Writers in the Storm

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May 2, 2014

Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents

By Chuck Sambuchino

BookStack_photopinOnce your book is finished, it’s time to start submitting to agents. For this, a simple first step is to create a new Microsoft Word or Excel document so you can keep detailed track of your submissions, target agents, resource materials, and more. The document will help you personalize query letters, find more agents to contact, and know when to follow up on submissions.

Now it’s time to create your list of potential agents to query.

As you start compiling agent names and contact info, think in terms of casting a wide net. Scour databases and websites to put together the largest possible collection of reps to contact, then start winnowing down your list as you go along. Understand right off the bat that not every agent is for you. You’ll only be targeting a fraction of the active reps out there—seeking those who represent the specific type of book you’re writing.

Before you go looking for agents to contact, you must define what you’ve written. In other words, when push comes to shove, you have to classify it as something. So what type of book is it? (Note that novels are broken down into genres, while nonfiction is broken down into categories.)

Some writers will have no difficulty with this step—immediately telling their friends that they’ve written “a romance” or “a thriller” or “an illustrated picture book.” But other writers will not be so sure when it comes to this step, questioning the exact classification of their work, and therefore not knowing which agents to target.

Your goal is to try and break the story down into what it is fundamentally. From there, you can still look for more specific market offshoots. Let’s run through some examples of category dilemmas:

Example 1: You’ve written a legal thriller and can’t find many agents who represent this vein of books.

Your mistake is that you’re specifically looking for agents seeking “legal thrillers” when you should just be looking for agents seeking “thrillers.” A popular genre of novels—such as a thriller—has many subcategories, including techno-thrillers, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, climate fiction thrillers (“cli-fi”) and more. But most agents won’t get into the nitty-gritty when explaining what categories they want. They’ll just say, “I seek thrillers.” And anyone who says just that is a great target for you.

Some will personally lean toward your subgenre of thriller while others won’t. You won’t know where they stand in terms of favoritism and leanings, so just query all available markets and hope for the best. Also, there will be a few agents out there who explain outright in their personal information that they seek “legal thrillers.”

If you see an agent get specific like this and put out an APB for the exact type of book you’re writing, that’s a great potential match for you, and you can say “Because I’ve read that you are actively seeking [x], I thought you might enjoy my novel, [Title].” 

Example 2: You’ve written a science fiction young adult book and don’t know whether to contact young adult agents or sci-fi agents.

The answer is to query young adult agents. If it’s a book for kids, it’s a book for kids. It’s not like young adult romance should be treated like adult romance. If it’s fundamentally young adult (YA) or middle grade (MG), you should query for those categories. 


(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)


Example 3: You’re not sure if your book is suspense or thriller because it blends the two.

You won’t find a whole lot of agents who put out a call for a crossbreed of genres, such as “thriller and suspense” or “Western and horror.” Instead you’ll get a lot of agents simply asking for “thriller” and some asking for “suspense,” for example. Feel free to query all of them. In your contact letter to the agent, you can alternate between the classification terms depending on what the agent’s needs are, or you can just query them all stating upfront that it’s a “suspenseful thriller.” 

Example 4: You’re writing one of the categories of fiction that some agents may rep, but virtually none request specifically in their guidelines.

If you’re dealing with a lonely genre of fiction, such as “humorous fiction” or “medieval fiction,” and can’t find many target reps for the book, you can always seek out generalists. Some agents will be very specific concerning what they want and don’t want. But plenty of reps will instead say something like “I’m open to any area of fiction that’s done well.” If an agent openly says they have no restrictions concerning submissions, feel free to contact them and hope for the best.

This problem of possessing an “under the radar category” is even more common with nonfiction, where it can be difficult to find someone who gets specific enough to ask for “books about Wicca” or “books about exterminating unwanted pests from your home.” If you’re writing nonfiction like this, your strategy, again, should be to seek generalists. Also, another good strategy is to find other books in the marketplace that resemble yours and see who repped those books.

Example 5: You’ve written a novel that doesn’t fit into any so-called genre.

Some novels will be easy to categorize, such as fantasies, Westerns and horror. But what about novels that do not fit into any of these popular commercial genres? Chances are, you’re going to call it “literary fiction” or “mainstream fiction.”

Literary fiction means the novel 1) does not fall into any popular genre type, and 2) focuses on character more than plot, and values impressive voice, style and technique from the writer.

Mainstream fiction is a similar category, but the term is used to describe non-genre stories that have mass appeal and can transcend literary fiction readers, into such opportunities as book clubs. In other words, the two categories are remarkably close to one another, and the difference in names is more for marketing than anything else.

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About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: susivinh via photopin cc

29 comments on “Classifying Your Book: How to Research & Target Literary Agents”

  1. Interesting points that I hadn't considered, and one more reason why, even if genre conventions might sometimes feel restrictive creatively, they can also be very useful.

  2. I've heard that mysteries are considered to be contemporary. I have a historical with all the elements of a mystery, but must pitch it as historical.

    1. Really, Elaine? I'd have thought those were two distinct markets. So you can't call it a "mystery set in XXXX year?" I learn the best stuff from y'all.

  3. Thanks Chuck, Good points to keep us on target. It looks like we can sometimes target more than one genre and that's good to know.

  4. Timely discussion. We're discussing labels on my blog this week - particularly Women's Fiction. My upcoming novel is historical fiction with a predominance of female characters and dealing with women's issues. Any thoughts on labeling it Women's Fiction along with historical fiction?

  5. This has been my problem in the past (other than not being developed enough as a writer, but that's a different comment). I've so far written a literary thriller and a satirical chick lit thriller, neither of which is easy to pitch or market. I've got to whittle it down to one word for my next attempt. I'm already anticipating the internal and external stuggle with that.

    Nobody said it would be easy!

  6. This is fascinating because my current work is a crime story set in a fantasy world. So I'm torn as to which to market it as. Would it be silly to look for those agents who rep both crime and fantasy, or say they are open to both? I've seen a few.

  7. Great Post, I would also suggest using "Evernote" instead of word or excel, I found this is a great app for everyone, and for us, writers, even better.
    I was thinking that the line between fantasy and science fiction sometimes is blurring. What do you think?

  8. I agree with so much of this, Chuck! You're right on. I usually tell writers, whether romance or mystery or whatever you're doing, get a list of agents. You should have a list of about 10-20 agents. Go to their websites, and see what they want the submissions to be and following it exactly. Do not make any changes to what they want.

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