Sunday, April 10, 2011

NO VACANCY! How looking for an agent is like finding an apartment in an overcrowded city.

When I was in graduate school, I did a teaching assistant exchange at a university in Strasbourg, France. Due to strikes and paperwork delays, I didn’t arrive in France until the week before school started. Another American was in the same boat, so the two of us shared a rundown hotel room as we began a panicked search for an apartment in an overcrowded city.

The first thing we tried was the most obvious: the want ads. Finding phone numbers to call was the easy part. Writing down the addresses and directions we were given in French – somewhat nerve wracking! When searching for an agent, start with the obvious: a database of agents and what they are looking for. My favorite is querytracker.net. They offer a free membership that you can use to find agents that represent what you write. They tell you what each agent wants in a query (just a query letter, a letter and the first page, three chapters, synopsis, etc.). You can even track your submissions and find out about agent response times. And the best part is the cute yellow smiley man with sunglasses that appears when you get an offer!

Lots of apartments that we were interested in were already taken by the time we called. When you’re querying, there will be agents who already have their plates pretty full. Along with well-established agents, you might want to consider querying a newer agent at a well-established agency or an agent with experience that has recently opened his/her own agency. Some of these agents may be more actively seeking to expand their lists.

Other apartments that we saw were horrific places that you would only recommend to the kid who tripped you in the cafeteria in seventh grade. To help make sure you don’t end up with an unqualified agent, always do additional research on an agent you are considering querying, such as checking him/her out on the Preditors and Editors website: http://pred-ed.com/pubagent.htm

The second thing we tried while searching for an apartment was paying a small fee to an agency that gave us leads and set up appointments for us. NEVER PAY A “READING FEE” TO AN AGENCY TO READ YOUR WORK. However, you might consider getting a paid critique by an agent or editor when you attend a reputable writing conference such as one sponsored by SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Although the agent/editor may not ask to see more of your project, you can get valuable feedback that will help improve your work for when it is requested by an agent. Another opportunity which involves a fee would be entering a contest sponsored by a reputable organization, such as those sponsored by regional RWA chapters (Romance Writers of America). Many of the RWA contests provide written critiques from the judges and the finalists are often judged by agents and/or editors.

When I showed up for an appointment to see one particular apartment, I was shocked to discover that eight other young women had also been scheduled for the same time; the eight of us had to try to convince a girl seeking a roommate that we were the best candidate. I see this as the writing equivalent to pitch sessions – many will pitch, few will be chosen!

And then there was a small handwritten note posted on a random wall at the university. Student seeking roommate. I copied down the phone number, doubtful that it would amount to anything. But I called anyhow, set up an appointment, and visited the apartment. The moment I walked in, I was sold! The place was modern, clean, and bright. The roommate, a perfect match for me. We chose each other and we remain friends to this day. In the agent search, I would liken this to some of the less obvious places to look for agents – in the acknowledgments of books similar to yours, a deal you read about on the free PW (Publishers Weekly) daily or PW Children’s Bookshelf e-mail, a blog you happen to read, a hint from a list-serve you’re a member of, a tweet on Twitter, or in my case, a talk given by an agent at a monthly meeting of my local chapter of RWA.

You might be wondering about my friend, the other American who was also looking for an apartment. She ended up renting a “chambre”, one room in the attic level of an apartment building, usually reserved for a family’s au pair (nanny). It was in a beautiful neighborhood yet inexpensive because of its size. It wouldn’t have been the right place for me, but she loved it! It was perfect for her. The same is true of agents. What seems perfect for one person may not be the best match for another.

When I compare my apartment search in France to my search for an agent, one thing was completely different. The timing. In France, I had one week to find an apartment. In contrast, my search for an agent took months, which is how it happens for many people. In the end, however, I found my perfect match in both cases.

There was also one thing about my apartment and agent searches that was exactly the same. In both situations, I tried lots of different things, never knowing which one would lead to my ultimate goal. If you’re currently in search of an agent (a web designer, a publicist, book trailer designer, or an apartment in France for that matter!), I encourage you to do the same – try lots of different approaches – and enjoy the journey!

