My personal opinion (probably widely shared) is that if we have a book to sell, getting a publishing contract with a big publisher is the preferred way to go.
There are publishers that will take unsolicited manuscripts directly from new authors, but not as many as publishers that will only look at agented material. As you might imagine, the “no agent needed” publishers have slush piles that have mountain goats living on their slopes. This gives them response times up to a year, sometimes combined with a request for exclusive submission of manuscripts.
So generally speaking, Step One for new authors is finding an agent.
When I started looking a few years back, obviously the internet was the first thing that came to mind. The first useful place I found was Agentquery.com. Enter your genre, and you will get a nice list of agents, most looking for material. Querytracker.net is another good site.
Then the work really starts. Right at the start I generated a nice little table in Microsoft Word with columns for agent names and other info, comments, submission instructions, and a last column to record when I sent something and what I heard back. Each entry would have a live link to the agent’s website and address, along with other basic information. The “comments” column had things like links to blogs the agent might have, interviews they’d done, and whether or not they liked cookies. If I learned something useful, it went on the chart.
Here’s a shot of one page of one of my agent file documents. The gray toning indicates a rejection so I can flip through the pages rapidly and see my general status. The submission text is blue, and the rejection text is red. I notice on this page that all the rejections are form rejections, the most common kind. Any kind of personal rejection is rare. Criticism and suggestions from agents are even rarer, and worth their weight in gold.
There are other websites like Publishers Marketplace which are very useful to find agents, but to get full advantage, PM has a $20 a month subscription rate. The good news is that’s pretty cheap, and the better news is that the subscription is month-to-month so you don’t have to commit to a year’s worth. The free version has good information too, but leaves a lot out.
Other ways to locate agent names: go to the bookstore and/or library and find books like the one you’ve written. Note the authors. You can find some websites that will tell you who an author’s agent is (Querytracker has one). Failing that, Google the author’s name and the words “agent” or “literary agency.” Odds are good you’ll land something that tells you who the agent is.
Conferences are great places to find agents and publishers. If you meet an agent at one of these things, sometimes that will get you a little higher on the list if you mention it in a query to that agent. The bad news is that most of the conferences probably aren’t going to be where you live, and generally they cost an arm and a leg to attend (a few hundred dollars just for admission, not counting hotels and other things).
I went to one of these early on. It was a good experience, but nothing there ended up with a useful connection. Of course, my early queries weren’t that good since I still had a lot to learn. Maybe a year or so later I would have gotten better results, but I haven’t attended one since due to the cost.
So now you’ve got a name to pop into that first column. Now what?
Next: Stalking the Wild Agent