Having an agent is so important to an author's career, IMO, I won't waste time explaining why you need one. For the purposes of this post, let's assume it's a given. If you want a writing career, you need professional representation. Period.
That said, here are my 10 Commandments for the Agent Hunt:
1. Thou shalt do thy research! Look for an agent who represents the kind of fiction or non-fiction you write. If you write romance, don't submit to an agent whose website clearly states they do not represent romance. The list of RWA eligible agents at RWA National is a good place to start your search. (Yes, you must be a member of RWA to access the site, but if you write romance, you really should belong to this excellent organization.)
2. Thou mayest cyber-stalk thy chosen agent if thou art casual about it. Lots of agents have blogs. I strongly recommend you follow one belonging to the agent of your dreams. Agents have articles published in trade journals. Set a Google alert and read what your prospective agent has to say. Who knows? You might decide to keep looking once you know more about what he/she thinks.
3. Thou shalt not attempt to secure an agent until thou hast a finished manuscript that has been revised, rewritten and polished to within an inch of its life. Until you have a finished manuscript, an agent has nothing to sell.
4. Thou shalt not give thy agent a reason to say "no" to thee. That means no following her into the bathroom during writing conferences. No daily emails asking if she has read your submission yet. Patience isn't just a virtue. It's a matter of survival.
5. Thou shalt give thy agent a reason to say "yes" to thee. Enter as many writing contests as you can. Each win or place gets your name out there in the publishing community and believe me, it's a surprisingly small world. Winning a contest or two or six tells an agent someone besides your mother likes your writing. An important selling point.
Develop a platform. It's no longer enough for an author to deliver the book. She needs to deliver an audience for it too. If you don't blog, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc, I suggest you start now to build that core of people who will be excited when your book sells and will want to run out an buy it on its release day.
6. Thou mayest meet thy chosen agent and pitch face-to-face if thou be of stout heart and plump pockets. Agents and editors attend writing conferences all the time. Check to see if the agent you are targeting is going to be in attendance at a conference near you. Smaller regional conferences are cheaper and provide a more intimate setting than a national one, so don't sweat it if you can't make the big one.
No one will offer to be your agent on the basis of a single conversation. They must read your writing first. But the advantage to a face-to-face is that you will be able to start your query letter by reminding them where and when you met and if they request a partial or a full submission (this is a biggie) you'll be able to write in large block letters on the outside of the envelope: REQUESTED MATERIAL.
This won't get you an immediate read, but you will be placed in queue nearer the top than the bottom of the slush pile.
7. Thou shalt master the art of the query letter and synopsis. I know these two things give most writers the willies, but if you remember what they really are, it's easier. They are marketing pieces.
For the query, make sure you include these things: title (make it a doozy!) genre & word count, state of completion (which for a new author must be FINISHED!) a back cover style blurb of no more than two paragraphs, your writing credits (here's where those contest wins go)
No agent goes straight to the synopsis when she opens a submission packet. She'll read a chapter or so to see if your voice speaks to her. Then she'll crack open the synopsis to see if you understand the elements of story and how to put together a compelling tale. You may not be coy with the ending. All loose ends must be succinctly tied up. The synopsis is an important selling tool, not just to an acquiring editor. The editor will use the synopsis to sell your book to the marketing department, the art department, and other editors so there's plenty of in-house buzz about your book.
Believe me, you want buzz.
8. Thou shalt send in exactly what is requested, no more no less. An agent is trying to figure out if it's worth his/her time to work with you. If you fail to follow their first directive, what does that tell them?
9. If an agent calls to offer thee representation, thou shalt thank them politely and ask for time to think about it. Ditto for an offer of publication directly from an editor. This is not the time to shout "Yes! Yes!" orgasmically into the phone. (Save that for after you hang up!) This is the time to set the professional tone of your relationship.
The agent dance is a delicate courtship. First the author approaches the agent. Then the agent may decline or offer representation. At this point, the author may ask to speak to some of the agent's other clients. This is the time to discuss exactly what you expect from an agent. Do you want someone who will serve as a first reader? Make editorial input? How are payments handled? What is the agent's fee? (15% is standard. More for foreign sales and film rights when a subsidiary agent will probably be involved. Do NOT pay a reading fee or any other fee up front.) Ask where they plan to submit your work. Why there? Where do they see you in 5 years? Take your time. You're getting into financial bed with this person. Make sure they are "the one!"
10. Thou shalt not wait until thou hast an offer on the table before thou searchest for an agent and if thou submittest to multiple parties, which is understandable though not optimal, thou shalt keep them all apprised of any developments in a timely manner. Any agent worth their salt wants to be involved in the sale from the get-go, not called in at the last minute when they likely can't make any changes to the contract or benefit you in any way short of taking 15% of your advance. Honestly. I've had agents tell me they hate getting that "Wow! I've got an offer and I need an agent" call because it means they feel pressured to make a quick decision. Agents have only so much time and the good ones aren't about single sales. They want to help their writers develop careers. If they are a good agent, they weigh prospective clients very carefully and choose the ones who are most deserving of their time.
The multiple submission thing is just common sense and good manners. And frankly, I'd encourage you not to do it in the first place. A better solution is to give an agent an exclusive on your work for say, six weeks. If they don't respond by then, write them a polite thank you and let them know you'll be submitting elsewhere. This is an important decision on both sides. Give it time to marinate.
If you're in the Agent Hunt, aim high. Look for an agent who is active, selling and has a client list of authors whose work is similar to yours. Don't settle for an amateur, a beginner (unless they are a junior agent at a MAJOR firm) or a frustrated writer who has turned to agenting because they think it's easier than writing.
I wish you much success in your Agent Hunt and may you only bag the trophy bull!
If you have questions, I'll be happy to take them and if I don't know the answer, I'll ask my agent (the fabulous Natasha Kern!)