Hunting for an Agent:
Shotgun or target pistol
When people set out to find an agent, they often take one of two approaches—they either send out queries to every agent who handles their genre (the scattershot approach) or they carefully select one special agent and approach them, only going on to another when the first agent has rejected them (the carefully targeted approach).
Which is better? That’s hard to say—I’ve seen both of them work. And sadly, because getting published is so confabsternated hard, I’ve often seen both of them fail. So, though I’d hate to completely condemn either approach, I can list some pros and cons of each.
The Targeted Approach:
Pros: You’re unlikely to waste time querying agents who simply don’t handle your type of work.
You’re probably increasing your odds of finding an agent who likes your work by finding out as much as you can about their taste.
It’s easier to compose a personalized letter that will get their attention if you’ve done your homework. I know you also represent X and Y, and I’m a huge fan of their work pretty much translates into, You have wonderful taste, you smart person you. That never goes down badly.
Cons: It can take a very, very long time. Even though agents respond more quickly than editors, it’s still often a matter of months before they get back to you. And those months add up to years more quickly than you might think.
Trying to pick out the one perfect agent who will love your book by looking at their websites—or relying on that one agent showing up at the conference that you just happen to attend—takes a lot of luck. Even the fact that the represent a writer whose work you love is no guarantee that they’ll love your work. And no matter how charming you were, and how well they respond to your conference pitch, and how you even laughed at the same thing and they really will remember you fondly—when it comes down to it, your writing is still the only thing that matters.
The targeted technique is also much harder on you, psychologically. If only one agent, who you feel really good about, has your manuscript then you pin all your hopes on that person. When they reject it your hopes come crashing down, and it’s much harder to send it out again.
This may not sound like a significant problem, but it’s actually the biggest drawback to the targeted approach—people who have sought out specific agents, not generic ones, feel specifically rejected. The targeters always get discouraged far more quickly than the scatter shooters. And let’s face it, odds are good you’ll have to go through between 20 and 50 rejections before you find an agent—and maybe more, rejecting multiple novels, because your odds of selling your first novel are extremely small. In fact, I read somewhere once that most people get published around novel 5 to 7. Could you handle 39 specific and personal rejections? Spread over a period of six novels and roughly eight years? Without getting so discouraged that you give up? (39 rejections X 2.5 months=97.5 months divided by 12=8.125 years.)
The Scatter Shot Approach:
Pros: It’s fast! You can get rejected by everyone who might have accepted your novel before the first six months are up!
Cons: You can get rejected by everyone who might have accepted your novel before the first six months are up. And then you’re out of potential markets. No one in the world is going to take this book, and you know it for a fact because you’ve tried them all. To say the least, this too can be depressing.
(One good way to avoid that particular depression-trap is to start your next project long before the first has been rejected by everyone. Then, even though you know the first one wasn’t salable you can hope that the next one will be. That ongoing hope lured me through seventeen novels, until one finally sold.)
Another major con of the scattershot approach is that you’re unlikely to make a personalized pitch to several dozen agents. Your pitch is going to sound generic, because it is generic, and yes that does turn people off—agents and editors included.
So what should you do? Up to you, of course. I was always more inclined toward the scattershot approach…and I wrote 17 novels before one sold, so you might want to think about that.
What I really recommend is a modification of the two approaches, with some caveats for that technique, too.
There is no way you can tell if an agent is going to love your work until they’ve read it. Sure, if they say they never take SF, or never take humor, or can’t stand the darkness of gritty YA, then you know they aren’t right for your work. My first recommendation is that you check out the agent’s volume of Writers Market before you get online. I may be wrong, but I think WM is probably a more complete listing, and you might be able avoid the con artists who haunt the web. If you do pick an agent off the web be very certain to check that they’re reputable before you approach them.
Pick the five agents you think are the best match for your work, check out their websites to confirm this—and double check their submission requirements—then send your query to all five of them. While you’re assembling this first list, pick a second string five, and a third string five, and maybe a fourth and fifth string as well. When you’ve been rejected by three of the first five, then send your query to all five of your second string. When you’ve gotten three more rejections, send it to all five of the third string, and so on. This will let you do some personalization, but it also lets you cover the market relatively quickly. And if your submission is always out with eight to five people, and you aren’t pinning all your hopes on any one of them, it’s much easier to keep a single rejection in perspective.
If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But if anyone ever told you getting published was easy you should nominate him for the liar of the year award.
Did I ever use this modified approach? Well, no. I mostly used the scattershot approach. I met my agent at a writers conference where I pitched to her—which is the targeted approach. And I’d been pitching to other agents for years and years before she took me on, so at least I can say that I failed a lot at the other two approaches.
In the end, it’s simply a matter of connecting with someone who loves your work enough to take a chance on it—and that person is probably the most elusive game on the planet. But whatever approach you arm yourself with, I wish you the best of luck on your hunt.