Targeting Agents

I know many writers believe that their submissions are routinely discarded without being considered by many agents. Based on my knowledge of the business, this isn’t true. Though I am a busy literary agent with an active list of more than 80 writers I still consider everything that arrives in my office. As I sit down to write this in May of 2000, I see five important new sales from my agency this year with first time writers who we took from the slush pile — including one from our first email query letter. It’s true the overwhelming majority of submissions are returned with a form rejection, but we are looking for books that excite us and when we find them, we pursue their authors vigorously. We’re not the only ones.

A lot of things go into finding an agent. Nothing is more important than the level of talent and accomplishment that are displayed in the actual book you are selling. Beyond that, however, you are trying to connect with another human being, a professional who earns his or her living selling manuscripts. How can you better your odds of finding that person? You must carefully target the agents who are most likely to respond to your work.

A fair amount of information is available on literary agents, including the information in this book. If you do your homework — and you must do your homework — you will better your chances of finding an agent and hopefully a good one. How can you best target an agent? Here are some of my recommendations:

Shares your interest

This is obvious, but fundamental. Target an agent who actively sells the kind of book you are shopping. Read the listings carefully. Don’t send a novel to an agent who specializes in nonfiction. Don’t send a children’s book to an agent that never represents them. Be thoughtful about it. An agent who has sold a children’s book for a celebrity author is not necessarily a children’s book agent — that agent may only represent celebrities. Sometimes there are subtle elements you have to consider. If you’ve written a Civil War novel does the agent of the top selling Civil War novelist really make the best match for you? There’s a good chance that agent won’t be interested. They need to concentrate on their top writer in this particular micro-niche.

If an agent doesn’t list or seem to have a specialty, try to discover some actual sales and see if you think they’re a match for your work. If other elements of the agent’s profile suit you, you may want to try a query. There are a number of guides to literary agents you can consult, including the industry “bible” Literary Market Place. There are also sites on the web that can be consulted. If you are querying one of the larger agencies which has multiple agents, you may need to call them first and ask which agent does such and such. Hopefully, you’ll get a name in this fashion. If whoever answers the phone isn’t willing to divulge any information, that may be a sign the agency really isn’t interested in unsolicited work.

Years in the business

This is an important indicator of a number of things. You really have to use your judgment here. Someone just entering the business may be hungry for clients, but they may lack contacts, experience and knowledge. Our industry has been plagued with a number of fraudulent agents, so you have to be doubly careful. A long established agent may have great cache, but may be taking very few clients, if any. Try to size up the whole picture of an agents current situation — can you locate news of recent sales and new clients, are their listings welcoming, do they have associates who might be looking for new clients, do they write articles for any writing magazines, do they attend conventions, etc.? Get a feel for exactly where this agent is in his or her career. I think membership in writers organizations (Mystery Writer’s of America, Romance Writer’s of America, Novelists, Inc., etc.) are important indicators of commitment. I also think membership in the Association of Author’s Representatives, a trade association that has an ethics code, is significant. I think convention attendance and article writing are also indicators that this agent is working full time at building their agency and selling books. All of these small, but important things are indicators of who you are really contacting.

Another fundamental indicator is the actual sales the agent has made. Make a serious appraisal of the sales they list. Are they sales to major publishers? Agents who are only selling e-books or to small publishers you haven’t heard of, may well not be actively selling books. Are they all for one or two clients or do they cover a number of clients? If a single client dominates all the sales information you have, it may be that this agent isn’t selling a lot of new talent. See if you can see how many sales are for brand new clients. This would be an important indicator that this agent takes unsolicited work and sells it. Quantity is a factor as well. An agent who only lists one or two sales may not be active enough or successful enough. At my agency, we’re making more than a hundred sales a year (books, audio, movie, etc.) It is not a challenge to list 6 or 7 new book sales for established or new clients. All of the good agencies I know could easily provide similar credits.


This comes into play once you’ve begun to actively approach agents. Whatever an agent’s reputation or credentials, you are most concerned with how this agent is going to treat you. When you solicit an agent, how long does it take for that agent to get back to you? A quick response is usually a sign that the agent is excited about your work. It also means this agent has available hours to work for you. How personal and intelligent is the response? Is the agent really focused on your work? Have they a thorough understanding of your manuscript? It’s very important that they do. This is a tough business and an agent’s personal commitment to the work and you the client, is often the only thing you have going for you early on. They must believe in the book and you. If they don’t, it’s very likely they’ll lose heart after a few submissions. Is the agent willing to answer your questions and spend some time with you over the phone? This is also an indicator of how available the agent is and how committed.

One thing that always strikes me is that there’s a huge gulf of knowledge between author and agent. There has to be, one is a specialist immersed in the business and the other a newcomer who is entering the business as “talent,” not as a business person. Being a doctor, lawyer or entrepreneur doesn’t give you any knowledge of publishing. So most clients want to have their comfort level raised. They need to ask questions, however so called “obvious”. If the agent doesn’t comfortably answer them or claim that they’re too busy or unimportant, that agent may not be willing to do the hard work necessary to maintain the relationship.

