I share some tips and tricks to help you choose the right literary agents to query, and should you get offers, how to make that final decision

This is as good a place as any to announce that after almost ten years on and off of trying to find representation, I have finally signed with the amazing Kristy Hunter at The Knight Agency. EXCITING! I figured that instead of writing the traditional ‘this is how I found my agent’ that I would switch it up and help give some advice to help YOU on how to find a literary agent from deciding who to query, crafting your letter, strategies for standing out, and making that final decision. PS if you’re interested in learning about my personal journey to getting an agent, you can watch my How I Got An Agent IGTV video on Instagram.

1. Only query agents you want to work with

Do NOT get caught in the trap of querying people you don’t want to work with. Let me break it down, you NEVER have to send your query to anyone even if they:

  • DM you on social media to say how much they love it and please query them
  • Liked it in a pitch contest
  • Get your email address from somewhere and email to ask for it
  • Are the biggest agent with the most sales of ever – who isn’t a fit for you for whatever reason

Nothing is worse than looking at your email, seeing an offer of rep, then feeling a pit of dread in your stomach because it’s from someone you don’t want to work with. It’s not fair to you or the agent, and if you can avoid it, please do.

The way I query is I make a list of agents and I separate them into three tiers:

  1. Dream agents
  2. Agents I love
  3. Agents I love who may be a gamble

Every agent on the list is someone who I think has the potential to be a good fit. And I will say here, experience is not necessarily a ranking factor. I had brand new agents in my second tier and experienced ones in my third one. A lot of the lower tier agents were simply those who I wasn’t sure would be a fit for the book or who had a sales record that didn’t inspire confidence.

But! The important thing is all these agents on my list are people I thought I would work well with. That’s what you want. That being said, I have gotten caught in the trap of sending to an agent who requested out of the blue with a ‘why not?’ attitude. But then when they wanted my full, I would feel terrible knowing they were spending their time on this when I wasn’t ever going to seriously consider them. It’s not good karma. Avoid it.

To try and be extra helpful, here are the things I look into when choosing which agents to add to my list:

  • Recognizability of their name to gauge how well known they are
  • The reputation of the agency they’re with
  • Their background: Did they work in publishing houses? Intern under anyone impressive? Have great volunteer positions?
  • Their social media: Do they use it? Do they ever post inappropriate or offensive things?
  • The success of previous clients
  • How much their #MSWL and wishlist match what my book brings
  • How much their #MSWL and wishlist match the sort of books I would want to write as my writing career goes on
  • Sales – these aren’t make or break, but publishing is a business, and sales help give you confidence in an agent selling YOUR book
    • Do they have any previous sales?
    • Were these sales with small pubs only, big pubs, or a mix?
    • Digital or print?
    • Quality of the sales: Do they have six-figure sales? Do they have any 50k+ sales?

Helpful links for agent research!

Query Tracker – has lists of agents with links to their websites, social media, and helpful comments (amazing for warnings about schmagents/bad agents)

Publisher’s Marketplace – lists sales, but need a paid account – note that not all agents post sales here, so not seeing them here doesn’t mean they have none

Manuscript Wishlist – wishlists of the sorts of things agents are looking for

Twitter #MSWL – feed on Twitter where agents tweet what they’re looking for

Writer Beware – place with reports on any schmagents and general writer traps to avoid

I used both Query Tracker and Publisher’s Marketplace paid memberships primarily, highly recommend, but I know not financially possible for everyone. You can also ask friends who have paid accounts to look things up for you.

2. Bring your uniqueness to your query

I will forever remember this, I was listening to the Manuscript Academy podcast (highly recommend!) and they were interviewing literary agent Eric Smith who was giving query tips, and he said to make it personal. He spoke about showing why YOU are writing the book. And especially if you don’t have prior writing credits, this can be so important. Bring what makes you unique. BUT, as the story is the #1 priority, also highlight what makes your book unique.