What about you? What are some of the ways you have searched for an agent (or other writing-related goal)? And if you’ve gotten to the end, which path ended up being the magic one for you? Please share!

34 comments:

Katie McGarry said...

Wonderful blog Tracy! We obviously share awesome tastes in agents!;) I especially loved comparing the roommate interview with the pitch session!

Kristin Lenz said...

Great info, Tracy! I remember those college apartment hunting days, making phone calls and running all over town. It wasn't that long ago that querying an agent/editor meant frequent trips to the post office mailing manuscripts with an SASE. Now I can't imagine searching for an agent without the internet!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm all for querying new agents, but they have to be from a good agency with agents I respect.

Great post!

Kimberly Sabatini said...

Love this post! Before I signed with my agent Michelle Wolfson of Wolfson Literary, she asked me to do some revisions for her. Don't be disappointed by this. It was such a good decision for both of us. When I was done, we clearly knew that we could work together BEFORE we signed a contract. It also gave us a chance to get to know each other. When the time came to commit, we both were 100% sure that we were a great match!

Lenore said...

I met my agent at a conference - 3 years before I actually queried him. In the meantime, I read quite a few of the books he represented, which confirmed to me that we had similar taste in books. I researched other agents as well, and read some of their books too, but he was always in the back of my mind as my dream agent. And in the end, it worked out perfectly!

Kathleen said...

Totally agree with Stina. I queried new/newer agents but always tried to make sure they were from established agencies.

Another site that I found helpful was agentquery.com. Also, once you have a name from agentquery or agenttracker, it's well worth doing your homework on that agent before adding them to your list.

Trish Doller said...

I found my agent by reading the acknowledgments of one of my favorite YA books!

jennytorressanchez.com said...

I found my agent through Casey McCormick's site, Literary Rambles. She has a ton of info on agents there! (including interviews, links to online info, sells, clients, etc.). After I signed with my agent, I let Casey know and she was thrilled. I even wrote a guest post for her!

Tracy Bilen said...

Katie- our agent is awesome, isn't she?
Kristin - I can't imagine querying without e-mail! So much more efficient now!
Stina - good point!
Kimberly - thanks for sharing this happy ending!
Lenore - so happy you got your dream agent!
Kathleen - thanks for mentioning agentquery - I'm sure that can help some out there!

Tracy Bilen said...

Trish - now maybe someone else will discover his/her dream agent through your acknowledgment!
Jenny - thanks for mentioning Casey's website - how cool that you wrote a post for her!

Connie Gillam said...

Great blog, Tracy and right on time.

I'm looking for a new agent after my agent left publishing. I hate starting over, but sometimes this happens.

Tracy Bilen said...

Best of luck to you in your search, Connie!

Nicole said...

I met my agent at a conference, which I think is one of the best ways to get an agent. You get one-on-one face time with them, and you get off the slush pile. That alone can be worth the cost of the conference!

Tracy Bilen said...

Good point, Nicole!

Brodi Ashton said...

Great post! I also want to emphasize how important it is to find the right fit. I found my first agent, and after a year and a half, we parted ways. We were not a good fit.

In looking for my second agent, I was much more particular, and I knew what I could and could not put up with. Thankfully I had a few to choose from. I like to think I had more wisdom the second go around, even though it sucked at the time.

It was painful to get an agent, and then lose an agent, but it's not uncommon, so if it happens to you, don't let it get you down.

Tracy Bilen said...

Thanks, Brodi - I'm glad you brought up the reality that not all author/agent relationships work out. Happy it all worked out for you!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I found my agent, Michelle Humphrey, through the Guide to Literary Agents blog.

Kristen Simmons said...

My story is much like Kimberly's. My agent asked me to do revisions before signing a contract as well, and I'm so grateful now for that time we spent getting to know each other!

