There are lots of articles with practical tips on how to find a literary agent.
- Make sure your manuscript is great.
- 9 Tips on how to write a cover letter.
- Research an agent to find out who they represent.
You’ve probably heard most of those before. But what I’m going to give you is much more than a checklist.
I’m going to give you strategies for getting a literary agent, plus I’m going to give you real stories of how other writers have found agents. (If you want to skip to the stories, every real story is marked by a spaceship icon).
1. Don’t Look for Agents, Look for Agencies
An agent is only as good as the people that support them. Most agents don’t work alone, they work in teams, and rely on the other members of their team to do things they can’t do.
For instance, an agent might use another agent’s specialty of foreign rights to have them sell their client’s book to Europe, and use another agent’s expertise to negotiate film rights.
Of course your main contact will be your agent, and a good agency can’t rescue a bad agent. But just be aware of the support team your agent has, and factor that into your decision.
Pro Tip: Google “literary agency” rather than “literary agent” when trying to find someone to represent you.
2. Don’t Focus on “Getting” an Agent, Focus on “Selecting” an Agent
Don’t focus on how to “get” a literary agent, as if they are animals in the wild you must stalk and take down.
Focus on how to “select” a literary agent, which means you are choosing between a whole host of agents and not letting them select you.
Be active at looking at what the agent has represented before. If you’re sending something to an agent, it’s always best if you’ve read at least one book they’ve represented. That way you can say in your cover letter, “I really like X author who you represent, and their book Y changed me in this way.”
STORY: Let me tell you a story about how one of my friends got an agent. She started by taking 50 books off her bookshelf.
These weren’t the biggest books by the most famous authors. These were writers who were writing in her genre, and who had a book or two out, but they weren’t superstars. They were authors at the beginning of their career.
She looked at the acknowledgements at the end of each book, where every author without fail thanks their agent (usually first!) and came up with a list of 42 names of agents. (There were 8 repeats in the 50 books).
Out of those 42 names, she did research on each of the agents and came up with 33 agents that were part of an agency with resources (meaning they had foreign right departments and movie right departments, so she could sell all the ancillary rights after she sold her novel).
Out of those 33 agents, she looked at the books they’d represented and found she’d read an author represented by 15 of the agents.
She queried 15 of the agents, and 12 of them asked for more material.
Out of those 12 agents, 2 of them offered representation. She talked to several friends, had conversations with both agents, and went with the one she thought was best.
1. She got down to 1. That’s all you need. That’s what she got. That’s how the math works.
Start with a high number of agents and whittle them down. Be selective. Be choosy. Agents are choosy and you should be too.
3. You Want a Long-Term Agent, Not One Invested For a Single Book.
That means you want to talk to them about not only this book, but about future book ideas. It means you want to ask them the most important question of all: how do they see your career unfolding?
If they see you writing high-profile thrillers that make it to the NY Times bestsellers list, and you would prefer to write quiet literary dramas, that’s a warning sign.
Make sure you share the same vision for your career.
Because the truth is that you’re going to have lots of ups and downs in your career, and you want your agent to hang with you during the down times. Otherwise, you’ll end up firing your agent.
Oh, you didn’t know authors had to fire agents? It happens all the time. The reverse happens too: agents fire their clients if they’re not writing enough or the right material.
If you’re not prepared for the possibility of a break up between you and your agent, you’re like the exceptionally naive husband or wife who gets married never having heard of a divorce.
Be prepared, people.
One of my friends with an agent had to fire their agent after the first book.
- The agent kept sending the second book to publishers that my friend didn’t think was right for the manuscript.
- My friend wanted more personal attention than the agent was willing to give.
- The agent kept asking my friend to write something with a broader appeal, while my friend wanted to explore some idiosyncratic novel ideas, more arthouse than commercial.
But guess what? It turned out all right, because after that first agent, my friend got an agent and has stuck with them through 2 more books. Sometimes it takes a few mistakes to find the right agent.
4. You do not want an agent. You want the right agent.
There are lots of agents out there that you don’t want, and that won’t be a right fit for you or your book or your career.
Your career will suffer if you have an “almost-right” agent.
For instance, Salman Rushdie had two huge offers from publishers when he sold The Satanic Verses. His agent told him to go with the publisher that offered less money. Salman Rushdie didn’t understand why (and you probably wouldn’t either — most of us would choose the offer with the most money, right?), but he talked to his agent and his agent seemed convinced the publisher offering less money was the right publisher.
Well, once The Satanic Verses got banned in multiple Muslim countries and a fatwa came down that would reward any muslim that assassinated Rushdie, his publisher got death threats, bomb threats and enormous political pressure to drop his book. Guess what? They didn’t.
