Literary agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog is a wonderful resource for anyone trying to break into traditional publishing, does a nice thing by acknowledging how fickle some agents can be about queries:

Some of the more jaded writers among us have taken this as evidence that we agents delight in making the unpublished jump through hoops. Every new “don’t do this” blog post, in this view, becomes one more thing a poor author has to remember, and given the number of opinions out there, it’s impossible to keep every single rule straight.

And you know what? They have a point.

He goes on to say that, hey, there’s nothing that says you have to play by these rules, and he’s right about that. There are several routes to being a published author, and having an agent is just one of them. If you like your chances better by going it alone or self-publishing, then go it alone or self-publish. It’s a free country.

But if your aim is to get your novel in the door at a big, traditional publisher — especially if you’ve never breached that wall before — it’s undeniable among the sane that attracting an agent for your work is your best bet. That means querying, and it further means querying with a pretty good idea of what the agent you’re approaching likes and wants to see.

Bransford writes:

The type of person who researches the proper way of writing a query, who personalizes, who follows the “rules,” who goes the extra mile and takes the time and who somehow avoid getting all freaked out about the way their pride is being vanquished by jumping through a few hoops: these are the people who tend to go the extra mile when they’re writing their manuscript. They’re the ones who tend to listen to critiques, who don’t suffer from excessive pride, and who understand that this is a business where it pays to be professional.

Now, a disclaimer before I go much further: I don’t have an agent. A very good one has asked for exclusivity while she considers my novel, and I’ve granted that. I found her by researching the hell out of agents, the kind of work they like and, most important, the kind of work they’ve sold. She was one of six agents I approached, and four of them expressed an interest in my work. (Bransford, for what it’s worth, declined — and that’s just fine. Rule No. 1 of this process should be to not take things personally.)

At any rate, four out of six is a pretty decent percentage, and I’d like to think the reason for it goes beyond my dazzling good looks and winning smile. I wrote a good, tight query. I tailored it to each agent’s preferences. I did a hard-target search of agents who were most likely to respond to the type of fiction I write. In short, I increased my odds with research and diligence.

When you’re looking for an agent, you’re seeking so much more than that: a partner, a sounding board, an honest broker, a fair-minded and constructive critic. With so much at stake, it only makes sense to do your homework.