The Hows and Whys of Researching Agents

Most writers know that there are certain projects (read: pretty much all of them) that require some sort of research. Folks writing historical fiction obviously know there'll be plenty of research involved to make the world come alive. Contemporary folks may need to research the cultures of other countries or look into maps of other cities. And even fantasy writers need to do some research. While they may spend more time world building, they may need to research things like proper horse care or sword fighting techniques.

Regardless of the different types of research writers do based on their tastes, prior knowledge, and particular story, all writers must do one certain type of research if they hope to be traditionally published:

Agent research.

This week, I spent a lot of time researching agents. While I also revamped my opening chapter and made all the changes my CP noted in my MS (yay for progress!), the majority of my week was spent with google and QueryTracker. I split my research into two phases: breadth and depth.

Before I get into how I researched agents (and why that's important), indulge me while I gush about the awesomeness that is for a minute. QueryTracker (QT) is a free site (with an optional "premium" membership) where writers can look up both agents and publishers. I've only used it for agents, so that's all I'll speak to in this post. Using this site, you can search agents by lots of variables: genre they represent, country, whether they're currently open to queries, how they accept queries, gender, if they're a member of AAR, or--if you have a specific agent in mind--by name or agency.

The site generates a list of agents based on your criteria. You can click on the different folks and get basic info plus user comments and graphs detailing how long the agent takes to respond or what percentage of queries they reject. And then, once you find a good agent, you can add them to you "to query list." Later, once you've begun querying, you can keep track of when you sent your query, what the response was and when, plus keep a copy of the query for your records.

QT does even more than that, but those are some of the highlights. If you're getting ready to research agents, I highly recommend checking out this site. (Plus, you can even post your query in the forums where other QT members can give you free critiques!)

Breadth of Research

Alright, so the first step in researching (for me at least) is the "breadth" approach. In this phase, you want to get a little bit of information about a lot of agents. So, I set up QT to pull agents that meet the following criteria:

  • Represents both YA and fantasy (since I might want to write adult fantasy at some point)
  • Lives in the US
  • Currently open to queries (since I'm planning to query soon)
  • Accepts email queries

Your list will look different depending on what you're looking for, but this is what I used for this MS. I specifically wanted folks who rep both YA and fantasy because, well, that's what I write. The US thing was because that's the market I want to break into (and where I live). Your mileage may vary.

So, once I had this list of agents, I went through and chose one agent from each agency. Approximately 99% of all agencies have a "only query one agent here at a time" policy anyway, so I thought I'd save myself the hassle and only put one on my list. And how did I know which one to pick? I googled the agency, read agent bios, and picked the one whose taste seemed to best mesh with my story.

By the time I was done doing this, I had roughly forty agents on my list. Now, it was time to get deep.

Depth of Research

Once I had my list of 40 agents, I needed to thoroughly research each one, for two reasons:

  1. Make sure that they're a good fit for my story and my career goals
  2. Get enough information to "personalize" my query*

So now, instead of wanting a little information about a lot of agents, I wanted a lot of information about each individual agent, hence the "depth" approach.

*Note: Just in case some readers don't know, a query letter is the letter you send to an agent to entice them to read your story. Personalizing a query allows you to show the agent you chose them for a particular reason and it helps you avoid making silly mistakes. For example: some agents prefer you start with the hook. Others like a "hello" type paragraph where you introduce why you think that specific agent would be the right fit for your book (or that your book would interest them specifically).  Also, a "silly" mistake could be something like querying an agent with a horror story when they only represent romance. Don't do that. It's a waste of your time, and the agent's time. And it's a rejection letter that you don't need to get.

As I went through my list of forty agents, I ended up dropping two or three during the research process. One agent said she only really liked urban fantasy. Since I write mostly high fantasy, I felt like she wasn't a good fit. Another agent seemed too "green" to me and had only made sales to e-publishers, so I didn't think she was a good fit for my career goals.

How did I research these folks? Well, google became my friend. I googled each agent and read all I could about them. All of them at least had a profile on their agency's website, so that was a good place to start. But I wanted to go deeper than that. I read any interviews they did with bloggers (about 75% of them had interviews available) and if they had a twitter, I hopped on there and looked around to see if I could get a sense of the types of books they like.

During my research, if I noted that an agent seemed to really want a story like mine, they got a star added to their name on QT. If I noticed they were actively supportive of LGBT characters or other areas of diversity, they also got a special star (since my characters are fairly diverse in both race and sexuality in this book and because diversity in general is an important value to me).

What to Do with All that Research

The purpose of doing all this research is to make sure you're querying the right people (therefore avoiding extra rejections from agents who don't even rep your genre anyway) and to show them why your story is right for them.

A couple of my queries open with the hook (because that's what the agent said they wanted!), but for those agents who wanted personalized emails, here are a couple of examples of how I used my research:

"I read in an interview, and on #MSWL, that you're interested in fantasy with strong friendships and a romantic subplot that weaves beneath the surface. As such, I thought you might enjoy my 75,000 word YA fantasy VISIONS OF DARKNESS."

And another:

"I read in an interview that you're looking for urban fantasy and young adult. As such, I thought you might be interested in the blend of modern technology and magic in my 75,000 word YA fantasy VISIONS OF DARKNESS."

(For those that don't know, #MSWL is an "event" and tag on twitter where agents post their "MS wish list" and is a good way to help show an agent that you have what they're looking for.)

For each example, I took tried to show the agent how my story fits something they've stated they're looking for. It's more than just "oh hey, you rep YA, so I'm going to query you." The last one is one I struggled with since the agent hadn't done any interviews. It was also a little tricky because she wants urban fantasy rather than high fantasy. So, I focused on how my fantasy (though it is set on another world) does have our world's current level of technology, which should appeal to this agent's taste. It may not be perfect, but it won't tank the rest of my query, either.

It's also important to note that each query letter is address to the agent, by name (Dear Ms. _____ ), and when I actually send the letters, I'll double and triple check with their agency guidelines so I know how many sample pages to paste in the email and whether I need to include a synopsis. This is so important as it not only shows the agent that you can actually follow directions but also ensures the agent has all the materials they need to make an informed decision.

Well, I hope this blog post wasn't terribly boring. It may not be super useful for folks currently drafting/revising right now, but I hope it's something you can come back to when you're ready to query agents.

My last thought on here is this warning: researching takes a LONG time. I probably spent at least twenty hours researching agents. Give yourself time to do this. Now that I have my query letter tailored to each agent, as soon as my synopsis is ready and my MS has had one last pass through with the red pen, I'll be ready to go!

Have a wonderful week everyone. Write on!