A reader sent me a query last week, and as it wasn't the first time I'd received the question, I thought I'd post it:
When I told my editor that I was looking for an agent she advised me to seek out the advice of successful authors whose works are similar to my own. Can you give me your agent's name and some tidbit of information that will help me plead my case? Thank you.
Sure, I can give you my agent's name, as it is already a matter of public record. She is Lucienne Diver of The Knight Agency. But sorry, I can't give you any insider tidbits, because there is no pleading a case with a good agent.
Agents are business people who happen to love books. Your adviser was right that you should look for agents who represent work similar to yours. But that's only a part of it. Agents read both with heart and head, and aren't going to take on something they don't think they can sell or an author they don't think they can work with.
Here's the challenge:
First of all, you've got to get pages in front of the agent. This means you must write a query or pitch your book in person. The object of the query or pitch is to
- convince the agent that your work is the kind of thing the agent represents.
- intrigue the agent enough to request pages.
- demonstrate that you understand the protocols of the profession, ie. following the agent's posted guidelines and presenting yourself in a literate and professional manner wrt/manuscript format, expectations, and so forth.
These three items imply homework. You started #1 with your question to me, but I can't tell you if my agent likes the particular elements that are in your book, because I don't know them. You need to look at what else she represents, and check out her blog or her postings on other blogs or interviews or articles. #2 implies working on that pitch paragraphs. #3 means learning more about the business, like whether this agent wants paper submissions or electronic. No pink paper, no "my mother loved this," no chocolate, no tiny fonts. All those things. Learn.
Secondly, an agent must love your work (or at least believe that this is the best thing to come across his or her desk this year and every publisher is going to be mad to get it), which means you must write, revise, hone, and polish as best you can, so that when you do get pages in front of the agent, he or she will not want to stop reading.
Yes, this is the heart part. Sometimes your work is terrific, but it just doesn't connect with this particular agent. But certainly don't knock yourself out of contention by sending in something that no one but you has ever seen, that has bad grammar or misspellings or cliched plotting right on the first page.
Third, the agent must believe your work is marketable. This varies by time, season, and the whim of publishers, booksellers, and readers. But you can certainly aid this by learning as much as you can about the business before you present yourself and knowing where your work fits in. Don't write vampires just because that's what's hot right now. Write the story that lives in you. But by golly if it is about vampires, KNOW that it is hot and know what makes your vampires different from every other vampire out there.
No author can give you any shortcut past these requirements. And even a hearty recommendation from me (assuming I had read the book in question and loved it!) is not going to make a difference once that first page is in front of an agent's nose.
For more specific information about what gets a particular agent's juices flowing, check out that agent's blog. Lucienne's blog is Authorial, Agently, and Personal Ramblings, and a quick read of her archives will tell you a lot more about what she likes and is looking for than any tidbits I could drop. Agent Kristin Nelson has a great blog called Pub Rants, where she posts specific examples of queries and submissions that intrigue her or cause her to throw it back. More and more agents blog, and it is well worth your time to read up on anyone you plan to target.
This barely scratches the surface. Write well. Good luck!