Thursday, December 04, 2008

Identifying the "Right Agent for Your Work"

I think one of the most frustrating challenges an author faces is trying to figure out which agents are the right agents to submit to. Sure I say I represent romance, but does that mean I represent the type of romance you are writing? Difficult to tell. A blog reader recently shared this frustration with me after receiving a rejection letter that said, “I’m not the right agent for your work.” As far as the reader could tell this agent was. Her web site clearly said she represented romance and this was a romance novel.

To put it simply, being the right agent for a book means a lot more than representing that genre. When an agent says she’s not the right agent it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the wrong agent for the genre. It means exactly what she says, that she’s not the right agent for your work. And that could be for a number of reasons. Does your book too closely compare to something else on her list? Is she fed up with paranormal romances and can’t bear to see another? Does she even represent paranormal? Did you compare your book to Bestselling Author X, not realizing that this agent actually despises everything written by Bestselling Author X? Does she say she represents mystery, but unknown to you she doesn’t represent cozy mysteries? There are a myriad of reasons an agent might not be right for you and most of the time there’s no possible way for you to know why.

While we implore you to do your research and submit to only those agents who might be right for your work, the truth is that you can only do so much research. Web sites and blogs help, but until you are working with someone and know their reading tastes intimately there’s no way to judge exactly what an agent is looking for. And truthfully, while many of my clients have been working with me for years and many more know me well, I would bet few could pinpoint exactly what I love and don’t love to read.

At some point you just need to know that the agent represents the genre you are writing in and get the book out there. If you do get a rejection that says she isn’t the right agent, put it in your pile and move on. This tells you nothing about your work, only that she’s not the right agent, that for some reason your story didn’t resonate with her.



Anonymous said...

Very helpful, as always.
I'm one of those "Slow and steady wins the race type" so I don't query everyone who may represent "romantic suspense". I've seen a few authors who query as many as ten or twenty at once with a manuscript.
I usually find out a lot about an agent before I query. Even so, I completely missed that an agent I queried disliked epublishing.
Now, everyone is entitled to their likes and dislikes, but since I have a career in ebooks, I'd prefer an agent that is neutral or positive about them.
I shrugged my shoulders and crossed them off my list. But, like you said, no amount of research can find EVERYTHING.
Workshops, blog posts and the other agent's clients are invaluable resources.
It is nice to have a translation of "I'm not the right agent".

Anonymous said...

"While we implore you to do your research and submit to only those agents who might be right for your work, the truth is that you can only do so much research."

It's a bit like using an online dating service. Though your profiles may look like a perfect match, there's no real way of knowing if the puzzle pieces fit until you make contact.

Do your homework, but be prepared to go on a few awkward dates before someone asks for your number.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the reminder. I makes total sense. After all, agents are people just like the rest of us, and have their individual tastes and preferences, as do readers.

When someone walks into a bookstore with thousands of books on the shelves, what percentage would draw their attention? I'm guessing very low, perhaps one or two percent. Does this mean all the others are superfluous? Of course not. It merely reflects the wide variety of personal tastes.

How could we expect an agent is that different from the rest of us?

Take heart! With the vast number of agents available, the right one is out there, IF, and only IF, the writing is worthy of publication.

Keep writing. Keep polishing. Keep querying.

Bowman said...

“I’m not the right agent for your work.”

I get annoyed by these types of responses, especially the ones telling me someone else will like my book, because I think the agents are just trying to make sure I feel warm inside.

If an agent dislikes my first pages, I want her to say, "your first pages are slow as molasses, mister wannabe." I prefer a badly worded truth over a sweet omission.

If an agent thinks no one will like my work, she should tell me. I might tear up a little and break my favorite pencil, but it will save me time in the long run.

Anonymous said...


If you can get those kind of responses, more power to you. I get horribly frustrated at the thought of querying, but there is absolutely no way I'd expect that kind of answer. It would be nice, but they are agents not critics. As far as doing research, thats a bunch of malarkey. You can research all you want, but the only result is you know who you don't want to turn you down. There is very little research you can do to make sure you manuscript will be accepted. I've looked at the books they sell, I've read blogs. Jessica is by far the easiest to figure out, but, Jessica, there is no one else that I've found that gives out as much info as you. I think the best bet is to eliminate the ones you know you don't want submit to everyone else, and even then you'll probably go back and reconsider the ones you've eliminated.

Bowman said...


True. Certainly a vague response is better than no response. If I always received the cold-shoulder, I would fear all my queries had met spam filters.

Mark Terry said...

I can't tell you how frustrating this can be. The problem for me is that I essentially write three different things.

Crime and thrillers, which my current agent handles.

Children's, which my current agent handles.

Nonfiction, which my current agent doesn't handle.

I've also picked up a collaborating/ghosting gig and I'd like to do more of it and I'd be very interested in an agent that had the kinds of contacts to hook me up with more of that.

I kind of doubt this is a one-agent-meets-all situation.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:29 is right on. Bottom line is for all practical purposes the best you can hope for at the query stage is to try to match your genre with an agent who reps that genre. Then you hope for the partial/full request and finally, and only then, snag an offer for representation. At that point you interview that agent...only then can you even hope of gleaning whether or not you are a good fit for each other. But that's only the first date as someone already likened it. First dates everyone is on their best isn't until a few months into the relationship that you begin to see the 'real' individual. I suspect the same holds true at the agent/author level. FWIW.

Anonymous said...

Bravo. So true.

Anonymous said...

Finding the right agent is difficult when you don't have personal interaction or contacts. I agree, it'd be helpful to novice fiction writers to get some direction and helpful feedback, esp if we're "close." Frustrating to guess why a ms is rejected and a few words will go a long way! It's happened w/ me on several short stories which encouraged me to revise and resubmit, and get published in major women's magazines.

