I lurk in or participate in a lot of writing forums, and while the enthusiasm of beginning writers can be contagious, it can also be alarming when it comes to the process of finding an agent or publisher. I see way too many people get so enthusiastic they get ahead of themselves and go off without knowing what they're doing. I recognize that finding an agent can be challenging, but if you go about it in the right way, you increase your chances of not making a fool of yourself or being taken in by a scam artist.
Therefore, I present Shanna's Handy-Dandy Process for Finding an Agent:
1) Write a book. Finish the book. Polish the book.
I can't emphasize this enough. Unless there are special circumstances, agents won't consider an unfinished novel by an unpublished author. Yes, there are exceptions that we've all heard about where someone lands an agent and a book deal on one chapter and a one-paragraph synopsis, but you hear about them because they're unusual. What you don't hear about in a lot of these exceptional cases is that there's often a full manuscript involved in the process. A common scenario is that an author submits a completed book, agent calls author for either a prospective client sanity check (even if the book is brilliant, the agent wants to know the author isn't a psychopath) or the "love your writing, not sure this book is a good fit for the current market, got anything else?" conversation. Agent asks what else the author is working on, author says, "I just started a book on XYZ." Just that morning, an editor told agent she was desperately looking for a book on XYZ, so agent gets the one completed chapter and has author write a paragraph synopsis -- and there's a deal. But it wouldn't have happened without a full manuscript to trigger the conversation.
The next two steps can be done while working on step one (this would be a good thing to do while letting the manuscript rest between drafts), but all of the following steps should be done in order.
2) Develop a list of targets.
Come up with a list of agents who might be interested in your work. There are a lot of ways to go about doing this. One way is to go to your favorite books (recently published -- it won't do you much good to know who Jane Austen's agent was), look on the acknowledgments page and see if the authors name their agents. Then you can go to a bookstore and look for books similar to yours and check the acknowledgment pages. Here, it's more important to look for tone and general worldview within a genre than for specific subject matter. If you've written a dark, atmospheric fantasy novel about elves, you'd want to look at dark, atmospheric fantasy novels in general rather than looking at every novel about elves.
There are a lot of reference guides about agents that you can find in bookstores, in libraries or online (you can find them for yourself -- what, you expect me to do all the research?). With a Publisher's Marketplace membership, you can search a database for which agents represent which books and get regular notices about who's selling which books.
If your book crosses genres, it's probably best to find an agent who works in both genres, though that can narrow your options. If you have to consider an agent who only works in one of those genres, go for the genre you could see yourself writing without a crossover (if your book is a romantic mystery, do your ideas beyond that book lean more toward straight mystery or straight romance, for example).
3) Do further research on your target list.
First check Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware to see if there are any warnings about any of the agents on your list (those sites also have good general info on the agent search). Then do a Google search. Most agents who are actively seeking clients have some kind of web presence these days and many maintain blogs. You might also find articles or interviews. Things you should look for:
-- their client list -- how do you see yourself in that mix? A few star clients may raise an agent's profile, but are there so many star clients that you'd be the lowest priority? (Of course, a lot of that depends on how the agent handles the client load -- the star clients could be very low maintenance.) Do those existing clients prove that the agent should have the contacts to place your book? (Are any of those authors working with an editor you think would be a good fit for you?)
-- credentials -- a relatively new agent can be good (mine hadn't been in business long when she sold Enchanted, Inc.), but most agents who go into business for themselves start by working at a larger agency or in some capacity at a publishing house so they're not truly "new" in the business even if the agency has just opened. Find out the agent's professional background. Some of an agent's biggest assets are her list of contacts and her relationships with editors, and you want someone who's had a chance to develop contacts and some industry savvy, or else you want someone who's part of a larger organization who can draw upon more experienced people.
-- recent sales -- is this agent accomplishing anything?
-- agenting philosophy and approach to the job (if you can find this on the agent's site or blog or through any interviews or articles).
Of course, you want to avoid agents who charge fees of any kind. Some agents do charge back expenses, but that should come out of money earned from selling your work, not from an up-front fee. The agent shouldn't make money unless he/she sells a book.
