Jane Friedman

How to Find a Literary Agent for Your Book

by freeside510 / via Flickr

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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 than 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.