In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books published by New York houses get sold by literary agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry and represent the interests of their author-clients. They have inside contacts with specific publishers and know which editors are most likely to buy a particular work. Perhaps most important, agents can secure the best possible book deal for you, negotiate a fair contract, protect your rights, ensure you are paid accurately and fairly, and run interference when necessary between you and the publisher.
The best agents are career-long advisers and managers.
Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your work, and they receive a 15 percent commission on everything you get paid (your advance and royalties). It is best to avoid agents who charge fees other than the standard 15 percent.
Do you need a literary agent?
It depends on what you’re selling. If you want to be published by one of the major New York houses (e.g., Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan), then you more or less need to have one—and want one on your side.
If you’re writing for a niche market (e.g., vintage automobiles) or wrote an academic or literary work, then you might not need an agent. Agents are motivated to take on clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If your project doesn’t command a decent advance, then you may not be worth an agent’s time, and you’ll have to sell the project on your own.
There are different levels of commercial viability: some books are “big” books, suitable for Big Five traditional publishers (e.g., Penguin Random House, HarperCollins), while others are “quiet” books, suitable for mid-size and small presses. The most important thing to remember is that not every book is cut out to be published by a New York house, or even represented by an agent; most writers have a difficult time being honest with themselves about their work’s potential. Here are some rules of thumb about what types of books are suitable for a Big Five traditional publisher:
- Genre or mainstream fiction, including romance, erotica, mystery/crime, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, young adult, new adult
- Nonfiction books that would get shelved in your average Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore—which requires a strong hook or concept and author platform. Usually a New York publisher won’t sign a nonfiction book unless it anticipates selling 10,000 to 20,000 copies minimum.
To better understand what sells, buy a month-long subscription to PublishersMarketplace.com and study the deals that get announced. It’s a quick education in what commercial publishing looks like.
Also, you can check the Twitter hashtag #MSWL, where agents/editors specifically spell out what they’re looking for. (Here’s the official site for Manuscript Wish List. There is also an unofficial aggregator of #MSWL tweets.)
If your work doesn’t look like a good candidate for a New York house, don’t despair. There are many mid-size houses, independent publishers, small presses, university presses, regional presses, and digital-only publishers who might be thrilled to have your work. You just need to find them.
How to find literary agents
When writers ask me “Can you find me a literary agent?” they don’t realize it’s kind of like asking me “Can you find me the right spouse?” This is a research process and decision that is best conducted by you. I think you’ll understand why by the end of this post.
PublishersMarketplace.com is the best place to research literary agents; not only do many agents have member pages there, but you can search the publishing deals database by genre, category, and/or keyword to pinpoint the best agents for your work. Some other resources to consider include QueryTracker (free and paid versions) and Duotrope.
What you should submit to a literary agent
If you write fiction, the agent will want to see the full manuscript (assuming you’re an unpublished or unproven fiction writer). If you write nonfiction, the marketability of your idea and your platform often matter as much as the writing, if not more so. You have to prepare a book proposal that’s essentially a business plan arguing why your book will sell in the current market.
You should finish (and polish) your manuscript or book proposal before submitting. I meet many writers who are very excited about having a story idea, but unless you’re in a situation where the timing is absolutely critical, finish the work first—and be confident that you’re submitting your best work. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is rushing to get published when there’s no reason to rush. Do not expect the agent to help you to the finish line on your manuscript. While some agents may be open to such editorial work, you’ll get a much better response if you submit a manuscript or proposal that you can see no further way to improve.
Okay, let’s assume you’re ready. Every agent has unique requirements for submitting your materials. The most common materials you’ll be asked for:
- Query letter. This is a one-page pitch letter that gives a brief description of your work. Here’s how to write a query for a novel. Here’s another post on writing a query for a nonfiction book.
- Novel synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than one or two pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. Here’s how to write one.
- Nonfiction book proposal. These are complex documents, usually twenty to thirty pages in length (minimum). For more explanation, see my comprehensive post.
- Novel proposal. This usually refers to your query letter, a synopsis, and perhaps the first chapter. There is not an industry-standard definition of what a novel proposal is.
- Sample chapters. When sending sample chapters from your novel or memoir, start from the beginning of the manuscript. (Don’t select a middle chapter, even if you think it’s your best.) For nonfiction, usually any chapter is acceptable.
Important: Almost no agent accepts full manuscripts on first contact. This is what “no unsolicited materials” means when you read submission guidelines. However, almost all agents will accept a one-page query letter unless their guidelines state otherwise. (If they do not accept queries, that means they are a completely closed market.)
After you send out queries, you’ll get a mix of responses, including:
- No response at all, which means it’s a rejection. Don’t sweat it—this is normal. Move on.
- A request for a partial manuscript and possibly a synopsis.
- A request for the full manuscript.
If you receive no requests for the manuscript or book proposal, then there might be something wrong with your query. If you succeed in getting your material requested, but then get rejected, there may be a weakness in the manuscript or proposal.
How to choose the best literary agent for you
1. What’s her sales track record? This is usually the number-one sign of whether you have a good agent. Evaluate her client list and the publishers she has recently sold to. Are the publishers she sells to the types of publishers you consider appropriate for your work? Are the advances her clients command in the “good” range for you? Keep in mind these factors can be somewhat subjective and are also based on your genre/category and your own sense of author identity.
