How to Find an Agent: A Baker’s Dozen from a Professional Agent Hunter

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David has now been a writer for 15 years.  Before that, he was a professional actor for 15 years.  In that time, he located, lured and landed over 50 agents.  In fact, he got so good at it that he eventually got an agent to marry him and be the mother of his child.  Sadly, on their wedding day, she fired him as a client.  For those of you who don’t know, that agent is Arielle.

We’ve seen lots of agents try to tell writers how to find an agent.  The sad truth is agents have no idea how to find an agent.  All they have to do is look in the mirror, and there is an agent staring back at them.  They look around the office; they’re surrounded by agents.  Agents can tell you what things not to do and what things annoy them.  But they also often give bad advice because, quite frankly, they don’t want the competition.

We see lots of agents tell writers not to do multiple submissions.  But, in fact, it can take an agent nine months to get to your manuscript.  That’s how long it took Arielle to read David’s manuscript after he submitted it to her.  And we went on to get married! Imagine if it took nine months for every agent to get back to you, it would take you seven years to query 10 agents. Of course, agents don’t want you to do multiple submissions.  They want you all to themselves.

David also heard an agent say a writer should never submit a book that’s already been self-published.  She said it in such a dismissive and entitled way.  You find this a lot with agents; they tend to develop a dismissive, entitled, bitter, jaded, snarky outer shell.  You can’t blame them because they are constantly inundated, and everyone wants the agent to make their dreams come true.  In fact, a great agent can make your dreams come true. David is living proof of that.  However, he also did exactly what the dismissive, entitled agent said couldn’t be done.  One of his books went out-of-print, and people kept asking where they could buy it.  So, as an experiment, he decided to self-publish the book.  It was a great experience, and he learned an amazing amount from doing it.  It cost him nothing because the book had already been published; and he bartered with people to make him a new cover, a new layout for the printed version and an e-book.  He immediately started making money on the book.  At the same time, he went out to a number of agents and editors, and lo and behold, got a book contract.  When that happened, he immediately took the book down from where it was available, and no one was the wiser.  Mind you, he didn’t tell the people he was submitting a book that had already been self-published.  But if they had asked, he certainly would not have lied.  They didn’t ask.  He didn’t tell.

So how do you find an agent?


1. Research

There is a fine line between research and stalking.  The Book Doctors firmly believe it’s important to stay on the research side of that line.  The first thing David does is make a list of 10 to 15 books that are similar, in the biggest broadest sense of that word, to his book.  Let us emphasize in no uncertain terms that we mean big broad strokes.  And please, for goodness sake, don’t say that your book is like no book ever written.  Because that book will never be published.  Lots of our clients have no idea what books are similar to their books.  That’s a problem.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read, and you have to become an expert in the section of the bookstore where your book is going to live.  Recently, someone pitched us a piece of noir.  We asked him if it was more like Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or James Elroy.  He looked at us like a confused puppy and said, “Who are they?”  They’re only three of the most successful and brilliant noir writers in history.  If you are lucky enough to get an agent or editor interested, and they ask you if your book is similar to another book on the shelf, you have to be able to say, “Oh yes, I love that book, and readers of that book will love my book, but it’s different in these ways …”

2. Find Books Similar to Yours

Take a field trip to your local independent bookstore.  When the phones aren’t ringing off the hook and the cash registers aren’t going crazy, find a person who is the expert, or as close to an expert there is, in the kind of book you’re writing.  Then ask them what books they have that are similar to your book. Start making a list of books that are similar to yours, again in the broadest, largest sense. List books that looked interesting to you, that looked like they were done by people you’d like to do business with.  In the acknowledgments section of those books, look for the agent and/or editor.

3. Make a List and Create an Environment of Competition for Your Book

Your agent list should be a little bit like a high school senior putting together their college list.  You should have some well-known agents at the top of your list, some agents you admire but aren’t bigwigs yet, and some agents that have just started out or whose lists are small.

As soon as anyone expresses interest, you immediately email everyone else on your list.  There’s nothing that’s going to get you a response faster than having someone else interested.  That’s human nature.  It’s like the sorta cute kid in high school who shows up with a beautiful cheerleader on his arm.  Immediately, he becomes much more attractive.  He’s exactly the same guy he was yesterday; only now someone else wants him.  You see, every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has a recurring nightmare in which they’re walking down the street, people are pointing at them, laughing and giggling, whispering to each other, “There goes the agent who passed on Harry Potter!”  That’s because every agent has passed on a book that has become wildly successful.

4. Know Thy Agent-to-Be

Make a file on each of the agents.  Where are they from? Where did they go to college?  What are their hobbies?  Where have they been interviewed?  What books have they agented?  Are they a dog person? You’re going to use all this information when you write your query letter.

One of the biggest mistakes that most amateur writers make is that they just send anonymous letters without doing any research.  In lots and lots of places, it says that Arielle does not like fantasy and science fiction; and yet every week she gets another email from a writer that says, “Dear Agent, I know you’re going to love my book; it’s the first in a 37 book series. It’s called the Unicorns of Narnia.”  Arielle used to actually answer those emails.  She doesn’t answer them anymore.  They go directly into the trash.

