How to Find and Choose a Literary Agent

Find and choose a literary agent

Find and choose a literary agent.

If you’ve decided traditional publishing is right for you, then you’ll probably need to find a literary agent.

A literary agent represents your interests and should act as your advocate. Your literary agent will shop your book around to publishing houses and try to land a publishing deal for you. Before doing this, some agents will help you prepare your book to ensure the best possible presentation to publishing houses. For all this, the agent gets a cut of the profits from your advance and royalties.

In addition to selling the publishing rights to your book, an agent may also sell audio, film, and foreign rights, although you may need different agents to represent different types of rights. If you’re an author, you’ll start with a literary agent and may later need a Hollywood agent if you want to try to sell your story to a film studio.

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

If you’ve written a novel or a work of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, and you want to publish it traditionally, you’ll need an agent. You do not need an agent for publishing poetry, short stories, or essays. Agents primarily represent longer works. You probably don’t need an agent if you’re targeting small press publishers or specialty publications, because they often work directly with authors. Finally, some publishing housesĀ  don’t require agent representation for works of nonfiction and niche categories. The best thing to do, in any case, is check the publishing house’s guidelines, keeping in mind that an agent will be able to land you a better contract and offer than you can negotiate on your own.

Finding a Literary Agent

Finding a literary agent could take some time. You might start your search before your book is completed, but you should not reach out to any agents until your project is finished. For novels and creative nonfiction, that means you have a solid, polished draft. For nonfiction works, you’ll usually submit an extensive book proposal.

You’ll want to start your search with the genre of your book, because most agents specialize in specific genres. Here are a few different methods you can use for conducting your search:

  • Online search: Try typing your genre with the term “literary agent” into a search engine and see what comes up.
  • Similar books: Check books that are similar to yours. Often, agents will be listed in the acknowledgements or on the author’s website. Some authors even name their agents on their Twitter profiles.
  • Social media: You can also search social media for literary agents.
  • You can use a paid service like Writer’s Market to find reputable agents.
  • Agent Query and Query Tracker offer online tools and resources to help you in your search.

As you search, compile a list of literary agents and agencies that might be a good match for you and your book. Try to get as many as possible–I would aim for at least a hundred, because you’re going to have to whittle that list down, and chances are, every agent you contact won’t be interested.

A Few Warnings

Unfortunately, the world is full of scam artists, and some of them pose as literary agents. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting scammed as you try to get your book published:

  • Writers are vying for agents, so they don’t need to advertise. Good agents are awash in submissions and queries.
  • Literary agents don’t charge authors anything up front. They take a cut of your book sale, after the sale is made. You don’t have to give your agent anything in advance except your manuscript. This includes fees for editing, proofreading, or any other prep work on the manuscript or other related services.
  • Agents and agencies should have some type of portfolio, usually a list of authors they represent or a list of books they’ve sold posted somewhere on their website.
  • The author-agent relationship is personal. It’s not the kind of transaction that is completed online. You should talk to your agent by phone and if you’re in the same area, try to meet in person.
  • Legitimate agents will sell your book to legitimate publishers, not vanity presses. Familiarize yourself with publishing houses by checking the copyright pages in various books with a focus on your genre.

Choosing a Literary Agent

Once you’ve got a decent list of potential agents, it’s time to narrow it down to the agents you want to query. In this phase, you’ll research agents and agencies and assess them, weeding out the ones that aren’t a good match for you.

Start by conducting an online search for the agency or agent’s name. Check out their website and learn more about them. You might also want to visit their social media profiles, which can give you a good sense of their attitude and personality.

As you research the agents, try to get a vibe on the type of material the agent likes and wants to represent. That will help you determine if they are a good match for your project.

IMPORTANT: Be sure to check the agents’ submission guidelines. These can range from simple, electronic submissions to outdated snail-mail submissions. This is most important when you start sending your submissions to the agents, but some may include requirements that are beyond your scope. You may not want to work via snail-mail, for example. Therefore, the submission guidelines may help you narrow your search. In any case, when you do start querying agents, be sure you follow their submission guidelines to the letter, otherwise, expect a swift rejection.

Once you’ve submitted queries, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear back from agents who are interested in representing you. At that time, you may need to further narrow your list. Make a list of questions to ask each agent and beware of any agents who are not responsive to your questions. But be respectful–agents’ time is valuable, so don’t waste it on questions you shouldn’t ask (because you will have found the answers during your research phase).

Final Tips

Create a document where you can store and track the information you collect. Spreadsheets work great for this because you can create separate tabs (worksheets) and break off agents you’ve crossed off your list (but might want to revisit later).

When you do start submitting your work, you’ll most likely need a query letter and a synopsis of your book. Specifics depend on each agent’s submission guidelines. However, you should be prepared to put considerable time and effort into preparing your submission materials.

Have you ever searched for an agent? Did you land one? Did your agent sell your book to a publisher? If you have any tips to add on finding and choosing a literary agent, leave a comment, and keep writing!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


2 Responses to “How to Find and Choose a Literary Agent”

  1. Angie Dixon says:

    Great post. I went through all of this years ago, and found the process very intimidating at first. All of your advice here is spot on, especially the info about agents not advertising and the other things to watch out for.

    When I got ready to look for an agent, I set up a spreadsheet and kept careful notes and scored every agent I was interested in. I narrowed it down to a small number and sent out 10 queries. One of those 10 agents ended up contacting me and we worked together on my first novel.

    Without the tedious research and effort to find the right agent, I never would have gotten the results I did. It’s not about finding an agent. It’s about finding the right agent.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with finding an agent, Angie. Since an agent is the author’s representative and advocate, it’s definitely important to find the right one!