How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book

Literary agents - how to find a literary agent

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This post is one of the most popular at my site and is regularly updated.


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, check out Manuscript Wish List, where agents/editors specifically spell out what they’re looking for. It’ll keep you up on trends.

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:

  • AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process.
  • QueryTracker.net. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings.
  • WritersMarket.com. About 400 to 600 agent listings. $5.99/month subscription fee.

The Guide to Literary Agents blog is also an excellent resource for news and views related to literary agents.

Some writers really dislike conducting this market research. While I think writers should undertake this task for themselves, if you prefer to hire someone to find appropriate agents for you to submit to, try Grad Student Freelancers.

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 Publishing 101 by Jane Friedmanthan somebody who had done half as well.

For more excellent information on how to tell a good agent from a not-so-good agent, check out Writer Beware on Literary Agents (or, go straight to the section on Amateur Agents).

Final Note

If you’d like an in-depth guide on getting published, consider my book on the topic: Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide. 

Posted in Getting Published and tagged , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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116 Comments on "How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book"

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[…] A step-by-step guide to finding literary agents, plus how to select the right agent for you and your work.  […]

Jane Steen

Excellent advice (as always). What’s your take on the growing trend of agents working with the best self-publishers to grow their careers and handle rights and so forth?

judyreeveswriter

Thanks for this great post, Jane. As a writing teacher I get so many questions about getting an agent–how,who,why,when–I’m glad to have this excellent, thorough advice to share. (And you’re so right about the rush to publish, many, before they’ve even finished a first draft want to begin their agent search.)

jnugent74

I enjoyed this post quite a bit. I’m in the process of determining whether I want to seek an agent or go the Indie route though I’m leaning strongly towards looking for an agent. I appreciated your thoughts and the pros/cons of finding an agent. Very informative. Now…to research agents!

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[…] about it because I received Jane Friedman’s latest blogpost via email this morning…“How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book.” I just finished reading it (a great resource, with lots of food for thought for all types of […]

debaumer

Such a great article. Thanks, Jane!

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[…] Award: “How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book” – This is the most helpful article I’ve read on the topic. I also bookmarked an […]

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[…] For a fuller discussion of literary agents, click here. […]

Anndraya Blayer

Thanks for your valuable article. Since February 2009 I have written a MG/YA Trilogy, one adult novella, and three MG short story mysteries. It took over 5 years of editing and polishing before I decided in March this year to start submitting to agents. I’m pleased with my work but I am afraid the works will be classed as literary – that appears to be my ‘style’.
Anndraya

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[…] you need to know to find a literary agent for your […]

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[…] Friedman compiles links to all the relevant resources on her site for this post: How to find a literary agent. Heading into querying (most likely June), so I needed this […]

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[…] case you are new here and new to searching for an agent, Jane Friedman presents how to find a literary agent, and Mally Becker tells us what literary agents want to see before signing a writer. Meanwhile, […]

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[…] Looking for a Literary Agent for Your Book? — See also: The Unconventional Guide to Publishing […]

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[…] Looking for a Literary Agent for Your Book? — See also: The Unconventional Guide to Publishing […]

Cindy La Ferle

Excellent piece. I just attended a writers’ conference this weekend — and wish you’d been there!

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[…] Jag googlade ‘query an agent‘. Listan med tips på hur man formulerar det perfekta följebrevet till en agent var lång. Kloka och erfarna Jane Friedman har en bra genomgång för allting litterär agent i USA för den so…. […]

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[…] tips: Research agents to see what they want and determine which agent might accept your MS. Know your MS. If it’s […]

M

Insightful! Wondering if I have to pay the agent their 15% fee on the books I sell on my own? These are copies purchased by me from the publisher.

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[…] I’ve never worked with an agent. For slightly more refined advice, check out Jane Friedman’s article. There are tons of articles and a thousand different iterations of the same advice. Trust your gut […]

Marilyn McAdoo

Thank you so much Ms Friedman, I found this to be very helpful information, and now I know what to look for when I find my agent!

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[…] Jane Friedman offers some good advice and some options in her article: How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book […]

Mark Kapusta

Hello Ms. Friedman,
Thank you for all of your work on your site and blog.
I notice that you answer posts immediately. Impressive and appreciated!

I have a rather unique field and feel I would be well served by finding an agent. I have been working on some medical administration texts, inparticular, medical billing and office administration.

I’ve spent hours on several occasions searching for an agent who handles these, and trying to find out who are the agents for the relatively few published texts in the field.

Any suggestions?

Mark

Mark Kapusta
Thanks for your quick reply!!! The publishers are the big textbook publishers like Pearson, Cengage, Elsevier, Thompson/Delmar & McGraw Hill. I don’t know if that has any bearing. Perhaps textbooks as a category might suggest a different course? I wrote a workbook for a psychology text and that publisher had a note on their website saying that they only accept submissions from agents. I sent them an inquiry about that and mentioned that I had a complete workbook for their text already on the market and received no response at all. (No surprise, huh?) I saw once where the author… Read more »
Mark Kapusta

Thanks very much!

