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Posted on Mar 26, 2021

How to Find a Literary Agent in 6 Simple Steps

Most first-time authors want to find a literary agent as soon as they finish writing their debut. After all, now that you’ve written the best book you can, it deserves to be read — starting with that all-important agent who could be your key to success in the literary world.

But landing the best agent for your book is easier said than done, and it certainly isn’t accomplished by snapping off a fresh roll of dimes and cold-calling every NYC agency. To find the right literary agent for your project, you’ll have to be your own best advocate — and that means putting in the time and effort to carefully research agents and their agencies, submission guidelines, and wishlists.

In this post, we reveal a professionally endorsed 6-step process for how to find literary agents who could be perfect for you. First, confirm that you and your book are ready for an agent by taking this quick 1-minute quiz below.

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Are you ready for a literary agent?

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As soon as you know that you're ready, let’s dive in!

1. Determine whether you really need a literary agent

how to find a literary agents step 1If you’re a fiction author, the short answer to whether you need a literary agent is: usually. If you’re a nonfiction author, it’s a bit murkier. 

As Writers & Artists editor Alysoun Owen explains: "Nearly all fiction authors do require the 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."

In addition to your genre, take a moment to consider your own ambitions. If you're writing in a mainstream genre and aim to be published by a big publishing house like Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, you’ll definitely need a literary agent. However, books 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?

If you’re looking to publish a poetry collection, you may be able to find an independent publisher to take on your masterpiece. The vast majority of educational and academic books are also commissioned directly from the publisher. If you’re writing in one of these fields, it’s 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 that’s accepting unsolicited proposals. 

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! 

2. Make a list of literary agents in your niche

how to find a literary agent step 2Remember, 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 now your job to find out:

  1. Who these agents are, and
  2. How best to get through to them. 

So start putting together your shortlist! You can begin your search by checking Reedsy's directory of 600+ best literary agents in the industry (don't forget to use the filters to narrow down your search). Or you can go directly to agent databases such as Agent Query or Query Tracker. 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 — our directory has hundreds 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.

3. Thoroughly research and evaluate each agent

how to find a literary agent step 3Here 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?

Now, 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. 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, keep in mind this 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.

4. Send a personalized query letter

how to find a literary agent step 4A 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 we 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.)

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.

5. Always follow up if you don’t hear anything

how to find a literary agent step 5We’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).

6. Don’t just say yes to the first agent

how to find a literary agent step 6Assuming 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.

Remember that you can also 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. Since you only get one shot when you're querying an agent, make sure that you get it right! Of course, chances are that you’ll experience some setbacks when querying. But if you remain patient and determined in your search, you'll find your long-term business partner and creative soulmate sooner rather than later.