How to Find a Literary Agent: The Complete, Trusted Guide
To get published traditionally, most authors will need the help of a literary agent.
It can be difficult to find one who is a good fit for you and your work, but with this guide, you'll be able to navigate the process confidently.
We’ll start by discussing what a literary agent does and how they can help you get published.
Then we'll give you some tips on how to find agents who are a good match for you and your work.
Finally, we'll provide you with ways to increase your chances of finding a literary agent by improving your writing.
Table of Contents
- What is a Literary Agent?
- What Does a Literary Agent Do?
- Why Do Authors Use a Literary Agent?
- Do You Actually Need a Literary Agent?
- What to Look for in a Literary Agent
- Different Types of Literary Agents
- How to Find a Literary Agent
- Steps to Finding a Literary Agent
- Reasons Why Literary Agents May Reject Your Work
- Send Out Simultaneous Submissions
- Prepare For Agent Rejections – It Happens, a Lot
- How to Professionally Handle Rejections
- Increase Your Chances by Improving Your Writing
- Final Words and Next Steps
What is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent is someone who helps writers with their books.
Think of them like a guide in the world of publishing books.
They work with both new writers and those who have already written many books before.
Their main job is to connect writers with book publishers, who are the people who turn a manuscript—which is the original copy of your book—into a published book that you can find in stores.
Again, if you want to get a book published traditionally, it's important to find an agent.
Agents have connections with different publishing houses, and these connections help writers find the right place to publish their books.
For example, a literary agent knows which publisher is looking for children's books or which one wants exciting young adult stories.
What Does a Literary Agent Do?
Literary agents do a few things for writers:
They handle the business side of writing, including talking to publishers.
They make sure the writer gets paid fairly and advocate on their behalf.
They negotiate contracts for the writer, which are agreements between the writer and the publisher, which include how the book will be published and sold.
Literary agents only get paid when you get paid for your book. They usually earn a part of what the writer earns from selling the book.
So, if an agent asks for money before they sell your book, be careful, since they are likely to be scams.
Why Do Authors Use a Literary Agent?
Authors use literary agents for three main reasons:
Their expertise in the publishing industry
Their ability to negotiate fair contracts
Their guidance in preparing and submitting work.
A good literary agent can make a significant difference in an author's journey to seeing their book published and widely read.
Imagine you've written a book. You're excited about it and want the world to read it...
But getting your book from your computer to the shelves of a bookstore in New York or any other big city in the world can be really tough. That's where a literary agent comes in.
Literary agents are like a bridge connecting you, the writer, with the big world of publishing books.
The Role of a Literary Agent
A literary agent acts like a guide, helping authors navigate the complex journey from manuscript to published book.
Literary agents have deep knowledge of the book industry, including what different publishing houses are looking for. This expertise is especially valuable for new authors who might not be familiar with how the book publishing process works.
Literary agents have established connections with many publishing houses. These relationships can be crucial in getting a manuscript considered for publication.
Additionally, literary agents are skilled in business matters. They understand how to negotiate contracts to ensure that authors are paid fairly and their rights are protected.
Since literary agents only earn money when the author does, they are motivated to secure the best deal possible.
Do You Actually Need a Literary Agent?
The answer to whether you need an agent can be different for each writer.
In most cases, you do need a literary agent to get published traditionally.
If you wrote a nonfiction book and want to see it in bookstores all over the country, an agent can be very helpful to get your book proposal accepted by a top publisher.
The same goes for fiction writing, especially novels.
In most cases, and especially if you are targeting the "Big Five" publishers, you need a literary agent to represent you.
However, if you are self-publishing, you don't need a literary agent. While an agent might be a valuable resource—they could provide you with information about marketing and publicity—you do not need them to self-publish.
So, whether you need a literary agent depends on what you wrote and what you want to do with it.
If you have a big dream for your book and want it to reach a lot of people, a good agent can be a great help.
If your writing project is smaller or you want to publish it yourself, you might not need one.
Pros of Having a Literary Agent
Having a literary agent can offer many advantages, especially if you're a writer of literary fiction, commercial fiction, or any other genre.