Writers don't expect a detailed critique but agents have a unique perspective that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing (i.e. is it marketable?). Wishful thinking, perhaps? But to writers looking for agents, that agent who spends the time to jot down a few words of constructive criticism will make a lasting, favorable impression. Who knows?

Those few words of encouragement or praise may be just the motivation a writer needs to rewrite and resubmit with a wonderful, worthy ms. and reward that agent who cared enough to comment. You can bet the writer will then sing that agent's praises if he/she succeeds. Word of mouth works both ways!

Anonymous said...

I've always looked at the challenge of trying to attract an agent to a product in much the same way you would look for someone to date--of all the people in the world they have to be excited about wanting to date you too.

In terms of writing, it's never enough to write the correct genre or research the specific type of books within that genre that an agent has represented. The book must excite that person and make them feel as if they are missing out on something special by not representing your book.

Jessica Nelson said...

Definitely helpful. I can only do so much and the fact is, I'd like someone competent who I'll get a long with. Hard to tell just by reading their website.
Although, I will say that there are certain blogs by certain agents that let me know that agent isn't someone I want to work with, just by the tone of the blog. Not you, of course. :-)
So, interesting post.

Paty Jager said...

I have a project I'm going to send to agents after the first of the year. I've got my list of preferred agents and those that look at what I'm writing.

The more I read about the economy and book stores/publishers hurting I believe my query is going to have to knock their socks off to even get them to ask for more- since I'm sure they are going to be even more picky when taking on someone new.

But I have a question after reading Jenifer's comment- which impacts an agents first impression - knowing a writer's e-pub list or the awards they've won?

Anonymous said...

That helps a lot Jessica, but I have a question. Since genres are getting so specific now (paranormal romance, historal fantasy etc.) shouldn't agents start specifying the genres they represent that way? Perhaps agents should make a list of genre-specific things they represent so people don't get confused. That way, a writer won't waste their time querying an agent with a romantic fantasy novel when that agent only represents YA fantasy or something. How come agents don't just do that though?

Anonymous said...

Crystal: I suspect they don't get all that specific with subgenres is because one day they may receive, as an example, a paranormal romance query that they don't typically handle, but for whatever reason that query knocks their socks off...low and behold, now they're representing paranormal romances...why limit yourself, unless an agent absolutely wants to.

Jess Anastasi said...

Justus -

I undertand where you're coming from, I feel the same way. I can't tell you how many "this work just isn't right for us, you need someone who will feel passionately about your work. This industry is subjective, good luck finding someone who will love your manuscript" rejections I've recieved.
Like you, I also wish they'd just say something like "your characters don't work and the writing is too wordy and I don't like the conversation on page 8."
However, from reading agent blogs regularly I can understand why the agents won't ever do that and why some now say 'no response means no.' For every one of us that would love to hear the truth (hard as it may be) and possibly make improvements to our ms, there are the ones who would reply to such letters with abusive responses. Even the generic 'thanks, but no thanks' letters are enough to set people off these days. Unfortunately these few have ruined it for the rest of us.

Creative A said...

Alright, question - targeting the right agent is something I'm careful about, almost paranoid. I believe that half of rejections come from targeting the wrong markets. And I think it's very important to find an agent with the same goals and values as you.

So, within reasonable limits, how *does* one find out which agents really are best for them? Besides maybe reading the books that agent has represented, how do you figure out which agents are going to "get" your novel, and "get" you?


Anonymous said...

Anon 12:08, you've managed to repeat your long post from another thread.

That's an example of why agents do not write back with comments or feedback to manuscripts that aren't so great they can't turn them down.

Creative A, there's a wealth of info on the internet now, something that wasn't there before (and yet writers still found agents and got published). Start with the links from this site and keep going. Also use Google and keywords for your genre with "agent." If you're good and you hang in there, you will prevail.

Elissa M said...

I have trouble understanding why some writers think agents should give them a free critique. An agent's job is to sell her clients' books. Maybe that bears repeating.

An agent's job is to sell her clients' books.

Now, there's a lot more to that than it sounds, but my point is: reading queries is practically at the bottom of any agent's to-do list. If you don't know why, read through the archives on this blog, Miss Snark's blog, and every other agent blog you can find until you figure it out.

If you need feedback, join a critique group and/or attend workshops. There are plenty of good ones available online if there's nothing "live" where you live.

If you need encouragement to keep writing... well, maybe you should forget about trying to go pro. This business is built on rejection and if you can't forge ahead despite the slings and arrows, you'll bleed to death.

Unknown said...

I think Editor Molly O'Neill of Bowen Press does a great job of explaining the 'not right for me' statement in this blog post:

Thanks for your post, Jessica. Always helpful.

Anonymous said...

When seeking out agents, why not look for ones with strong editorial backgrounds? My agent gave me constructive feedback and it helped me shape and sell my first novel. It worked for me!

Anonymous said...

Melissa M, you are absolutely right.

Agents cannot win.

If writers persist on demanding feedback that they should be getting from their writing groups and/or classes, more agents will just shut down for new slushpile submissions.

Creative A said...

Anon at 10:16 - thanks for the kind suggestions. It's not that I haven't tried those, or that I don't believe they will work. but I was hoping there were a few particular ways of going about it that may help the culling process.


Anonymous said...

Agents can't win? Boo hoo hoo--cry me a river! What about us writers who create their livelihood?
As long as agents are treated like gods or goddesses, writers will be ignored and mistreated by the public as well as agents.
Why should agents hold all the cards when we create the cards they need?