Querying Agents: Part One – How to Research a Literary Agent
An author friend asked me a while back, how I went about querying an agent – not for himself, he’s been agented for over two decades, but for the emerging writers who ask him the same. I’m SURE he didn’t expect a response this long, but since I took the time to write it, I thought I’d share here too in the hope it may help someone. And I’ll section this out for you all, so it’s not lengthy paragraph after paragraph the way he received it!
This is gold. Admittedly a slower, more limited process than some of the others. Still, don’t dismiss it.
When you find a book you truly love, especially if it has similar tones or themes or subject matter to your book, don’t forget to read the acknowledgments to see if the author thanked their agent. Keep a running list of those names to add to your agents to research.
MS WISH LIST: mswishlist.com
This site is great. Search agents based on categories and particular interests, such as #BIPOC, #ownvoices #upmarket or even based on subject matter, such as motherhood or fertility.
MANUSCRIPT WISH LIST: manuscriptwishlist.com
Similar to the above, you can search based on subject matter, genre, phrases, hashtags, etc.
QUERY TRACKER: querytracker.net
Another great resource was is querytracker. (This is also how I kept track of everything). Once you find an agent you’re interested in, add them to your query tracker list, where you can make notes on the agent and access articles and websites to learn more about them and their interests (then add that information to your query tracker notes).
This also makes it easy to keep track of whether you’re interested in multiple agents from the same agency. You can rank agents by using a numbered priority setting, and/or mark them in a “Hold” folder (if you decide you’re not ready to query them, but want to keep them for a second (or third or fourth) round of queries. This is also useful if you’re already querying an agent in their agency, but want to make sure you keep track of them and all your notes on them.A lot of these options were for the paid version but at only $25US a year, I found it HIGHLY worthwhile. You can also read Offer of Representation interviews from some of the authors who signed with the agents, which gives insight into what type of query letter caught the agent’s interest, and set reminders for yourself, such as the amount of the time a ‘no response,’ turns to a ‘no’ at that agency.
Finally, you can look up comments on the agent to see if people had positive or negative things to say about them. For an even deeper dive on Query Tracker, check out novelist Sarah Penner,’s website, she gives some notes on it here, complete with images: https://www.sarahpenner.com/getting-the-most-out-of-querytracke
Another resource I used A TON was Publisher’s Marketplace. $25US a month, but I found it so worth it (I just signed up for one month), and this would be especially true for any querying author who also wants a good chance of going with a bigger imprint or certain type of independent publisher.
Sometimes I would get extremely excited about an agent based on their interests, interviews, etc. and then find out that they hadn’t had any deals listed on query tracker or only deals in genres not related to mine or typically sold to imprints I wouldn’t be that happy to see my book with.
At that point I could go back to query tracker and decide whether I wanted to adjust the priority of when I would query them. Obviously there could be very good things about going with a new agent or an agent eager to shift their genre interests, so if I thought it was a great match otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t use this to rule an agent out, but it was good to be able to consider these points.On the flip side, Publisher’s Marketplace allowed me to see an example of an agent’s deals, if those deals were on single or multi-deal books, if the agent was focused on selling the books in as many regions as possible, or only in the major ones. When it came to making my decision between offering agents I used Publisher’s Marketplace to to track the agents’ deals out in excel (author, book title, imprint, country it first sold in, subsequent countries, genre, ‘tone’ (which I had to glean from reading the PM description or digging deeper in goodreads), type of deal, whether it went at auction or as a pre-empt, how many books in the deal, and date). And I only went back to the year the more recently active agent had started to make it a fairer analysis. This was actually VERY revealing, as the agent I initially thought was far above the better bet financially turned out to have very few deals related to what I was writing (hers were almost all thriller or romance, which my books are decidedly not), the majority of her six-figure deals were before 2018, and not as many were at auction as the other agent, and a book selling at auction can be a good sign that a lot of publishers were interested and so hopefully a good sign that the book will be more appealing to readers too.
It could be a good idea to do this before querying, to help to decide who to query, but it hadn’t occurred to me at that point, and would be A LOT of work if you have a number of agents you’re planning to query.
BIG NOTE ON PUBLISHERS’ MARKETPLACE: NOT ALL AGENTS USE IT, especially non-US agents, and some agents used to use it but have stopped in recent years for a number of possible reasons, and some use it sporadically, and sometimes six-figure deals aren’t indicated.
So although the site’s info can be very useful and very revealing DO take it with a grain of salt. Do NOT dismiss your dream agent because it seems like, based on Publisher’s Marketplace, they’re not the agent for you. It may take more digging, but there are other ways to get an idea of an agent’s market success, like finding out who their authors are, researching those books, seeing what lists they’ve hit, where they’re published, the number and quality of reviews, etc.
And also, when you have an offer (or offers) in hand (and even when you’re querying), sometimes gut feeling will take you farther than anything else – go with the agent who feels like the best fit for YOU, the book you’ve written, the books you want to write and the type of author career you want to have.