In November of 2020, I queried twenty-two agents, and was so emotionally smashed by the process that I didn’t query again until November of 2021. For me, querying was disorienting, disheartening, and often felt like yelling into the void of a stranger’s inbox. Though I had done my due diligence to craft a query letter that held to the standards promoted in writers’ circles, I worried that my query–for whatever reason–wasn’t good enough. Whether because my word count was too long, my concept was too low concept, or my premise was unsellable, I wrung my hands helplessly, feeling unable to do anything other than send out queries, receive form rejections, and vainly send out more.
In querying, there are things you can control and there are things you can’t. Sure, you can write the best query letter you can, and you can send it out to as many agents as you can, but you can’t control what happens after you hit “send”. Maybe the agent only picks up one writer per year and you’re just not that writer. Maybe your sub-sub-genre isn’t what the agent likes to read, or they lack the confidence to sell it. Maybe the agent just decided they don’t want to be an agent anymore, or they’re in the midst of switching agencies, or they’re going on maternity leave–all of this happens (and I have seen it happen on my querying journey). Because of the uncertain and constantly changing nature of the agent and publishing industry, all you can do is try to make sure things on your end are good and keep on querying.
Like applying to exclusive colleges, querying is a numbers game in which only the most determined (or luckiest) authors prevail. An author’s best bet is to query, query, query as widely as they can (to agents that are actively seeking their genre of work, obviously). This can be anywhere from fifty queries to one hundred fifty, but every extra additional agent is one more chance to get published.
You might be saying, “A hundred fifty agents?! Chelsea, you madman! How could you possibly find so many agents for one book?”
Well, it certainly involves some focused searching, but with the right tools, it’s possible. With the Manuscript Wish List (MSWL), searching for agents has become much more accessible than it has been in previous years.
In this essay I hope to demonstrate how to utilize online search tools such as the MSWL to find agents that fit your specific project so that you can build an organized, annotated list and kick querying’s ass.
Before we get into how to best search for agents, I suppose I’d like to point out where we’re going so that you, the reader, have a sense of direction. The goal here is to acquire a list or spreadsheet of agents that have expressed interest in works like your novel (whether that information comes from genres they accept, their MSWL, books they’ve repped, etc.)
To fill out this spreadsheet, I will show you how to comb your query letter for “meta tags” or keywords that you can search for on different agent databases such as Twitter, the MSWL site, and Publisher’s Marketplace. Then I will elaborate on how to best organize your spreadsheet to improve your querying success. Onward!
In my craft post about description, I spoke about the importance of keywords in terms of describing elements within your book, such as characters and settings. But meta tags (keywords), can also be used to better understand your query letter, the marketing of your book at large, and the terms agents will be looking for on their MSWL.
Imagine you are a marketer at a publisher and you are trying to convey a new science fiction project to your team, the masses, and rights investors. You say, “Well, the book is like Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon Five.” Instead of having to convey what the book is about through the arduous process of outlining the plot, the characters, and the setting, you manage to convey the subject by creating an associative framework from three extant intellectual properties. Assuming the person being pitched is familiar with those works, you save everyone a ton of time while also cultivating a sense of brand recognition and loyalty. (For example, regardless of how I feel about JKR, if someone compares a book to Harry Potter, I’m down to clown. In this way, space nerds who really like the Expanse would be interested in a work that compared itself to that.)
Keywords aren’t just comp titles, though. They can also be sub genres, character archetypes, tropes, themes, aesthetics, or general descriptive elements. So your book could be: a Jemisin-esque sci-fi mystery starring a straight-backed naval commander and a sentient succulent; a cottage-core slice-of-life with mutual pining and nonbinary fairies; a post-apocalyptic treasure hunt with telekinetic mimes; or anything else you can think of.
When searching for agents, try to look for meta tags, or search terms, in your query letter. In the example below, a successful query from author Valerie Valdes’ book, Chilling Effect, I have bolded words that might inspire meta tags to search with:
“In space, no one can hear you cagando en la mierda.
Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy agency that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva struggles through one unpleasant, dangerous mission after another to pay the ransom debt. To make things worse, she’s stuck with a hold full of psychic cats, a fish-faced emperor wants her dead for rejecting his advances, and her ship’s sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. Qué jodienda.
Chilling Effect, humorous science fiction that parodies pop culture and video games, is complete at 115,000 words but has series potential.”
