I went about looking for agents who were interested in my sort of novel (YA fantasy) in several ways. First, there's the acknowledgments page at the back/front of novels. If their agent isn't mentioned there, it's probably on their blog. Lots of writing/writer blogs list agents' blogs too, and these usually have great resources, like Nathan Bransford and Kristen Nelson's.
Then there's the agent search engines. The ones I used were LitMatch (now Author Advance), AgentQuery and Publisher's Marketplace. Publisher's Marketplace is the best site for checking recent deals, but AgentQuery was my favourite search engine as it seemed to be the most thorough. Once I'd found a potential agent I'd crosscheck them on Publisher's Marketplace, Writer Beware (the best database of dodgy agents) and the Absolute Write Water Cooler forums to see what people were saying about them, ie. if they tended to be slow responding to queries so don't pull your hair out, what sort of books they seemed to be favouring and so on. There's also QueryTracker which I never used but seems to have won awards. I didn't pay for access to any special agenty info and with all these different free resources available I don't think you need to.
I always checked the agent's website, too, for specific querying instructions, and I always followed these to a T. Agent's profiles are the best place to find out about their personal tastes ("no vampires", "I want some MG mysteries", "published authors only"). With some of the more obscure agents I often didn't send a query if they (or their agency) didn't have a website, because it just didn't feel right.
Initially I sent letters to nine agents, all by email, on June 22. The next morning I woke up at some ungodly early hour that I knew was the end of the American working day, and found two form rejections and one full manuscript request. I was over the freaking moon, naturally. The agent who requested it was from a huge New York agency that I'd heard only the most fantastic things about. Who said cracking into the writing biz was hard? It's day two and I'm practically there!
Three weeks went by, and even though I hadn't heard anything from the agent who'd requested the full, I went ahead and queried another eleven agents. There's nothing wrong with this: agents expect you to contact other agents, but they will often ask you when they request a full or partial manuscript how many other agents are reading it. I took my time querying, and reworking my letter, recording which letter went to whom, and the response it seemed to be getting. I queried 60 over 6 weeks and got a "hit rate" (manuscript request rate) of just over 10%. Cindy Pon, author of Silver Phoenix, said in an interview that she queried over 100 agents before she found a home for her first novel. Steph Bowe queried just three. I've seen agents say many times in interviews that they've passed on novels that they're sure will sell just because it didn't suit their personal tastes--which makes sense as they're going to be reading your novels several times over, and they need to be excited to talk about them for months on end.
My letters looked like this:
Dear Mr/Ms X,
[Always use this format. I did end up calling Ashley Grayson Ms instead of Mr, but he requested a partial so mustn't have minded too much!]
[Straight into blurb. I had three different blurbs with different tones and content that I won't post here (but will describe below) as they're spoilery. I never started with a rhetorical question ("Have you ever wondered about ...") as many agents profess to hating these.]
Told with vivacity and humor, Lharmell is the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy called The Cold Times Trilogy, and is reminiscent of works by Tamora Pierce and Tanith Lee. It is complete at 58,000 words. Full synopses of all three books are available, as well as a full manuscript of book one and a partial manuscript of book two.
Ms V, author of YYY (200Y) and ZZZ (200Z), had this to say about Lharmell: ‘Rhiannon Hart had me hooked from the first line and I found myself being drawn further and further into Zeraphina’s journey. The writing is crisp, sharp and utterly compelling.’
[It isn't necessary to get a blurb from an author but if you can find one lovely enough to read your work and write something for you, it does help you stand out from the other slush. I did ask before I queried this author's agent, but I didn't ask for a personal introduction.]
I have been passionate about YA fantasy literature since I was twelve; now I have set out to write a series that I would have loved as a teenager for its adventure, sense of fun, and romance. Lharmell is my first novel. I review YA literature for The Australian Book Review, Viewpoint, and Magpies. I work as a professional book editor and can offer a clean and well-structured manuscript. My work as a book publicist means I can have an active role in promotion and public speaking.
[Include a bit about yourself and your writing credits. I have few and my blog was in its infancy so I didn't include that either, so I padded it out with how much I love the genre, how clean and spiffy the manuscript is--and gosh was it clean. I had a team of monkeys (*ahem* friends) scouring that thing with magnifying glasses.]
Thank you for taking the time to read my query and I look forward to your response.
With all good wishes,
The body of the letter stayed more or less the same over all queries, but I did have three different blurbs: the original blurb that mentioned four characters, a humorous blurb, and a second "serious" one that mentioned just the two main characters. I sent the initial queries out with the original blurb and got two manuscript requests with it. But I wondered if it wasn't a little dry, so I wrote one that captured the humour of the novel. The problem is, while there's humour in it, it's not a comedy. I worried that I was misrepresenting the book, and no one requested the MS when I queried with this blurb, so I ditched it and wrote another. The third one was unrushed and thoroughly described the plot tension, the two main characters and their motivations. None of these blurbs were over 220 words, and the third was just 160.
Make sure you list by date when and who you query and the date an agent requests/rejects your MS. You'll want to refer to (obsess over) these dates at some point (almost immediately), and it helps if they're written down somewhere rather than relying on the sent folder of your email account.
Researching agents and query letters took me hours and hours to do, but it was one of the funnest parts of the process. The un-fun part is the dreaded waiting, and waking up in the morning to find a load of form rejections. I even got a form rejection from an agent's assistant after the agent requested a partial, which is horrible, horrible manners on their part. The loveliest rejections were from agents who read some/all of the manuscript and offered a (very brief) critique. These are so rare. In fact I think I got just one. Even though it was a rejection it felt so good to be taken seriously, the agent was right and I did another rewrite based on what he'd said.
Tomorrow, the final, frivolous Part III of Dear Agent: how I kept my sanity while querying. There will be Lolcats.