Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.
You’re done with your book, you’ve edited it tons, other people (not your mom) have looked at it, and you’ve taken their input into account, and you feel deep down in your gut that you’re done… what next?
Someone posed this question elsewhere, and I teasingly said they needed to start stalking agents — which got me to thinking of what you really need to do, how, and why.
First things first — become a member of Publishers Marketplace for a month, and use their deals search to figure out who is repping/selling your type of material. If you can afford to keep your membership, read the deal list every day for your genre just to keep a toe in the water. If you can only afford one month, pay for it, and then use their deal search to make a massive list of possible agents and editors who might be interested in your stuff.
There are agents who are too cool to publish their sales in PM, but for the most part if you plug in epic fantasy, or inspirational romance, etc, you’ll get a skad of hits.
With that info, you can start checking out agent websites and reputations. By virtue of them already being on PM, you know they’ve made pro sales (sales to reputable publishing houses) so there’s that. From their # of sales to how $$$ those sales were, you can get a good feel for how much of a player they are, and how accessible they might be.
Start with the big dogs first — google search away. Depending on who they sell too, how much they sell, how often they sell, or if they rep someone whose work you love, or whose work you think yours matches up with, make an list in order of interest. This part is a little hard, depending on your familiarity with names and faces in your chosen market. Hopefully, you’ve got an idea of what publisher matches your work — because you’re reading their books all the time — or a certain author you want to emulate, etc, so you can start off with that place/person. Most writers list their agents somewhere on their website, or the info’s on the internet.
If they keep a blog or twitter feed, you can stalk them that way to see if they seem up to date and sane. (You can also drop info from their blog into your query in a completely-non-stalkery way. Only do this if you know you can do it right. “I love it when you post cute pix of your dog, Boo” is one thing. “I will come and slaughter Boo in the middle of the night if you don’t ask for my full, j/k!” is not.)
If they’re too busy for blogs/twitter things (my agent is) then you just look at who else they’ve sold, and go on reputation.
Another place you can get a feel for agent reps is in the Absolute Write forums. People there have their ears to the ground, and often seem the first to know when someone’s gone from intern to agent, and what material they’re looking for now, in a way that that person’s blogs might not say, and PM sales data might not make clear. Some agents have open windows, and then close when they get too full — AW is a great place to keep track of that. If you sign up with them (it’s free) you can do a search, and see what people are saying about particular agents and agencies. People are refreshingly honest on there about things, which is nice.
Perfect your query letter and synopsis. Query Shark and the Miss Snark archives are great for this. Also bounce them off a few pro friends, if you can. (Synopsis writing is its own torture, which deserves a separate post when I’m more coherent.)
Send your query, plus synopsis (if they ask for it!), plus pages (if they ask for them!) to the first 1-5 agents on your wishlist. Send them only what they want.
It is a huge pain. Each agent wants different things — some want the first 3.5 pgs of your manuscript pasted into your email with your cover letter attached in comic sans font. Okay, not really, but it feels like that, after awhile. But if you want to seem professional, you’ll keep jumping through all the hoops they present, and do things exactly how they want them. Use the last line/paragraph of your query — before the Best Regards, YOUR NAME HERE — to say, “My first ten pages” or whatever precise thing they want “is attached.” This is your one and only chance to prove that you can follow instructions. Use it wisely, do it well.
Hold off for a week, then send out five more. And five more, the week after that. No matter how many email addresses and PO boxes you’ve got raring to go. Eventually, you’ll start getting feedback. Either requests or rejections. If it’s straight rejections, rethink your query. This is why you didn’t send everything out all at once — if your query stunk, you have a chance to change it, now, and fresh agents to show it to.
Wash, rinse, repeat until you have some responses — in which case do something celebratory! and continue to follow instructions precisely as they’re given! — or some outstanding queries.
It’s tough, because you don’t always know if silence is a no. Sometimes agents really do take half a year to get to things. (I know. It’s painful. I so know.) BEFORE you requery them — check back on Absolute Write to see what’s going on for other people who have queries out with them. Or, go to querytracker.net (also a free sign up to search) — it’ll have a ton of people tracking queries they’ve sent to that agency too, which’ll give you a feel if the wait’s a good thing, if they’re being slow, just had a kid, or if that’s just that agent’s way of saying no. If an agent’s website says they respond to everything within a certain time period, go ahead and re-query, but doublecheck using the other websites if you can first, you can save yourself some time. (Keep the requery polite, too. For all you know, your original one got missed. The agent doesn’t owe you anything.)
Publishers Marketplace will give you editor info too, so you can repeat all the steps above with editors, should you choose. And then you’ll recognize names for all the people to watch out for at conventions, to go to their panels, or try to chat up at the bar.
So! There. You can do all that with much less stalking and worry than I did. There was this one weekend when, after requesting my full and sitting on it for 3 months, A Certain Agent tweeted that they’d be clearing their inbox decks over the weekend. I made myself crazed that weekend, dreaming of them signing me and my book. They didn’t wind up getting through everything that weekend, and then they made snarky comments on twitter about not getting through stuff and jeez guys, would you all stop bugging me — because many people who didn’t get a response assumed that agent had lost their stuff, and emailed to ask. I had the wisdom not to pester, but it really lowered my estimation of that person for not following through on their public promise, and/or not updating to say, “You know what, I screwed up, sorry about that.” Apologizing should have been the way to go there, not mocking people for caring about their books so much. (That agent wound up dropping out of agenting all together, heh.) All the worry of that weekend — it was worthless energy that I wish I hadn’t spent. I don’t recommend doing that to anyone. So know your limits, don’t get too involved. Your best use of energy — apart from sending off those five queries like clockwork — is in writing your next book.
Be patient, and good luck!