCormick’s super helpful Agent Spotlight.  This is an amazing tool and saved me hours of scouring the internet (Thanks, Casey!).

Added Later: Everyone in the comments mentioned Publishers Marketplace, and I can’t believe I forgot to mention it! I lived on this site! It does cost, but I think it’s worth every penny because you can look at agents’ deals, deal sizes, and other clients. It can really help you gauge an agent’s history, experience, and legitimacy. Keep in mind, though, that not all deals are listed on PM.

I suggest, as you uncover new info, that you keep track of it and stay organized. I personally kept a list of agents in an excel spreadsheet, and every time I heard of an agent who repped YA, I opened an excel spreadsheet and popped in the name, submission guidelines, and links to relevant info.

Okay, Sooz, you say. I have  have a lot of agents listed and all the information I want on each one, so what comes next? Well, now you need to figure out which agents are the ones you really-really-REALLY want to query. So for example, before I sent my queries, I spent a few days going through all the agents on my list and evaluating who I felt I would best jive with. I picked 10 agents to be the first queries I would send, 10 to be my second round, and 10 to be my third round. And keep in mind—these 30 agents were my top 30, so everyone I queried was someone I really wanted to work with.

For every single agent I contacted, I organized all the interviews/articles/bios/etc. I had already found, and then I tailored my query letter to each specific agent. I mean, think about it: if you know what an agent is looking for and it fits what you HAVE, then that will make your query letter much easier to fine-tune.

Here—I’ll give you an example. This is the opening paragraph in the query I sent to the agent I ultimately signed with (our very own Joanna Volpe!):

I read in an interview that you seek strong female leads as well as steampunk. As such, I thought you might enjoy my 90,000 word young adult novel, THE SPIRIT-HUNTERS.

Notice that I opened with reference to an interview that was relevant to my own story, and I suggest YOU do something similar—because:

  1. It shows you’ve done your research—instantly making you shine in the slush pile.
  2. It shows you are approaching this query in a professional manner.
  3. It shows that what you’ve written is actually something the agent is looking for! Right off the bat, the agent knows it’s something he/she’ll be interested in.

Of course, some agents prefer you to start with the hook, so be sure to read interviews/articles/blogs to find out!  If an agent I contacted preferred a hook, then you can bet I started with a hook. 🙂

All in all, though, the key to a finding the right agent and making a stellar query letter is to do your research and to start researching early in the game. That way, by the time you reach the query stage, you’ll have a big list of potential agents and you’ll be ready to dive into the querying fray right away.

You tell me: How do YOU research agents or suggest other people go about it?


18 Responses to Researching Literary Agents

  1. Peggy Eddleman Sep 6 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Fabulous post, Sooz! I agree that tons and tons of research and organizing and knowing who are your very top agents is the way to go. Publishers Marketplace was where I started– I got a list of the top dealmakers in my genre and age group, and then started researching them. Literary Rambles was invaluable when it comes to research!

    • Susan Dennard Sep 10 2013 at 11:00 am #

      Yes!! Publishers Marketplace was really helpful too–I totally forgot about that since I closed my account after I had a deal. SMART, Peggy. <3

  2. Alex Ray Sep 6 2013 at 9:21 am #

    Bookmarking this page! Thank you for posting this and breaking things down – I’m kind of terrified of this part. 😀

    • Susan Dennard Sep 10 2013 at 11:01 am #

      You’re so welcome, Alex!! But don’t be scared–if I can do it, you totally can too. 😉

  3. JoSVolpe Sep 6 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Your query was awesome, Susan!

    Great post, too. Really good advice (and this coming from someone who reads many, many queries!)

  4. Emmy Neal Sep 6 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Great post Sooz!

    I do pretty much EXACTLY the same thing, but I don’t have a excel file. I kept most of it all on QueryTracker.

    I also got a one-month subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace to check out each agent’s ranking, deals, current clients, etc. While it’s voluntary to post sales on PM, I wanted an agent who was actively making sales, because I’m a very prolific writer! And because, you know, I want to live off my novels 😉

    • Susan Dennard Sep 10 2013 at 11:02 am #

      I did that too, Emmy! I had PM for a ~1 year before I finally realized I no longer needed it. 😉 But yeah, it was INVALUABLE when I was researching! I’ll need to add it into the post. 🙂

  5. Jessie Humphries Sep 6 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    I copied Peggy Eddleman and stole her subscription to PM and checked out the top selling agents in my genre (which were very nearly identical for MG and YA) and went gung ho! Peggy and I both struck gold, landing the top two Sarahs on the list! haha. But yes, years of research and stalking agents came first. I too had an excel spreadsheet. It was my best friend during that crazy querying time.

    • Susan Dennard Sep 10 2013 at 11:03 am #

      Nice!!! I clearly need to add PM to the blog post (how dense of me to forget it!). 😀

  6. Rosanna Silverlight Sep 6 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    This post is awesome, Sooz! I’m not yet researching agents (but perhaps I should be … *eyes manuscript critically*) but this is going STRAIGHT in my bookmarks so I can refer back to it when I begin. 🙂

  7. Danielle D Sep 10 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    This is great – THANK YOU!

  8. Claire M. Caterer Sep 11 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Excellent advice! People are often discouraged by the work it takes to find the right agent, but it’s work that pays off. You’re so much more likely to distinguish yourself if you do this research. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your brilliant writing will carry the day. It won’t if an agent never sees it!

  9. Angie Jones Sep 11 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    I don’t currently have an agent… That being said when it comes time for me to find one not only will I be looking with the above in mind but I will also being seeking someone that I can be friends with or at least get along well with. There are a large number of them on social media so I’m taking this time as I get my manuscript/dummy together to get to know them through social media. I certain don’t want to waste the time of an agent that I don’t think would be a good fit or is even interested in the book ideas I have.

  10. AG Sep 20 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Thank you, Susan! This is really helpful and nicely explained. I find the idea of an Excel agent bank to be great, and I’ve already started filling in mine 🙂 It takes surprisingly a lot of time, but it’s better to start early and organized. I love your industry/writing/editing tips *grabby hands*

  11. Beverly Snedecor Oct 5 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    This is an amazing post! Thank you so much! I am an aspiring PB author and will be following your instructions very soon. 🙂

  12. Lindsay Feb 19 2019 at 2:05 pm #

    I don’t know if you know the answer to this or not, but I’ve looked at agents on and off and I’m at the point that I am seriously looking now that I know what I want. My one and only finished book-I have self published. Can I still find an agent to represent my book and future books even if it’s already been published? I realize that I would have to take it down, especially if it does get published elsewhere, but that’s down the road.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.