Traditional Publishing — Step 3: Build a List of Agents

Note: These steps can be used to create a list of indie publishers as well as agents. As mentioned in earlier posts, I strongly recommend starting at the top with agents, so I focus on agents in the text below.

In order to query, you need to build a list of those who will be most likely to be interested in your manuscript. Each agent has specific preferences about the types of manuscripts they handle. If you write YA fantasy, it does you no good to query someone that handles only non-fiction.

Your job, then, is to build a list of agents who specialize in your manuscript’s genre and category.

Genre and category

Genre describes your manuscript’s content. Romance, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery are common genres. If your novel includes more than one genre — and many do — what is its main genre?

If you’re having trouble narrowing it down, imagine looking for it in the bookstore. Where would it be shelved?

Category describes the age group of the target audience. There are several categories:

  • Picture books
  • Early readers
  • Chapter books
  • Middle grade
  • Young Adult
  • New Adult — sort of, can be problematic in traditional publishing
  • Adult

An agent who reps adult science fiction is unlikely to be interested in YA science fiction, so be sure to build a list of agents who represent both the genre AND category of your book.

Create your initial list

This is how I, personally, created my list of agents to query.

  • I started at QueryTracker.net. I sorted by genre to get a large list of potential agents.

Just because the agent reps books in my manuscript’s genre doesn’t mean they would like my book. Genres have subgenres and niches, and Query Tracker doesn’t sort to that level. It just gives you a starting point.

  • After I made my initial list, I checked out each agent’s agency site.

I read the profiles of ALL of the agents at each agency, noted which ones I might want to query, and then ranked them in the order I would want to query them (at that agency specifically).

I looked at their current clients and the lost of books they repped. Books that are similar to mine in subject or tone or style were a good indicator that this might be a good person to query.

  • Then I checked the agency’s submission requirements. Most ask you to submit to only one agent at the agency at a time. Some ask you to pick just ONE agent there to query, saying they will share internally if that agent declines. A few allow you to query multiple agents simultaneously.

Note: A very few agents ask for exclusive submissions. That means you cannot query other agents until the agent with the exclusive decides whether they want to offer or reject. Exclusives are good for agents (who have no competition) and bad for writers. I strongly recommend you put any agent who asks for an exclusive at the bottom of your list and query them only if all other agents reject.

At the end of this process, I had a long list of potential agents to submit to. I wasn’t done, though.

More resources to build your list

Listed below, in order from most reliable (most frequently updated) to least reliable (most likely to be out of date), are additional places to search for agents as you build your list:

  • Twitter. By following industry insiders and hashtags such as #pitmad and #MSWL, you discover new agents and can gain insight into what they are requesting NOW. Not all agents are on Twitter, but for those that are, Twitter is an excellent way to gauge who wants what.
  • The agent’s or publisher’s blog. Again, not all agents and publishers keep a blog, and of those that do, not all update regularly, but those that do tend to keep the list of what they’re looking for current as well.
  • Recently published books similar to your own. The author’s agent may be listed in the acknowledgements. If not, try googling the author’s name and “agent.” The longer the book has been published, the more likely the agent information could be out-of-date.
  • Printed books such as Writers Market, Guide to Literary Agents or Writers & Artists Yearbook. These books often have great articles in them. They can be a trove of wonderful information! But the agent information may be out-of-date, even in a newly published book. The content for those books was fact-checked about 18 months before the book was released. These books can be a good starting point, but verify any information with another, more up-to-date source.
  • Other lists, such as those maintained by writers’ organizations or individual websites. They could be updated frequently, or they could have been posted years ago and forgotten. Definitely check information from sites like these against another source.

How to build your submission list

  1. Use one or more resources above to build a list of as many possible small publishers or agents that rep your genre. Make this as big a list as you can!
  2. As you build your initial list, try to sort the names into “buckets” according to how eager you are to submit your manuscript to them. Maybe you have a group of agents you’ve been following online and on Twitter who you just can’t wait to submit your manuscript to — those might be your “A” list. Those who seem like a really good fit, but you’re less familiar with, might be your “B” list. Those who rep your genre but don’t seem to be quite as good a match might be your “C” list.
  3. Create a spreadsheet (or use a tool like querytracker.net), and capture EXACTLY what each specific agent or publisher on your list wants included in the query package you send.

You’ll do more with this spreadsheet. I’ll talk more about it in an upcoming post.

Avoiding scammers

Your list still isn’t complete. Final step: Research each person on the list to determine if they are legit.

DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.

Do not submit first and research only after they have responded to you.

Scammers are VERY skilled at making you want to work with them. They know what you want to hear, and they will say those things. They will LIE to you. They will tell you a lot of truth and just enough lies to confuse and mislead you.

You can avoid scammers COMPLETELY, however, if you check out the people on your list before you submit to them.

To determine if an agent or publisher is legitimate, check out the Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum on Absolute Write. Search the forum for the agent or publisher. If you’re not sure how to do that, ASK for help. If you’re not finding people, you’re likely searching incorrectly. Ask for help.

Pax drinking from tub

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