So we’ve discussed why you need an agent (if you want to publish traditionally) and how not to get an agent. But now I want to talk about picking the right agent for you.
So here’s the thing about literary agents: the legit ones are all publishing savvy, business-minded, all around nice people who just really love books. Or at least, the ones I’ve come in contact with are. Every agent (like every person) has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, which often dictate what genres they do and don’t represent. And knowing those strengths and weaknesses is just a teensie bit important to know before you query.
That’s right. You need to research agents before you start querying. Why? The answer’s simple, really—not every agent is the right agent for you.
Some agents are editorial, some agents are not. Some agents represent a huge range of genres, some are much more focused on a couple genres and categories. Some agents have been in the business for over a decade, others are much newer to the publishing game.
I’ve already blogged about where to go to research agents (see that link above? Click it), so I’m not going to delve into that again. What I want to focus on instead, is what you need to be looking for when deciding what agents to query.
There are a couple questions you should be asking yourself while researching agents:
- Does this agent represent my genre? This is the basic filter—the very first requirement is to make sure the agent you’re considering querying represents the genre and category your manuscript falls under. If they don’t, don’t query them. No exceptions.
No, it doesn’t matter if you think they might make an exception for your manuscript (they shouldn’t and they won’t). No, it doesn’t matter if you really like that agent (that doesn’t change the fact that your MS is not a genre they represent). No, it doesn’t matter if your manuscript is supposedly unlike others in its genre or category (if you think that’s the case, are you sure you know that genre as well as you think you do?)—if they don’t represent your genre, do not query them. You’ll get an insta-reject, and you’ll only be wasting your time and theirs.
Note: if you’re not sure what genre your manuscript falls under, check out this post.
- Does this agent represent other genres I want to (or already do) write in? This is important, because you’re not just looking for representation for the manuscript you’re querying—you’re looking for representation for your whole career. Ideally, you’ll have the same agent throughout your career (though that isn’t always the case, which is okay). If your manuscript is a Historical Fantasy and you know going in that you also love writing Sci-Fi, make sure the agents you query represent both Historical Fantasies and Sci-Fi’s.
Why? You want an agent who can potentially sell any manuscript you write, and if you write in multiple genres, you’ll want to make sure the agents you query represent all of them.
- Is this agent editorial? Is this important to me? As I’ve mentioned before, not all agents are editorial (meaning not all agents go through the extra process of revising and editing your work with you before going on submission). This is an extra job, and agents are not required to edit your work (remember: it’s your job to get your manuscripts as polished as possible before sending it to agents). If you know you want an agent who will help you with some of the revision and editorial process, then make sure you query agents who are editorial. (You can find this out through interviews and sites like Literary Rambles).
- What is this agent’s sales record? Do they have a lot of sales? A few things to remember with this one: not having a lot of sales doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is a bad agent. Some agents don’t report all of their sales, and some agents don’t have a lot of sales because they’re new agents, which is totally fine (and in that case, you’ll want to look at the sales for the agency they’re at, instead). But if an agent has been around for a couple of years, they should have some sales reported.
That being said, how much stock you put into the sales thing is up to you. When I was querying, I personally didn’t query anyone who didn’t list sales or their clients, but that’s just me.
- What is this agent’s reputation? What is the reputation of their agency like? Both of these are important to consider when researching agents. If the agent is established, what is their reputation like? If they’re new agents what is the reputation of their agency? (Note: it’s important to check on agency reputation for established agents, too). Check interviews, forums like Absolute Write Water Cooler and sites like Preditors & Editors as well as the aforementioned Literary Rambles to learn about agent and agency reputation.
- Does this agent seem like someone I would work well with? Granted, this is a little more difficult to determine online, but if the agent has a Twitter, follow them long before you start querying. Also, take the time to read every interview you can find—both of these sources can give you insights into the agent’s personality and what their work process is like. There are a couple agents, for example, that I decided I wouldn’t query based off things they said or the way they behaved on Twitter—after all, if your personalities clash, it’s going to make the relationship between you and you future agent more difficult.
Finally, two rules to remember while querying:
- Thou shalt not query every agent known to man. Use the criteria above to narrow down your list to agents that would work well for you and your manuscript. Consider every agent you query carefully. Think, if they offered representation, would I accept? If your answer is “no” then there’s little point in querying—you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
- A bad agent is worse than no agent. I’ve often heard of writers jumping to accept the first offer the get, just because they finally get an offer of representation. I understand this temptation, but the fact is, a bad agent will not help your career. Make sure you do plenty of research on every agent you query, and even more research on every agent who reads your full, and even more research on every agent who offers representation. Know what you’re getting into ahead of time to avoid unfortunate circumstances later on down the road.
What tips do you have for choosing the right agent?
Sneaking in at the last minute, it’s a shelfie for April! What we have here (in addition to a guardian squid) is a stack of books by women who were directly or indirectly formative on my writing process before THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA was finished. It’s not meant to be exhaustive, just suggestive… it’s what I could easily grab from my paperback shelves in a minute or two. For instance, I forgot to grab anything by Janny Wurts, Melanie Rawn or Margaret Atwood.
