How to Research Literary Agents and Book Publishers

A guest post by Virginia Lloyd

You’re ready to approach an agent or publisher with your finished manuscript. You’re no doubt exhausted and relieved to have reached this point. But appealing to a publishing professional is a struggle of a wholly different kind. Which agent to email? Which publishing house to submit your first three chapters? Here are some ways you can improve your chances of finding the right agent or publisher for you.

An agent or a publisher?

Many writers ask me whether they need a literary agent. My answer is that it truly depends on your unique circumstances – and the quality of the agent.

On the whole, it is much more important for an author in the US and UK to have representation than it is in Australia. This is partly a reflection of market size and partly a reflection of culture.

Several years ago I wrote this article about why writers should be wary about submitting to book publishers’ electronic submissions portals. While I still largely agree that sending your (partial) manuscript into the online slush pile is a waste of time, I’m more enthusiastic than I used to be about submitting one’s manuscript to an individual publisher with whom you have established a sufficient degree of contact. (I am no longer working as a literary agent, which may have a bearing on my more generous attitude.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most writers with a finished manuscript don’t mind too much whether they get an agent before a publisher, or skip straight to the publisher. They just want to see their book out in the world. So the tips that follow apply equally to finding an agent as they do to finding a publisher.

Where to find the information you need

As someone who works with aspiring writers, I confess I receive emails every day that show me their author has failed to undertake basic investigations to discover which publishing professionals might be most interested in their work. A scattergun approach will never get any writer an agent or a publishing deal.

First, create a document to table the facts and clues you will find from working your way through this list. There’s a lot of information hiding in plain sight, if you know where to look. Start with your own library: what have you read that has something in common with your manuscript – such as genre, subject, historical time period?

  1. Imprint page. This is the page at the very beginning of the book that details the publishing house that has produced it. It’s useful to note down the different imprints that belong to the same publishing house. For example, Penguin Random House is the huge behemoth publishing house, but within its universe you will find imprints such as Viking and Michael Joseph. Familiarise yourself with which books are published under which imprint, because these are conscious commercial decisions publishers make. Agents and publishers need to feel that your manuscript would be a great fit with a particular imprint.
  2. Acknowledgments page. If they have an acknowledgments page, jot down the name of the agent, the production/line editor, the publisher, if they’re listed. Note the editor because they often turn into publishers down the track. If you do this enough times with books published in the last 5-10 years, you will start to see some names recurring. This is not an accident.
  3. Author websites. In the absence of an acknowledgments page, look up the author’s website. There you will typically find information about the author’s agent, reliably on the contact page.
  4. Publisher websites. As I mentioned in #1 above, a publishing house is divided into imprints. The publisher’s website will contain numerous pages devoted to each of its imprints. Study these to determine which imprint/s your work aligns with. You will be amazed at the education this gives you (or at least the number of fresh questions about the publishing process you’ll have), and at how impressive you will be to a prospective agent or publisher.
  5. Literary agent websites. If you follow the trail from an author you like to his or her agent’s website, write down who else the agent represents, and any details or impressions you glean about the sort of books the agent sells to publishers. An agent must feel she can sell a manuscript to a publisher, because otherwise she earns no income (the traditional agency model is a commission of author income generated from deals the agent negotiates on the author’s behalf).
  6. Literary agent website submissions guidelines. I feel this needs to be listed separately, because unpublished authors regularly feel free to ignore submission guidelines posted on literary agents’ websites. Those guidelines are there for a reason, and to ignore them is almost to guarantee that you too will be ignored. It’s not charming to receive an email that says ‘I know you said your submissions are closed / I know your website states you don’t represent children’s books / BUT I’m the exception to your rule.’ It’s irritating, because there are probably good reasons why that agent’s books are closed for now, or why they don’t rep children’s books. An author-agent relationship must begin from a place of mutual respect.
  7. Associations of literary agents. In the United States there is the Association of Author’s Representatives but there are equivalent organisations in each major publishing territory. It’s a useful checklist because members have signed up to an agreed code of conduct and methods of doing business, so ideally it’s a self-enforcing standard of ethical behaviour.
  8. Social media. In my view we could all do with a restricted diet of social media, but for agent and publisher research it’s a goldmine of information. Twitter in particular has many useful publishing-related hashtags. The most useful one for your purposes here is #MSWL (for ‘manuscript wish list’), in which actual literary agents specify what sorts of stories they want to see from unpublished writers.

I’ll stop there. But note that you can do all of these from the comfort of your own home, as long as your Internet bill is up to date. There are other ways to connect with agents and publishers ‘offline’, but I’ll save those for another time.

What do you think of this list? What have I forgotten? All feedback welcome, and thanks in advance.

 

Virginia Lloyd is a writing mentor, former literary agent, corporate copywriter, and the author of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement and Girls at the Piano. She is Australian by birth but now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Follow Virginia on Twitter and Facebook.

Read Virginia’s tips for getting permission to use song lyrics in your book.

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1 Comment

  1. 13 September 2018 / 11:01 am

    I’d also recommend writers look at http://www.absoluteWrite.com, a free online writers’ community with several large forums devoted to publisher & agent background checks. Look first at their ‘Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Checks’ forum.

    The ‘Writer Beware’ pages on the http://www.sfwa.org site also has lots of info on agents and publishers in genre publishing.

    You can get a hint how effective these groups are by the number of fly-by-night agents and vanity publishers who *hate* them.

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