One good and well-meaning piece of advice floating around online is: research an agent’s list and query that agent if your project is similar to what they already represent. This makes total sense, right? If they liked it once, they have a high chance of liking it again and representing your similar project.
And this is, like I said, good advice. It encourages you to do research and to choose your submission list carefully and with good reason.
On the other hand, though, you could set yourself up for disappointment by doing this. There are two ways to miss the mark with this strategy. An agent’s deals on Publishers Marketplace, where a lot of writers get information about books an agent has sold, are usually for books that haven’t come out yet, if the deal is recent. That means you can’t find the book and check it out. The agent knows that book better than you do, then, so they know for sure whether your project and their existing project are similar or not. If you see that they sold a mermaid project recently, and you have a mermaid project, those two projects could be similar in subject matter, sure, but maybe they’re actually completely different: yours is a frothy romp, the sold project is a dark tragedy. So you never know for sure.
This brings up a very important point: you should look for similarities in tone, voice, style, characterization…not just subject matter. It’s the subject matter that could get you in trouble, but those other elements, themes, and craft considerations, could get you through the door. Why? Read on!
If your book is too similar to an agent’s existing sale, the agent could pass on your project because it could, in fact, be competition. And an agent doesn’t want to compete with his or herself, meaning they don’t want to sell two books that would take business away from each other when on the same bookstore shelves. An agent wants all their clients to do well. If they sell too many similar books, they are cannibalizing their own list, especially if the books are slated to come out around the same time. So if you target agents and cite previous projects that are too close, you may get a pass from that agent you were hoping to work with.
The other side of the coin is for the agents themselves. I’ve spoken to a lot of agents who are frustrated because they have become “known” for a certain type of book. And, for the reasons stated above, they can’t sell too much of that type of book without doing potential damage to existing clients’ titles. So they want to branch out and do other things…but writers keep sending them the type of book they’re known for.
For example, Stephenie Meyers’ agent is Jodi Reamer, at Writers House. I haven’t personally read Jodi’s slush, but I could make a very educated guess and say that it probably contains a lot of vampire books. Why? Because Jodi has a very well-known track record with vampires.
But do you think Jodi will jump on every vampire manuscript that comes along and risk a) cannibalizing Stephenie’s book sales (as if that was possible!) or b) try to place yet another vampire book in a crowded vampire market? I can’t say “no” for sure, but that would be my best guess.
So I would say that research is really important, but you may find that the common ground you think you have with an agent may actually decrease your chances of placing a manuscript with them. Unless, of course, you don’t use subject matter as your criteria for similarity. There are many other ways in which books can be similar.
For example, “My book has vampires, just like your client Stephenie Meyers’ book!” may not get you far, but “This book has a romantic feel and a star-crossed relationship at the heart of it” or “This manuscript has a sarcastic tone that reminded me of another book on your list” might, since those themes and voices, not the subject matter of the story, are attractive to the agent.