How to Research Agents: What They’re Looking For

Last week we started researching agents by creating a spreadsheet with the agent’s name, agency, website, blog and Twitter account. Now, because you used your category as the search term in QueryTracker (i.e., Fiction – Middle Grade), you know all of the agents on your list represent the general category. But those categories are broad–particularly if they’re age categories–so you need to dig deeper to determine which agents are looking for what you’re writing in particular. You should never rely solely on any database for your agent research. I’m going to direct you to several resources, but first let’s add a few more columns to our spreadsheet:

Represents Looking for Books* to Read Books* I’ve read Notes

I recommend you sort your spreadsheet by agency as our first source for all of these agents will be the agency website, so you’ll be able to simultaneously knock out any agents at the same agency that way. Then, I recommend you log back into QueryTracker, as you can find links to several of the other sources we’ll be using from the agent pages there. It’s easier than cutting and pasting from the spreadsheet, so I always keep both open.

1. Determine what categories the agent represents.

While you could find this information by clicking on the Genres tab in QueryTracker or looking at another database, you should always go to a direct source for the most current information as agents’ tastes change. Direct sources include:

  • Agency websites
  • Agent websites/blogs
  • Publisher’s Marketplace pages (They maintain these pages themselves, and in some cases, these serve as the agency/agent websites.)

As I already mentioned, I always start with the agency website. Generally an agency website will have a section titled Our Agents, Who We Are, etc. Under the Represents column, I list all of the categories the agent covers. For example, if Agent A represents picture books through young adult plus some adult non-fiction, I would write “PB to YA, plus adult NF” in that column. You can create your own shorthand :). Personally, I think it’s important to know everything the agent represents, so I include all of the age categories in this column. I might decide to write in a different category at some point, so I want to know if that agent would be able to represent me in a different category. If they don’t, I may put a note in the Notes column to the effect of “May not be a good fit due to no PB” or whatever.

In most cases you should be able to track down the categories the agent represents from the agency website. If not, see if the agent has his/her own website or blog or a Publisher’s Marketplace page. If you can’t find either of those, only then should you rely on a database such as QueryTracker, AgentQuery, or the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

2. Figure out what the agent is really looking for.

This step requires some real time and effort, and if the agent isn’t active online, you may not be able to find the information at all. But there are plenty of agents who do have a significant online presence. You might think the Looking for column is where I would stick genres, and it sort of is. But really, this is where I put details related to what I’m writing–anything an agent says that clicks with what I’ve already written or am planning to write. That might be as simple as a genre, or it might be very specific. It’s more than a list. I cut and paste in whole phrases and sentences so I don’t forget exactly what the agent said, and then I put a date behind it so I know when they said it–because that’s important, too. If the reference is too old, they might not be looking for it anymore. For example, my notes in this column might say:

I’m looking more for contemporary at the moment and would love to build up my middle grade list. Novels that mix genres in a clever way are something I’d love to see more of.  (per 10/13 interview); I love unique retellings of classic myths, novels, and plays in YA and Adult. (per MSWL paragraph 09/14); I really want someone to query me a YA revenge story. Count of Monte Cristo style revenge. #agentwishlist (tweeted 03/14)

Here are some resources for tracking down these gems.

  • Agency websites – You might get lucky. There are a few very detailed agency websites that give agent wishlists.
  • Agent websites/blogs – You’re much more likely to find specifics on an agent’s personal blog or website. If it’s a blog, I recommend subscribing through a reader or via email so you can update your spreadsheet as new information is available.
  • Publisher’s Marketplace – As mentioned above, these are maintained by the agents themselves. Sometimes they’re very basic, but often they will include wishlists.
  • Twitter – Many agents tweet ideas.
  • Literary Rambles – If you write for children (PB through YA), is a great resource. It compiles information on agents and links back to interviews with agents on everything from what they’re looking for to how to query them. Just be aware that sometimes the linked interviews are a few years old.
  • #MSWL – Agent Jessica Sinsheimer created this wonderful hashtag on Twitter that stands for manuscript wishlist. Agents tweet it off and on, and then there are scheduled events. Now there also is a website with longer MSWL paragraphs.
    • – Search by name or Twitter handle.
    • – Search by name or Twitter handle.
    • – Scroll down to the tags. All agents who have submitted are listed as a tag.
  • Google – I like to click on the Google link in QueryTracker because it does the search for me. Then I scan through the results for the most recent interviews. If you’re researching for the first time, you should probably read them all to get a feel for the agent. Just keep in mind that the older the interview is, there’s a chance the agent might not still be looking for that exact thing. I mean, if Agent B said in 2012 that he was looking for a YA ghost story set in futuristic Texas, and you have one of those, I’d still go for it. Just be prepared in case he already found one.
    • One of the links that will always come up on a Google search is Absolute Write Water Cooler. This is a forum where writers discuss agencies and experiences they’ve had with them. Some writers also use it to track queries or submissions they’ve sent to agents. I’ve found it most useful to spot questionable agents. You should definitely click on this link and read through the comments. It might send you to an older date and you’ll have to click through to a more recent post, but see what people are saying and make sure there aren’t any red flags about the agent or agency. If there are, that’s the kind of information I put in the Notes column. Something like “Sketchy comments on AW.” Most of the time it will just be comments about submissions.

3. Keep track of interesting notes as you go along.

If, as I’m going along, something in particular stands out about an agent, I’ll stick it in the Notes column. Like, Agent C mentioned she really loves opera and my character gets sucked into an opera (happened with one of my previous manuscripts!). Or, Agent D’s favorite movie is one that could be used as a comp title for my story. The Notes column is the place where I keep those interesting tidbits. I don’t have notes for every agent, so this column might remain blank for some.

Ok, I think that’s enough information for today. You’re probably wondering: Michelle! What about how to query the agents? Where are we supposed to put that information? Yes, there will definitely be columns for querying, and yes, it will mean going back to a few of these same resources. However, if you’re researching these agents for the first time, you’re not ready to send queries yet anyway. Believe me, I end up going back to the agents’ websites many times before I send a query to double-check everything. Besides, you might have already made a note that some of these agents aren’t a fit based on what they’re looking for, so you might not need their querying information anyway.

How are we doing so far? Any questions? Other resources I should add?

*I’ve already written a post on how to find books agents represent and why this is important. If you write middle grade or young adult, I also have a page dedicated to tracking books MG/YA agents represent. As for books you’ve already read, go look through the acknowledgments pages in your personal library. You may be surprised how many books you’ve already read by the agents on your list!

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