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AGENT 101: Perfecting the Approach | Writer's Life

By Allison Landa

Agents are people. They are human beings flawed with character and quirk and humor. Think of them as you would like anyone with blood running through their veins, and you’re already on the right path. Here are my two cents on how to approach them.

First, know what you want. You won’t find the right agent unless you understand what you’re seeking. If you’re a science-fiction writer, you’re not going to get very far with an agent who doesn’t represent genre work. Also, consider communication styles. If you work best over email, don’t try for an agent who doesn’t accept online queries. This is going to be one of the most important professional relationships in your life. Before you query a given agent, make sure you are at least aligned on the basics.

Also, do your homework. Look at websites such as the Association of Author’s Representatives and Manuscript Wish List to get a sense of the agents representing your type of work. However, you can also get creative! I found my current agent through a Twitter search – specifically, using the hashtag #MSWL for Manuscript Wish List. Once you’ve narrowed the field of potential agents, research each to learn more about their personal tastes and what they’re currently seeking. If an agent doesn’t represent Young Adult and that’s your genre, you don’t want to waste their time or yours by querying them.

Finally, it’s time to submit your query. Publishing veteran Jane Friedman has a comprehensive look at crafting your letter. She lists four major elements of every query:

  • housekeeping (genre, title, and word count)

  • hook (your story in a nutshell)

  • bio note (relevant personal and professional information)

  • a closing sentence thanking them for their time

Friedman also wades into the debate around personalizing the query. If you can make it meaningful and appropriate, go for it – but if your personalization doesn’t add much, don’t bother. Every agent has different submission guidelines – some only want query letters. In contrast, others may request supporting materials such as excerpts or proposals, so be sure that you pay close attention to individual requests. You don’t want to turn off an agent by failing to follow their directions – they’re judging your potential working relationship from the word go.

A note on follow-up: It’s not easy waiting to hear back from agents when you’re excited about your project! Again, pay attention to specific submission guidelines. Some agents welcome a follow-up email within a few weeks, while others specify that if you don’t hear from them within a specific amount of time, you can consider that a pass.

If an agent does pass on your project, do not try to argue them out of their decision. I cannot emphasize this enough. Few things make you look as unprofessional as an aggressive stance when they have already declined. Be professional and polite. The publishing industry is smaller than you might think – don’t blow your reputation before you’ve even begun.

A final thought: agents love writers and the written word. They have a passion for stories and want to help you get your work out there. Treat them with respect – down that road leads your most important professional connection as an author.

Good luck!

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