One of the top questions I see on writer's forums is "how do I find agents to query?" When you're new to the traditional publishing process, it can seem daunting. There are hundreds of literary agents, so how do you know who is good? Who reps your kind of work? How to query them?
I cover "how do you know if they are good?" in a separate chapter, but how to find agents in the first place and compile your list isn't as hard as you think. I'm going to go "Choose Your Own Adventure" style--try whichever approach below makes sense for you, in whatever order makes the most sense (generally I recommend combining all of the below tactics into one larger strategy!).
Start by looking at published books, particularly those that you like and that are similar to your book. Flip to the back and look at the Acknowledgements. Most authors will thank their agent there. Note down their names. You can start with books you own, but I highly recommend either a trip to a book store or a library so you can look into a wide variety of published books in your genre and get a wide spread of names. Think about where your book would sit on the shelf.
Next, create an account with your new best friend: Query Tracker (dot net). This site maintains a database of every legitimate agent and enables you to create a personalized list of who you want to query. Once you are querying, you keep track of your submissions via QT. (A note: Query Tracker won't list agents who are out & out bad/shady, but there ARE schmagents on there. Many schmagents are legitimate on the face of it. Always do your research!)
Look up all the agents you found and add them to your QT list. Don't worry: this list isn't forever; you can add/delete agents from your list as you do subsequent research on them. Use QT to look up information on agent's leading clients, see comments from other users about agents' response times and the sorts of responses they send. Many profiles also include submission rules/information, though I don't recommend using QT as your be-all-end-all--you'll want to keep separate agent sorting documents somewhere like Google Docs, where you can add notes & custom columns. Query Tracker is primarily a tracking & data tool.
Now your research begins. Google the agents. Browse their agency websites. Look them up on Twitter (and follow them if you are so inclined). Pay careful attention to who their clients are and to what publishers they have sold books and *when*. Have they made sales recently? Do they sell books to the types of publishers you want to be published by? What kind of books are the looking for, and are they even open to queries right now? You should be able to find this information on their agency website. You can start paring down your list as you find agents do or don't seem like a good fit for you.
When you Google, in many cases you will pull up interviews and profiles on the agents. Read them! I recommend maintaining an addition tracker or file, either a Google Doc or Spreadsheet where you save links that have particularly relevant information. This may come in later should you decide to personalize. It also helps remind you why you put someone on the list!
Now, you can incorporate the steps from Option 2...
Start on Twitter and Twitter adjacent. If you're not already following literary agents, start doing so. Look for agents that your favorite authors link in their profiles. Look for people participating in #MSWL, #DVpit, #PitMad, etc. Look up the agents who participate in the major query contests and follow them/add them to your list. Be sure to vet every agent! Check agency websites and cross-check sales. Schmagents DO sometimes participate both in contests and pitch events. (Shady publishers too, which is a whole other topic.)
#MSWL has a website where agents maintain profiles. Look at the official one, which is manuscriptwishlist (dot) com. There is another site, not the "official" one, that is nonetheless useful for seeing what agents are tweeting about #MSWL, mswishlist (dot) com. I don't recommend ONLY going by #MSWL to form your query list, as not all agents use it, and some agents may tweet specific things on the tag but doesn't mean they wouldn't love your manuscript. Always combine research methods to create a robust list.
Next, pull some methods from Option One: check who reps your favorite authors, do a lot of Googling/reading/research. And then get yourself on Query Tracker! I'm going to wax poetic about it more in the querying strategy chapter, but trust me: you'll love it. (Unless you don't, and that's fine!)
Option Three, Moneybags Edition:
A third option, in combination with the other two, is to pay for a subscription to Publishers Marketplace. Generally I recommend investing in this later in your career, should you choose to/be able to afford it, as it is not cheap: about $25 a month/$275 a year. But once you join, you get access to a lot of great tools, including all reported deals, a listing of top-ranked agents by genre (based on sales), agency/agent info, job listings, etc.
If you have PM, you could, for example, search for all YA deals with the word "fantasy" and see who has sold what. You can search for all deals with a particular imprint or editor. If you're very new to querying/the industry these terms may sound daunting, but you can learn as you go. Essentially, you'll be able to tailor a query list based on who is selling books to the kinds of places you want to go. It's also a good tool to see what is selling in the market currently.
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#HowToAuthor: Agents & SubmissionNon-Fiction
Advice for writing book-shaped things and getting them traditionally published. This series will cover everything from querying to agent fit, to building a platform and marketing yourself.