You’ve finished that debut manuscript — the one that will help your career as an author take off.
But how do you convince a literary agent to represent you?
As a senior vice president and senior literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency, I’ve had the opportunity to help launch the career of dozens of authors both domestically and abroad. My clients’ books have gone on to become bestsellers, award winners, critically acclaimed, national book club picks and some are published in over 20 languages.
This guide provides step-by-step instructions on how to find a literary agent to represent your work.
Why you need a literary agent
If you want to be traditionally published with representation (someone who can manage the business side of your writing career), you need a literary agent.
Agents work on commission — traditionally, 15% — based on selling your finished novel to a publisher, negotiating the agreement, and working hands-on as a project manager to help the process go smoothly. Literary agents also sell other rights on writers’ behalf like audio, film/tv, translation, and merchandising and that commission rate varies agency to agency.
If you want to self-publish, publish with a small or regional press, or you’re not sure you’re ready to take this on in a professional capacity then you may not be ready for an agent. Also, if your fiction manuscript is not complete you are not ready.
What does working with a literary agent look like?
Your literary agent will likely have you sign an agent agreement (very few work on a handshake and I wouldn’t recommend that).
Some agencies have you sign one per book and some agencies will set theirs up to work with you for the long term. This means if the agent sells your book they will be the “agent on record” and all monies will flow through the agency and to you (less the commission).
At our agency, we sign the client up for the long term. This means that you’re easily able to get out of the agreement if it’s no longer a fit (but if we’ve sold a book for you we remain “on record”) however we’re planning on working together over the course of your long career and many books. I prefer this method because if I’m going to invest time in developing a writer’s career I want to be involved in the brand building and long-term outlook, not just a one-off project. I always think of it as a multi-year, multi-project business relationship. It also keeps the writer feeling secure in knowing that they have a champion for the long haul.
Your literary agent serves as your business representative to help take care of the financial and administrative matters so you can focus on your craft.
How to know when it’s time to find a literary agent
When your manuscript is complete, polished, reviewed by a beta reader or critiqued by a writing partner, you are ready to pitch it to a literary agent.
We call this “querying.”
What you need in your submission package varies from agent to agent and agency to agency, but generally it’s the following:
Query letter to submit via email
Synopsis (I suggest you prepare both a one-page and a three-page option)
Polished manuscript in 12 point, Times New Roman font, double spaced (I suggest two files: one that has three chapters—we call this a “partial”—and one that has the full thing—we call this a “full”)
If you have these things ready you can start building your submission list.
How to find a literary agent
We call this process “querying agents” or “the submission process.”
Finding agents is easy to do in the age of the internet, but finding good ones can be more of a challenge (anyone can call themselves an agent, but only those who have a strong track record are doing it well).
Here are some online, print and in-person resources to find agents of quality:
Writer’s Digest Guide To Agents (updated annually)
Writers and Artists Yearbook (updated annually)
Writer’s Market (updated annually)
Acknowledgments of books you admire or find similar to your writing style and audience. Authors nearly always thank their agents here.
Twitter lists curated by known sources:
Formatting your query letter
Think of your query letter like a cover letter for a job. Not too personal, not too stiff, but showing the right amount of self-awareness and industry awareness.
Here are my query letter (i.e. pitch to agent via email) recommended guidelines:
Paragraph One – Introduction: Include the title and category of your work (i.e. fiction or nonfiction and topic), an estimated word count, comparative titles and a brief, general introduction.
Paragraph Two – Brief overview: This should read similar to back-cover copy.
Paragraph Three – Creator’s bio: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background (awards and affiliations, etc.). Include your website and social media handles.
Once you’ve written your query letter follow these steps.
Personalize each letter based on their guidelines. This can simply include addressing the agent by their full professional name and not “Dear Agent”
Query in large batches to create an opportunity for success (something like 15-20 is a manageable number); ideally you want more than one offer so you can make the best choice for yourself.
Start with your top choices, but remember that agents doing this for 10-20+ years have full lists and less room for new authors so you might want to research junior agents at those agencies too
Keep color-coded or super organized spreadsheets with submission requests and replies
Avoid agents that ask for exclusive submissions for query letters because it can take 3-6 months to hear back from them and that is an extremely slow process for you, the author.