Here's why having an agent can be beneficial:
Expert Guidance: They can offer you expert advice on improving your full manuscript, including crucial aspects like how to write a compelling book title, making your book more appealing to publishers.
Better Access to Publishers: Most big publishing houses don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. This means they won't look at your book unless it comes through an agent. Having an agent means you have someone who can submit your book to these publishers.
Negotiation Skills: Agents are skilled in negotiating contracts. They can help ensure you get the best possible deal for your first book or subsequent ones.
Market Knowledge: Agents understand what's popular in the market. Whether you write literary fiction or commercial fiction, your agent can guide you on what's trending and help position your book accordingly.
In short, a literary agent brings expertise, access, and support to your writing journey. They can be invaluable in navigating the complexities of the publishing world.
Cons of Finding a Literary Agent
While having a literary agent has many advantages, there are also some drawbacks to consider:
Commission: They take a percentage of your earnings, typically around 15% for domestic sales and 20-25% for international sales.
Finding the Right Fit: Not everyone is a good match for your work or communication style. Finding the right person who truly understands your needs can be challenging.
Limited Control: You might not have as much control over the querying process.
Possible Delays: Sometimes, working with an agent can slow down the process of getting your book to publishers, especially if they request revisions on your full manuscript.
Now, if finding a literary agent is for you, here is what you should look for.
What to Look for in a Literary Agent
When you're looking for a literary agent, look for someone who is a good fit for you and your work.
You should look for someone who is knowledgeable about the publishing industry and has experience with the type of book you're writing.
It's also important to find someone you feel comfortable communicating with and whom you can trust to have your best interests at heart.
Here are certain qualities that make a good agent.
Key Qualities of a Literary Agent
When looking for a literary agent, focus on their experience, connections, and professionalism. Also pay attention to their interest in your work.
However, there's a lot more to focus on:
Experience and Track Record: Look for an agent who has experience in the publishing world. A good track record means they have successfully helped other authors get their books published.
Knowledge of Your Genre: The agent should understand the type of book you've written, whether it's science fiction, mystery, or another genre. They should be familiar with what readers of your genre enjoy.
Strong Connections: A good agent has connections with publishers. They know agents and editors at publishing houses, which can help get your book noticed.
Professionalism: Your agent should act professionally. They need to communicate clearly, respond to your queries, and behave in a way that makes you feel respected and valued.
Honest Feedback: A good agent will give you honest feedback on your work, including your query letter. They won't just tell you what you want to hear; they'll give constructive criticism.
No Upfront Fees: A reputable agent won't ask for money before they sell your book. They earn money as a percentage of what you make from your book.
Response to Rejection: A good agent knows how to handle rejection letters. They stay positive and keep looking for the right publisher for your book.
Good Communication: They should keep you updated on their progress with your book. You should feel comfortable asking them questions and expect timely responses.
Enthusiasm for Your Work: Your agent should be genuinely enthusiastic about your book. Their excitement can be a big factor in how successfully they sell your book.
Clear Contract Terms: The terms of your agreement with the agent should be clear and fair. You should understand what percentage they will take and what responsibilities they have.
Personal Fit: It's important that you feel comfortable with your agent. You should trust them and feel like they understand your goals as a writer.
In short, a good agent will guide you through the publishing process, provide honest feedback, and work hard to find the right publisher for your book.
The right agent can make a big difference in your writing career.
Different Types of Literary Agents
Most literary agents represent authors and their work to publishers, but there are different types of literary agencies that focus on specific genres or areas of the publishing industry.
There are also some agents who only handle non-fiction projects specifically.
Because of that, it's important to know what type of agent you're looking for.
The best way to figure this out is by doing your research and reading about the different types of agents before you start your search.
There are a number of online databases that can help you find literary agents, and many of these services offer free trials.
These databases allow you to search for agents by their name, the type of work they represent, or the location of their agency.
AgentQuery, for example, is the Internet's largest free database of literary agents and is one of the most popular ones.