Chances are, your story in many ways is like a lot of books. Mine is. TONS of people write about witches, but what makes mine special? That’s something it’s important to hit on in the query to help grab an agent’s attention. They get hundreds of emails a day, if you can’t stand out, what is going to make them read?

Andddd this is the part where I share the query that hooked my agent. Legit, exactly what I sent to Kristy:

Dear Ms. Hunter,

I read on your Twitter #MSWL that you’re interested in seeing more #ownvoices YA fantasy and think that my novel would be a good fit. Best described as Labyrinth Lost with This Mortal Coil’s genetic hacking, VOYA CALLING is a 98,000-word young adult #ownvoices urban fantasy that follows a family of black witches living in Toronto, 2099.

Surviving suffocation on her family’s dining room table is not what sixteen-year-old Voya Thomas expected her Calling—a trial each witch must pass to come into her powers—to be like. And no one in her family lineage has ever failed…until her. When she gets a second chance to avoid ending magic for every Thomas born after her, she agrees to complete the new task the spirit of her ancestor gives—kill her first love before the eve of the Caribana festival.

For Voya to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy. She catches a break when the NuGene company, famed for their advances in genetic therapy, offers a beta matchmaking program. The plan is to become a participant, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she didn’t count on was the NuGene CEO’s obsession with her family’s genome or being paired with Luc—a trans boy who is both adorable and infuriating.

Magic is not a party trick—it’s a culture that’s shaped and protected her family for generations. And this time around, failure means every living Thomas witch, not just future ones, will be stripped of their magic. With mounting pressure from her family, Voya’s caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood and intention are everything.

I was raised in Toronto, Ontario in a blended family and all eight of us lived together under one roof. This is what inspired me to create a story about Voya’s huge family, and the mix of Trinidadian and Canadian culture she grows up with mirrors my own experience. I was previously published in a short story and poetry anthology titled Lake Effect 6. I was also a #RevPit 2018 winner and received a full developmental edit including line edits from Sione Aeschliman who I worked with over a five-week period.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Liselle Sambury

(Yes, it is very long, I am like this.)

There are two spots where I tried to hit home with what makes my story unique: the first paragraph and the last paragraph.

The first being what helps the narrative stand out among the market which is “black witches in Toronto, 2099.” Certainly, I’ve never heard of that in the genre. Witches, but they ain’t black. Set in cities, but not this one. Urban fantasy but not meshed with the near future. If there’s something in your book you don’t think is being done in that age-category or genre, say it, and make it quick. Sione who was my #RevPit editor moved this bit to the top (I originally had it at the bottom), and I agree with the move because it’s a great way to show upfront why this book is different.

Secondly, I shared my personal connection to the story. Since this is #ownvoices (aka my identity matches that of my MC) it was simple. I used a LOT of my personal experiences in the book so it makes sense to share a bit of that background. But even if yours isn’t, you likely have a special connection to the story. Writing is an intimate activity after all.

To go back to Eric Smith, he was right in saying that the agent isn’t signing the book, they’re signing YOU, and they want to know about you. Creating that extra special insider tidbit goes beyond a dry statement of your job title, current location, and a few writing credentials.

3. Make meaningful community connections

Emphasis on the word meaningful. No, this isn’t so someone magically refers you to an agent and they sign you on the spot. If only! Creating connections and making friends within the writing community is important because they:

  • Provide much-needed support during the highs and lows
  • Make amazing betas and critique partners
  • Share writing tips and tricks
  • Protect you from schmagents

I’m sure most of those things were obvious, but that last one may not have been. The whisper network in the writing community is strong. At least in kidlit. And getting better every day. There are so many agents and agencies that I would have thought were fine, then a friend in the community let me know about sketchy behaviour, offensive internal emails, poor client communication and sales, and more.

