How to Research Your Potential Agent

Last week we drafted the agent wish list, developed a method of documenting potential agents’ interests and requirements, and now we’re ready to find a representative to fit the bill. Where to begin?

There are several methods. You might find one works great for you, or you might need to try a combination of two or three.

The I-loved-someone-else-they-represented track.

Here’s how it works:

Compile a list of authors who write in your genre and who most closely match your style.

Make the list as long as you can. The more authors you come up with, the more agents you’re likely to find.

Be sure the authors on your list are as close a match to your style as possible. Simply saying ‘crime’ and selecting a random list of authors from Google won’t cut it. There’s no point in putting Agatha Christie on your list if you write like Ian Rankin.

Let’s assume you’ve written a novel with has strong characters, a decent mystery, and is set in realistic, modern-day London. In other words, it’s not dissimilar to PD James.

Start your search by doing a google search for ‘PD James Literary Agent’.  You’ll get 41,000 hits, one of which will tell you that Greene and Heaton are her representatives.

Next, take a look at Greene and Heaton’s website and check out the other authors they represent.  Probably you aren’t familiar with every one of their clients, but you should know a fair number.   What does the client list tell you about this agency? Greene and Heaton represents Lisa Ballantyne, a new author who sold her first book in 2012. That tells us that Greene and Heaton welcome first-time novelists as well as doyennes of the literary scene. A look at the summary of Ms Ballantyne’s novel reveals it’s a mystery, set in London, which has the same realism as PD James’s work. There’s a pattern emerging.

The agency also represents CJ Sansom, a mystery writer whose novels are set in Victorian England. This is a slight departure from the modern story, and yet Sansom’s style is not far removed from the first two authors. Does your writing fit too? If so, perhaps you should put Greene and Heaton on your submission list. But don’t forget, we’re looking for an individual agent; not just an agency, something Greene and Heaton’s own site is at pains to remind us in their ‘what sort of writing are you looking for’ section.

So, let’s look at the agents employed by Greene and Heaton. If you go to ‘People’ you’ll find a list of seven names. You can click on each name and get some basic information about that individual. Carol Heaton, for instance, is the individual who represents PD James. You can see the rest of her client list, her bio, and anything else that’s on our criteria list. (If something isn’t immediately available, there are other ways of finding out. But we’ll get to that later.)

Next, we need to look at the agent’s submission requirements.

Greene and Heaton accept both postal and e-submissions in the generally-approved packet (cover letter, synopsis and 3 chapters.) Their FAQs answer most of the, uh, frequently asked questions…

You’ll have noticed by this time that you can’t conduct this research in just a few minutes. Sure, you can cut corners and you may get lucky, but given how long it took you to write your novel in the first place, the endless rewrites, the proof-reading (you did rewrite and proofread, right?) taking the same care over your submission packet isn’t too much to ask. Besides, the time you spend now will surely be less than repeated re-submissions to 20 or 30 wrong representatives.

This approach is a solid one. It helps you submit to people who are most likely to appreciate it which will save you time and irritation. It also demonstrates to the agent that you’ve taken pains on this matter, which suggests you’ve done the same for the manuscript.

Reasons this approach may not work for you:

  • If you have created a brand new genre or it’s an unusual cross-over, say a fantasy detective story. Now, that’s not actually new (just check out Jim Butcher), but it is unusual and there probably aren’t enough authors of that ilk to enable you to compile a list of agents.
  • The story you’ve written is in a genre that’s fallen out of favour. Take sea adventures, for instance. Now, I don’t write those sort of novels and it’s years since I read one, so I may be wrong, but they don’t seem as popular now as they were about forty years ago. It’s hard to find an agent if the authors most known for that genre are dead.
  • You’ve already submitted to every agent on your favourite authors’ list.
  • Your field is extremely specialised, about the Knights Templar, for instance.
  • You don’t use the internet (presumably some kind soul printed out this blog for you.)

In these instances you’ll need to take another approach to finding a suitable agent. Here are some possibilities:

Online searches

If you don’t really know any agents’ names, or if you have identified the agent of your favourite author but they don’t have a website / don’t have enough information available on their site, what then?

Recently I discovered a new website (well, it’s new to me) that has proved very helpful in searching for UK-based representatives. It’s called Agent Hunter: and I’ve been using it a lot to compile my list of potentials.

What I like:             

It allows you to search by individual agents or by agency.

You can filter by genre or type of book; experience; client list status; number of clients; who else they represent; specific likes or dislikes; opportunities to meet; and online presence.

