Once you have the name and basics on an agent, the next step is to find out every damn thing you can about this agent/agency (most of what follows applies to publishers, too, but I’ll just use “agent” here).
The main tool for this is the internet.
A good first start is a web page at the AbsoluteWrite website called “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check.” Use their search function or the listing posts to find the thread for the agent you’re looking for. Almost every agent has one. This forum gathers writers and others from all over, who comment on their experiences with particular agents. Moderators provide useful information on the agent like mailing addresses and the all-important agency website address. Put this information in your chart, or other records. The “Bewares” forum can give you a good idea of what it’s like to work with this agent, such as response times, how well she communicates, connections, and (once in a while) showstoppers that will lead you try the next name on your list.
If AbsoluteWrite doesn’t have a web address for the agent, try a Google search on their name (hoping it isn’t John Smith). Some agents don’t have websites, but most do.
If you’ve paid for a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, they will not only have address and website information, but specific sales information on the agent. What they’ve sold, to who, and sometimes how much the author got paid (usually in general terms). You can generate documents showing the agents with the most sales in your genre in case you want to hit them first. Lots of useful things.
The agent’s own website should be your primary information source. If you have information on the agent from other websites like Publishers Markeplace, but the agent’s website says something different, go with the agent’s website info.
A good agency website (they’re not all good) will tell you how to submit, what they’re looking for, and if they have more than one agent, which agent likes which material. Take notes and bookmark things. If you do a lot of copy/pasting from websites to a Word document like I did, make sure you use the “paste special” command and import all those fancy fonts and sizes as unformatted text, or your chart is going to end up looking like a circus poster.
Once you’ve exhausted your target agent’s website, broaden the search. Google the agent. This will often turn up useful information like interviews, blogs, and other things that will give you a better picture. Links to these things can go in your chart, and if you find quotes that are helpful, put them there too. An agent’s blog, if it’s current, can be an even better line on the agent than the agency website. Here is where you’ll find pieces of the agent’s personality, and often the most recent information on submission requirements and needs.
Bottom line: You want to end up knowing more about this agent than the agent’s mother does. That machine in front of you gives you the power to do this.
Keep your eyes open as you do your research. You’re very likely to find new agent names to put on your list as you go along. The AbsoluteWrite “Bewares” board is especially good for this. When you’re not researching a particular name there, just pull up their front page of new posts every day to see new agent threads (or old ones being bumped up) and take a look.
Next: Now get those queries out!