Tips and Tools for the Agent hunt

I recently had a conversation with a friend about what questions to ask an agent when you finally get face-to-face or phone-to-phone time with one. Having recently been through the agent jungle, I know full well how intimidating the process is. Preparation starts long before “the call.”

How to research literary agents?

* Before you begin the agent hunt, you must have a completed, polished manuscript. Make sure you have had it critiqued by more than your spouse, your mother, or your nine-year old child. Other writers are the best critiquers. Run as fast as you can to join a critique group.

* Do your homework. Don’t send a kid-lit manuscript to an adult-only agent. Don’t send a paranormal dystopian vampire romance to an agent who states they don’t like that genre. Or picture books to an agent who only represents novels. You get the idea.

* If you write children’s literature, decide if want an agent who represents only children’s literature. Many agents represent adult literature, too.

* Make sure you are really ready for an agent. It takes time to hone this craft and it may take more than one appealing manuscript to attract an agent. Established agents represent career writers who have prolific potential.


Where do you find literary agents?

* See/meet them at conferences where they speak. This is a great way to get the feel of an agent’s personality and his/her likes and dislikes. You’ll know right away if somebody’s not a good match for you.

* Publisher’s Marketplace. (there is a monthly subscription fee) Daily updates announce recent sales by agents and editors, though not all agents report to PM. Make note of agents selling projects in your genre.

* The acknowledgement section of books like yours. Many authors thank their agents here.

* Author Websites or Blogs- As before, when you find a book similar to yours in tone or genre, pop over to the author’s site. You might find mention of their agent.


* Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market annual guide. Keep in mind, though, that this is not an all-inclusive list. (Check your library if you don’t want to buy it.)

* The Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR) Agents who belong to AAR agree to a canon of ethics that can be reassuring to authors. However, just because an agent does not belong to AAR, does not mean he or she is below board.

* Agent interviews on the web. Check out Casey McCormick’s blog, Literary Rambles is chock full of interviews with literary agents representing picture books to YA and adult.

*  Related to number 3- Once you zero in on an agent you’re interested in, type his or her name into where you would normally type the title of a book. If they are mentioned in an acknowledgement section, the book titles will show up. And don’t forget your friend, Google.

* features agents, editors, authors in their Industry Profiles section.

Time to Submit
You have one chance to make a dynamite impression, so make sure this is your best work.

*Limit your submissions to 4-6 agents at a time. One of them may have constructive feedback that would improve your manuscript.

*Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T. Seriously! Their agency websites will give specific instructions. If they only take snail mail submissions, DO NOT EMAIL your work.

*If their guidelines say they will respond within X amount of weeks, make note. If they say they only respond if interested, you’ll know when it’s time to submit to the next agent.

*Do not sit around waiting for a response. Once you’ve submitted, immediately start your next project. Remember, agents want to sign writers who are prolific, not one-hit wonders.

*If no agent expresses interest and gives you no constructive feedback, your manuscript may need some work. You might consider a) hiring a freelance editor, b) pay for a professional critique, c) work with a writing coach, or d) put this manuscript away for a while and concentrate on your next project.

Now that the call has come, what questions do you ask?

The call is scheduled and you’re in a panic. What will you say? What will he/she ask? You’re thinking only about the celebration that will follow an offer of representation, right? But, hold your horses. Before you accept the offer, find out how he/she works. Like any contract, you want to go into it with eyes wide open. No knee-jerk reactions allowed. Just because they propose marriage doesn’t mean you have to accept. Before the call, write your questions down. Here’s what I wanted to know:

1.) What recent sales have you had in the past twelve months? Two years?
Do you gravitate toward a specific genre?
What genres do you not represent?

2.) What do you like most about my project? (I know this sounds like fishing for flattery, but it’s important to get this perspective)

3.) Do you already have specific editors/publishing houses in mind for my book?

4.) How long have you been agenting? (Newish agents can be awesome. They’re hungry, eager, and full of vigor. But, inexperience has potential downsides if they’re not mentored through their apprenticeship years. Don’t be afraid to ask a new agent who their agent mentor is.)

5.) How do you and your agency help promote authors’ books? Social networking? Agent blog? etc.

6.) In what ways do you stay connected with editors?

7.) Do you offer editorial feedback? (Not all do.)

8.) What does your typical submission plan look like?
How many submissions do you send at one time?

9.) How often do you update your authors re: submission status, rejections, feedback?

10.) Do you follow up with editors who haven’t responded to a submission? How much time do you allow them?

