So you've decided that you need a literary agent.
"But, but, but how do I find out who's who and what they represent?"
Note: I'm assuming you are prepared with the following or are going to be before you query: A completed manuscript (or non-fiction proposal and sample chapters, etc.), a synopsis, and a query, all of which should be edited and polished. You might also want to have a pitch/log line, cover letter, and author bio prepared.
1) Consider market guide books first.
We all love how handy and convenient the Internet is, but it's not always a reliable source of information. Market guide books tend to be a much safer bet as the editors work hard to weed out bad agents, but be aware that they too can have errors and scams despite the efforts of their editors. A quick Amazon search reveals a healthy list of guides including 2009 Writer's Market by Robert Brewer, 2009 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market by Alice Pope, 2009 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino, Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009 by Jeff Herman, etc. All very reliable and highly recommended market guides.
- Check with your local library - they may have what you're looking for.
- Don't use an outdated guide if possible.
- Use a well-known guide if possible.
- Make sure you obtain a guide that covers your market.
- Get a hold of more than one market guide if you can.
2) Books like yours and books you like.
If you know of any books like yours, try to find out who agents them. Check the acknowledgments in the book, the author's web site, search Publisher's Marketplace online, and/or do a Google search. This information is usually not hard to come by if the book has been published in recent years. It also doesn't hurt to see who agents your favorite authors and/or books either - they may represent your genre.
2) The Internet (use with an intelligent brain for best results).
There are a lot of resources on the Internet for writers seeking representation. A whole heck of a lot. And not all of it is reliable, maybe not even a lot of it. This is why you must tread carefully and never trust a single source of information. Thorough research is the name of the game.
That said, Query Tracker, Agent Query, and Lit Match are online agent databases. You can also search the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. (the members of which are almost always legit - more on that later.).
"OK," you say. "What now?!?"
With your guide(s) and/or database at hand, compile a list of agents who are open to submissions and represent your genre. It is a complete waste of your time and the agent's time if you query someone who is closed to submissions, doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts, or doesn't represent your genre. If you don't know what your genre is, take a step back. You need to figure that out before you begin querying.
Now you know how to find literary agents and their contact information and you've compiled a list of prospectives. Woo! Good work. But you're not ready to query yet. There is more research to be done. Yes, more. We're doin' this right.
Stay tuned for part II.