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Query Guide Part 3: How to Decide Who to Query

Updated: Jan 8

So what agent is the best agent for your work? The answer isn’t any agent who says yes. Let me say that again but another way: Not all literary agents are good agents. The Twitter landscape has changed since the whole X takeover, but before that, there was a very active writer community on the platform (maybe there still is? I don’t spend much time there). And it became abundantly clear many times that there are agents out there who are bad (schmagents is what we called them) and agents who just aren’t that great. So don’t just query any and every agent you can find.

That being said, how do you know who a good agent is? (Don’t worry, I’ll tell you how to find these answers) For me, the litmus test includes: 

  • Do they charge a reading fee? If the answer is yes, run away. Don’t even consider them. They are scamming you.

  • Have they sold multiple books for more than one of their clients on their list?

  • How many clients do they have? If it’s more than 50 (for me, I want someone with 40 or fewer), it’s worth being wary. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t query them, but if you do, and if they offer representation, you want to ask some hard questions about how much time they have for their clients and what their communication turnaround is with such a high client load. It’s also a good idea to ask if you can speak to a few of their clients as references. If they say no, that’s a big red flag. (I’ll include a section of questions to ask for if they say yes later in the guide). 

  • Do they have any six figure deals (or seven?) under their belt? While this isn’t a deal breaker, it can be a good indicator of how hard an agent is willing to negotiate.

  • Do they offer resources for rights beyond the book (foreign rights, film, etc.)? This is something you can usually find on their website.

  • Have they sold more than one book in the genre that you’re writing? You want an agent who actually has editorial contacts who align with what you write. Most agents will say on their agency’s website if they don’t represent a genre, but a lot of that is based on taste. Just because an agent likes witchy romcoms, doesn’t mean they have relationships with editors who buy witchy romcoms. 

Ok, great. So you know a few things to look for, but how do you actually find them? There are a number of resources out there, but I’m going to tell you my three primary resources that I’ve relied on for this round of querying: the acknowledgements in the backs of my favorite books, Twitter (yes I said I’m not on Twitter, but I still have my account for this specific reason),, and Publisher’s Marketplace.

Let’s start with the acknowledgments. If I love a particular book or author and they are having success in their career (think more than one book, or more than two books if the first book was part of a two-book deal), there’s a good chance they have a good agent. If they mention that agent in the acknowledgements, there’s an even better chance. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a good place to start. Now, if you’re writing something that is too close to any of those books, and those books are still popular/selling, there’s a chance you’ll get rejected for that reason. But if they’ve been out for a few years, you’re probably in the clear.

This is a great way to get started on the list of agents (more on tracking them later, including a link to the template I use–and by template I mean a very basic spreadsheet). You can also find agents by searching the hashtag #MSWL (which stands for manuscript wish list) on Twitter to see what agents are interested in. While Twitter is dying (dead?) there are still agents posting what sort of stories they want to read. If you have a specific book or vibe in your pitch (like Practical Magic for example), you can do an advanced search for #MSWL and “Practical Magic” to see what agents might be looking for something in that vein. For agents who are no longer on Twitter, the official Manuscript Wishlist website is another great resource. 

One thing to remember: Anyone can post a #MSWL post on Twitter and any agent can apply to join and post their MSWL on the website. This brings me to my next resource (the one that can help you answer the questions I laid out above about sales): Publisher’s Marketplace. 

Here’s the thing, Publisher’s Marketplace isn’t free. And that absolutely sucks because it’s a major way to gatekeep. I would never say that you should share a login with other friends who are querying, but…    What I will say, is if you can afford the $25 monthly fee, even for a single month, it’s well worth it to build out a long list of who you want to query. That being said, don’t build out the long list right away. It’s really easy to get stuck at the list building stage and then give up. Find 10-15 agents you want to query, and query them! Then build out the rest of the list. (More on who to include in that first list later).

Publisher’s Marketplace has recently made some big updates to the UI and made it much easier to search for agents. This is a great way to find agents of your favorite authors (if they’re not mentioned in the acknowledgements–which, if not, try checking the author’s website). It’s also a good way to find out who is actually selling books in the genre in which you’re writing.

Which brings me to my next point…

Querying Guide Breakdown:

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