- Space–the setting, but also a sub genre of sci-fi (see also, “space pirates” “intergalactic” and that sort of thing)
- Cagando en la mierda–the narrator, Captain Eva, has a strong voice and switches from English to Spanish–perhaps Latina could’ve been a keyword, or Spanish language, etc. as well as “voicey” or “strong voice”
- Cats (self explanatory)
- Feelings–“romance” is a genre and element agents look for
- Humorous–the book is comedic, so search for “humor”, “humorous”, “comedy”, and “comedic”
- Video Games–This is a good term on its own, but other possible searches might be “meta humor” “memes” or even “Ready Player One”
For the sake of more examples of meta tags, here is another query, this time by Marissa Meyer for her book, Cinder:
“I’m seeking representation for Cinder, an 85,000-word futuristic young adult novel and a re-envisioning of the classic Cinderella story. I’m submitting to you because Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series was hugely inspirational in the writing of this novel….
Sixteen-year-old Cinder is a cyborg, considered a technological mistake by most of society and a burden by her stepmother. Being a cyborg does have its benefits, though—Cinder’s brain interface has given her an uncanny ability to fix things (robots, hovers, her own malfunctioning parts), making her the best mechanic in New Beijing. This reputation brings the prince himself to her weekly market booth, needing her to repair a broken android before the annual ball…” (Cut for length)
- Young Adult—the genre, and a perfectly acceptable search term
- Cinderella—some agents are keen on fairytale reboots and others are strictly not, so this would be a great search term to both find agents that would be interested and also weed out those who would be disinterested
- Uglies series—comparable titles are always a great starting point to find agents who might be interested
- Cyborg/robot—either of these would be good keywords, as would “sci-fi” or “futuristic”
- Mechanic—Not sure if mechanic specifically would bring anything up (though it’s super interesting!) but worth searching indirectly for agents who appreciate skilled or talented (or clever, or creative) protagonists
- Beijing (self-explanatory)
- Prince—other related terms might include “royals” “royalty” etc.
Thinking about queries this way (as vesicles for meta tags) made me revise my query in a big way. Obviously I didn’t want it to look like an overloaded etsy listing where they throw in every trending tag they can think of (steampunk Lolita boho Coachella, anyone?) but I wanted to create more of a vibe than I had previously, and for that I needed both more words and also more specific words.
My query letter (as it stands):
LUMINA is a “cozy magic” middle grade fantasy complete at 87,000 words. The story is EVERY HEART A DOORWAY meets MYSTWICK SCHOOL OF MUSICRAFT but with dragon familiars.
Lumina Jones wants three things in the world: To ace her upcoming choral audition, to attend a music school, and to make her family understand her. That last one might be a bust, but when her audition lands her in a secret school for musical spell casters called princesses, Lumina signs up immediately in the hopes of getting out from the shadow of her apathetic, television-obsessed family.
But the spellcasters of Sommerhill aren’t just called princesses for their affinity for singing, their dragon familiars, and their kinship with animals. They also act like royalty. Where they have gowns and jewels, Lumina has old sneakers and a hoodie. Where they have magical families that go back generations, Lumina has restaurateur parents and a teenage brother whose only idea of magic is vaping….
At Sommerhill Academy, Lumina must compete with princess royalty who grew up with magic, share a dragon with a boy who might hate her, and heal the trauma of growing up in a family that valued normalcy over passion… (Cut for length).
Now, I think my query is running a bit long at this point, (which is why I cut it for length), but the keywords—behold the keywords! Even in the first paragraph, I’ve got a veritable cascade of them.
- Middle Grade
- Every Heart a Doorway
- Mystwick School of Musicraft
ANY (and all) of these genres, comps, and keywords would be fantastic to use as meta tags for me to search for agents and bolster my list.
So How Do We Use Meta Tags?
Three sites that utilize the manuscript wishlist are Twitter, the MSWL site, and Publisher’s Marketplace. On each of these, you can search for agents who desire the particular elements your book has to offer.
Let’s use some examples from my query!
Twitter Advanced Search
Because much of the literary community has flocked to Twitter, you can find many agents looking to build up their client list using Twitter advanced search. Just plug in the meta tags you’re looking for, add “MSWL”, and you’re good to go.
This is what Twitter advanced search looks like before you fill in any of the blanks:
Let’s say I type in “cozy magic” in the “this exact phrase” box and “MSWL” in the “These hashtags” box so it looks like this:
When I click search, it brings up several results:
So these are really great! At a superficial glance, it seems like agents are interested in what my book has to offer—but watch out! Make sure to look closely and explore bios and websites because, as in this example, some of the people who come up in the results might not be agents, but editors (I.e. Stephanie Stein). Another thing to be wary of is that if the tweets are particularly old, the tweeter might not be actively recruiting clients anymore.
Research, research, research!
Once you find tweets expressing interest, it’s always important to research further to make sure that it’s an actual lead. Usually clicking on agents’ names will take you to their profile and you can check out their website from there.
