The best time to acquaint yourself with agents is before
your story is finished. With billions of (legitimate) agents, it’s best to research
early so you aren’t utterly overwhelmed when it’s time to submit.

 Start with one of the links below and do a search for agents
who work in your genres. Look at the agent’s website and read a few interviews,
or their Twitter feed, or their Publisher’s Marketplace listing, and be sure
they rep the kind of books you write. This is especially important if you cross
genres or age groups. It’s good to weed out the agents that say “Absolutely no
poetry/cookbooks/animal fiction!” if you are writing a cookbook in sonnets for
finicky raccoons.
If an agent looks like a good match, then research more deeply.
I do a search on Google, then cut and paste any info I can find about this
agent into a Word document: interviews, submission info, pertinent tweets,
biographical stuff, etc. etc. ad lib. I’m targeting agents that insist on
editorial work; that represent authors, not single books; that specialize in
children’s lit; whose interests are wide-ranging; and who would work with me on
my long-term career goals. You might expect different things from your agent.
That’s why we do the research.
Sometimes all your research simply reveals that the agent
would not be a good match for you, so you take her off the list. No sweat! There
are still plenty of agents in the sea. (NOT LITERALLY because the salt water
would kill their e-readers.) Also this way you know that all your agents are
legit, i.e. have a good sales record and take care of their clients.
When this agent is all researched out, be sure to list these
things at the top of your Word document about her:
1)      How to submit a query to this agent. Do they want only a single-paged query, or
will they accept sample pages? And how many? (Some accept three pages, some
three chapters.)
2)      List the link to their submissions page and the email/snail mail address to send
your query to.
3)      Also the short paragraph about why you consider this agent to be a good match for
your novel.
Then when I’m writing the personalized lead-off sentence for
my query, the info is right there. “I’m querying you because you repped “A
World of Sin,” and my novel reeks of sin, and also gin. I am also looking for
an editorial agent who is a bulldog with contracts, and you seem to fit the
bill.” And for another agent, “You mentioned that you’d like to see a novel
that’s like Beowulf … WITH MONKEYS. Well guess what I wrote!”
Make a document or spreadsheet for all the agents that
interest you. Then you get a good idea of who you want on your A-list, your
B-list, etc. Be sure to research a lot of agents. As Miss Snark says, query
widely, because you never know who will pick up the MS.
Be patient and persistent. I’ve seen a good novel get
representation after 78 rejections. One really awesome novel found representation after 130 rejections. That novel won all kinds of awards and is
still in print three years after it was published. So when you get knocked
down, get back up!
When it comes time to send out your query, ALWAYS go back to
the agent’s website and make sure she has not changed
her submission guidelines or email address. Also, be sure she is still open
to submissions. From time to time agents will temporarily close to get caught up.
P.S. Here are some great websites for agent research!
1) Literary Rambles: This is probably the place to go first
for the Agent Spotlight series, which focuses on a new children’s agent every
Thursday. Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre do all the
Google-searching for you and list the highlights plus all the links in an
easy-to-search format. Also author interviews and book giveaways!
2) AgentQuery: With tons of agent listings, and a search
feature that lets you cross genres. Also valuable info on agent searches,
etiquette, and how to avoid scammers (another reason you should carefully research
your agents).
3) Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog: This is
under the aegis of Writer’s Digest. Industry info, helpful posts. They also let
you know about new agents entering the industry almost as soon as Publisher’s
Marketplace announces them.
4) Publisher’s Marketplace: Where to find industry news,
agents, editors, writers, you name it. For agents or editors, click on “Browse
Members” on the left-hand side.
P.P.S. Go read about the photo of the awesome kingbird in the Denver Post!