Many years ago I was the host at the Panhandle Professional Writers conference for NY agent Donald Maass. Nice guy. That meant I was with him for the whole conference. I also had an appointment with him late in the conference. By the time of the appointment I knew I wasn't a good fit for him as a client. I also knew that pitching an agent or an editor without doing the research and knowing that they are at the very least a solid possibility is not only a waste of time, but it is burning a bridge that later with the right pitch might have been a good possibility. I also learned not to try and go after the houses that required an agented submission even if I got a chance to do so, because the odds again were so high of burning a bridge that might later be useful. I stayed with small and mid-list houses that were set up to work with authors.
Getting to spend that time with him reshaped my approach to submissions. I quit just going through the market guide submitting to anybody who remotely listed the genre, but started doing the legwork to try and prove the market was there. Then I found out the reasons I came up with that told me the market was there controlled the way the pitch was structured, were the things the editor or agent needed to hear. I started getting published, and helped some of my friends get published. I owe Donald big time even though he never offered to represent me.
Then I was recruited to be an agent myself. I work with a base of editorial contacts and when I look at submissions I try to find things I know they are looking for. Targeting. Most agents come from a publishing background, being editors or marketing, or some function in the industry. The fact that I came from the writing side gave me some ground to make up in some areas, but gave me some strong insight in other areas. I still think a lot like a writer and don't like to tie a project up if I can't see a good place to go with it.
If I like projects I keep a substantial database on them even if I didn't have a place for them, and if I run across a market will sometimes get back to them to see if a project is still available. If it is we take a fresh look at it. If not I congratulate them, getting published is after all what we're trying to accomplish.
Targeting is the whole ballgame. For me, just submitting to a house I think is appropriate isn't enough. I have to know what editor I'm submitting to and why I think they are the right person to pitch. I not only want an editor that will be favorable to a project, but I want one that will love it and go fight for it in committee. I want an editor that wants it out there as much as my client and I do. My clients help me find those connections that can give a submission that little something extra, a team effort. They meet editors out and about too.
It's a very personal process.