Going down the column, we have:
DOOMSDAY BOOK … Connie Willis
THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS … Ursula K. LeGuin
WAR FOR THE OAKS … Emma Bull
PARABLE OF THE TALENTS … Octavia Butler
THE SNOW QUEEN … Joan Vinge
THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD … Patricia McKillip
DOWNBELOW STATION … C.J. Cherryh
THE WALLS OF AIR … Barbara Hambly
RATS AND GARGOYLES … Mary Gentle
BURNING BRIGHT … Melissa Scott
THE POISON MASTER … Liz Williams
THE NEMESIS FROM TERRA … Leigh Brackett
MIRROR DANCE … Lois McMaster Bujold
SWORDSPOINT … Ellen Kushner
I’m not a fan of Willis’ most recent work (I think BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR is unacceptably sloppy) but DOOMSDAY BOOK is a startlingly unflinching examination of scholarship, attachment, and loss. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is justifiably a legend in its own time; I am also one of those weirdos who actually really likes THE DISPOSSESSED even if the subtitle “an ambiguous utopia” makes me snicker ruefully.
WAR FOR THE OAKS… where to begin? This was the city I dreamed of as a kid, lit up with magic and danger. So many of my theories on fantasy were formulated from awe of this book or in argument with it. That’s the mark of Emma’s greatness— she writes books you can have fabulous arguments with.
PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (and its predecessor PARABLE OF THE SOWER) were essential instruction for me in the art of the slightly unreliable narrator, and in helping me to realize that an author didn’t necessarily have to beam approval at everything a protagonist thought or did. As the years go by, I also find the world events described in these books to be frustratingly less and less implausible.
THE SNOW QUEEN is a big, sprawling, mythically-informed science fiction novel of the sort that’s sadly not seen very often these days.
THE FORGOTTEN BEATS OF ELD is heartbreakingly good, and started teaching me about the eventual relationship I wanted to create for Locke and Sabetha. See also OMBRIA IN SHADOW and the slightly flawed (strange tonal variations) but still rewarding RIDDLE-MASTER sequence. McKillip is a treasure.
DOWNBELOW STATION, my favorite C.J. Cherryh novel (though I’ve many yet to read). Tensely plotted conflict on cultural and character levels, showing off one of the biggest brains in science fiction.
THE WALLS OF AIR (part of the Darwath Trilogy)— interestingly enough, I’m not a complete fanboy of the Darwath books. They have some flaws I find frustrating, but those very flaws were extremely instructive to me, and the good parts are still quite good. Hambly in general is superb… DRAGONSBANE is a stone-cold classic that deserves wider fame, and THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT was the book that got me into vampires in a big way in the early 90s.
RATS AND GARGOYLES— it makes no flippity-fucking sense in the final analysis, but what a glorious, phantasmagorical, mist-drenched occult cityscape it has, and what a pack of brilliantly weird characters running around in it…
BURNING BRIGHT was recommended to me in the 90s by a gaming friend. It was one of the first novels I ever read that attempted to deal in a deep and thoughtful way with the serious gaming mindset, and the art of modeling the world atmospherically/artistically as well as physically. It was also one of the first novels in which I encountered an overtly homonormative society.
THE POISON MASTER’s lush atmosphere really hit me in the last year or so before LIES coalesced from scattered notes into concrete chapters.
Leigh Brackett was the unheralded queen of the field in the early 1940s, a writer with unusually advanced narrative sensibilities that have kept her work much fresher over the decades than some of the museum pieces still nailed to the walls in the Halls of Classic SF. She was a formative practitioner of science fantasy and a deep, sympathetic thinker in an age ruled largely by the facile and the jingoistic.
In the 90s, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga was leaping unstoppably from strength to strength, and I would argue that the MIRROR DANCE / MEMORY duet is still the highest of the sequence’s many high points.
Last but not least, SWORDSPOINT, by that damned Ellen Kushner, who floats on light and shoots genius beams out of her eyes while the rest of us are still fumbling around in the kitchen, wearing no pants, and trying to make coffee. Every field has someone like that. Ellen is ours.
Anyhow, your weekend assignment is to read all of these, and to remember that while a relatively small number of tiny-brained dickheads are making an awful lot of noise lately about how terrible it is that mere wimminses are taken seriously in the SF/F world, that’s because they’re bigots. On the inside, bigots are always frightened, grasping, desperately inadequate little creatures. They make so much noise because they can never feel sufficient in their own skins.
I think I just swooned. Anyway, the sky went dark and Scott Lynch appeared amongst a gang of frolicking putti tossing swords and apples and roses that twined and mingled and resolved themselves into something very nice lying spread out on a table for all to enjoy.
This is a great list.
“11 Quotes From Authors On Censorship & Banned Books" (via Buzzfeed)
What’s your opinion? Maybe these dangerous books will inspire you…
So, let me guess— you just started a new book, right? And you’re stumped. You have no idea how much an AK47 goes for nowadays. I get ya, cousin. Tough world we live in. A writer’s gotta know, but them NSA hounds are after ya 24/7. I know, cousin, I know. If there was only a way to find out all of this rather edgy information without getting yourself in trouble…
You’re in luck, cousin. I have just the thing for ya.
It’s called Havocscope. It’s got information and prices for all sorts of edgy information. Ever wondered how much cocaine costs by the gram, or how much a kidney sells for, or (worst of all) how much it costs to hire an assassin?
I got your back, cousin. Just head over to Havocscope.
((PS: In case you’re wondering, Havocscope is a database full of information regarding the criminal underworld. The information you will find there has been taken from newspapers and police reports. It’s perfectly legal, no need to worry about the NSA hounds, cousin ;p))
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We are always told to use body language in our writing. Sometimes, it’s easier said than written. I decided to create these cheat sheets to help you show a character’s state of mind. Obviously, a character may exhibit a number of these behaviours. For example, he may be shocked and angry, or shocked and happy. Use these combinations as needed.