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Last updated on Sep 20, 2021

How to Find a Literary Agent in 5 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 completed a manuscript to the best of your ability, it deserves to be read — starting with that all-important agent who could be your key to accessing the world of traditional publishing.

Do you need a literary agent?

If you’re a fiction author, the short answer to whether you need a literary agent is: usually. 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."

Who doesn't need a literary agent?

In addition to your genre, consider your own ambitions. There are a handful of other reasons why you might not need an agent:

  • If you’re writing on a niche topic, you might find a receptive editor at small and mid-sized presses who are often open to ‘unagented’ manuscripts.
  • If you’re looking to publish a poetry collection, you may be able to find an independent publisher to take on your masterpiece.
  • If you’re a writer of academic and educational books. Those are usually commissioned directly from the publisher.
  • If you’re choosing to self-publish, then you definitely don’t need a literary agent to get your book out into the world! 

To check if you and your book are ready for a literary agent take our 1-minute quiz below. 

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Are you ready for a literary agent?

Find out here! Takes one minute.

How to get a literary agent

how to get a literary agent | 5 step processLanding 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.

Here are 5 steps to get a literary agent to represent your book:

  1. Research agents and make your all-star shortlist. Most agents are dying for their ideal candidate to reach out to them — it’s your job to find out who these agents are and how best to get through to them. You can begin your search by checking Reedsy's directory of 600+ literary agents in the industry 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, or, this being the 21st century, you can just Google "[author name] agent" and see what comes up.
  2. Rate each agent’s suitability. Does the agent represent books in your genre? Are they currently open to queries? What do their client list and track record look like? Lucky for you, the answers to all these questions can usually be found on their agency website. Whether you’ll work well together is an altogether trickier question, but Caitlin Jans (founding editor of Authors Publish) recommends the Absolute Write Water Cooler Forum to vet agents and publishers, as well as the Thumbs Down Agency List on Writer Beware. No matter what, make sure you avoid anyone who asks for an upfront fee — an agent who asks for any preemptive payment is not legitimate. Once you’ve got your final shortlist, you’re ready for step 3.
  3. Perfect and personalize a query letter for each agent. A good portion of every agent’s week is spent on ‘slush’ — the never-ending pile of letters from authors seeking representation. To ensure your query letter (the first point of contact with an agent) is even read, you should read the agent’s submission guidelines to see what they want in terms of formatting and sample chapters. You’ll want to contact many agents, so it’s tempting to create a standard query letter for everyone, but personalizing each letter will help it truly stand out! For more help with this, head to the resources at the end of this post. 
  4. Follow up after 4-6 weeks. 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 within four to six weeks, 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. 
  5. Don’t jump at the first offer. 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 one for you. It’s not impolite to simultaneously query multiple agents, so you don’t need to lie about it or cover it up.

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.

Resources

Now that you’re armed with all the best tips, you’re ready to go out and get yourself a literary agent. We’ve also got plenty more resources to help you along:

  • Literary Agents Directory — Our updated list of agents seeking submissions is a great place to start your search.
  • How to Write a Query Letter (Guide) — This set of posts includes query letter examples and a super sweet template.
  • Personalizing Your Query Letter (Webinar) — This transcripted replay of our webinar with former agent Rachel Stout gives tips on how to personalize your query letter.
  • Query Letter Review (Editing) — Our professional editors have decades of experience being top acquisition editors and literary agents.

– Originally published on Mar 26, 2021