How to Find a Literary Agent
There are a few different ways to find literary agents.
Attendance at writers' conferences can also be helpful as you'll have the opportunity to meet with agents in person and pitch your book idea to them.
Finally, you can contact agents directly through their agency websites. Most agencies list their submission guidelines and the types of manuscripts they are looking for.
This way, you can send a query letter to agents who seem like a good fit for your book.
Remember, when contacting agents, always follow their submission guidelines carefully to increase your chances of getting a positive response.
Steps to Finding a Literary Agent
If you are looking to find a literary agent, here are some practical steps to follow:
1. Write a Great Book That Has a Market
When you're thinking about writing a book and getting a literary agent, focus on creating a great book that has a market. Know who your audience is and what they care about.
You can validate whether your book idea has potential by searching similar books on Google and Amazon.
Some types of books, like business and personal development, are very popular. Writing in a popular genre can help your book find more readers.
Moreover, telling an interesting story and providing valuable lessons helps keep readers wanting to know what happens next.
People love reading about people they can care about or find relatable.
2. Research Literary Agents and Agencies
This is a vital step in your agent search. When you're looking for someone to represent your book to a publishing house, you want to make sure you find the right person.
Start by looking for agents who are interested in the type of book you've written. If you wrote a self-help book, you'll want an agent who loves representing self-help authors.
The best way to find out what an agent likes is to look at their client list. This list shows all the authors they work with.
If an agent's client list includes authors who write books similar to yours, that's a good sign.
Next, check the track record of the agents and the agencies where they work.
A track record shows how successful an agent has been in helping their clients get their books published. You can find this information on the agency's website or in online directories. Look for agents who have a history of working with well-known publishing houses.
Remember, a good agent will be your partner in the publishing process.
They will work with you and the editor at the publishing house to make your book the best it can be.
Take your time in your search to find an agent who really understands your book and has the experience to get it published.
3. Refine Your List of Just-Right Agents
After doing your initial research and gathering names of potential agents, the next step is to narrow down your list to those who are the best fit for you and your book.
Here are some things you need to consider:
Check the Agents' Genres: Look at the genres the agents are interested in. If you've written a political book, you'll want agents who are passionate about politics.
Review Their Client List: Investigate the agents' current clients. If they represent authors whose books are similar to yours or who write in your genre, that’s a good sign.
Evaluate Their Track Record: Research how successful the agents have been in getting their clients' books published. Look for agents who have worked with well-known publishing houses. This shows they have the right connections and experience.
Plan for the Future: Think about your next book or future projects. You'll want an agent who's not only interested in your current manuscript but also in your potential as a writer. An agent who's excited about your future work is a valuable partner.
Personal Fit: Finally, consider whether you think you would work well with the agent. It's important to have a good working relationship with your agent.
By taking the time to refine your list of agents, you increase your chances of finding the right partner.
4. Write Personalized Query Letters
Writing personalized query letters is an important part of how to find a literary agent.
A query letter is your first chance to make a good impression on an agent. It's a short introduction to your book and to you as a writer.
Here's what you need to know about crafting these letters:
Start with a Greeting: Use the agent's name in your greeting. This shows that you have done your research and are not sending the same letter to everyone.
Introduce Your Book: Begin your letter by introducing your book. Mention the title, genre, and a brief, exciting summary of what your book is about. For example, if the agent has represented similar books, you can mention that in the introduction.
Explain Why You Chose Them: Tell the agent why you're writing to them specifically. Maybe you know they're looking for books in your genre, or you've read about a book deal they recently made and think your book would be a good fit for them.
Mention Your Manuscript: If your book is completed, let them know that your full manuscript is available upon request. This tells the agent that you're ready to move forward.
Share About Yourself: Briefly mention any writing achievements or experiences relevant to your book. This helps the agent understand your background and your seriousness.
Be Professional and Polite: Your query letter should be professionally written. This means no spelling mistakes and a polite, respectful tone.
Finish with a Thank You: End your letter by thanking the agent for their time and consideration.
