Ah, the quest for the elusive literary agent…
For my readers who are not writers, let me explain. You see a literary agent can seem much like a unicorn within the writing world. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon one, the common belief is that they have the power to carry an inexperienced
virgin writer to the doors of a major publishing house with a flick of their mane, and once there, they will have wishes like advances large enough to allow retirement from the day job bestowed upon them.
However, these magical creatures are elusive and prone to shy from abrupt noises or from anyone with less than the purest of hearts. And the quest itself isn’t without peril. Pretenders risk being torn to shreds by the unicorn’s horn and hooves, and that is assuming they find the real thing. There are plenty of other things out there that can destroy the would-be author’s dream, such as trolls hiding under coats of horsehide or fierce gatekeeper dragons.
The source of the unicorn myth likely stems from a misidentified oryx or ancient auroch, and a literary agent’s real powers are about as magical, but writers are dreamers. Over the last several months a few of my writer friends announced, with some trepidation, their intention to seek out potential agents. I understand their fear as I explored this option last year as well. Ultimately, I abandoned my search for reasons related to my goals for that specific project, but that didn’t prevent me from gaining some experience on the subject. So while I may not be in a position to advise on “how to” gain an agent, I thought I would, at least, share what I learned about “how not to.”
For those of you non-writer types reading this, the following tips can apply to job hunting as well. Just insert ‘resume’ for ‘manuscript’ and ‘potential employer’ for ‘agent’.
1. Send blanket queries to everyone in the phone book
Keep in mind that agents are salespeople and best salespeople are those who believe in a product they represent as much as they believe in making a dollar. Therefore, an agent who doesn’t enjoy gory horror isn’t going to appreciate your take on something like Saw. Save yourself some time, aggravation, and potential hope-crushing rejection by only querying those who are a) accepting unsolicited queries and b) into what you are into.
I had the most success looking for potential agents on Twitter. By reading their tweets, I was able to not only see what they were looking for but what kind of person they are as well. As a result, I was not only able to tailor my query letters to individual agents, but was able to rule out entire agencies where I didn’t see a good match.
In short, if you aren’t willing to take the time to get to know them, don’t expect them to take the time to get to know you. [update: If Twitter is not an option for you, alternatives like Mastodon, Discord, and Tumblr also have agents as active users]
2. Ignore the submission requirements
I haven’t stopped following agents on Twitter just because I didn’t sign with one. They have great tips and hint at what trends are selling (and where) which in turn helps me with my marketing. They also let me know about upcoming books to add to my to-be-read pile. However, just as often, they will bemoan about some would-be author who didn’t take the take to read their submission requirements.
Each agency’s requirements are different. Luckily figuring out what each agency needs to make a decision about your work is usually pretty simple. Go to their website and look for their rules. If a “Submission” link isn’t highly visible, it is a good indicator that they aren’t looking for new clients right now and you’d be better off searching elsewhere.
3. Submit an incomplete / unpolished manuscript
This one applies more to fiction than non-fiction.
You might be under the impression that you don’t need to polish your manuscript before submitting it to an interested agent because in addition to your big cash advance will come editorial services when they sell it to a publisher, so why spend the time/money now? This is a mistake. Apparently, no agent worth their commission has time to waste panning for gold with you. They are looking to sell ingots, not mud pies.
However, you can go ahead and start searching (better yet – networking) at any time. That contact you make a cocktail party, book fair, or conference might just remember you enough to spare your work a second glance when you finally are ready to get serious.
4. Protest their response
When my youngest starts to get tired, the rim of his eyes grow red and he tends to flop about on the floor, but the moment you try to pick him up to take him to his bedroom he will cry, kick, and scream about how not sleepy he is and every single time I will tell him that by acting the way he did, he just proved my point.
Agents aren’t going to be any more impressed with tantrums. If anything, you just firmed up their decision not to add you as a client.
5. Give Up
Of course, the best way to not sign with an agent is to simply give up. But Allie, aren’t you being a little hypocritical advising people not to give up when you admitted up top that you abandoned your own search last year? No. To be clear, I’m not advising one way or another.
Signing with an agent is not for every person or every project. At the end of the day, every writer has to decide what works for them and the project. But regardless of the outcome, I believe querying is something that should be at least tried. Querying helps define your audience, refine pitch, and practice networking and if you are lucky, you may just find a unicorn. Happy hunting.