Agent 101 – Literary Agency Sales and Querying the Right Agent

If querying literary agents isn’t difficult enough, how is a writer who is attempting to break into the business supposed to decipher the sales figures that are posted by major agents in areas such as the Dead Reckoning section of Agent Search (which is superb by the way) when individual statistics during a 12 month period might indicate the placement of over 100 titles by a single agent?

Sales Numbers can Reflect the Entire Agency and Not the Individual

Keep in mind that an agent such as Richard Curtis, who lists 159 titles sold during a 12 month period, is likely publishing the figures for his entire agency.  Prolific producers such as Richard Curtis, Sterling Lord, Al Zuckerman, and Jane Dystel are historically providing numbers generated by their respective agency imprimaturs and not their individual sales, although they may play a role in each transaction.

Query the Right Agent

If you check their individual web sites, you will notice that some of these high production agencies are mammoth, employing a couple dozen agents and numerous subordinate staff members, such as readers.  This is why it’s imperative to find out which representative at an agency is the right choice for a particular work.  And why it does not behoove a writer to send material to the lead agent when another person is better suited.

Be Careful of the Agent on the Marquee

The reason for this admonition is because most agencies don’t pass material from agent to agent to see who might like it from a genre perspective.  So in instances in which a cozy mystery might be ideal for Jane Jones, it might not be suitable for hard-boiled police mystery guru John Jones. And if John Jones is the agency founder–and the person queried–his personal attaché may only look for material that will fit his eye if the query is addressed to him.  And no one I am aware of enables a writer to submit to multiple agents within the same agency, as this seems to be universally disparaged.

Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot; Give Yourself a Chance

It is therefore critical to do the necessary homework to determine the correct agent’s name for a genre or sub-genre, should it be someone other than the person listed in the agency title.  I realize I stated essentially the same thing in the preceding paragraph, but the issue of agent specificity needs to become inculcated in all of us, it is that important.  Yet it doesn’t always work this way, since in some agencies all queries are reviewed by a submission coordinator, regardless of whom the letter is addressed to, and then passed on to the agent who that person feels is “right” for the project. But why take the chance?

Three Things a Writer Can Do that Will work

Confused?  Nothing about locating the right agents to query is easy, but I think a serious writer can save a lot of time and aggravation by making the effort to do three things:  Check with Publishers Marketplace for who is selling what–and to whom as it relates to a work’s specific sub-genre; learn as much as possible about the recent book(s) the agent has sold so something about this history can be referenced in the query (specifically how there is a relationship between that book(s) and the work the writer is proposing); then go on the Agent Query web site to verify the agent’s title, address, etc, and to access that agent’s exact submission requirements.

I suggest going to the profile link at Agent Query and then to the submissions guideline button on the agent’s web page (the URL is almost always shown), since the criteria on the web page is often more detailed and current than what is listed in the short bio provided on Agent Query. All three of the links I’ve indicated are free (Agent Search was mentioned at the beginning of this article), including the Publishers Marketplace free link, and if a writer is not already familiar with each of them, in my opinion they are well worth learning about.

Robert L. Bacon is the founder of The Perfect Write®
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