5. Make it Easy for an Agent to Say Yes

Agents are trained to say no.  They’re just looking for a reason to reject you.  It sounds cold and cruel from a writer’s perspective; but having lived with an agent for so long now, David totally understands it.  They are inundated and overwhelmed, mostly overworked and underpaid.  They’ve got 50 submissions that arrived in their inbox today, they had 50 yesterday, and will have 50 tomorrow. It’s relentless.  That’s why they’re looking for a reason to say no. These reasons include:

  • Spelling or punctuation mistakes—we can’t tell you how many people have spelled Arielle’s name wrong
  • Over-promising and under-delivering
  • Too much horn-tooting and butt-kissing
  • Using obvious and overblown comp titles (i.e. Harry Potter, Eat Pray Love, Hunger Games)
  • Not following agent submission guidelines—you can’t believe the percentage of submissions that do one or more of the above.

That’s why if you just do the basics, it already ups your odds by loads.

6. Don’t Submit Your Book Until It’s Fully Polished

Writers are under the mistaken impression that an agent will help them fix their books.  The agent is almost certainly not going to help you fix your book.  If your book is not ready, the agent will reject you and your book.  Almost certainly, that bridge will be burned.

7. Develop a Coping Mechanism for Rejection

JK Rowling was rejected 25 times.  What makes you think you’re any better than JK Rowling?  Thicken your skin.  Everyone has her own method of doing this.  David subscribes to the Godfather model: It’s never personal; it’s always business.  He also enjoys accumulating lists of people who’ve rejected him; so that when he finally gets a deal he’s been looking for, he can send them all a very sweet email, and rub their noses right in it.  But again, everyone has to come up with their own personal method.

8. Keep Up-to-Date

Sign up for Publishers Marketplace and Shelf Awareness.  Keep abreast of who is selling books and making deals. Know what agents have awesome blogs.  Speaking of which, here’s a shout out to Jennifer Laughran, who has an absolutely awesome blogfor those of you writing children’s books.

9. Go to Writers Conferences, Seminars and Workshops

There are very few places a writer can actually get face time with an agent.  Conferences, seminars or workshops are one of them.  You can listen to agents make presentations, and sometimes you can even have one-on-one sessions with them.

10. Join a Writers Group

When David lived in San Francisco, he found an amazing writing group.  One of the writers was a very handsome, very charming, ridiculously talented writer.  Plus he was a doctor.  You wanted to hate him, but he was just too nice to hate.  You knew if he caught a break, he was going to be huge.  Well, he did catch a break. He wrote a little book called The Kite Runner and became an international sensation.  His name is Khaled Husseini. Now David is connected with his agent by one degree of separation.

11. Attend Readings at Bookstores and Libraries

Any time an author whose work is similar to yours in any way, shape, or form comes to town to do a reading, GO!  Buy a book.  Be the last person in line at the signing.  If someone comes behind you, get behind him/her.  This is important because when you get up to the front of the line to have the author sign the book, it’s very rude to have a conversation if there’s someone waiting behind you.  If you’re the last one, then there’s no pressure to move along.  Sometimes the writer will want to talk to you; sometimes the writer will not want to talk to you.  Pay very close attention to body language.  Ask the writers if they’re happy with their agent.  If they say yes, this gives you the opening to contact the agent and say, “I was talking to your client yesterday, and she said how much she enjoyed having you as her agent.”

12. Write a Killer Query

Three paragraphs.  The first is always customized.  Why should this agent be your agent?  The second paragraph is your pitch.  The third paragraph is a short bio.  The whole query should reflect the voice of your book whether that be funny, authoritative, lyrical or whatever.  This is your audition to show what a fabulous writer you are.

13. Persevere and Follow Up

Don’t ever assume if you don’t hear back from an agent that they are rejecting you.  Assume they haven’t even looked at your query or manuscript.  David’s maxim is: keep submitting until they say yes or the agent tells you to go to hell.  He tries to have the Zen attitude that it doesn’t matter whether they say yesor no.  Because when someone says no, it’s like you bought another lottery ticket.  You have increased your chances of winning.

However, there are two kinds of perseverance:  smart perseverance and stupid perseverance.  The Book Doctors highly advocate smart perseverance.  Always try to make your query/proposal/manuscript a little better.  Polish, buff, shine until is evolves into the best versions of itself.

Whenever you are rejected, ask if there’s anything you can do to make your work better.  Time and again, David has seen people be very generous with their advice.  When David first approached Arielle, he didn’t know her. In fact, David didn’t know anyone in the publishing business.  After making initial contact, he sent her his manuscript.  A week later he followed up, just to make sure she received the manuscript.  It turned out she had already lost it.  He sent another.  A month later, when he hadn’t heard anything, he called her on the phone.  Generally speaking, agents don’t want you to call them on the phone.  But this is David’s strength.  We had a very nice conversation; he never even mentioned his manuscript.  He found out afterwards that because he’d been so nice, Arielle felt very guilty.  One month later, he did the same thing.  This went on, as he mentioned earlier, for nine months.  One human gestation period.  Finally, he told her he was coming to New York for Christmas.  He lived in Venice Beach at the time, and in fact he wasn’t going to New York at all; but he had a feeling that if he said that, she would read his manuscript.  He was right.  As soon as they hung up, he went and booked a ticket to New York.  Six months later, after she had helped him craft his proposal, she sold it for six figures in less than two hours. Ten years after that, they had the most amazing daughter ever.

This article originally appeared in our monthly newsletter. You can view the full newsletter here. Join our newsletter to receive more FREE information on how to get your book successfully published.

The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, with their daughter