Include Contact Information: Make sure to provide your contact information so the agent can easily get in touch with you.
5. Follow Up With Agents
After you've sent your query letter or book proposal, following up with agents is a crucial step.
Once you've sent out your work, waiting for a response can be hard.
But remember, agents, editors, and publishers are often very busy. They get lots of letters and proposals, so it can take time for them to read everything.
If you haven't heard back from an agent after a few weeks, it's okay to send a polite follow-up email or post.
In your follow-up, you can gently remind them of your earlier message and express your continued interest in working with them.
Make sure your follow-up is friendly and professional. You can say something like, "I wanted to check in on the status of my submission. I'm very excited about the possibility of working with you."
It's important to be patient and not follow up too soon or too often. Agents and editors can get overwhelmed with too many messages. If an agent's guidelines say it takes them six weeks to respond, wait for at least six weeks before you follow up.
Sometimes, you might not get a response at all.
While this can be frustrating, it's also a part of the process. If you haven't heard back after a reasonable amount of time, it's okay to move on and contact other agents.
Reasons Why Literary Agents May Reject Your Work
When you're trying to find a literary agent, you will likely face rejection—especially in the beginning.
It's important to understand that there are several reasons why a literary agent might say no to your work. Knowing these reasons helps you improve your chances next time.
1. Your Book Doesn't Fit the Agent's Genre
One reason agents might reject your work is if it doesn't fit into the genres they usually represent.
For example, if you've written a book about space adventures, but the agent mainly deals with nonfiction or commercial fiction like romance novels, they might not feel like the right person to represent your book.
Agents often specialize in certain types of books and look for works that match their interests and expertise.
2. Your Query Letter Isn't Compelling Enough
Another reason agents might reject your work is your query letter.
If your query letter doesn't grab the agent's attention or isn't clear about what your book is about, they might not be interested in reading more.
A good query letter is like a door that opens the way to your book. If it's not engaging or well-written, agents might decide not to go any further.
Sometimes, the writing style or the quality of the manuscript might lead to rejection.
If the story doesn't flow well, has too many spelling mistakes, or isn't interesting, agents might not think it's ready to be published. They look for books that are not only well-written but also have a story that will catch readers' attention.
3. There is No Market for Your Book
The book market is another factor.
Agents think about what books people are buying and reading. If your book is about a topic that isn't popular or is similar to many other books already out there, an agent might feel it won't sell well.
4. The Timing Isn't Right
Lastly, timing can be a reason why agents reject your work.
The agent might already have many clients and doesn't have room for more, or they recently sold a book similar to yours. In these cases, it's not about the quality of your work, but about other factors that are out of your control.
It's important to remember that rejection is a part of the journey of finding a literary agent. Each no brings you closer to the right agent for you and your book.
Keep improving your work, stay positive, and keep trying.
Send Out Simultaneous Submissions
When you're trying to find a literary agent, sending out simultaneous submissions can be a smart strategy. This means you send your manuscript or query letter to several agents at the same time.
It's like casting a wider net when you're fishing, to increase your chances of catching a fish.
Many agents and publishers receive lots of submissions. Because they're so busy, it can take them a long time to respond. By sending your work to multiple agents, you're not just waiting for one person to reply. This can save you a lot of time, especially when you're eager to get your book published.
However, you need to keep certain things in mind.
First, always check the submission guidelines of the agents you're contacting. Some agents are okay with simultaneous submissions, but others are not.
It's important to follow their rules, so you show that you're professional and respectful.
When you do send out simultaneous submissions, it's good to let the agents know.
You can mention in your query letter that other agents are considering your manuscript too. This is being upfront and honest, which is always appreciated.
If an agent shows interest in your book, it's polite to inform the other agents you've contacted. This lets them know that another agent might represent you.
It's a way of being courteous and keeping everyone informed.
Finding the right agent for your book can be a bit like finding a new friend. You want someone who understands your writing and is excited about you and your work, and you want to make sure you build the relationship from a strong foundation.