You'd think it would be pretty obvious that these two steps should come before other steps, like sending off query letters, but based on the forum posts that inspired this, apparently it isn't that obvious. Seriously, folks, you'll save yourself some time and avoid getting scammed or looking like an idiot if you take the time to do the research before querying or submitting. I want to scream when I see writing forum posts to the effect of "Agent X just responded to my query, so does anyone know anything about her? I can't seem to find any info. It doesn't look like she has any sales." If you couldn't find info, why did you query? Remember, research, then submit.
4) Think about what you want in an agent.
I put this step after the research because sometimes you don't know what you want until you see what's out there. Do you want a hands-on agent who offers editorial input, or someone who makes deals and otherwise leaves you alone? Do you want an agent who's part of a major agency, or someone in a one-person firm? Is communicating by e-mail important to you? The only right or wrong answer here is what works for you.
5) Based on your research and your personal agent requirements, narrow down your targets into a priority list. As part of your research, you should have learned these agents' submission policies. Based on these submission policies and any other details you might have learned about these agents, prepare query letters or e-mails. I really don't recommend having a standard query letter. You might want to develop a pitch paragraph for your book and some standard language about your background and credentials, but otherwise, tweak it to target each specific agent. It's okay to do some name dropping, but don't be obnoxious about it. If the agent represents your favorite author, go ahead and say so. If you think there's a something about a book she sold that you think would make her like your book, say so (but avoid bragging too much or putting down her other author -- "If you liked that, you'll love my book" is probably not the smartest thing to say).
6) Send query letters to your top targets.
Opinions vary as to whether it's best to query in batches or do a mass query. It is generally a good idea to start with your top targets if you're working in batches. If you start at the bottom and get interest, you'll never know if you could have landed your top target. Never, ever, ever, ever send e-mail queries in bulk. Send individual e-mails. Don't BCC, and definitely don't have a list of recipients. Agents know you're querying others, but you don't have to rub that in their face, and some will refuse to look at a bulk query. Don't use fancy backgrounds or funky fonts. Whether you send snail mail or e-mail queries, if you list an e-mail address as part of your contact info, don't use one of those anti-spam intercept services where someone has to enter information or prove who they are before the message will be delivered. Most agents won't bother going through all that to reach you.
7) If an agent asks for a full manuscript, you'll want to start doing additional research, especially if you have more than one agent interested and you might have to choose. Ask around in writing forums to get a sense of their reputations. If possible, talk to some of their current and maybe even former clients (you'll want to know why the author and agent parted ways). You should definitely do this before signing with an agent. Get a sense of the agent's response time, working style and any quirks you think you ought to know about. If you ask other writers about an agent and get lots of "Run! Avoid at all costs!" responses, these writers are not trying to stomp on your dream, and they are not jealous of your tremendous talent. They may be trying to keep you from making a mistake, so it's worth looking into. Don't be so excited to get interest from an agent that you don't investigate thoroughly. Once you have interest on their part, you're essentially in the position of employer. Will this person truly represent your best interests? Will you enjoy dealing with this person? It's better to have no agent at all than to have a bad agent. With no agent at all, you can at least submit your work on your own. With a bad agent, your work is tied up while that person does nothing, or if the agent is clueless rather than a scam artist, your reputation could be damaged if the agent is unprofessional in dealing with publishers. Even a good agent who's just not a good fit for you can be bad for your career (that was a big reason behind my long dry spell). If you don't enjoy dealing with your agent or are intimidated by your agent, or if you just don't communicate well, you're not going to make a good team.
I guess you could say I did a truncated version of all this when I found my agent, as she was the only one I submitted to with that book. I'd done my research, and I had a feeling she was the best possible fit for not only my particular book, but also the way I prefer to work. But I did start with looking up potential agents who might work, then researching them in more depth, before I sent the one query to my top choice. It did work, though I'm not sure I'd recommend that as the best approach. It does seem to demonstrate the value of really doing your research ahead of time, though.