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How To Find An Agent

What follows is a summation of my knowledge on acquiring an agent, accumulated over a number of years. Some of it comes from working as an editor, some from trial and error as a writer seeking an agent. I've been asked about contacting agents so many times that I began to keep notes so I wouldn't have to write a fresh response each time. This is a collection of those notes. I hope they prove of some use.

First, an agent is not necessary for all genres. Having representation helps for a mystery/thriller like Japantown but is not compulsory in every case, or for every genre. There are a number of quality small- and mid-sized presses that will review manuscripts without an agent. Even prefer it. This is true for nonfiction submissions as well.

On the other hand, an agent gives a book proposal a certain cachet. If you go the no-agent route, you could consider getting an agent once you (a) have an offer or (b) have published one or more books. Believe it or not, some publishers will suggest you get an agent after they accept your project. If they mention acquiring one, follow their suggestion. They have their reasons. With an offer in hand, it should be easier to find an agent. And it goes without saying that if you seek out an agent after you've received an offer but before you have signed, do nothing to jeopardize the offer.

Second, I cannot emphasize enough that you limit your search to agents who have been successfully selling books in your genre or subject. Not all agents are created equal. Some are wide-ranging; others confine themselves to a few fields. You want an agent who (a) has a track record with your type of book and (b) has made sales recently (for more on this, see number four).

That brings us to the third item, the market. From time to time, the market goes through shifts. The readership changes; readers' tastes evolve. Things go in and out of favor. Sometimes movement is gradual; sometimes it is sudden. Be aware of these fluctuations, especially in your field.

Here's a story about what not to do. The first mystery I wrote many years ago was hardboiled. Noir in a modern setting. I didn't reinvent noir or turn it on its head. I just chose that form and narrative tone and gave it a new voice for the story I was writing. But at the time, the hardboiled style was considered a bit old fashioned, though I was unaware of this. Hardboiled wasn't impossible to sell, just more difficult even though it was still being published—mostly by established writers. I learned the hard way that just because bestselling authors are still writing in a certain style, the style might not be as popular among readers and publishers in regard to new voices. Look to new publications in the genre for some hints on the direction in the field.

Back to the story. I found an agent who took my book on despite the uphill battle I knew nothing about. In the end, she was unable to sell it, which now seems a blessing, since my style has evolved radically since those days, and if the book had found a taker (it nearly did) I may not have moved in other directions and developed a newer, more elevated voice.

There are no set-and-irreversible rules—but had I known hardboiled was out of favor, I might have come at the novel in a slightly different way. Or maybe not. Maybe that was the only way I could have written the book at the time. In any case, whichever course I had decided to pursue, it would have been better to know than not know.

That said, do not let the market dictate your creative urges or direction. Simply be conscious of its preferences. Wonderful new books often come along that build on their genre, or reinvent it, or simply go off on a refreshingly new tangent. In those cases, you can bet the authors are aware of the current flow in the genre and are building on it. So if you are doing this in your own area, then by all means, full steam ahead!

Point four. As far as a strategy to secure an agent, take some time to make a list of the most qualified agents for your project. Look for representatives who have had success placing first-time writers as well as mid-list and bestsellers. Don't just focus on bestsellers.

Assemble a list from as many sources as you can, and include both big and small agents. Focus on how active the agent is NOW. How many titles has he or she sold in the last six to eighteen months? Or in the last two years? The key word here is "active." Use Publishers Weekly, online searches, the Acknowledgment sections of published books similar to yours, and subscription services (such as Publishers Marketplace). This last can be a great tool if their database is large. One important side note: avoid any agent who refuses to accept email queries.

After you have your list, which you should continually add to and refine as new books are sold and new agents appear on your radar, move on to item five: approach an agent with a well-honed letter.

Make it a grabber.

Write and rewrite the letter. Imagine an agent's office. She or he gets dozens of inquiries A DAY. I remember sitting in a small, one-person agent's office years ago. We had a ninety-minute meeting. Since she did not have an assistant to answer her phone and her message machine happened to be malfunctioning on the day of my appointment, she fielded each call as it came in, apologizing profusely. I sat patiently across from her, waiting out each interruption.

