Finding a Literary Agent – First Steps

By Philip Sington

One subject that comes up more than almost any other on writers’ forums, is how new writers go about finding a literary agent. Although there are many different routes to publication, it is through agents that publishing houses find the bulk of their new authors. Even when writers get into print without the aid of an agent, they usually get one soon afterwards so as to improve their chances of securing translation deals, and generally to oversee the business and contractual side of things.
Unless you’re a celebrity, finding an agent who will even read your work can be as difficult as climbing Mont Blanc in a pair of slippers: you don’t get very far, and soon the frostbite starts to hurt. But many new authors fail – like inexperienced climbers, to stretch the metaphor – because they don’t do their research. To assume that all agents are the same is like assuming all mountains are the same. Inside information is the best information; but if, like most people, you don’t have a pal with years of experience inside the publishing business, you can still learn a lot by yourself.
Identifying which agents might be most interested in your work is much easier today than it used to be, mainly thanks to the Internet. Before the web came along, you had to do a lot of networking just to find out who was who. Today most agents have their own websites, in addition to which there are on-line directories – although these can be patchy and not very up-to-date. However, such basic tools are only useful once you know who you are after. To get that far, I suggest following this procedure.
1.) Try to identify as many books as possible that resemble in terms of subject or genre your own book. Particularly valuable in this regard are 1st novels (since that is what you are probably trying to sell); but all are useful. Focus particularly on books published during the past few years. In the first instance, the most useful tool for this kind of research are on-line books shops, like Amazon.com, Waterstones.com, or Barnesandnoble.com in the US.
2.) Get these books from the library, or find them in your local book shop. In each case, check to see if an agent is thanked in the acknowledgments. This is often the case, especially with 1st novels.
3.) If this is not the case, do Internet searches on each author’s name adding “agent” or “agency” to the search term. This will throw up press articles or agency web sites that may tell you who represents the author in question.
4.) Having established who reps who in your list of authors, do more Internet searches on each agent so as to gather as much information as possible about who else they represent, and anything they may have written. Sometime agents pen articles about “how to find an agent”, which can be pretty useful! They also talk about the kind of work they’re looking for, and – almost as useful – what they’re not looking for. At the very least you will establish if they are still alive and in the business. (I would put money on the late Pat Kavanagh still receiving scores of inquiry letters and unsolicited manuscripts…)
5.) In addition to the above, check out as many agency web sites as possible, looking for new or relatively junior agents. By and large, these will be the ones with the shortest client lists. It is often the case that these agents will be hungrier for new clients. If you find some, do as much research on them as possible. This may be harder, because they will probably be less well known, but do your best. In many ways, getting in on the ground floor with a up-and-coming young agent is the best thing for a new writer (it’s what Tracy Chevalier and Jake Arnott did with Jonny Geller, and look what happened to them…).
6.) Armed with a short-list, approach each agent in turn with a query letter. Say something interesting about yourself and describe your book in a brief but eye-catching way (more on this to come). Then explain why you have started with them, of all the hundreds of agents in the world. Mentioning a successful book or books they have represented and suggesting that yours is in a similar vein is a good way of getting their attention. You are tapping into a field where they have established a reputation – and reputations are there to be exploited.
7.) If this does not work, don’t take it personally and don’t panic. Just move on. Once you reach the summit (here comes the laborious alpine metaphor again), it won’t matter how many falls you had along the way.
Philip Sington is the author of THE VALLEY OF UNKNOWING (Harvill Secker 2012), THE EINSTEIN GIRL (Harvill Secker 2009) and ZOIA’S GOLD (Atlantic Books 2005). His work has been translated into 21 foreign languages, selling well over a million copies worldwide. He blogs at: http://thiswriterstale.blogspot.com/Official website: http://www.philipsington.com/
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