Wouldn't it be great if there were some catalogue of literary agents, which you could pick up and browse at will?
Oh, wait. There is!
Check out your local bookseller (I went to Barnes & Nobles, because there's one just down the street.) A lot of large stores will carry books like The 2011 Guide to Literary Agents or a similar title. If you're not in the RWA, or if you're looking for a different genre and haven't joined the association yet to get access to the association's list of agents, the book's a pretty good resource. Heck, it's good even if you are a member.
But not every agency listed will sell your book. And, as every writer should know, it's just plain silly to query an agent who doesn't sell your sort of book! They don't have the connections, haven't studied your market, and may not even enjoy reading your genre at all. So do your research before writing your letter.
Step one is to flip to the index. That's right, the big books I've seen have a lovely little "by genre" index in the back, which will allow you to make a list of all agencies which might actually be willing to accept your novel (or your instruction book for decoding the mathematics behind taxes, as related to the housing market in China. A lot of the agencies do take nonfiction.) As for me, I only noted down the agencies I hadn't seen on the RWA website, or which I'd seen but not yet applied to. No point researching someone to whom I've already sent a query!
Step two is to actually read the blurb provided. Just because an agent sells romance, doesn't mean they sell paranormal/fantasy romance. I marked everyone off my list who didn't sell my specific genre. I also marked off a few who did, but who only take new clients by referrals, or who work with only established authors.
Naturally, step three is to note down the contact information and preferences of the agency.
Step for is not to query them. Step four is to research them by going online, checking out their agency and their agents, and figuring out which agent is most likely to be interested in my work. I also check out any blogs connected to the agency, and read through to get a better feel of what interests the agents, what their pet peeves are, and if they have any particular preferences for what should be included in the submission.
Step five, yes, is to actually send the query, and wait for a reply. Try not to be like me and fidget too much in the interval, especially since it usually takes a few weeks for agents to get back to you. Remember that they get hundreds of e-mails a week (sometimes a day.) Jennifer Laughran suggests that waiting is good for you: if an agent sends something back immediately, usually it's a rejection. They think about the submissions they like. And, if you follow ettiquette, you should query no more than five agents at any one time, except in cases where an agent says they prefer an exclusive query (obviously, you'll be sending to just them.) In the latter case, they usually tend to be quicker on the return replies.
And, if you're lucky, step six will be to get a follow-up phone call, wherein you'll ask a lot of questions.
For those published writers out there, how did you find your agent? Through a recommendation, a conference, or a cold query? Through a contest or a class? How did you choose which agent to query? And do you have any warnings or suggestions for debut authors?