Agents often look for writing that they find exciting or compelling. Your agent is going to invest significant time and energy representing you on the literary market, so it is important she be enthusiastic about your work. With that in mind, you should start with the published books you admire that are similar to your own. This similarity might be in genre, style, or perhaps theme. Who represented those books? You can often find this information on the acknowledgments page, where many authors thank their agent by name. This, of course, requires that you know the longitude and latitude of the literary landscape in which you hope to publish. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a good time to remedy that. This is not nearly as speedy an approach as a database search that filters by keyword, but it assures you of at least two things: 1) the agent has demonstrated interest in the kind of work you create and 2) the agent is likely reputable. This saves all involved parties time and possible headache.
Let’s look closer at that second concern: the agent’s credibility. Beware, of course, the scammer. Also, beware the agent who, though professional, is not up to the task. Here is where reputation comes into play. Reputable agents can provide a list of books they have sold to publishers whose names you recognize (and that are not vanity presses). You can make your own conclusions about the quality of the books. Looking at the end result is perhaps the most revealing information available to you. Reputable agents do not charge any fees upfront—no “reading fees,” “editing fees” or “critique fees.” Reputable agents make a commission, usually to the tune of 12-15 percent of the sale of the book. Some reputable agents are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (aaronline.org). Member agents meet the organization’s high standards and agree to their “Canon of Ethics.” If an agent you’re interested in doesn’t appear on the member list, she may still be reputable. This is just one bit of information of many to consider.
Once you have your focused list, visit the website of each agent (or agency) for submission guidelines. Many ask for a query letter. Others ask for a query and a brief sample of the manuscript. Query letters are a unique form worth researching and drafting (and redrafting) before sending out. As always, all your materials—query letter and sample—need to demonstrate your writing is compelling and special. Send what an agent requests in the submission guidelines—no more, no less. Then wait. Interested agents will ask to see a few more chapters or perhaps the entire manuscript. And, at that point, you’re well on your way.