Mark Kapusta

Thanks!

autosalescollege

Hi….so the big question….if you already have a self published book or two….where do you find an agent. Do you have a list of a few to email or call…. could you email me a few people you know….address is darin@visitasc.com

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[…] post is by Jane Friedman, off of her site janefriedman.com  on April 29, 2015.  With Nanowrimo ending (Hooray and congrats to all who entered!) it is time […]

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[…] How to Find a Literary Agent […]

Stacy

Thank you for this article. I am wondering how authors approach finding an agent when they write different genres. For example, if I write both sci-fi/fantasy and psychological dramas/thrillers, among other genres, how difficult might it to find an agent who will represent my different works? Or is it common to use different agents for different book genres?

Stacy

Thank you, it is good to know I could potentially work with only one agent for all my work.

I am also wondering, 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?

Rose Kandel

Thank you so much for this wonderful advice! But I have a really hard time finding an agent. I am fifteen and have recently completed my 240 page long novel, and nobody has actually gotten back to me. I am wondering if you have a nice advice for me to help get my book published. 🙂

Rose Kandel

Oh! Thank you 🙂 I have already started my second one but I have yet not given up sending queries, do you think I should mention my age in the queries?

Lisa Brown
I’m in the process of finishing up a book that was initially written by my husband before he passed recently. I have done the research in regards to getting it out there and I came to the conclusion that finding a good literary agent would be the best route to take. However, I don’t understand all the pomp and pretense that seems to be required in order to find an agent. For instance it is suggested to compare your book to others that are similar. My husband’s book is a memoir about events that stood out in his life and… Read more »
Avi Dey

I have 3 nearly completed “Travelogue” type historic literary fictions. While this type of literary fiction are not “mass market” type fiction, there is a substantial market for “Travelogues”. I also prefer to pay the 10% to 15% fee rather than upfront cash with an Agent who appreciate the potential of “Travelogue”. So far I have not found such a creature. Question: Am I doing something wrong or have unreasonable expectations on this topic ?

Tia Smart

This was extremely helpful for I am a young writer and although I have not yet left school I am considering becoming an author due to my love of reading and writing

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[…] These thoughts ran through my mind until yesterday when I saw a quote that brought me to the tipping point in the article How to Find a Literary Agent. […]

Jay Kordich

I am a #1 best selling author, sold millions of books, need a lterary agent. My agent died.

Patrick McLaughlin
Hi Jane…what about switching agents? My first book was written in 2008 non-fiction, sold by a well established agent, sold to Thomas Nelson with a $25K advance. Sold its 25K hardcover run and about 3,000 more in paperback/elec sales (currently trying to get the books sales numbers). Won a military writers society gold medal – carried in store by major chains secular and Christian – even carried on nationwide display/sale by Cracker Barrel in 2013 (which was fun to find out) Two book deal – presented a fiction as my second – declined. Have sent a proposal for a 2nd… Read more »
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[…] How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book […]

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[…] A Literary Agent According to publishing expert Jane Friedman about 80% of books acquired by New York publishing houses such as HarperCollins and Penguin are […]

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[…] What should an author do? I always recommend to those who want to start a career in writing to find a great agent. An effective agent will give you leverage in negotiations and will be there to give you sound […]

Ed Farber

Hi, Jane,
Quick question…will an agent even consider a book that has been traditionally published by a very small publisher, but the rights reverted back to the author when contract ended?

Lisa De vries

Hi Jane. I am a Canadian author and I am finding it difficult to find many agents interested in my book topic (religion) in Canada. Would a American agent be open to taking on a Canadian author or would they be closed instantly due to tax issues and such?

Renee Bradshaw

I found your post on google this morning and I just subscribed to your blog. For someone just starting to look at the possibilities of getting an agent for my book instead of self-publishing, this was a really good introduction post, with lots of great links!

Tashana Campbell
I JUST started viewing your lecture series on The Great Courses, and it’s AWESOME. I absolutely love, love, love their platform, and you do an excellent job delivering the course. One thing that has always struck me as – for lack of better words – odd, is the lack of minority representation in the publishing world. I worked for Pearson Education, in the Higher Ed division, and I remember one of the Executives proclaiming that they really weren’t sure of why. I even notice the lack of representation in agents and the writing world in general, and I’m always disheartened… Read more »
D.S.
Thank you for this article. I have written five fiction novels. I invented a book building method and hand make copies of my novels that I sell by word of mouth. The covers are hardwood with exotic inlay (I’m also a very talented woodworker) and they are bound with leather. I’ve had a show of my books at the University of Louisville Ekstrom library’s rare book archive. (It was the rare book archivist who informed me that she had researched the issue and that I had, indeed, invented a new method of book building.) All of that said, I am… Read more »
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[…] a book that has significant commercial value, or you want to publish with a New York house, then you’ll need to submit your work to literary agents. Projects that don’t necessarily require agents include scholarly works for university presses, […]

Terence J Cadet

Since retiring after a lifetime of voyaging the world in the Merchant Marine Fifty years of adventure.I spend my days in Southern France where I have dropped anchor writing yarns mainly with a maritime theme with period settings.now on my eighth novel.but to date none have been submitted as self publishing isn’t the aim.So how does an old seadog who is totally out of his depth in this new field of writing and communicating go about finding a publishing agent ?

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[…] Before you begin a search in earnest, be sure to read my post: How to Find a Literary Agent […]

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