One last note: Some agents are not reputable. As always, the money should be flowing toward you, the author. The way an agent works is that they take a percentage of the money you make as a writer. So if an agency requires upfront fees to read your work, they are not worth your time. Similarly, if you get an offer from an agent, it is definitely worth researching them on Twitter and perhaps even messaging a couple of their clients to see how they feel about them. (Again, after you’ve received an offer of representation).
The MSWL Site
Similarly to using Twitter’s advanced search, you can also use meta tags to search for agents on the MSWL site.
For genre, it is probably easiest to use their hotlink selection for agents representing certain categories of work. For more specific tags and keywords, you can use their keywords search engine, which searches every agents’ MSWL profile to see what they have requested.
As you can see, I’ve typed Every Heart A Doorway into the search to see what results I can get with it. I’ve put the comp title in quotes in order to make the engine search for the exact phrase (rather than selected words).
… Okay, well the phrase in quotes didn’t bring anything up. But I tried it without quotes and it DID. So the agent list I got looks like this:
(Cut for length)
Using Command-F (control-F on windows), I can easily find where each agent listed the search terms on their profile. Michaela Whatnall lists Every Heart a Doorway on her favorite books, which you can see in the image below:
Now, the next agent down in the list (Kathleen Rushall) doesn’t actually mention Every Heart a Doorway—she just mentions she’s looking for characters with heart or light-hearted stories, etc. etc. So it’s very important for me (and you) to read agents’ bios closely to understand whether they actually represent the thing we’re looking for.
Publishers Marketplace is another great resource for finding agents. Beyond showing what agents are looking to acquire, it also shows what books they have represented in the past as well as what deals they have made (selling books to publishers). Unfortunately, to use the search properly, Publishers Marketplace charges a monthly subscription fee, so it might only be good to use for one month while you are doing the bulk of your searching.
Querying is hard—I feel like I don’t need to reiterate this. But even the organization of agents you’ve researched can be a bit tricky. If possible, I recommend using a spreadsheet and providing columns for the agent, agency, what they’re looking for, and querying link (usually a link to query manager, these days). I also have a status column up front that I code with both words and color to show what’s going on with that agent.
Okay, so this is a mock-up of a fake agent list I made so you can see what I’m talking about. (To reiterate, none of the information on it is real.) But you can see that I have my status column to the left, where I color code: Green if they’re ready to query, red if they’re closed, and orange or yellow if they’re somewhere in between:
Organizing the list alphabetically by agency is really important, since many agencies only allow for authors to query one agent at a time (per manuscript). And some agencies have a policy that a no from one agent is a no from all of them, so yet another reason to keep them straight as to which you’ve queried.
In the case of my fake spreadsheet, you can see I’ve got two agents from the Agents R Us agency and two from the Wrong Agency. Because one of the Wrong agents is closed, that’s an easy decision to make (unless for some reason I was dead set on getting Shirley, and heard she would be opening soon). The choice between the two Agents R Us agents would be more difficult though, and in this simulated situation I’ve marked Bertrand with multiple stars as the better choice because he is requesting books closer to my book than Charlotte Fakeagent is.
Sometimes when searching (esp. on Twitter) you might find something like Emma Stone, who I’ve marked in orange. Some people on Twitter use the MSWL tag and participate in book pitching contests as if they are agents, but in reality they are just hapless civilians. So always make sure you can find an agent website or Publishers Marketplace page for them before querying.
With regards to organizing, feel free to personalize your agent list however you want. I personally find that color coding helps me read the document at a glance and understand how many agents I’m working with, but maybe that’s too busy for you. If you’re more of a paper person, feel free to hand-write it (as long as you keep your agencies in order). If you want a column that marks the date of when you’ve queried them, that can be helpful, too (especially since many agencies have the policy of “no answer after X weeks is a no”). I would say my biggest advisory from my own experience is try to keep all the agents to one sheet so you don’t accidentally query the same agent twice, like I did. I had put my rejections on a separate tab so I wouldn’t have to look at them, but I was still adding agents to my main querying list, and I accidentally added in someone I’d already received a rejection from. Embarrassing!
One last note: If your query is so stellar that you receive requests for partials and fulls from some agents, a column demarcating that would be rad, too. Because if one agent offers you representation, you should notify the rest of the agents who have expressed interest so that they can possibly offer, too.
There are some things in this world you can’t control—like that querying is gonna be a downright pain in the ass. But you can research and you can prepare, and if you do both those things—revising your query letter as you do so—and keep querying agents even when the rejections start coming in, you’ll be among the top 5% of queryers. Keep your chin up, take a deep breath, and keep sending out that book ‘til hell won’t have it!