Bottom line, ensure that your agent has experience and success in representing the type of work you’re trying to sell. Most agents will list current clients on their site, or you can find agent-publisher deals reported at PublishersMarketplace (subscription required).
A note about new agents: Sometimes it’s easier to get represented by a new agent who is trying to build a roster of clients. If you’re a new author with a potentially small deal who wouldn’t interest an established agent, then a new and “hungry” agent can work out just as well. Even if an agent’s track record is still developing, take a look at her previous experience in publishing. For example, was she formerly an editor? Or consider the experience and reputation of the agency she is associated with. If she’s working at a solid agency with a track record, and/or has a long work history with the New York houses, these are good signs. Just make sure she hasn’t been trying to develop her list for a very long time.
2. Does her communication inspire confidence? If an agent treats you professionally, that’s a good sign. Timeless signs of professionalism in agents: they get back to you in a timely manner, they communicate clearly and respectfully, their business operations aren’t cloaked in secrecy, they treat you as a business partner.
Unfortunately, the biggest complaint I hear from agented but unpublished writers is they can’t get a response from their agent any longer—or there’s poor communication about the status of the project. A good agent doesn’t leave her clients in the dark for extended periods and will offer clarity about each stage of the process—no loose ends, no vague reports.
That said: I have observed some unpublished writers who seem to be very demanding and have expectations outside the norm. What does demanding look like? Expecting to call your agent at any time and have a discussion, expecting daily contact, or expecting near-instant response. Remember: agents work for free until your book is sold. Their most immediate responses go to their established clients—the ones bringing in the revenue.
3. What’s her level of enthusiasm? Do you get the feeling that the agent genuinely believes in you and your work? While agents are certainly interested in a sale, they’re also interested in projects that excite them and clients whose long-term careers they feel proud to represent and help manage.
While it’s not possible to put a quantitative measure on enthusiasm, think of it this way: your agent is going to be handling your publisher contracts, negotiations, and other financial matters (including payment to you) for the life of your work. You need to trust and respect her. She champions your cause to the publisher throughout the life of the book’s publication and resolves conflicts. You’re entering into a meaningful business partnership, and fit is important.
What to expect from a good literary agent
- A good agent will have a conversation with you about any rejections he receives from publishers. If your agent has a good relationship with the editors/publishers he’s querying, then he’ll be receiving meaningful feedback that he can share with you. You can then discuss how your book or the proposal could be repositioned to sell. However, his time or energy might be exhausted if he believes the project would take far more work and retooling to make a sale that’s not worth his time. Or, he might believe you’re not willing to reposition the book.
- Don’t assume that your agent isn’t good enough if your book didn’t sell. But agents should have an open and frank discussion with you about the rejections received. You also have a right to know what publishers were queried, especially after a long period of time has passed. You may also ask for the rejection letters, though your agent is under no obligation to provide you with the specific contact information of editors and publishers.
- Did the agent help you improve your query, pitch, and/or proposal? A good agent will improve the query/proposal package. There might be a handful of authors who can put together a crackerjack proposal, but they are few. An agent should be ensuring the pitch or proposal is primed for success, and this almost always requires at least one round of feedback and revision.
- Your agent MUST know his way around a book contract. A good agent understands where to ask for more money or rights, and knows if a client is getting the best deal possible. (If an agent passes you a publisher’s boilerplate contract to sign with no changes, you may be in big trouble.) Many authors like to have an agent who is an “attack dog,” but primarily an agent needs to understand how to protect your rights (by changing or inserting the right contract language) and prevent you from signing an unfair or substandard agreement. Agents know the industry norms, when those norms are changing, and when to push for more. However, they also understand that not everything is about money—sometimes it’s better to partner with a publisher offering a smaller advance. A great agent advises you on the pros and cons of the deals you’re offered.
- A great agent is an author’s business manager, mentor, and cheerleader. Agents are also there to hold your hand when things go wrong with the editor or publisher. They prop you up when you’re down, they celebrate your successes publicly, they look for opportunities you might not see, and they attend to your financial best interests as well as your big-picture career growth.
- People in the industry should recognize the name of your agent. If you can’t find any online mention or reference to your agent, and he’s not a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), that’s a red flag. Check his track record carefully. See who he’s sold to and how recently. One thing you needn’t worry about too much is the size of the agency; this doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the agent or the size of the deal you can expect.
Are all agents created equally?
Yes and no. As industry consultant Mike Shatzkin points out, there are potentially hundreds of agents capable of selling any particular book. What tends to be most important is chemistry between agent and author, and the agent being invested in the author and her work. Shatzkin says,
The same agent is not equally good for every book they might represent. Enthusiasm matters. Happening to have strong connections with three editors who would just love this particular book matters. Having belief that [you] can be groomed into a prolific author over time would matter. In other words, the agent who made the most deals for the most dollars last year might not make a better deal for [you] and this book than somebody who had done half as well.
For more guidance
- If you’d like an in-depth guide on building an author career, consider my book, The Business of Being a Writer.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.