Prepare For Agent Rejections – It Happens, a Lot
When you're a writer, especially if you're working on literary fiction, historical fiction, or any other genre, it's important to prepare for agent rejections.
Rejection is a common part of the journey to finding the right literary agency for your book. Rejections can happen a lot, and they're something every writer faces.
First, understand that rejections are not personal.
Rejections Are Not Personal
Agents at a literary agency receive many manuscripts. They have to be very selective about the ones they choose to represent.
Sometimes, even if your work is good, it might not be the right fit for that particular agent or agency. It doesn't mean your writing isn't good; it just means you haven't found the right match yet.
It's also important to remember that different agents have different tastes.
Agents Have Different Tastes
An agent who loves literary fiction might not connect as much with historical fiction, and vice versa.
Each literary agency has its own focus and style.
So, a rejection might just mean your book is meant for a different audience.
Something else to keep in mind is that rejections can be a learning opportunity.
While some rejections come with no feedback, others might offer insights into how you could improve your manuscript or query letter.
This feedback can be invaluable in helping you grow as a writer.
Try not to get discouraged by rejections. Many successful writers faced numerous rejections before they got their big break.
Each one brings you closer to the yes that matters.
How to Professionally Handle Rejections
When you're a writer, dealing with rejections from literary agencies is part of the journey. It's important to handle these rejections professionally.
Rejections can be disappointing.
But they're a common experience for all writers, even very successful ones. Think of rejections as a step closer to finding the first agent who will really connect with your work.
When you receive a rejection, especially if it includes feedback, take time to consider it carefully.
Feedback from literary agencies can be valuable. It can give you insights into how to improve your manuscript or your querying process.
If the rejection includes specific suggestions, think about whether and how you can use them to make your work stronger.
Don't reply to rejection letters with negative messages. Maintain a professional attitude. Responding negatively to a rejection can harm your reputation with literary agencies.
Keep querying other agencies. Just because one agency says no doesn't mean they all will. Your book might be a perfect fit for another agency.
Keep refining your query letter and your manuscript and keep sending them out.
Last, use rejections as a motivation to keep improving your writing skills. The more you write, the better you get.
Every rejection is an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.
Increase Your Chances by Improving Your Writing
If you want to increase your chances of landing a literary agent and securing a book deal, it's important to make sure your writing skills are top-notch. This is both for your book itself as well as your pitches to agents and agencies.
One effective method to improve your writing skills is taking writing courses online. These courses can help you understand the basics of good writing, develop your unique style, and even guide you on how to approach a literary agency.
Online courses are great because you can learn at your own pace, from the comfort of your home.
You'll find courses tailored for different levels of writers, from beginners to more experienced authors. Plus, they often cover a variety of topics, from crafting compelling characters to setting up an intriguing plot.
For those of you interested in science fiction, for example, you can find a course specifically focused on creating futuristic worlds.
If you're in New York and dreaming about capturing the essence of the city in literary fiction, there's likely a course for that, too.
Now, if you're looking for a course that's well-rounded and offers a comprehensive approach to writing, you might consider exploring options like those offered Trivium Writing's Architecture of Writing.
This course covers different aspects of writing and can be very helpful, especially if you're planning to approach a literary agency in the future.
While The Architecture of Writing is just one of the many options available, it's worth considering as part of your journey to becoming a better writer.
Every great writer was once a beginner, and learning is a continuous process, often starting with understanding the basic building blocks of language. So, consider taking that next step with an online writing course.
Final Words and Next Steps
Understanding whether you need a literary agent is a key step in your journey as an author.
Here's a quick summary:
Decide if You Need an Agent: If you dream of seeing your commercial fiction or other genres on bookstore shelves, a literary agent can be vital.
The Right Agent Matters: It's important to find someone experienced in representing the kind of book you've written. This person should appreciate your work.
Patience is Key: Finding the perfect agent might take time, but it's worth the effort.
Handling Rejections: Remember, rejections are part of the process.
As you continue on your writing journey, keep these points in mind.
Article by Leandre Larouche
Leandre Larouche is a writer, coach, and the founder of Trivium Writing.