Marissa Burt said...

I like having a book in hand, so I browsed through the Guide to Literary Agents. This helped me see who represented MG/YA fantasy. The agent comments were also helpful - I remember being happy to see that Laura Langlie enjoyed working with debut authors.

Once I had my list of dream agents, I went online to learn more about them.

Tracy Bilen said...

Caroline and Marissa - thanks for mentioning these two great resources
Kristen - sounds like the revision process worked for you on multiple levels!

Heather Anastasiu said...

Absolutely awesome post!! Great analogy. Yep, I love querytracker.net--that was where I kept track of all my query submissions, and yes, I loved the smiley faces!!! But hmm, it wasn't where I found out about agents, I just looked up agents info (and response times especially) there. The place I really looked to find agents I wanted to submit too was Publisher's Marketplace. I did the $20 subscription just for the month or two I was querying so I could see which agents were ACTIVELY selling as well as thier interests, then I would generally open my query with--'I saw your recent sale of [---] on Publisher's Marketplace and think you might like my novel, blah, blah'. I also absolutely looked in acknowledgement pages of books coming out. This is actually the way I found my agent! I read an ARC of Andrea Cremer's Nightshade, then saw Charlie was her agent and queried him. Ta da! FTW! It was a great way to catch an up-and-coming agent who's actively building his list.

Tracy Bilen said...

Thanks for mentioning Publisher's Marketplace, Heather - what a good idea!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. You're bring back memories. I agree with Caroline that Guide to Literary Agents is helpful. Also the agent spotlights on my blog, Literary Rambles, does a lot of the research for you on what an agent is looking for. Here's the link: http://caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/

Neecy said...

Great Post, Tracy.
Thanks for sharing. France--Wow.
Neecy

Kurt Hampe said...

Well done Tracy, especially the reminder to look in the acknoledgements of favorite books. At least that way you know you and the agent have the same taste.

Tracy Bilen said...

Thanks Natalie, Neecy, and Kurt. And thanks for sharing the link to your great resource, Natalie!

Tracy Bilen said...

Thanks, Patti, for your comment via e-mail!

Patti Shenberger said...

Tracy, trying again in hopes of getting the comment posted. I loved your blog and it does liken it alot to apartment/house hunting. I started working (not signed) with your agent a little over a year ago and when she decided not to take on any more category authors handed me to her partner who signed me a week later. I love that my agent is always available via email and telephone. Communication is essential in the author/agent relationship. Without it, you have nothing. Take care and congrats on the release!

Tracy Bilen said...

Thanks for trying again, Patti. I definitely love that my agent always gets back to me right away.
If anyone else has trouble posting a comment, please try hitting the preview button.

Gin said...

Hi Tracy!

I never knew you'd lived in France. I love how you used your experience there and related it to agent hunting.

It took me a few "apartments" to get to a place I call home as far as agents go, and the journey was so very important. I learned so much along the way and continue to every day.

Great blog. I hope to visit you often. ::grins::

All my best,
Gin

K. M. Walton said...

Hi Tracy - fellow Simon Pulser - I found my agent through a bio of her on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. Chuck did an entry on her and I queried her that instant.

I also LOVE Casey's blog and queried many an agent from her brilliant spotlights.

erinjade said...

great post!

i agree with the above comments about Casey's site too. it's perfect for the author who wants to know absolutely every little thing there is to know about a potential agent.

i was hyper-detailed in my search, but in the end, i went with my gut when choosing an agent. the details only served to back up my choice.

Tracy Bilen said...

Gin - so glad you now have a great place to call home!
Kate and Erin - Sounds like Casey's site has been quite helpful - thanks for sharing!

misstante said...

I am in the process of trying to find an agent, and love querytracker but really like literary rambles so much! every iota of info is listed for every single agent I am researching.Also impressed with mother.write. (repeat.This blog has 'contests' that result in critiques from literary agents and fellow writers - found it incredibly helpful. meanwhile, trying to keep my chin up!