Wait. And wait. There will be lots of time where you won’t hear anything but that doesn’t mean anything. It takes time for an agent to read their slush pile (i.e. where the query letters go) and to get to material. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean a no (unless their guidelines say so). Response rates vary from agency to agency but most agents will respond to queries anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. This range is based on a variety of factors: how many queries the agent gets (often it’s 1,000+ a month), how full their list is, what time of year it is, how busy their business is, and whether they’re looking for that particular genre right now.
Only follow up if a) you have an offer of representation and need to let everyone know; or b) you have followed the guidelines on their website and they said to check back then. Tip: If you do need to follow up with an agent always base it off their website’s suggestions. Agents always want to hear if you have an offer so please let them know if someone else offered representation no matter how long they’ve had your query. However, if your ideal scenario comes true, you get an offer from your dream agent and you know you aren’t going to entertain any others you can firmly close the door with the others.
10 query intros you can use
“You’ve mentioned on your blog/Twitter an interest in XX and so BOOK TITLE HERE might be of special interest to you.”
“After reading (and loving) CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE, I am submitting BOOK TITLE HERE for your review.”
“I noticed on Manuscript Wishlist you are looking for XX and XX so I’m submitting BOOK TITLE HERE.”
“I am seeking representation for my novel, BOOK TITLE HERE, a work of XX complete at XX-words. For readers of XX and CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE.”
“I enjoyed your interview with XX and am eager to present to you my query for BOOK TITLE HERE.”
“As per your request on #MSWL, I am hoping you’ll be interested in my book, BOOK TITLE HERE, an …”
“I am excited to offer, for your consideration, BOOK TITLE HERE, one that is HOOK, like your #MSWL requests.”
“I am contacting you about my novel BOOK TITLE HERE because of your wishlist mention of XX and XX.”
.“I noticed your #MSWL tweet requesting XX and I thought my novel BOOK TITLE HERE could be just what you’re looking for.”
“I am seeking representation for my GENRE novel BOOK TITLE HERE complete at XX-words. It is similar in theme to CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE.”
Working with your literary agent
As an agent I am always thinking: “Am I the right person to help you make a living from your writing?”
It’s a unique relationship that is partly business (the publishing industry is a multi-billion dollar industry internationally) and partly personal (working directly with emotionally intelligent creators is a highly-personal thing). We don’t know how our working styles will meld, but when we decide to work together (it’s a mutual decision that you should feel really positive about) we go in with honesty and the best hopes: that we sell your book to the right buyer.
Authors can come to agents for lots of different forms of advice and we don’t always have the answers. We are not all accountants, lawyers and/or MBA graduates. Most of us are English or Comparative Literature graduates, some with a Master’s Degree. Each agent has a different skill set and when you talk to an agent for the first time you want to get to know what they excel at. What you want is an agent that fits your needs, sees your goals as attainable and has a proven track record to succeed in what you’re trying to do with your career. Personally, I have an Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Publishing Studies.
What does the agent/author relationship include?
Honest editorial feedback (if the agent considers themselves an “editorial agent” and this is something you should ask about if you’re interested in having an agent that edits)
Pitch mutually agreed upon projects (we always talk about each project individually)
Pitch sub rights (If retained, we pitch TV/film, translation, and audio separately)
Royalty statement vetting
Best interests in mind
What does the agent/author relationship not include? Here are a few things you shouldn’t expect from your literary agent:
24/7 contact; publishing rarely has five alarm emergencies
Editorial advice not guaranteed with all agents
Micromanaging, either way
Agents loving everything their clients write
Agents selling everything you write
Agents ‘fixing’ your work or helping you finish
What a literary agent looks for in an author
We’re all looking for words that we connect with, that speak to us, and that we think can speak to a larger audience.
Here are a few specifics that tip me towards something I know I’ll like:
Evidence we are dealing with a “career writer”; this is my career and I want to work with writers who take this seriously
The query letter and/or first pages suggest a writer can carry off a novel
Confidence a writer can handle emotion, pace, and backstory effectively
A writer who can develop a plot that doesn’t have implausible points, gaping holes or coincidences
Books that connect with people on an emotional level; I want to feel something big (joy, frustration, anger, thrills etc.)
