How to Get a Literary Agent for Your Book
Most first-time authors want to find a literary agent as soon as they finish their debut masterpiece. After all, now that your book is ready, it deserves to be read — starting with that all-important agent who could be the key to your success in the literary world.
But before we snap off a fresh roll of dimes and cold call every NY agency, let’s clarify what agents do — and whether you actually need one. Then we’ll reveal a professionally endorsed process for how to find and evaluate literary agents who could be perfect for you.
Note that this post is regularly updated.
What do literary agents do?
A literary agent represents your book to acquiring editors who might want to buy it. In other words, they get an author's foot into the door of a publishing house.
In addition to having regular contact with editors within the publishing houses and championing you and your writing, agents understand an editor's tastes and the types of books they are looking to add to their list — a crucial component in getting a publishing house to invest in your work. Since most fiction publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions, literary agents are the most realistic route to traditional publication (more on this in a bit).
Aside from getting your foot in the door, what else do literary agents do?
- They are expert negotiators, combining publishing acumen with a nose for the value of good, sellable writing;
- They act as buffers between you and your publisher (when you don’t want to taint your working relationship with an editor by talking brass tacks);
- They manage the financial and marketing side of things while you concentrate on the writing;
- They often have strong editorial skills, helping refine your manuscript before it’s submitted to a publisher.
All of this works to your advantage as an author, helping you secure a more lucrative deal with the most appropriate publisher. This will certainly be a much better deal than you would have acquired by yourself, without any contacts or knowledge of the industry. Ideally, an agent’s negotiations alone should offset their commission (ideally).
If you’re wondering whether you’re at a stage in your writing where you’re ready to start looking for an agent, find out by taking our 1-minute quiz below.
Now, do you need a literary agent?
Fiction writers who want to be published traditionally generally do need a literary agent, while only some non-fiction authors need literary representation. Writers & Artists editor Alysoun Owen explains: "Nearly all fiction authors do require representation of a literary agent if their book is to be produced by a traditional publishing house, and that is also true with some forms of general non-fiction too — such as histories, memoirs, and biographies."
That said, take a moment to really think about your book and genre. If you're writing in a mainstream genre and would like to be published by a big publishing house like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, or Simon & Schuster, know that it's nigh impossible to get access to such publishers without a literary agent. On the other hand, works in a niche genre might find a more receptive audience at mid-size or small presses — who are, in turn, more willing to consider unagented manuscripts.
Who doesn't need a literary agent?
Not all literary forms typically require the representation of an agent. Poetry is a good example of this. Also, academic, professional, and the vast majority of educational books are usually commissioned directly from the publisher. If you’re writing in any of these fields, it is possible — provided you have the right credentials as an author, a well-argued proposal, and quality script — to get your non-fiction book accepted by a publisher without being represented by an agent.
If you do fall into one of the categories above and you wish to pitch directly to publishers, it’s essential that your book has an easily identifiable market or niche so publishers know what they’re dealing with right away. You also need to know who actually publishes the type of book you’re offering and which of those publishers accept unsolicited proposals. Firing off emails to every publisher under the sun will not only waste your time, but also potentially earn you a reputation as someone who doesn’t understand the publishing game.
And of course, if you’re choosing to self-publish, then you definitely don’t need a literary agent to get your book out into the world.
How to get a literary agent in 5 steps
Since you only get one shot when you're querying an agent, your story needs to be as good as possible before you submit it. This is why it's so important to carefully and thoroughly refine your book until it's as perfect as you can make it.
Only when you're 100% confident in your story should you start looking for a literary agent. When we say ‘finding a literary agent,’ we really mean finding the ideal representative for your book — someone who is perfectly primed to help you develop your writing career. You’re basically on the hunt for a long-term business partner and creative soulmate. Ready to start looking?
1. Draw up a list of literary agents in your niche
Most agents are on the lookout for new authors to represent. They’re dying for their ideal client to reach out to them. To help make their dreams come true, it’s your job to find out a) who these agents are and b) how best to get through to them. So start putting together your shortlist.
You can begin your search by going to agent databases such as Agent Query or Query Tracker, and filtering by genre. (Another excellent resource for you to try out is Publishers Marketplace, though it will come with a fee.)
You can also look through the acknowledgments pages of books similar to yours: you can bet that your favorite authors thank their agents in there. Or, this being the 21st century, you can just Google "[author name] agent" and see what comes up.
Finally, if you've written a children's book, it's your lucky day — we've compiled a full list of children's book agents for you to peruse! These agents represent everything from picture books to young adult novels and are all currently seeking new clients.
Reading recommendations: Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (for the UK) and its US equivalent Writer’s Market are invaluable tools that you should consider putting on your Christmas list.
2. Thoroughly research and evaluate each agent
Here are the five main questions you want to answer in your research about individual literary agents:
- Do they represent books in my genre?
- Are they currently open to queries?
- Would I work well with them?
- What's their client list and past track record?
- Are they a scam artist?
How do you go about answering these questions? Well, checking out the agent's website should answer #1, #2, and #4 fairly easily. In regards to #3 and #5, Caitlin Jans, the founding editor of Authors Publish, has a few tips:
“I always research the agent outside of their website first. I find that one of the best ways to tackle this is to head again over to the Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum. I use it to vet agents and publishers. The forums are active and get a lot of use: if an author has a good or bad experience with an agent, they’ll share it.
I can’t emphasize this enough: one of the most important steps is to make sure the agency isn't on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agencies List. At this point, I almost have the list memorized. Writer Beware (a volunteer organization that works on behalf of writers) also has a terrific section on dishonest agents, so be sure to check that out.”
Avoid upfront fee agents
No matter what, as an ironclad rule: avoid agents who ask for an upfront fee. It doesn’t matter if they call it ‘professional development’ or say it’s to cover editing costs. An agent who asks for preemptive payment is not legitimate.
After due research, if you find an agent who seems to tick all the right boxes, then add them to your final shortlist and proceed to step three.
3. Send a personalized query letter
A good portion of every agent’s week is spent on ‘slush’ — the never-ending pile of letters from authors seeking representation. On one hand, you might think, Geez! How do I stand a chance of being seen in a pile that big? But you should really look at it from the attitude of, Wow! These agents are really keen to find their next client!
With that in mind, your query letter (your first point of contact with an agent) must be perfect. We have a detailed guide to writing query letters (that comes with a super-sweet template), but if you don’t want to head down the rabbit hole right this second, here are three top-line tips:
Always read an agent’s submission guidelines
Some might ask for a sample chapter, others might not. One might want you to double-space, another might require single. Apart from ensuring that they get what they need to make an assessment, submission guidelines also serve as a rudimentary idiot test: If this author doesn’t follow our standards, it either means that they haven’t read them (and are lazy) or they haven’t understood simple instructions (which is not what you want in a business partner).
Make sure to personalize each query letter
You’ll want to contact many agents, so it’s tempting to create a standard query letter for everyone. But remember, agents have read countless boilerplate query letters and can sniff them out from a mile away. That’s why the research from step 2 matters: it’ll show people you actually care. (For more detailed tips on personalizing your query letter, check out this transcripted replay of our webinar with former agent Rachel Stout.)
Start with the hook
Ultimately, it’s the book that agents want to know about. You might think it’s best to start with your own background, but the quicker you get to your exciting pitch, the better.
Get a query letter review
If you'd like help improving your query letter, consider getting a professional query letter review. Our professional editors have decades of experience being top acquisition editors and literary agents. There's no real replacement for their insight and expertise when you're trying to craft a query letter that stands out.
4. Always follow up if you don’t hear anything
We’ve all looked at an email and thought, “I’ll get to that later,” only to forget about it until we were reminded about it. Well, it happens to agents as well! If you don’t hear back from them, it’s not impolite to follow up and ask whether your query was lost in the shuffle. Often, the agent will be grateful you reminded them.
Again, read the agent’s submission guidelines. In many cases, they’ll even tell you how many weeks to wait before you follow up. But if they don’t, then four to six weeks is a good rule of thumb (erring closer to six, perhaps).
5. Don’t just say yes to the first agent
Assuming agents dig your query letter and sample, and adore your manuscript after they request and read it… what next? In broad strokes, the two of you will discuss how the agent might help develop your book and career, and then they’ll offer you representation.
Exciting, right? But before you frantically rush to sign on all those dotted lines, make sure they are the right agent for you. It’s not impolite to simultaneously query multiple agents, so you don’t need to lie about it or cover it up. An agent will not be insulted that you’re daring to consider other options. After all, if they like your book enough to want to represent it, others might as well.
Of course, you can always choose to leave an agent at any time if things aren’t working out. Just remember that at the start of your career, you don’t want a reputation as someone who switches agents every book. It’ll make editors, agents, and other publishing gatekeepers assume that you’re hard to work with.
So be polite, stay candid, and don’t rush into any decisions.
Frequently asked questions
1. Should I have my work professionally edited before I look for an agent?
A professional developmental edit is strongly recommended for all authors looking to perfect their manuscripts and impress literary agents. The right professional editor has the experience, vision, and skill to take your story to the next level. There's no real replacement for their insight and training, as it can help lock in a literary agent.
The good news is that in today's gig economy, it's never been easier to find a great publishing professional who's right for you — many of the professional editors available for hire on Reedsy's marketplace, for instance, have worked for the Big 5 publishing houses and authors like George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Do note that your manuscript will likely be subject to more edits once you’ve secured an agent and publisher. The book industry likes to be thorough!
2. What kind of fees do literary agents charge?
Most literary agents work on commission. That means that they take a cut of the money from the sale of your book to a publisher. (Generally, about 15%.) Let's say that your publisher agrees to pay you a $20,000 advance for your book. Your literary agent will then take a commission of $3,000. This often also applies to the royalties that you make after your book's on bookshelves and has started selling. That said, commission rates vary between literary agents, so we suggest that you ask before entering into any agreements.
3. Can I get an agent AFTER I've already self-published a book?
If you've self-published in the past and you'd like to try to go the traditional route for the next book, you can definitely still get an agent. Every stage of the research process that we detailed in this post will still apply.
If you're looking to get an agent for a book that you already self-published in the past, that's also possible. Though they won’t be able to sell your print rights, an agent could still represent your translation, film, or TV rights. Do remember that you might not have much success finding an agent for a book you’ve already published, unless it has proved particularly noteworthy (in terms of sales or visibility).
Now that you have a rough idea of how to find a literary agent, we’ll leave you with some resources! Good luck with your search, and feel free to email us if you have any specific questions about literary representation.
Free educational material
- How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Steps (guide and template)
- Personalizing Your Query Letters (transcribed webinar)
- How to Write a Query Letter (free 10-day course)
- How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal (guide)
- Submitting a Non-Fiction Book Proposal (guide)
- Scams and Publishing Companies to Avoid (blog post)
Online resources (some require subscriptions)
[updated 09/24/2020 UTC]