Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Now that I have several chapters of my novel completed, I would like to know how to go about finding an agent? Any suggestions?

While there is no harm in learning about agents early on, your first priority right now is to write a great novel. That will do more than anything else to help you win the attention of an agent. And agents typically want to see a polished, complete manuscript from first-time authors before they're willing to sign you on. So have that ready before you start sending out queries.

You'll want to have a solid sense of the direction of the book, and the voice of it, in order to compile a list of names and agencies. Blanketing the market by sending queries to every agent in the business is a waste of your postage money and everyone's time. So, it is essential to target reputable agents who are most likely to be interested in the kind of novel you're writing.

One effective way to start this list is to find books that are similar to your own and find out who represented them. Don't look for a close match on every front, but focus on a similarity in a dominating element, like writing style, genre, or tone. Often, authors thank their agents in the acknowledgements section, which is either in the front pages of the book, or at the end. Some authors mention their agent on their website.

You can also find out who is representing recently released or soon-to-be-released titles and look at those books to determine if the agent might be interested in your work. Publisher's Marketplace, a fee-based service, provides such up-to-date information and Poets & Writers Magazine's “Page One" section lists a limited number of new titles with agent details. You can research these agents knowing they are actively selling novels.

There are many publications and websites that provide listings of literary agents. The Writer Magazine's website has a searchable market database available to magazine subscribers that includes agents. You can find other listings in an online search, or by visiting the writer's reference section of a bookstore. Approach such lists as a starting point in your research, rather than an end. Find out what books each agent represents and which publishing houses the agent has worked with. If that matches up with what you hope for your novel, then put that agent on your list.

If you write short stories, or if any of your novel's chapters can stand alone as short stories, consider submitting them for publication in literary journals. Many agents read such journals in an effort to find new and fresh voices. It's rare, but you might just find an agent contacts you.

Don't feel you have to go with the first agent who expresses interest. It's important to find an agent who is reputable and passionate about your work. Many writers are so eager to be represented that they sign up quickly and ask questions later. If you do this, you might find yourself in the hands of someone who isn't all that jazzed about your work, and as a result your manuscript languishes on a shelf. Worse, you might unwittingly stumble into a con, shelling out money for various fees for months before realizing your manuscript was tossed in the trash long ago. You can protect yourself by looking at an agent's history. You can also check out the online forums that monitor agents, such as Predators & Editors and Absolute Write's forum on “Bewares and Background Checks." The Association of Authors' Representatives, a society that requires agents to meet certain professional standards, is another valuable resource. Not all reputable agents are members of AAR, but if your potential agent doesn't have much of a background to go on, this might be useful information.