How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book

Literary agents - how to find a literary agent

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Preface from Jane: Inspired by a recent post at Mike Shatzkin’s blog on literary agents, I’ve put together this comprehensive post that summarizes advice found elsewhere at this site.


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’s best conducted by you. I think you’ll understand why by the end of this post.

Understand Your Work’s Commercial Potential

There are different levels of commercial viability: some books are “big” books, suitable for Big Five traditional publishers (e.g., Penguin, 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 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.

Decide If You Really Need a Literary Agent

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire get sold by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editors or publishers would be most likely to buy a particular work. Perhaps most important, agents negotiate the best deal for you, 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.

So … do you need an 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, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster), 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.

How to Research Literary Agents

As Mike Shatzkin suggests, 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.

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog is also an excellent resource for news and views related to literary agents.

Some writers really dislike conducting this 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.

Selling Fiction vs. Nonfiction

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.

Read the Agent’s Submission Guidelines and Submit Your Materials

I recommend you first 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. 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.

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 Right Agent

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 her completely. 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 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 not believe you’re 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 Equal?

Yes and no. As 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, Publishing Industry 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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109 Comments on "How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book"

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[…] How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book […]

Phyllis Capanna

All I can say is, “Everything Jane Friedman” and Thank you!

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[…] legacy published, you’re writing for THEM, not the the audience. To start, you need to get an agent interested in your work. Meaning you have to write a great query letter, where you have to get them […]

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[…] look at how to get published and specifically what you need to do to get a good literary agent. How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book looks at how to assess your work’s commercial potential, how to decide if you even need an […]

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[…] legacy published, you’re writing for THEM, not the the audience. To start, you need to get an agent interested in your work. Meaning you have to write a great query letter, where you have to get them […]

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[…] How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book […]

Trix
Hi Jane, A book of mine was published earlier this year (I was approached by a publisher; it wasn’t self-published) and I have an idea for a second book that won’t really be a good fit for this publisher. So I was thinking of getting an agent as I seriously doubt another publisher will approach me again! I’m a food critic/columnist for an alt-weekly which, I imagine, is how I got noticed in the first place. The current book is selling and I’ve got local media plugging it. I don’t really know the first thing about going about finding an… Read more »
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[…] to learn that big publishers seldom market books by new authors. The questions about distributors, agents, and publishers come up a lot. Many people who are new to publishing assume that these players […]

Mary Joslin

Hi Jane. This is great information. However it seems like you failed to mention agents that would be interested in representing children’s books. Being a novelist and children’s book writer I would also like to know if you have any agents to list, that would specifically represent chapter, or picture books.

Herb Canell

I’m new at this publishing thing. I have written a book and think it’s pretty good but don’t know how to even start to get it published with all the scammers. I been contacted by several company’s but they all want a ton of money up front and don’t even ask to read your work first. What or where do I turn to?

Adrian Ray Evans

Dear Jane:
I have self published three books. The self publishers seam to be very greedy and constantly have their hands out for more money for every little thing they ‘propose’ to do. I wonder how I could find an agent that would review my works and actually ‘do something’ for the 15% reward they get with the end results. Thank you. Adrian

Cate Hogan

A very helpful article, thanks! I’ve been trialing editors for my current romance WIP, including industry stalwarts from The Big Four, to freelancers and hobbyists, *budget* options and the gurus who cost a pretty penny. From 9 to 5 I’m an editor myself, so it’s been great experiencing the process from a writer’s perspective. I’ve documented some tips below on what to look for in an editor (and what should send you running) , which you might find interesting.
http://catehogan.com/25-things-look-for-romance-editor/

Paula Friedman

Hi Jane, I have one novel published by a small “cooperative” press I shouldn’t have published with. This novel has superb “blurbs” by three well-known, mega-honored, award-winning novelists and received some excellent reviews but, not being published by a “major” (and I not having the money to hire a full-on media campaign by a p.r. pro), the book largely sank, selling only a few hundred copies. Is there any way to use the book’s success toward finding, for my new novel, an agent or a serious publisher (need not be a “major” but should have a good reputation)?

Peggy Thurman

I am looking for a literary who does not charge but takes their fee out of royalties. Can you help me? My email address is peggythurman123@gmail.com I will appreciate hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Peggy Thurman romance author

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[…] lot of work b/c there are so many agencies and so many agents. How to get started, you may ask?   https://janefriedman.com/find-literary-agent/ gives an excellent overview on finding agents. It’s not specific to kidlit, but is worth […]

Barbara
Hello, Jane. In 2014, I wrote a novelette and self-published through Kindle and Create Space in both Kindle and print formats on Amazon. But, it never really got off the ground. I sold about 100 copies. I just did not know how to market it. I am just completing my first novel of historical fiction. I attended a writers workshop in Nashville last July and pitched to 2 publishers, one was not in the market for Historical Fiction, the other (St Martin’s Press) asked for my first 100 pages. I did that and about 4 months later got a rejection… Read more »
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[…] How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book […]

Patrick W. Emmett
I have published two mysteries through World Castle Publishing out of Pensacola, FL and I have two more that I hesitate to run through this small publishing group. I have also written three other novels that can be classed as historical novels and self published two non-fiction books. Frankly, I need help. I get lost in the mire of agents lists and all of their individual requirements. My books have market potential like, Bitcoin Bluz, Bayou Bluz, A Second Chance, Surviving Sudden Cardiac Death. Can these books be sold to agents or do they want raw manuscripts? The books have… Read more »
Michael LaRocca

Thanks for writing this. I like one-stop shopping. (Or, more precisely, telling every author who asks me about finding an agent to read this.)

Michael LaRocca

I have slowly come to realize that looking under the couch cushions doesn’t work.

Jonathan

Hi Jane, I’m a bit late to the game on this thread but my question is — is there an online resource for finding out who the literary agent of a particular book was/is? It seems it would make the game a whole lot easier if one could search similar books and find out who represented them. Thanks for all you share. Jonathan.

Adam
Hi Jane, I enjoyed reading your post. I am a new author and have only previously written short stories for friends and family. I am currently half way through writing my first novel. I have heard that the industry will only consider a novel from a new author under and above a certain word count as there are negative connotations with high or low counts. Is this true? If it makes a difference the novel is a fiction psychological supernatural thriller. (If there is such a genre) Any general recommendations on word count would also be greatly appreciated. 😉 Many… Read more »
Randy Benson

Jane, I am trying to facilitate getting an important book written and published. I’m a brain injury neurologist involved in the NFL concussion problem. The key football widow in this is ready to do a tell-all type book about her and her family’s life around this player (Mike Webster of the Steelers). It is a very important story and it will be a commercial success if done right. I am looking for a writer or an agent who can help make this a reality. Any suggestions for getting an agent?
Thanks.
Randy

Clinton

I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to discover your site. Pursuing a publisher and/or an agent is frustrating, to say the least. Your site has pumped me up and inspired me to trudge on a little longer.

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