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Publishing U: How Do I Find the Right Agent?

Publishing UOur readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the third post of our Publishing U series, agent Kathleen Ortiz tells authors the slush pile isn’t the worst place to splash down. Her client, Virginia Boecker, warns authors not to sign with the first agent who says yes—at least, not without doing due diligence.


Kathleen OrtizKathleen Ortiz: Most agents stress the importance of the slush pile, because that’s where agents sign, on average, more than 70 percent of their clients. It’s in a writer’s best interest to create a stellar query and manuscript so that, when they land in the slush pile, they will stand out and make the agent say “I want more!”

Getting to that amazing query and manuscript is a journey, one that begins like any other career: with education. Whether it’s signing up for a webinar to hear advice from publishing professionals, traveling to a writer’s conference to hear from published authors and workshop your pages with other writers, or entering your work for the chance to be viewed online by a group of agents in hopes of winning a critique, some form of education on the craft and business of writing can be vital to getting your pages polished enough to be sent out on submission.

Most writers focus on conferences, webinars, and critique contests, looking for their genre or audience, and hoping for encounters with spotlight agents and authors. When it’s time to sign up for a critique, whether a round-table discussion or a one-on-one pitch session, it might not  matter who the agents or editors are—they’re professionals, and they can help.

The agent-author relationship is a business
relationship but can also be quite personal.

But what happens when that professional sitting across from you emails later and says, “I love this”? Do you know enough about her to accept her offer of representation? Are you comfortable with her reputation? Do you know which books she’s sold recently, what her company’s ethics are, and whether or not her way of doing business matches your vision for a writing career?

The agent-author relationship is a business relationship but can also be quite personal. It’s nothing to be entered into lightly.

As an agent, I know when I teach a webinar or give a critique, I might fall in love with something I’ve critiqued, offer representation, and then be told, “thanks, but no thanks,” because they didn’t query me. They sought me out for advice, and that was it. I was very lucky when I signed Virginia Boecker from a webinar I taught. I quickly requested her manuscript after reading her flawless query. I wasn’t the only one. Little did I know, Virginia had put herself in an awkward position. She had signed up for several different webinars and conferences to meet with professionals in the industry, but she hadn’t considered whether all of those people were actually a good fit for her and her book.

Virginia BoeckerVirginia Boecker: I thought I had querying all figured out. I had a plan. I had a query letter (in fact, I had two, the writer’s version of A/B testing). I had a list of agents, and I had signed up for a few agent-taught Writer’s Digest query webinars. Some of these webinars were taught by agents on my list, some weren’t. But to my way of thinking, feedback on my query or opening pages from an agent—any agent—could only be beneficial, right?

Well, not quite.


Instead of excitement, I felt a sense of uneasiness.
I hadn’t done my research.

As it turned out, I had quite a bit of luck with my very first webinar. I got a request from the first agent I submitted to. The request led to feedback, which led to a revision, which led to an offer of representation. But instead of excitement, I felt a sense of uneasiness. I hadn’t done my research—at least, not the kind that could answer the number-one most important question when it comes to the entire purpose of querying: did I want to be in a business relationship with this person? Did they have a good reputation? Did they (or their agency) have a history of sales? Did I want this person representing me and shepherding my career—ideally, for life? Did I want this person to be my agent?

The answer was no.

So I pulled back. And while I kept my eye out for webinars, I was more discerning about the ones I signed up for. And instead of thinking only about the short-term gain—feedback—I thought about my long-term goal: feedback from an agent I respected and admired, and one whose opinion would make a difference, whether or not they ultimately signed me.

Luckily for me, I was able to find both.

*     *     *

Virginia Boecker is an obsessive reader, a compulsive runner, and the author of The Witch Hunter (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2015).  She’s very happily represented by Kathleen Ortiz.

Kathleen Ortiz can be summed up in a simple equation: books + baking + technology = life. She’s a literary agent and director of subsidiary rights at New Leaf Literary & Media, where she helps clients’ books appear in new translations around the world. She represents children’s books, from picture books to young adult.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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