5 Tips for Querying & Choosing a Literary Agent

Brianna Shrum shares her experience in the querying process and choosing between multiple literary agents for representation.
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So you’re in the query trenches. You’ve been gritting your teeth through this process for months, weeks, years, millennia, and suddenly, an e-mail comes in with the golden ticket: OFFER OF REPRESENTATION. The call goes beautifully, you are ready to sign. Then your inbox dings again. And so it begins.

(Read These Successful Query Letters)

Getting multiple offers is often thought of as the dream scenario, and in some ways, it is! You get to pick! Hoorah! Celebrate! Then the stress sinks in. Personally, I wound up with four offers, all from literary agents I would have loved to sign with. Every time I heard, “Haha! What a great problem to have!” I responded with, “Right? Definitely!” Then just quietly stress-cackled until I could remind myself that it was, indeed, a good problem to have.

Since I have had two literary agents previously, I went through this round of querying knowing exactly what I wanted in a literary agent. So when I got an offer from a literary agent I thought was (and still think is) the bee’s knees, I let everyone with the manuscript or query know that I had an offer, set a deadline for their response, and Netflixed my way through the following two weeks. On decision day, I was sitting with three offers, all from literary agents I would have loved to work with. That morning, I had the e-mails written; my decision was made. Then, quite literally thirty minutes before I hit Send, I got a surprise call. Area code 212.

Brianna Shrum, How to Make Out

How to Make Out by Brianna R. Shrum

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By the end of that call, I knew exactly what I needed to do. And it was not what I had been so sure of that morning. This brings me to:

Bri’s Tips On Making An Agently Choice

Do Not Ignore Literary Agent Red Flags

This is the FREE space in Literary Agent Bingo. There are the classic warning signs that reveal bad agents, like: reading fees, not knowing the market, not being down to submit your books to places you couldn’t submit yourself, etc. You can find lists of red flags around ye olde interwebs that can give you a more solid rundown, but the gist is: If your brain is flashing warning signs to you about anything you’ve heard this agent do, or anything that felt sketchy on the call, heed that warning. Alas, all the offers I got were from literary agents who had nary a red flag to raise, so in my case more elbow grease was required.

Know What You Want in A Literary Agent

When I was first started querying, it was hard to know exactly what I was looking for, beyond, “I want a good literary agent! I want them to sell my books! That covers it, right?” It does not. That isn’t enough. You have to go in with a strong idea of exactly what you need as a writer and businessperson, and what you’re willing to compromise. For me? I knew I needed a literary agent who was good at communication, who was dedicated to and clearly passionate about my career, and who was cool with my desire to write in multiple genres/categories. I wanted either an established literary agent with a good number of sales under their belt or a newer agent at one of the top literary agencies . I also wanted an agent I felt comfortable and got along with. That was me. Consider what you need. What are you looking for in the short-term? Someone who understands your book? Whose vision for submission aligns with yours? And most importantly, what are you looking for in the long-term? Someone excited about you as a writer, with enthusiasm for other projects as well as this one? Someone with whom you can form a career-long partnership? Different literary agents can have very different styles of communication, revisions, submission strategy, contract negotiation, how they approach sales, and how you manage your career together. Insight on your goals and their strategies can only help you.

Never Never, Brianna Shrum

Never Never by Brianna R. Shrum

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Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Literary Agents Questions!

You are not the obnoxious kid in class if you ask too many questions. It could be that a seemingly tiny question gives you massive clarity. For instance, I asked about their submission list, because someone with a readily available list of which houses and editors they planned on submitting was massively important to me. We discussed revisions (flashing sign: important) on this project and briefly talked about other projects I had in the works. And I asked about comfort with multiple genres and categories, speed, and submission strategy. Ask the agent what sets them apart from everyone else—both as an agent and the literary agency they are partnered with. Ask everything you want to know. Knowledge is power, and all that.

5 Tips for Querying & Choosing a Literary Agent

Use Your Resources

Get names of clients to contact. If you know current or past clients, contact them too! I’ve found past and current clients are often totally happy to answer questions, and they can be extremely enlightening. Also poke around on Publisher’s Marketplace. You can find info on sales, level of sales, genre, etc., that can really help paint a larger picture. Do some legwork up front on the literary agent and their literary agency, and you will be much happier later.

Make A Choice for Your Career

I cannot stress this enough. The submission, getting the book sold, dealing with a million little things after it’s sold? Each can be a process. Processes the right agent can really guide you through. Ideally, your agent will partner with you through this book, and far beyond that. When you sign with an agent, you are trying to find a person to whom you believe you can entrust your career. Not the person who dazzles you with the flashiest sales and prettiest words; not the person who might be your BFF. What you are looking for is someone you can build a partnership with. You don’t need to feel bad for who you choose or don’t choose. All it’s really about is picking the right agent for you.

When I got off the phone, I knew that although every literary agent I’d spoken with was fantastic, this person was absolutely the right choice for me, because I couldn’t imagine putting my career in the hands of anyone else. I thought, “Good lord, if he was that persuasive with me, imagine how he is with editors.” His professionalism, his enthusiasm, his knowledge, and passion for my work made it abundantly clear. So I signed with Steven Salpeter at Curtis Brown, and I could not be more thrilled.

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