Memorable characters that live on long after the book is over
High stakes that make the book seem larger than life
It’s a lot to look for in one query letter and one manuscript, but I’m always searching for this.
How to actually sign with a literary agent
Agents will get on the phone with you and it’s often called “The Call” in industry circles.
It’s your opportunity to interview each other and you should take full advantage.
Be prepared to answer these questions from your potential literary agent:
What are you working on next?
How long does it take you to write a draft?
Who are some of your favorite authors?
What kind of support are you looking for?
What has been your path to publishing? Agented before? What did/didn’t you like about that partnership? Published before? What did/didn’t you like about that experience?
How do you workshop your work? Critique group? How many drafts did you complete before the one I saw?
Where do your ideas come from?
What is your day job? And what does your writing schedule look like?
What are some of your career goals and expectations?
How many other agents are looking at the manuscript?
Do my editorial notes match your vision for the book?
How do you feel about social media and marketing yourself?
Ask your potential literary agent these questions:
What is your definition of representation? Is it for one book, or the author’s career?
If you and the agent agree to work together, what will happen next? What is the expected process? (I go into detail about this in the next section.)
Does the agent use a formal author-agent agreement or a hand-shake agreement?
What happens if either the agent or the client wants to terminate the partnership?
If the agent/client relationship is terminated, what is the policy for any unsold rights in the works the agent has represented?
How long has the agent been an agent? How long have they been in publishing, and what other positions have they held? How long has the agency been in business?
What are the last few titles the agent has sold? (This should be easily found on the internet, but it’s nice to hear from them in case they don’t update Publisher’s Marketplace or another industry source.)
Does the agent belong to any professional or industry organizations? Is the agent listed on Publisher’s Marketplace?
Does the agent handle film rights, foreign rights, audio rights? Is there a specialist at their agency who handles these rights?
Does the agent prefer phone or email, or are they okay with both?
What are the agent and agency’s business hours?
Does the agent let you know where and when they submit your work? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?
What happens when the agent is on vacation?
Does the agent consult with the client on all offers from publishers? Does the agent make any decisions on behalf of the client?
What is the agent’s percentage?
Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?
How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you?
Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Any other fees?
What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?
How close is your book to being ready for submission? Will there be a lot of editing and rewriting first?
Does the agent help with career planning?
How does the agent feel about authors switching genres?
Will the agent edit and help you revise your work?
What if the agent doesn’t like your next book?
You landed a literary agent! What now?
Once you sign an agent agreement, the heavy workload begins — again. We usually do a round or two (or three!) of editing with you to polish up the manuscript. We want to make sure that it’s ready to share with our editorial contacts because it’s about our reputation too.
Once we have the submission draft ready to go the agents puts together their submission list of editors. We pitch those editors and it goes out into the world again. Agents will focus on the larger publishers first and then work their way down to smaller ones (depending on the project, but this is usually the case).
Then the next waiting phase begins. Will someone buy it? We hope so!
The bottom line
Finding the right agent is one of the most important things you can do for your writing career.
It doesn’t have to be the first one that says yes, or the last one to read it, but the agent that you feel will best represent what you are doing with this book and your career.
Remember that it’s a competitive process but there are things you can do to stand out: follow guidelines (actively choosing not to follow guidelines does not get anyone’s attention; there are no gold stars for breaking the rules to look “special”), keep your word count appropriate for your genre, a great title, a strong hook, picking the right agent for your genre/book, sending in an error-free submission, etc.
Agents are looking for the best of the best. But it’s also only one opinion. When I pass on a project I often think it wasn’t right for me but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t feel differently. Agents are looking for projects that can stand out in a wave of entertainment options. Agents are looking for books that they know they can sell.
My relationships with my clients are all really special ones. I love seeing their dreams come true and coaching them through the tough times as well. Having an objective expert on your writing team is crucial to succeeding in this industry and I hope everyone finds the best fit for their personal style.
Photo via fizkes / Shutterstock
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