I’ve read, one by one, the bios and preferences of each agent on 30 of the 106 pages of the online Literary Agents Directory. That’s 310 agents. I’ve also looked at the home pages of many of the agencies for which these individuals work, so that by now I’m sure I’ve read about at least half of the working literary agents. Tallying up from my notes, I’ve identified 41 whose interests align at least remotely with my own writing. That’s around a 10 percent hit rate — better than I expected when I started going through the list. I think that’s enough for now.
My sense is that the agents’ self-descriptions are quite generic, quite broad. That’s meant to be encouraging, I suppose — they’re open to practically anything. These are professional salespeople after all — they don’t want to be inundated with submissions, but they don’t want to miss anything either. I’m sure they’d rather say no to 99% of the inquiring authors in hopes of striking gold. They want to demonstrate high standards while also flattering potential clients into believing that they’ve found just the right person to represent them in the literary marketplace. Here’s a composite of preferences compiled from three agents who work for the same agency:
“For Michelle, compelling writing consists of strong, carefully crafted characters with a unique voice. Most importantly, she’s looking for projects with emotional resonance and longevity. She’s specifically looking for high concept plots with literary underpinnings, psychological conflict, quirky protagonists, and fast-paced writing. Michelle is seeking literary works, women’s fiction, horror, thrillers, multicultural voices, and any well-written novels with quirky characters and/or unique plots and settings. She is drawn to an authentic voice, unforgettable characters and a well-crafted story that is emotional in unpredictable ways.”
I don’t believe that my own fiction pushes all of “Michelle”‘s hot buttons, nor do I necessarily wish that it did. Still, she would probably make my short list. I’d try to keyword my first paragraph with “high concept” and “unpredictable,” letting the content of the letter convey the careful craftsmanship of my prose, the uniqueness of my plots/settings, and the quirks of my characters.
Next, I’ll sift through my 41 agents looking for more information about them online in hopes of customizing my inquiry letters a bit more. I’ll also see what they want in the initial inquiry and in what form they want it. Hopefully next week I’ll start sending out the correspondence.