11.) Who handles subsidiary rights, electronic rights, foreign rights for your agency?

12.) What kind of work do you NOT represent?

13.) What kind of accounting system is set up for author advances, royalties, etc?

14.) Are there specific areas of your agency agreement that are unique from the standard contract? (just because they say no doesn’t mean you don’t still need to read through it with a fine tooth comb)

15.) Is there anything else I should know about your agency or your general agenting style?


Good luck with your own agent hunt!

The Bumpy, Twisty, Pot-hole Ridden Journey to my New Agent

Erin Murphy

I am over-the-top excited to announce that I have signed with the incomparable Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. This has been a bumpy, twisty, pot-hole-ridden journey but the destination offers a humbling panorama through my rear-view mirror.

It doesn’t seem fitting to simply say that I’ve got an agent. Sometimes the journey is as sweet as the destination. I’ll skip the minutia, but the highlights of my agent journey went something like this:

Erin and I met at a 2008 SCBWI conference where I had scheduled a ten-minute verbal pitch. As a conference volunteer, I had an opportunity to observe her interactions with other hopeful writers. I could tell she was sincere, honest, savvy, and full of heart. (Her recorded sales record didn’t hurt, either.) By the end of my ten minutes with her, I knew she was the agent for me. We clicked. She liked my projects. We both had a good feeling about it. But, she wasn’t going to make it easy.

A year after that first meeting, Erin suggested I rewrite my middle grade nonfiction (Book Thing One) as a picture book. I mentally suggested she jump off a cliff, but how could I ignore her advice? She did not offer representation.

(I spent the next year learning how to write a n.f. picture book. I read, dissected, disassembled, analyzed hundreds of picture book biographies to learn what makes them work. I had years of research to sift down to an impossibly short text. See my related blog posts.)

Two years after meeting Erin, while Book Thing One was being reinvisioned, I rewrote Book Thing Two as a picture book biography (see, I was paying attention.) Erin loved the subject, but the writing was too predictable. Too journalistic. She was right. She did not offer representation, but her door remained cracked.

(I needed to learn more about narrative storytelling in my nonfiction. I read more, signed up for related workshops, and began to imagine my stories with an audience in mind, rather than mere words on a page.)

Without realizing it, Erin had set me on a course of self-education. Even I didn’t know how much I needed to grow as a writer. But, I had never been more determined and committed, so I continued to study, analyze, rinse-repeat.

Three years, a million rewrites and revisions, and multiple projects, after meeting Erin, I re-submitted Book Thing One to her. She loved it. It was ready. I was ready. But, she did not offer representation. And, after all this, believe it or not, I understood why. It had nothing to do with my work this time. Rather, it reflected a shift in her existing client base. Here’s the thing about literary agents; they have to diversify. If their client list is top-heavy in any one genre, it opens up a heap of potential marketability problems for them and their clients. I had grown enough within this industry to understand the ebbs and flows. Dagnabbit! It was an agonizing, business-based disappointment for both of us. After all, by now, we had built a level of friendship, too.

Six weeks later, I signed with another agent. Temporarily. When it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work and, within a few short months, I ended the relationship. Though Erin and I kept in touch, it took even more months for me to tell her about my agent divorce.

Four years after meeting Erin (here’s where I cleverly pull the reader in closer by switching to first person pov,) she comes to the Austin SCBWI conference. We hug. We laugh. We catch up. I ramble about what I’m working on. Then, she makes me happy. She asks to see Book Thing One and, now, Book Thing Three. I want to jump up and down. On one hand, her request makes me smile. On the other hand, I’ve submitted to other agents by now and Erin’s request, after all we’d been through,  makes me want to lovingly yank her hair out.

The day Erin finally read my latest works, all these years after our first meeting, she offered representation!
Happy dance!
Astonishingly, she wasn’t alone. Two other  agents offered as well. For the first time ever, I had a choice. When Erin and I spoke by phone, I tried to play it cool. I’ll admit that I felt a surge of unfamiliar control. And, for the slightest moment, I thought, “Move over Thelma, Louise gets to drive for a change.” But, playing hard-to-get lasted all of two minutes. It was such a no-brainer decision. For four years, I knew she was the agent for me. Now, I had finally grown into the right client for her.

So, there you are. Proof that mentors sometimes don’t know they are mentors. And that, if you’re willing to pay your dues, stay the course, and invest the energy in honing your craft, you really can navigate some rough terrain toward your destination. Eventually, you might face an old familiar door. Where just the right agent will welcome you home.

A happy time!  Squeeeeeeee!