If the agent wants to represent your book, does he or she have a game plan? A lot of the exact marketing plans will come later, but I rarely take a book without considering who I can send it to and how many truly viable submissions I can make. There’s no reason why an agent should say never mind about that, I like your book. This is your business; you don’t want a fan, but a business representative.

How does the agent handle some of the important fundamentals of the author/agent relationship, e.g., does he or she offer a contract, are there any fees, how soon will your book be offered for sale and to how many houses? As I said previously, our business has had a problem with fraudulent agents. These are agents who have no real intention of selling any books, but live on “reading” or “marketing” or “editing” fees. I charge none of these fees, I never have. I don’t believe they are legitimate. If you have to pay an agent, I take this as a bad sign, period. I would avoid agents that request payment. They’ll get paid, when they sell your book.

I also offer a contract to all clients, a simple agreement that spells out our mutual rights and obligations. I think it’s wise to enter into an agency agreement, so you know more where you stand legally. Written documents are often very revealing of a person’s sense of fair play. For instance, I offer contracts as short as 6 months. If I can’t sell your book by then, you have the option of terminating the agreement and finding another agent. My contract obligates me to pay all monies received promptly, no later than 10 days after receipt. These are just examples of what I consider important indicators of fair play. All the good agencies follow these practices and I’ve seen similar provisions in their agreements.

Another final, very compelling factor is speed. Does the agent feel your book is ready to go? Are they ready to put it on sale? Are they willing to multiple submit the book or do they insist on sending it to one house at a time? We often hear from people who claim their current agent has made 3 submissions in two years. This would not be acceptable behavior to me.

Additional Strengths

Though the basics may well decide things, let me mention a few other things to consider. Most agents and agencies have certain strengths. You may want to ascertain what a particular agent’s strengths are, because they may be what you specifically need. For instance, some agents consider themselves “editorial” oriented agents, they like to work with authors to improve their work and direct their careers. Others see themselves as sales people, people who will find the deal. Still others see themselves as primarily deal makers, people who will maximize an opportunity for a writer, but aren’t particularly interested in starting someone out. I put a great deal of emphasis on my editorial skills, I like coaching storytellers; I believe this has been a key to my success.

If you are fairly along in your career or you believe you have a “big book” you may want to find an agency with a strong subsidiary rights department. By subsidiary rights, I mean the rights that are sold off the book–movie rights, audio rights, translations in foreign countries, etc. If you feel you need a lot of attention, you may want to target agents with small lists or agents who advertise their desire to concentrate on only a few people. Perhaps you believe your book especially needs promotion and publicity and you may want to try and locate an agent whose background is in these areas.

All of these small, important facts can help determine your search.

If you follow this basic course of action you will soon have a number of names of agents that fit these criteria in one way or another. Prior to the submissions process, how should you proceed?

I recommend you organize your list and start at the top — the agents that you would most want to have regardless of the odds. It’s very hard for a writer to know the value of their work, so there’s no reason to undersell yourself. Let’s say you have 30 names. Choose the top ten — the agents you think have the skills, reputation and track record to successfully market your book. Don’t assume they are too busy for you or that your book isn’t good enough. Approach these top 10 following the protocols they ask for and see what happens. If one or more of them is interested in you and you’re impressed with their willingness to work with you, you’ve found the opportunity you were looking for. If your book is rejected by this first ten, analyze what might have gone wrong. Did you get any personal responses or were the only responses form letters? If you did get a personal response is there any way you can learn from it and incorporate what you learned in your next batch of submissions? After you consider that, re-read your work, your introductory letter and consider the whole package of material you are sending. If you are happy with it, it’s simply time to try again.

Re-consider your list of targets. If you think that you were rejected because you simply approached too many agents who were too busy, construct your next list from people who have smaller client loads and fewer years in the business. Let’s say your first list included only agents with 50 or more clients, who’ve been in business 10 years or more. Now maybe it’s time to try agents who have 20-40 clients and have been in business 3-7 years. You may also want to try an agent with a strong professional background, for example, someone who was a successful book editor, who has just begun their business. You should get the idea by now, continue this process until you’ve landed an agent or until you realize it may be pre-mature to look for one.

At the beginning of this article, I sounded an optimistic note. Agents need good writers. Many agents are still growing their businesses and many agents treasure the joy of discovering a new talent, as I do. With the right targeting and the right property, even though it’s a long, arduous process, you can find the agent who will help you. That said, I also want to add a cautionary note.

A bad agent is worse than no agent at all. These are my thoughts on what makes a bad agent. First, you should never pay a reading fee or marketing fee or any other kind of fee to a literary agent. You should only pay the direct cost of the expenses to market your book when you are signed with an agent who is actively marketing it. You should never work with an agent who directs you to a vanity press or an editor who you must pay to “fix” your book. It’s true some professional editors can make a huge difference and these people do charge, so there are situations where this is legitimate. Unfortunately, the large amount of abuses in this situation have forced me to warn against this practice unless you are certain you know exactly what you’re getting into. Finally, make certain you and the agent agree on exactly how many submissions and to whom they are going, and in what length of time. An agent who makes no submissions and performs no work is much worse than no agent at all.

Good luck in your search.

This article originally appeared in The Guide to Literary Agents 2001, published by Writer's Digest Books.

Copyright 2021, The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency