How to Get a Literary Agent for Your Book
Most first-time authors want to find a literary agent as soon as they put the finishing touches on their debut masterpiece. Now that your book, after all, is finally finished, 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 quarters and start dialing the numbers of every New York agency (so to speak), let’s answer a few basic questions about what agents do — and whether you actually need one. Then, once you’re ready, we’ll reveal a professionally endorsed process for how to find and evaluate literary agents who could be perfect for you.
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 to the hilt, agents will 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 publishers of fiction do not accept unsolicited manuscript submissions from debut writers, literary agents are the most realistic route to traditional publication for many authors (more on this in a bit).
In addition to helping you get your foot in the door, here's what else a literary agent does:
- They are expert negotiators, combining financial acumen with a nose for the value of good, sellable writing;
- They act as useful 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 also tend to have strong editorial skills, working with you to help refine your manuscript before it’s even submitted to a publisher.
All of this can only work to your advantage as an author, helping you secure a more lucrative deal with the most appropriate publisher — much more than you may have been able to acquire yourself, without any contacts or knowledge of the industry. Ideally, their negotiations alone should offset their commission (ideally).
Now, do you need a literary agent?
The rule of thumb is that fiction writers who want to go the traditional route generally do need a literary agent, while only some non-fiction authors will need to pursue literary representation. Writers & Artists editor Alyson 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?
It’s important to note that 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 direct 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 6 steps
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. Locate a pool of literary agents who work in your niche
Most agents are always on the lookout for new authors to represent. They’re dying for their dream 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.
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.”
No matter what, as an ironclad rule: avoid agents who ask for an upfront fee. It doesn’t matter whether they call it ‘professional development’ or say it’s to cover the costs of editing your manuscript: 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’ — what they call the never-ending pile of letters they get from hopeful 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, the 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 is lazy) or they haven’t been able to comprehend simple instructions (which is not exactly what you want in a business partner).
Make sure to personalize each query letter. You’ll want to contact as many agents as possible, and it’s tempting to create a standard query letter that starts with Dear Sirs and features no specific language whatsoever. But remember, agents have read countless boilerplate query letters and can sniff them out from a mile away. That’s why the research you do in step 2 will serve you so well: it’ll show each agent that 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. While you might think it’s best to introduce your book by first talking about your own background, the quicker you get to the exciting pitch for your book, the better.
4. Always follow up if you don’t hear anything
We’ve all had that experience of looking at an email and thinking, “I’ll get to that later,” only to forget about it until someone reminds you. Well, the same thing happens to agents as well! If you don’t hear back from the after several weeks, it’s not impolite to follow up and ask whether your query may have been lost in the shuffle. Often, the agent will be grateful that 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, get intrigued by your sample, and adore your full manuscript after they request and read it… what happens 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.
Very exciting, right? But before you frantically search for a pen to sign on all those dotted lines, make sure that they are the right agent for you. It’s not considered impolite to query multiple agents at the same time, 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, it stands to reason that others might as well.
Of course, you can always choose to leave an agent at any time if things aren’t working out. But keep in mind that if you’re 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 a writer have their work professionally edited prior to finding an agent? Or would that typically happen after finding an agent and publisher to take on the project, due to possible changes requested?
A professional developmental edit is strongly recommended for all authors who are looking to perfect their manuscripts and impress literary agents right off the bat. 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, especially when it can get you that much closer to locking in the literary agent who eventually reads your book.
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.
2. What kind of fees do literary agents charge?
Most literary agents work on commission! That means that they'll take a cut of the money that you make 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, fees do vary between literary agents, so we suggest that you make sure to ask about them and clear the air before entering into any ironclad 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 route, you can definitely still get an agent — every stage of the research process that we detailed in this post would still apply to your search.
If you're looking to get an agent for a book that you already self-published in the past, that's also possible. However, you should be warned that you might not have much success finding an agent unless your self-published book has proved itself particularly noteworthy (whether that might be in terms of sales or visibility).
Now that you have a rough idea of how to find a literary agent, we want to leave you with some resources that will help you in your search! Good luck with your search, and feel free to email us if you have any specific questions about literary representation.
- 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)
Are you an author who’s recently found an agent? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.