Tools for finding a literary agent; just apply elbow grease!

How hard is it to find a literary agent?

Finding a literary agent is very hard indeed. Ask any author who’s attempted this feat. Every literary agent in this world, so I’ve heard, is swamped with hundreds if not thousands of queries each month.

The query is a letter, usually an e-mail, three brief paragraphs in which an author tries to entice the agent with their unpublished manuscript. The formula varies, though usually the first paragraph covers what type of book the author is pitching (genre, intended audience, length) and why the author believes the project suits the agent’s needs. The second paragraph elaborates on the main character, their struggles and the ensuing plot, a cunning attempt to hook the agent’s interest and persuade them to request your full manuscript. Last and somewhat least is a paragraph about you, the writer, and your credentials, if any.

On the surface, querying an agent sounds simple. Don’t be deceived. Have you ever tried to find an agent who is looking for historical fiction for middle-grade readers, a story that does not include magic or time travel or a really cute human or animal side-kick? I have. Hours of research have yielded two agents who might be interested in my pioneer Oregon tale for young readers. No, I haven’t queried them yet; I have a lot of homework to do, first.

Every literary agency website encourages authors to “do their homework” and make a reasonable determination about the suitability of their work for any given agent. I’ve scoured the internet for online interviews and “wish list” websites to which many agents kindly contribute. I’ve read several books by authors represented by the agents I’m interested in, considering both the overall quality of the work and how my book compares. This is one aspect of “comps” (titles currently on bookstore shelves to which your manuscript can compare, in a positive way). Publishing, after all, is a business, and agents make their living selling commercially viable books to publishers.

“Comps” is a word I’ve come to dread. There isn’t a best-selling book just like my book. If there were, why would I have written mine? When I was preparing to pitch my middle-grade historical fiction book to an editor some time back, I read many titles from her authors and many more, besides, with the help of Amazon’s “top 100” historical fiction books for middle grade readers. There were no perfectly comparable titles (see above) but, fortunately, there are many ways one book can be “like” another. The era and setting. The challenges the protagonist faces. The tone of the book (mine is at the “gentler edge of the spectrum” like Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia Tate books). Plot-wise, my story combines elements of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Caution: though agents are, in fact, looking for the next Laura Ingalls Wilder or Charlotte Bronte, it is taboo to suggest that this person is you. I once heard an agent, in his address to a writing conference, say how disgusted he was to be pitched by an unknown author who suggested his, the author’s, epic fantasy manuscript was like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, only better.

Speaking of conferences, many believe this is the best place to meet an agent. Meet one, yes. Interest one? Most publishing professionals appreciate my business-like demeanor and preparedness when I’m lucky enough to rate a one-on-one appointment. Truth is, there hasn’t been an agent who is likely to be highly interested in my recent work at the conferences I’ve attended. Gad, how many professional writing organizations do I have to join before I find one that’s the right fit for right now? Would it be better to drop one of my western writer affiliations and join a children’s lit group? And what about the books I have under contract, contemporary fantasy/mythology for grown-ups? Will some brilliant person one day invent a sort of pre-agent, someone who helps you find viable agents to approach? If not, where does one find the time to write?

Writing for publication is a business. A competitive and tough business. A highly subjective, often risk-averse business. If your picture a published author as some sort of distracted loon who sighs a lot and gazes out the window for inspiration you are on the wrong track. Writing for publication is not for sissies.

It must be twice as hard, being a literary agent.

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