People talk about their “dream agents,” and I guess I don't have one. How do I start doing research on lit agents that can be attainable / a good fit for me?
Contemplative in California
Dear Contemplative in California,
For what it’s worth, I never had a dream agent, either. I just didn’t know much about individual agents and was overwhelmed with how to find one at all, let alone pick one out to bronze. In the long run, I feel it helped me keep my head clear as I researched a collection of great fits.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a dream agent, of course. If you know what you want, you know what you want. But I also caution folks from feeling like they must have one, since I feel it’s started to gain traction as a writerly trend of sorts. For starters, everybody approaches the querying process and the agent hunt differently, so it’s cool that you’re honoring yours, my friend.
Second, how a person perceives an agent may be different than how the agent actually is. It’s not unlike the concept of dream schools for people who apply to colleges. Despite anything you’ve heard online or from an acquaintance, your mileage may differ. In terms of dream agents, this is especially true because you’re both individual people with individual quirks.
Third, dream agents may risk obsession. If you fall into this mindset, you may hit a point where you only want that agent and nobody else will be as good in your eyes. This could lead to disappointment with what is otherwise a wonderful success (you got an agent!), and ironically who could be a better match for you than your dream agent ever would’ve been.
Fourth, dream agents may risk unrealistic expectations. As in, “dream” becomes synonymous with “perfect.” There’s no such thing as a perfect agent because there’s no such thing as a perfect person. And just like my third point above, you may find yourself with disappointment, regardless of whether you get that particular agent or not.
And lastly, I’ve noticed that a particular dream agent will sometimes suddenly be the fad, as it were. Writer One names someone as their dream agent, so then Writer Two also names them as their dream agent because Writer One did, so then Writer Three thinks they’re missing something and names them as their dream agent, too…
So for anybody who has (or is hunting for) a dream agent, just keep those things in mind. Don’t become so focused on a dream that it ruins your reality. Make sure your dream agent is your dream. And for anyone who doesn’t have a dream agent in mind, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t change a thing.
The latter part of your question, my friend, is wonderfully worded: how can you find a good fit for you. Because a good fit is different for everyone.
First, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I want to publish many books over my life or am I just interested in publishing this particular book?
- If I want to publish other books, are they in the same or different genre(s) than this particular book?
- How often do I want an agent to update me on given matters, such as when a rejection comes through from a publisher? How much information about the rejection do I want them to share with me (the entire rejection letter, just the highlights, or simply tell me a publisher passed on it)?
- How do I want an agent to break bad news to me? (Do I want them to be direct and blunt or do I want them to put an optimistic spin on it?)
- Do I want to talk with them primarily over email, over the phone, or in person?
- How quickly do I want them to respond to a given email? (Two weeks? Three days? Less than 24 hours?)
- Do I want someone who will be available for pep talks if I need them?
- Do I want an agent who will consider small publishers, too, or do I want them to just focus on the bigger ones?
There are plenty of questions such as the above that you can ask yourself, but hopefully that gives you a good idea. Since no agent is created equal—because they are, after all, people as much as the rest of us—give yourself an idea of what you want. Hold onto those answers for now.
Second, pivot into the actual searching of agents, creating a list as long as you’d like of potentially fitting candidates. A great place to start is if you have published writer friends, ask them who their agent is and what they think of them. Look up those agents’ bios on their websites and see if they represent the genres and/or themes of your book. If they do and you’re liking the sound of them, put them on your list.
Once you’ve exhausted that avenue (or you don’t have any published writer friends; it’s cool), start making a list of all your favorite authors and published books—or, more specifically, those that you feel have some overlap with your own book. Read the acknowledgements of those books and see if the author names their agent. They almost always do, but you may need to read carefully. Likewise, check the bios of the authors themselves on their websites or social media bios and see if their agents are listed there. Add those names to your list.
Third, after you’ve gone through the books and authors you know, it’s time to enter the overwhelming trenches of cold searches. The sites I recommend are Query Tracker, Agent Query, Manuscript Wish List, and Publishers Marketplace. Each of them allows you to search through huge lists of active agents, usually by genre and/or age group of your intended reader. (Note: Some are, shall we say, a bit dated in their wording. But their information is nonetheless accurate and serve as great steppingstones for curating your final list.) Crosscheck anybody who pops up by reading their website bio for their likes, dislikes, and other related criteria for your book. If they make the cut, add them to your list.
Once you’ve got your list—and it probably has at least a few dozen names by this point—you get to querying. (We’re going to skip over all that here since it’s a big topic and your question is about determining/searching for an agent that’s a good fit for you, rather than the play-by-play of the querying process itself.)
As it stands, you’re querying agents based on the nuts and bolts of basic representation, such as your genre or topic. On paper, these agents appear like a decent match (or better) for your book. But are they the perfect match for you? The first hurdle is finding a match in book interest, the second is finding a match in personality.
The true weeding out will be whenever you get an offer of representation from an agent. Most of the time, they’ll ask to talk with you over the phone (or Zoom, etc.), otherwise known as The Call. This is essentially an interview. But it’s as much one for you as it is for them. You’re both there to make sure that you’d be a good fit for each other before you sign on the dotted line and get to work. You’re checking out the vibe of each other, how you communicate, asking each other questions that are more specific to your book and the potential business relationship you two may have.
This is where those questions you asked yourself earlier will finally come into play. Politely ask them what their communication style is like, especially during times such as when you’re out on submission with publishers. How do they prefer to deliver bad news? Etc. Look back at your answers and see if theirs coincide with yours. You don’t need to have a dead ringer for each one—again, no match anywhere in life is perfect—but you’ll likely know by the end of the call if you’re feeling good about this or not. You also don’t need to give your official answer the moment they offer you representation. It’s common for the offering agent to wait a week or two while you think things over and notify the other agents you’re currently querying, in case they’re interested in making and offer of representation, too. It’s simply good etiquette.
Searching for and querying agents is a long process and takes considerable time. It can also be stressful. Looking for an agent is a mix between applying for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You’ll be in business together, but also want to make sure your personalities match well, as this work is very personal. And just like a job or a romantic relationship, nothing’s more miserable than when you’re in a bad one. Obtaining agent representation is highly desirable, but it’s never something you want to rush into.
Best of luck in your search, my friend. Be wise, take care of yourself, and I look forward to seeing you on the other side.