This is an industry where a bad agent can not only ruin your book’s chances of being published, but they can make you lose confidence in yourself as a writer. They can end your career, not just with bad practice, but by killing your motivation, your drive, and your ability to trust other agents.

People in the community are there to help you avoid those things and they want to help you. So it’s 100% worth it to stick your neck out and get to know people. The friends I’ve made online through my querying journey have been AMAZING and make my life so rich and full. Highly recommend.

4. Find fresh eyes and be open aka sometimes admitting defeat is okay

You may have a couple trusted friends who you always send your writing to that you trust and give great feedback. Yay! That’s amazing! But… it’s super important to branch out too. Especially when you’re querying.

How does this connect to how to find a literary agent? It’s about perspective and how that shapes your querying. When I queried my last book, a portal fantasy, I got a lot of praise from my readers along with critiques. But only once I started showing it to a different set of people who also worked in the industry, did I start getting feedback about the difficulty of selling something in that genre to an agent.

My friends weren’t wrong, it certainly had great bits, but it was also in a wrong genre and quite frankly had some problematic elements that I either had tried to fix and hadn’t quite managed to fix, or were bits I hadn’t even clued into yet.

In any case, getting another type of person’s perspective helped me hit on those professional reasons why I was struggling so hard to get an agent for it. The genre is a hard sell. AND I wasn’t doing good representation. Etc. Different people bring different perspectives. They won’t necessarily be better at feedback, but they will give different feedback. You don’t have to accept it, but it’s good to know.

Back to admitting defeat, in the end, I did shelve that book. And when I went forward with my next book, I made sure to be more aware of the market so I wouldn’t fall into that trap again, and VERY aware of what may or may not be problematic so I wasn’t creating harmful narratives. And it worked out in the end. Sometimes you need to shelve a project on your journey to getting an agent, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it’s just moving on.

5. Pick for potential

Finally! This is the part where you’ve suffered through the query trenches, and now you have an offer. YAY offer! You will have a phone call with the agent to chat and get a feel for if they’re the right fit for you. If you only queried agents you wanted to work with, this will be infinitely easier.

BUT! Sometimes, this call can shift things. I did have an offer call weeks before the one with Kristy, and as I spoke with the agent and followed up with their clients, I ultimately decided to decline and continue querying. Not because they were bad: they seemed like they would be a wiz at edits and their clients LOVED them. But because I couldn’t feel confident about our potential as partners or reach that height of their clients’ excitement, so I knew it wasn’t a good fit.

This is not to brag about offers, but so that you know that you do NOT have to accept an offer. I was terrified that not accepting meant I would never get another offer again. Like the writing Gods would shun me as an ungrateful baby writer. But I did get another offer. So can you. Never feel pressured to say yes to an agent you don’t think is a good fit because of fear. It isn’t fair to you or them.

Now, potential. When I say this, I talking about the potential the agent has to help you reach your career goals. And I’m also speaking about the level of confidence you have in their potential to do that.

What are your goals? Think about these very hard, because they will make a big difference to the agent you choose. There are newer agents who have fantastic potential to be great partners and help you achieve your dreams. And there are experienced agents who seem to not have that same potential. Years in the industry is not a direct reflection of that.

My goals are to see my books on shelves in major bookstores, not one book, a lot of books. And I want to have one agent for the entirety of my career as an author. I don’t want to be swapping around if I can help it. What this ultimately boiled down to was a combination of the quality of previous sales, confidence the agent presented on the call, and communication.

I chose Kristy because even though she’s a newer agent, she’s done great sales already and I think has the potential to do more. She sounded incredibly confident on the phone and already had names of editors prepared AND a personal connection to them. PLUS she’s an amazing communicator. Even from the cold query stage, she was quick to request, quick to read, and responded to all my questions via email in a super timely manner. Those things made me feel incredibly confident in our potential as partners and are why I signed with her.

I’m hoping that helped and please comment if you have any questions for me AND/OR comment with what you look for in an agent. I would love to know!

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