But the other publisher, the publisher he didn’t go with, didn’t even put out a statement supporting him. The other publisher was cowardly, and would have caved into pressure and dropped his book immediately, while the publisher he chose was brave.
His agent knew that the book was going to be controversial, knew that the publisher who offered less money was more stalwart, and guided his client to the best publisher.
That’s why you want an agent you can trust.
5. Make Friends With Writers Who Have Agents
This is how many writers get agents:
- They have a friend who has an agent.
- The friend loves their writing, and recommends them to the agent.
- The agent trusts their client, and takes on their friend.
This is how most non-agented writers think you get an agent:
- They write a stunning manuscript and submit to 10 agents.
- Several of them want to represent.
- The writer picks the best one.
The first sequence happens a lot more than most unagented writers realize. You often get an agent through a personal recommendation.
For instance, one of my friends was at the Breadloaf Conference two years ago and spent several late nights drinking the night away with a young author who had just published his first book. After drinking together for several nights, my friend, drunk out of his mind, reeled off his pitch for his recently completed novel.
The young author, also drunk, said he loved that concept, that it sounded right up his alley, and that my friend should send him his novel.
When they were not so drunk the next morning, my friend sent him the novel. The young author loved it, and sent it to his agent. And the agent loved it and signed up my friend.
And that was how my friend got an agent.
Don’t ever underestimate friendship with other writers. That’s how everything gets accomplished in the writing world.
6. It All Starts With A Handshake
Here’s a good rule for sending to agents. Out of all the agents you send to, 70% of them you should have met personally face to face. At some kind of conference, workshop, or some kind of flash pitch session.
Then, at the beginning of each cover letter, tell the agent: “I met you at X conference/workshop.” It makes all the difference in the world.
Of course it’s better if they asked to see your novel, but even if they didn’t, it’ll still get your foot in the door.
About 4 years ago I did an experiment.
I sent my novel to two batches of agents. Same query letter, same first 50 pages, same pitch.
One was a control group of 8 agents. I had never met any of them. I had found them online at agencies that had good reputations, through the Agent Issue at Poets & Writers, and found them thanked by the author at the back of books I liked.
The second group was 8 agents I had met at Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I had listened to them speak, workshopped with some of them, shook their hands, and looked them in their face. I had only pitched a few of them, but even if we hadn’t met one-on-one, we had a connection through the conference.
Out of the Control group, only 2 out of the 8 agents replied to reject me. The others never responded. None of the 8 asked to see more of my manuscript. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was my cover letter or my novel which was crap. But the truth was that cold queries are never a good strategy.
Out of the Squaw Valley agents, all 8 of the 8 I queried got back to me. 6 of the 8 asked to see more of my manuscript. And although at that time the novel wasn’t ready, and so I didn’t get representation, the truth was that I got a fair shake. They read it and said why they weren’t accepting it.
The difference? At the beginning of the cover letter to the agents I met at Squaw Valley, I simply said, “I met you at Squaw Valley.”
7. Make Sure Your Agent is Excited About Your Work
Being an agent is a business. As a business, they are trying to earn money. They are trying to take books that they know they can sell, sell quickly or sell for a lot of money.
For instance, read this great essay at Bookfox by Jennifer Carr on comparing agents to Realtors. If you think of literary agents as Realtors, it will help you a great deal in actually finding an agent.
But the point is that some agents take on books not because they like the book, but because they just think they can turn a quick buck.
As an author who poured their heart and soul into your book, you probably don’t want an agent that pitches publishers with some lackluster version of “this book is not bad.” You want an agent that thinks your novel is great — not objectively, but personally. They enjoyed your book. They found it fun.
That’s the agent who will truly push you and your career. That’s the agent who will make the best sale.
8. Trust Your Literary Agent Financially
This is a relationship built on money.
They are trying to make money, and you are trying to make money.
If you can’t trust your literary agent’s judgement when it comes to negotiating royalties, you really shouldn’t be with them. Because they are your financial negotiator with the publisher, and you have to be able to trust them.
But it’s more than just the book sale. You have to trust them when they point you to a good accountant to help you with taxes, and their recommendation for how to sell your book’s rights in Germany and France.
You have to trust them when they tell you to take a smaller advance because the smaller publisher will do more marketing (and it’s really hard to trust someone when they’re telling you to take $10,000 or $20,000 less!).
You have to trust them when there are long periods when you don’t communicate much, and you have to trust them that they’re working behind the scenes to help you and your book.
Want to learn more about literary agents? Check out these other excellent articles on Bookfox about literary agents:
41 Best Literary Agents representing YA, according to the number of books & time they’ve spent on the New York Times bestseller list in the last year.
14 New Literary Agents seeking clients. These are all agents who are actively building their list, so they won’t — like so many agents — turn you down simply because their plate is full with other clients.