The world of queries is kind of like a circus. You’ve got your clowns, the smart-asses that whip off a letter with little thought, tongue-in-cheek and stupid grin in the margins; the strongman, their letters full of “Why I’m better than everyone else and you’ll regret it if you pass me by”; the tight rope walkers, their high-flying acrobatics of witty words leaving you dizzy from the amazing feats; and the ring leader, who proclaims, “Come one, come all, and see the amazing so-and-so and his wonderful this-and-that!” And then there’s the rest of us hard working schmuchs just trying to shovel enough elephant poo to keep our jobs. But the most important thing to consider is the audience . . .
If you can’t sell your audience—the agent—then you are no where. The first thing I do when querying (remember-limited experience here) is to make a list of agents I would be interested in representing me. Some might say this is putting the cart before the horse. Writing a query and then researching agents may seem like a more prudent idea, but I found that understanding what agents are looking for helped in my query research as well. If you have no idea what you’re doing, every little bit of info can help!
To keep track of my agents, I use a spreadsheet. You can do whatever you like, but this also helps to organize what you have sent to who and when. In my spreadsheet I keep the most important details, like submission guidelines, names, address, email, phone, who they represent, etc. And yes, submission guidelines are the most important thing to read. If you can’t show that you can read and follow directions, that’s one strike against you. Maybe it won’t matter. This isn’t the ACT or anything, but it might matter, so follow directions.
While doing this research, I read their websites extensively. In fact, if they don’t have a good website, I usually pass them by. Working with today’s technology is important and if they can’t keep up, I’m not sure they’re right for me. Most of these sites will give you a brief look into the personality of an agent, giving you a feel for how they might work with you. Personality does matter, though how you can know for sure until you’ve worked with someone I think is difficult. So I often look at what they would like to represent. If they say very clearly they do NOT want what I have, then why bother them? It will just be annoying, and I’ve heard agents have long memories.
This next part may be a little anal, for lack of a better word, but I’m an analytical-type of gal. I figure out a ranking for each agent based on how many of the things I find on their website that meets my approval. My impression of their personality, how many authors they represent that I like, do they utilize technology effectively, and a number of other factors. Then I set the spreadsheet to organize them with highest ranking to lowest. This is generally the order I will query in, though if someone has given me a good or bad vibe, despite their official ranking, that may move them up or down. It’s all subjective, and some may say silly, but it’s how I work. If I feel flustered and spread out, I may stop querying altogether.
Besides their websites, I will continue my research into their personal websites (only a few have these), blogs, Publisher’s Market, Writer’s Market, and just Googling their names to find out if they have given interviews or articles have been written about them. I’ve found details not seen on their websites, like some agents want a query to start out with title, genre, age range and word count, while others like this at the end. Some like a personal reason why you have chosen to query them, showing you’ve done your research, while others want to know where you think your book will fit into the market. You may not always get these details, but if you do, you have a few guidelines to help you craft the best chance of getting that agent’s attention.
Here’s a brief list of websites that can help you in your agent research. This is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start:
AgentQuery.com – Free database of literary agents; search keywords, genre, agent, or book or combinations there of; loads of other query info
WritersDigest.com – Search an agent’s name and get a brief bio on them; not much more than what’s on their agent blog
PublishersMarketPlace.com – Search an agent’s name and get detailed info; always trust their own website above others, but sometimes these will have supplemental info too.
QueryTracker.net – various resources for queries and agents; one particularly interesting page found here lists authors and the agent who represent them in alphabetical order
writerstore.com – found a blog article here which lists a variety of resources for researching agents
Literary Rambles – Casey McCormick’s blog where she spotlights agents including their websites, details, interviews given and any random little detail she comes across; very helpful for getting a more personalized feel for an agent when you can’t actually meet them; this website was insanely helpful!
Look for the sequel to this post – Queries! Queries! Queries?? Hot to Write a Query Letter