There's something aspiring authors often forget in the agent search. You're the client, and technically the agent works for you. I'm not saying that to go on some kind of a power trip. It's just that because of the huge imbalance between the number of aspiring writers and the number of literary agents and because of the fact that you have to go through an audition, the agent-author relationship often looks skewed towards the agent. At least from the outside looking in.
Any colour - so long as it's black (Henry Ford)
Skewing the author-agent relationship can result in an "any agent will do" mentality. The truth is any agent will not do. An agent who reps only crime and horror will not work for your YA romance.And being happy with any agent is how people get tricked by disreputable people posing as agents.
The Mary Kole connection
In her presentation, "Slushpile Secrets," Ms Kole touched on the process of choosing an agent. But even before I arrived, the Agent Day reminded me that it's not just "any agent". Meeting Ms Kole was an amazing experience for me, but I know I will probably never query her. Why? Because I think I may write novels for adults at some point. And Ms. Kole doesn't reps adult.
If my query list was made up of "agents of awesome" as opposed to agents who are a good fit, then it would have all the agents who have amazing blog and twitter presences: Mary Kole, Janet Reid, Nathan Bransford (even though he's no longer an agent- he's that awesome). None of these are actually a fit.
So what should you consider when thinking about who to query?
1. Look inside yourself.
What genre do you write? What tone do you write with? Who's your audience? Do you have any desire to write something different at any point? The key to making a match is knowing who you are as a writer.
2. What do you need?
Would you appreciate someone who's very editorial? Should your agent call you for a birthday? Do you prefer all online correspondance, or would you like a phone call once in a while? What help do you need, if any building your career? Big agency? New York (/London)?
3. Keep your eyes open
Think of this as a passive sort of research. It's simple. Make notes every time a potential agent crosses your path. If you're hanging out at WriteOnCon, and there's an agent on a panel that reps what you write, but you've never heard of him/her, make a note. If you read a book, and it's absolutely awesome, and you think "when my book grows up, it's going to be just like this one," make a note.
4. Research and compare
It's relatively easy -especially in the case of US agents- to find lists of exactly what agents are looking for. But huge genres are not the only things to consider. Just because an agent reps paranormal doesn't mean your paranormal is right for them. Just because your book fits with that agent, doesn't mean your styles will mesh.
You should match agents up to all the things you considered in sections 1 and 2. It's okay if an agent misses on a few - compromise is a part of life- but you may want to rethink querying someone who only lands in the same place for a single category. Finding out a lot of these things will take some effort. Connecting with agents and/or their clients on social media, attending conferences or workshops they give, using agent-finding resources on websites and in books, reading their clients' work, etc.
It's a long process looking at all this information, so I recommend that you start before you're ready to query. Keep a book or computer file with agent names. Record if they're a "perfect match", what things don't gel with you, what agencies they work with, and anything else that jumps out at you. At this stage you really don't need to think about submission requirements unless they are going to be restrictive, like mailing a printed manuscript across the world, might be problematic.
5. We're all in this together
(Any day I get to quote HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is a good day. Just sayin. )
At the end of the day, remember this is a partnership. You do have to "work for" your agent. You will submit things to her. He may push you so hard you think you'll break. She may give you back editorial notes with so much red ink you'll feed like you've bled all over them.
They will (or should) do it for your sake. All those things and many more.
Pick an agent that works for you.