The experience was an eye-opener.

She was a busy and active agent, and one of the rare ones who welcomed phone queries. Over and above standard business calls, she handled no less than seven new inquiries from authors looking for representation. Seven inquiries in an hour and a half! Exclusive of letters and emails.

The numbers bring the message home with shocking clarity: the competition is fierce, so your approach letter should be a knockout. You need to convince the agent of the potential of your manuscript. That is the letter's only purpose. You don't need to sell the whole thing all at once, but you do need to intrigue.

So, your letter MUST HAVE in one form or the other

  • a captivating thumbnail summary of your book ("thumbnail" means "concise"; that is, one or two paragraphs, three at most),
  • a short and compelling biographical sketch if the information adds distinction or an intriguing angle to the book (otherwise save your bio for the next round),
  • a line that shows you are familiar with the agent's work, and
  • a line or two placing your effort alongside successful works that inspired your book or can be used as approximate comparisons. This serves not only to orient the agent just in case, but also to show him or her that you are aware of what's already out there.

And last, AND EQUALLY IMPORTANT, the text should be sincere, naturally upbeat (but not rah-rah), and extremely well written. You may not think it fair that your letter should be considered as representative of your full novel, but it will be taken as a sample of your writing ability. Time and time again. So revise this "sample of your writing" over and over. Your approach letter is the key that gets your manuscript in the door; ill-fitting keys can't open doors.

There are plenty of sample letters online. Read them and adapt the best ideas to your project. The ideal letter is between one and one and a half pages, but under no circumstances longer than two pages. If you cannot make your communiqué any shorter, you've loaded it down with too much information for a "first kiss."

When you are satisfied with your effort, approach ONE agent at a time. Why one? Because no matter how good you think your letter is, it can always be improved. Nine times out of ten, it is not as good as you imagine it to be. Writers who realize this sometimes start with agents at the bottom of their list, refining their letter after each encounter.

Once you have sent out your letter, wait for a response. If it is a rejection, then review your letter based on the agent's answer and adjust your missive accordingly before sending it out again. If the agent rejected the letter because he or she did not find the topic of your book of much interest (and you know it is), then your letter is lacking. Find the problem and fix it. Rip apart the letter and write version 2.0. (Actually, you shouldn't send out the first approach letter until you've gotten to something like version 5.0.)

Sometimes no response is forthcoming. There could be any number of reasons for this, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of your work or your letter. This is a fact of the business. But be your own devil's advocate and assume that your letter was not strong enough to attract attention.

Which is, in some sense, true.

No matter what the reason on the other end, your letter did not draw a response. So rework it. In addition, if you are like me, any number of tweaks will occur to you after you've sent the letter but before you've received a reply. Make a note of these and add them the next time.

Spend a lot of time on the letter. After all, you invested months, if not years, in your book. Do yourself the courtesy of granting a proportionate amount of time to the letter that is representing your work.

When you have reworked your letter after your first rejection or non-answer, send it to the second agent on your list. If a negative response is forthcoming, revise and move on. If you don't receive an initial reply after three weeks, you can inquire (politely, gently) about it once. Or resend your query with a line at the top suggesting it may not have arrived. Those things do happen. Agents are human. If your second inquiry does not bring a reply in about ten days, move on to the next agent on your list. And one last item: never attach a file to your initial email query letter unless the agent requests it in his or her submissions requirements. Most don't. Others warn that your email will go straight into the trash if any attachments are detected.

And that's it.

With luck you'll find an agent quickly. But it often takes awhile, so hang in there. In the meantime, I would also strongly suggest that you go back to your manuscript after a month away from it (if you haven't done so already) and reread and re-edit as you see fit. Make sure your work, whatever the genre, and whether fiction or nonfiction, is as compelling a month down the road as you thought it was when you finished your last edit. If not, polish it some more.

Good luck!

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