We quickly turned to the question of how writers search for an agent. One of the agents took the lead and gave the standard advice: look at the acknowledgement section of books you like or books that are similar to what you're writing, find out the name of the agent who represents this writer, go to the agent's web site, look up the submission guidelines, query the agent.
It was a light bulb moment for me: Agents do not know the most effective ways to search for an agent for the simple reason that they don't HAVE to. That's not their job. Their job is to find writers who have written work they can sell to a publisher. They can give you wonderful advice on how to query agents because they know what they want to see from a writer, but most of them don't know the resources available to writers to help them find the agents to query.
As I said, that's not their job. It's ours.
And I realized, it's time for writers to start sharing advice on how to find an agent. So I'm starting here with a guide to developing a list of agents to query.
1. Identify your genre - this seems like such an obvious thing to know and many writers do, but, judging by the slush pile, this is not always the case. Agents represent specific genres. That's where they have their contacts, the editors with whom they are most successful placing books and with whom they have developed a professional relationship. Even within genres, there may be subcategories within which agents specialize. For example: Within the romance genre, there are very specific subcategories historical, paranormal, wedding, millionaire (or billionaire because of inflation), etc. In mysteries, you find police procedurals, whodunit's, cozy mysteries, amateur sleuth, etc. Memoir, too, has specific sub-genres such as coming of age, travel, sports, etc.
While you might not want to query with such specificity, knowing that these categories exist help you evaluate an agent's ability to successfully represent and sell your work. Many agents have a preference for a specific time period or a type of mystery, and being able to distinguish between mysteries and thrillers may make the difference between an agent offering to represent you and sending you a rejection simply because you queried one while the agent only represents the other.
Here are a couple of places to help you figure out your genre: Book Industry Study Group Categories and Amazon Browse Categories. I would suggest you take a look at books within these categories to make sure you've correctly identified your book's genre.
2. Generating a list of names - I find likely agents in a few different spots: Publisher's Marketplace, faculty lists for conferences and workshops, and Twitter #mswl.
My single best resource is Publisher's Marketplace. It's a subscription service ($25/month), but it is definitely worth it if you are a working writer. Alongside the industry news, PM keeps a running list of publishing deals that is searchable for agents, editors, and keywords (like genre). You can search for deals all the way back to 2000, but, for the purpose of generating a list of agents, I only go back 6 months to a year. I usually search for agents who have sold debut fiction first, then widen my search to agents who have sold any fiction.
Why? Because I know these are agents who are selling in the CURRENT publishing market. The biggest problem with looking in the acknowledgement section of published books is you're probably looking at books that sold 5 to 10 years ago. The publishing marketplace was very different then. Even work that's just been released was sold a minimum of a year ago and, depending on what has happened to the economy in the intervening year, the publishing environment (and what sells) can change radically. I am looking for agents who are successful NOW.
You're not going to get much more about a recent sale than a couple of sentences, but I'll come back to these agents with recent sales in a moment.
I also look at faculty lists for conferences and workshops like Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Kauai, Tin House, etc. (Poets & Writers has a comprehensive list of conferences and workshops). Agents who are attending these conferences are most likely looking for new clients. Actively looking for new clients. In addition, you might find a conference you want to attend and that puts you in the position to network face-to-face with an agent or agents with whom you are interested (which, frankly, is a much more successful way to get an agent to request you manuscript, though the cost of it is infinitely higher than sending out batches of queries via email, so save it for your #1 dream agents).
Twitter #mswl (for 'manuscript wish list') is another place to look for agents who are actively looking for writers. Agents LOVE Twitter and you can find any number of agents to follow. The #mswl is specifically where agents tell writers what they'd like to see right now. "Looking for new adult/steampunk/romance" "would love to see more high-concept commercial spectulative novels with complex characters." Some can be highly specific, "I'd love a novel about Abigail Adams."
You can find other databases of agents at Query Tracker and Agent Query.
And there are a few other resources on my blog post Resources for Querying Writers.
3. Research - you knew this was coming, right? As I assemble my list of agents, I constantly refer to agents' web sites to look at what they say they want and only start to research an agent when I'm reasonably sure I'm at least in the same neighborhood of work as what the agent represents. Then I start Googling. I find as much information as I can about agents either from their own web sites or interviews that they've given to writer blogs, Writer's Digest, Poet's & Writers, any where that I can find some place this agent has spelled out what he or she likes, how to query, what gets them excited about a work, what they can't stand. ANYTHING.
I look at books an agent has repped by reading first pages or chapters on Amazon (incidentally, agents, this is one reason it's really helpful if you break titles out on your agency web site by who repped what). Going back to the deals list on Publisher's Marketplace for a moment. You usually won't be able to read the book that has just sold simply because it hasn't been published yet, so the next best thing is to look at recently released titles repped by the same agent. You might be able to find excerpts of the just-sold book by Googling the author, but you're better off looking at published titles on Amazon. And searching the deals database for a specific agent for several years will give you a list of titles that agent has sold, which will then give you a list to research on Amazon.
4. Query - Only after I've done my research, do I go back to an agent's web site and look at the submission guidelines and then follow them to the letter (see my blog post on Submission Guidelines for why this is important).
One of the benefits of doing this research is that you can give agents that individual reason for why you chose to query them. "I'm querying you because you represented A Wandering Shadow and have an interested in paranormal romance set in the dawn of the Industrial Era" is a heck of a lot stronger than "You represent romance" and places you among the very few querying writers in the slush pile who have done their research and not just sent off batches of query letters.
And telling you how to write a query letter is something agents can do far better than I can.