Applying the filter based on my criteria resulted in 30 names. The site shows me a list of the agents, alphabetically by first name. This first page tells me the agent’s number of clients, how long they’ve been in an agent, and there’s a ‘read more’ option which offers a biography, their client list status (looking to expand their client base; not accepting new clients at present, etc.); how many clients they have; the sort of books they enjoy; how to submit a manuscript; chances to meet the agent (at conferences, for instance); links to their blog or twitter; and a current client list.

In addition, the site offers a second page, one that profiles the rep’s agency. This offers some background information about its history; an address and e-mail address, if they have one; information on their response time; membership in AAA; and helpful links.

The page also tells you what to submit – the standard packet is 3 chapters, one-page synopsis and cover letter. Some agents prefer the first 5-10,000 words, or 50 pages. Always give the agent exactly what they ask for.

All this information is hugely helpful. It gives you a much better picture of the agency and the agent so you can make an informed decision about them.

What I don’t like:

  • It’s a fee-based service and although it’s not expensive, it’s a factor when you’re just starting out.
  • The database is still fairly small compared to other sites, (though it does seem to be expanding.)
  • There’s only sketchy information available for some agents. To be fair, the site can only provide what information is provided by the agents themselves, and some do prefer not to say too much.

Another useful site is Query Tracker:

This site includes US, Canadian and UK based reps and allows you to refine your search by agent or agency; location; method of query; and agent’s gender.

Although the filtering system isn’t as great as it is on Agent Hunter (you can’t confine your search to one country, for instance), it does have some additional features I like. For instance, it tells you who on the site has submitted to that agent and you can read their comments about the experience. If you find that Joe in Exeter never heard back from this agent, or that after signing them, the agent never seemed to do anything, well, that’s information worth knowing.

The site also allows you to save a copy of the query letter you’ve sent to the agent. The rationale is it helps you remember what you sent to each rep, if you sent a slightly different letter to each one. The site doesn’t allow anyone but you to read the letter so you don’t need to worry about confidentiality.

Another interesting feature is that premium members (i.e., those who have paid for the privilege) can give a rating to the agent. There are icons so you can see at a glance where the agent is located (by country only); if they accept e-mail and so forth. You can also create a list, add notes, and diary events, all of which are helpful.

The downside is the information is fairly generic (though some of the listings offer links to the agent’s website), and the fields are a bit too busy for my taste. Of the two, I prefer Agent Hunter because their listings are UK-specific, there’s a better filtering system, and the data available is far more comprehensive.

Writers Net

I find this one most useful for its discussion page. Here, fellow authors write appraisals of various agents, and tell their cautionary tales. Checking your list against the warnings here can save a lot of pain. That said, I’m not overly fond of the search engine on this site. Other than being able to filter by country or topic, there’s no real way of narrowing your search.

What if you don’t use the internet?

For the i-less minority there’s the Writers and Artists Yearbook. It contains a section on agents and tells you things like the agencies’ name, address, fees and clients. It’s particularly helpful when you need to research agencies that don’t have a website. On the other hand, it doesn’t give you much information about a specific agent, but only about the agencies.

Incidentally, if you don’t like the on-line approach you should be aware that an increasing number of agents have gone to a paperless system. Your refusal to join the electronic age could limit your number of options, so do give it some thought.

Keeping Records:

Once you have identified the agents who seem like a good fit for you, I’d suggest you devise a system to track your submissions.

As I said earlier, the Agent Tracker system has a built in device to enable you to do that. I know other writers who keep everything in their trusty notebook. I’m geeky enough to love my spreadsheets. But you probably guessed that already. It doesn’t matter what method you use, just as long as you use something.

I set up my spreadsheet in two pages. Page one contains all my research, everything I’ve learned about the people to whom I’m am submitting my manuscript.

Page two tracks where the novel is at all times.

Suggested items you might want to include in your tracking document:

  • Name of agent and agency
  • Their location
  • Genre
  • How many pages / chapters to submit
  • Length of synopsis
  • Agent’s preferred authors or books
  • If they take electronic or snail mail submissions
  • Website address
  • Link to the individual agent’s blog or twitter account
  • Turnaround time
  • Expected response date
  • Response – form letter; personalised letter; request for the full MS; acceptance
  • Comments by the agent (very rare and very precious. Ignore at your peril.)
  • Any follow up activity, such as revisions recommended by an agent, correspondence, meetings.

Finally, a few words of warning:

I mentioned before about unscrupulous people purporting to be agents, be careful and follow my tips and you should be safe enough. I’d really recommend you look for someone with AAA credentials in the UK, (AAR in the US) but if not, research them thoroughly to make sure they’re kosher.

An agency should never ask you for a reading fee or for money up front

Their function is to represent you, not to do the writing for you. Be cautious if your agent offers to do major reconstructive work on your novel for a fee.

In a later blog I’ll look at questions to ask your potential agent, but next week will be all about the synopsis.

Be afraid.


About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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