How to Research Agents: What Are You Looking For?

We’re going to step back from adding to the spreadsheet today. Because I realized that if you are new to this process of researching agents, I need to put on the Auntie Michelle hat and give you a bit of advice. It feels a little weird because I’m not an aunt at all, but whatever. The mom hat? I’m used to that one.

So, we could go on filling out your spreadsheet with information on how to query the hundreds of agents you’ve found, BUT you are not going to want to query all of these agents. Some of them you can’t–and I’ll address that when we get to the post on submission guidelines–and others won’t be a good fit for you. In the post on what agents are really looking for, you may have already made some notes about agents who aren’t the best fit based on their preferences. But there are some other reasons agents might not be the best fit, and that has to do with what you’re looking for in an agent.

I’m going to try not to editorialize this with my own preferences but just put the information out there so you can make your own judgments. If, as you answer these questions for the agents on your list, you see something that doesn’t fit with what you want in an agent, put a comment in the Notes section of your spreadsheet. You can find many of the answers through those same resources we used in the last post. And remember: if you have any doubts at all about an agent, you should not query him/her.

What do you want out of your publishing experience? A deal at a major publishing house? A deal with a small press? An e-book? Any of the above?

You might not think these questions are important at this stage, but they may be the most important questions. Because not everyone has the same goal, and not every agency has the same focus. Some agencies have contacts at a wide variety of publishing houses, from the major houses to small presses. Other agencies focus only on small presses or possibly even e-imprint only houses. Now, there’s no guarantee that if you sign with an agent who starts with the major houses you won’t still find a home with a small press. It’s about finding the right fit for your book. But, you should be aware of where the agents you choose to query will focus their attention. And that means knowing what you want out of the publishing process. What’s so great about this journey is that everyone can choose their own path–what’s perfect for one author may not be for another.

So, in order to figure out if an agent’s focus is in line with your goals, you need to look into what books the agent represents. How do you know what type of editor contacts they may have? Well, do you recognize the publisher names? Like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penquin, Putnam, etc.? These major publishers also have a number of other imprints that go along with them, so it’s possible you might not recognize all of their variations, but if the agent/agency works with major houses, you should recognize at least some of the publishers. If you visit an agency website where you don’t recognize any of the publishers, chances are the agency focuses on smaller presses. Or maybe you’re really savvy and already know which small press you want to target and will recognize that name :). I’ve also seen a few agency websites where the published books are all e-imprints, so if that’s your goal, there are agents out there who focus specifically on e-publishers. Just be aware that if you come across an agency that has no books published with major houses, that agent may not have connections with those editors.

And hey, you may eventually decide you don’t want an agent at all, that you’d rather self-publish. That is a completely viable option. I know many writers who have successfully gone this route. It’s all about deciding what’s right for you.

Do you want an established agent? A new agent? No preference?

There are advantages to either. An established agent already has contacts in the industry, a publishing history, and books you can read to get a sense of his/her taste. However, he/she probably already has a fairly full client list as well and may be harder to attract. A new agent may be easier to snare (oh, they’ll love that word!) and more willing to take a chance on a manuscript that needs more work but may have fewer contacts–or not. It depends on what kind of internships he/she completed before progressing to full agent. It’s also important to consider what kind of agency he/she works for. Is it an established agency with a strong track record? If the new agent is working with established agents, he/she has the benefit of mentors to help make connections and guide him/her through the process.

My caution would be to carefully look at new agents who are on their own. Did he/she complete an internship at a reputable agency and complete publishing deals there? What contacts does he/she have? Is he/she a member or associate member of AAR? (See this link for membership requirements. Even some reputable agents choose not to join, so it’s not a deal-breaker.) Has he/she made any deals yet? Does he/she have some other publishing background? Perhaps you can’t answer these questions until the agent makes an offer and you talk to them. Just be aware and make a note if you are at all unsure about the agent’s experience.

How editorial do you want your agent to be?

Do you want an agent who will go through extensive revisions with you before he/she sends your work to editors? Do you need that extra layer of confidence that the manuscript is exactly where it needs to be before it goes to publishers? Or is your agent’s confidence in your work as it is enough for you? It’s something you should be thinking about. Agents run the gamut from having you do extensive rewrites to giving minimal revisions before sending to publishers. This question may be a little harder to answer through online research, but you may have come across the answer in interviews. Literary Rambles, in particular, generally addresses this question. If you have a strong opinion one way or the other and find the answer, I suggest making a note of it.

Is there anything in the agent’s online personality that clashes with yours?

Most agents stay professional online, but personalities still shine through. And while your relationship with your future agent will be a professional one, if you’re at all uncertain about how you might click, you shouldn’t waste an agent’s time. If there’s anything that raises a red flag for you–whether that’s an agent’s opinion or the way he/she reacts to a particular situation that crops up online–if it’s going to bother you and could affect a future working relationship, make a note of it. I generally keep personal and professional separate, but there’s been at least one case where the way an agent said something online just bugged me, and as a result, that agent moved way down my list. You will be working closely with your agent for a long time, so being able to respect them is very important.

Ok, this post has gotten quite long, so I think I need to stop there. However, I think there may be other points I should address before we move onto querying. Do any of my other writer friends have suggestions for other questions to ask about potential agents? If so, I will add a Part 2 before moving on to the submission post.

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