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Where do agents look for new clients?

Skip the slush pile by putting your writing on display in key places.

Where do agents look for new clients? This illustration shows a varied crowd of silhouttes looking at artwork in a museum.
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Nearly 20 years ago, I received a letter like this:

“Dear Ryan: I saw your short story ‘Overland’ in Shenandoah, and I was impressed. Do you by chance have a full collection or a novel completed? And are you in need of literary representation?”

I was stunned. Agents scour the pages of literary magazines, journals, and newspapers looking for new talent? I assumed you needed to do one of the following three things to get a book published.

Thing 1: Send work through the slush pile and hope to rise above the avalanche of other submissions.

Thing 2: Convince someone famous (or a current client of that agent) to pave the way with an awesome-sauce endorsement.

Thing 3: Wow an agent at a conference so profoundly that they beg you to send your mouth-watering quality work.

But there is a fourth way: Showcase your best writing in the right venues and let agents stumble across it on their own. They feel great having made a discovery, and you feel great because you’re free of the slush pile and have an agent who’s pre-interested in you and your work. Many agents do this kind of legwork, especially newer ones still looking to bolster their client list so they can actually make a living. 

So where are these agents looking? Where might your writing have the best chance to earn you a letter of invitation – those elusive American Idol golden ticket-style opportunities we all yearn for?