How to Find a Literary Agent in 10 Easy Steps (Yeah. Right.)
Okay. So it’s not easy. But it is possible. Here’s how.
A literary agent is a person who represents an author and their work to publishers. They negotiate contracts, offer professional advice, and sometimes bring editorial skill.
For writers who want to publish traditionally, a literary agent is almost a necessity. I say almost, because I’m sure there are a couple of people out there who managed to get a publishing contract for a major publisher without one.
But they’re unicorns. Usually they’ve either self-published with very good results first or they’re already famous for some other reason. They’ve somehow by-passed the gatekeepers — and it’s rarely just by sending their manuscript to slushpiles.
Most of us need agents.
Looking for an agent is sometimes called “querying,” because it involves sending one-page sales letters called queries to literary agents in the hopes of enticing them to read your manuscript and then allow you to hire them.
It can feel when you’re querying like you’re begging an agent to hire you — but in reality, you’re hiring them. It’s just that there are relatively few agents compared to how many people want to hire them.
Ideally, getting a literary agent is something a writer only has to do once. The querying process works, you sign with someone amazing, they champion your work until they retire. Done and done.
If only we lived in an ideal world.
I’ve successfully queried agents three times. Once in 2011, when I signed with my first agent, who sold my first two novels. Eventually it became clear that she wasn’t that into anything else I wanted to write, and we parted ways. Amicably. She is amazing. Sending a parting-ways email to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I found another agent in the summer of 2015. She sent a manuscript around to a few publishers, then decided almost immediately that she didn’t want to represent young adult books anymore. She parted ways with me.
Then in the summer of 2017, I signed with my current agent based on a middle grade novel. She sold it. It’ll be published in two weeks.
So, I feel confident that I can tell you honestly that looking for a literary agent is full of two things.
Waiting and rejection.
So much waiting. And checking my email. Thank God you can’t wear out the refresh button on a Gmail account. Seriously. The waiting is insane. You have to have an unnatural amount of patience to be a writer. That level of patience is matched only by the unnatural ability to withstand rejection that any writer has to build.
And there is just an incredible amount of rejection in publishing. Even if you’re successful. I sent the query letter for The Astonishing Maybe to 140 agents. Seven offered to represent me, which is a really, really good result. And that means that my book was rejected more than 130 times.
I was still getting agent form rejections after my book had sold to a major publisher.
You need to know all that. And if you want to be a traditionally published author, you still need to put yourself out there and go on the hunt for an agent. Here are ten steps for doing that.
A Guide to Finding a Literary Agent
Join Query Tracker. Sign up for the free service at least, but consider paying the $25 a year for the premium service. You can query multiple projects if you do. For instance, I hope I never need to search for another agent, but if I do can see how agents responded to all three of my successful forays into query-land, and a handful of unsuccessful attempts as well. I know which agents have read my other books, which responded well to them, even though they didn’t offer to represent them. It’s an awesome site and well worth the $25.
Do your research and choose agents who represent what you write, who have sold other books in your genre, and who you think would be an fantastic advocate to have in your corner. It’s okay if there are a lot of them on your list. In fact you want a lot. But, start with ten or so at first.
You don’t want to paper the industry with a bad query letter. It’s hard to come back from that. Send out five or ten, and wait to see the response. You’re looking for a ten percent request rate. That means, out of ten, you get at least one request for all of or part of the manuscript.
Remember this. Your query letter is a sales tool. Its whole job is to convince the agents that they want to take a look at your work. If it doesn’t do that, it’s slacking. Tweak it. Find a few people to send it to for advice. Query Tracker has a forum where you can post your query for feedback. Tweak it some more. And try with another five or ten agents.
Send that sucker out, once you know you have a good query that’s getting at least a 10 percent positive response rate. I mean it. Don’t let yourself get sucked into thinking you have to query one agent at a time or stop querying when an agent requests your manuscript.
Do your research and send your query to every agent you think will be interested. If you’re using Query Tracker, click through to each agent’s website and make sure you follow their submission guidelines. Some will want just a letter. Some will want a letter and anywhere from a few pages (the least I’ve ever seen is five) to the entire manuscript. Some will want a synopsis. Give them what they want.
Once one agent offers to represent you, the fun begins. You get to send an email to every agent who has your query with ‘offer of representation’ in the subject line. That subject line makes all the difference. You’ll have a whirlwind week or so, with emails flying in. All of that waiting you were doing, all of that patience you had to build? That’s all out the window. No patience required here. You’ll get requests, you’ll get congratulatory step-asides and rejections, and they’ll all come in very quickly.
Eventually, you’re going to have to make a decision. The deadline you’ve given agents to read if they wanted to will arrive. You’ll have whatever offers you’re going to get. And now, maybe the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. You’ve worked so hard to get a literary agent that the idea of rejecting one of them (or more) seems impossible. Trust me, I know. What kind of crazy person would do that?
You. You’re the kind of crazy person, because you can only have one agent. You don’t really want to pay 15 percent of your income to more than one anyway. You’re going to have to make this huge decision while you’re on an adrenaline high. I’m not going to lie. It isn’t easy.
Write a list of questions to ask each agent. Please, write them down. You’re going to need the prompts, I promise you. You want to ask your potential new agent things like: What is your communication style? Can I tell you about my next project, so I can make sure we’re on the same page? How editorial are you? Where do you see this book going? How much editing do you think my manuscript needs? What other manuscripts in my genre have you sold? How editorial are you?
Ask to speak to one of their other authors. This makes sense on a couple of levels. It’s nice to have a buddy, once you start the next wait-wait-wait phase of the publishing process (there are many of them.) It’s also a good idea to talk to someone about this particular agent who has been where you are. Make a list of questions, because chances are good you’re going to forget your own name while you’re talking to people.
You’re going to have to narrow the field to one. Don’t let your emotions do this for you. It might be tempting to be loyal to the first agent who offers. Or to go with that one agent from the big firm, over the others from smaller, boutique firms. You need to have a good idea of what kind of relationship you want with your agent before you get to this point. All that waiting you did when your queries were out is a good time to do some research.
Once you have your one agent chosen, you get to tell them that they’re hired, which is big, big fun. You also get to write emails to the others, rejecting them. Hard. Gut-wrenching. If you have any kind of tendency toward self-doubt, this is going to be rough. I won’t lie. But it has to be done. The agents are used to it. They’ll probably write you back and congratulate you and let you know they’ll be looking for your book (Not soon though. So. Much. Waiting.)
Now you get to wait some more while your new agent works on your book. Guess what you get to do while you wait? Can you guess? That’s right. Put your butt in your chair and start writing again.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.