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If you dream of publishing your book through a major publishing house, you need to know how to get a literary agent. Literary agents help you improve your work, send out book proposals, and negotiate contracts in your favor. But they’re almost always drowning in queries, so yours must stand out.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything there is to know about agents: What is a literary agent? What do literary agents do, what should you send them, and most importantly, how to find one? Let’s begin with the basics.
A literary agent is a professional who represents a writer and their work to publishers, theatrical producers, and film studios. They use their connections to get book deals, negotiate publishing contracts, and handle the business aspect of a writer’s career.
A literary agent is more than just a book publishing agent. They’re an ally and a business partner that you’ll (hopefully) work with throughout your career. The publishing industry is ever-evolving, and at times, overwhelming, and your agent is your guide through it all.
But what exactly do they do?
A literary agent offers literary advice, sends out queries to publishers, handles contract negotiation, and manages legal affairs for a writer. This mix of tasks differs with every case since new writers need more editorial and career guidance than established ones. Here’s everything a literary agent does for you:
Often, the role of a literary agent falls somewhere between an author’s personal and professional life. They’re not just book publishing agents; they’re also the biggest supporters of writers’ work. Sometimes, this involves defending it from an author’s own crises of faith! An agent knows how to get you out of a rut and how to lift your spirits after a rejection.
A literary agent costs nothing. They get paid only if and when you make a sale, which is usually 15% of advance and royalties. If an agent asks for an upfront payment or more than 15% of your earnings, you should explore other options instead.
Agents ask authors to send some material before they review the entire manuscript. However, make sure your entire manuscript is ready and has been edited several times before you reach out to literary agents.
Here are some materials an agent may ask you to submit:
For more specific information, you should visit the agent’s website and go through their submission guidelines. When preparing your query letter, make sure it’s tailored to the agent you’re sending it to. Customizing the first paragraph usually serves this purpose.
Now, let’s move on to the main question: How to find a literary agent?
You’ll find literary agents listed on online directories, websites, and agencies. The trick is to find one that’s going to be excited about your book. The process is seemingly straightforward, but there are a few things to remember. So, here’s how to get a literary agent:
Now, let’s get into the specifics of finding a literary agent. What should you expect from the process and what practices should you avoid? Take a look.
The first step to finding a book agent is to identify where your book fits in the publishing industry. Your genre, theme, and author platform can help you determine whether you have a chance with one of the big five publishing companies. Once you know your niche and the type of publisher best suited for your book, you can target agents better.
Online research is straightforward but time-consuming. Most online directories have filters for book genres and offer information like an agent’s recent deals and client lists. Here are the three best places to find a literary agent:
Note down the names that are relevant to your book along with key details like their contact information and specific submission guidelines. This will eventually help you refine your list and personalize your query letters.
Writing conferences bring together authors, agents, book editors, and other industry professionals. Naturally, they offer great networking opportunities for new and emerging writers. Always be on the lookout for such events since networking is essential for a writing career.
Writing conferences sometimes feature pitch sessions where authors can pitch their work to agents directly. If they’re interested, agents may request additional material on the spot! While rare, this window for immediate consideration can only be found at conferences and similar events.
Plus, there are panels and workshops where agents share industry insights, discuss trends, and offer advice to aspiring authors. Besides connecting you with agents, writing conferences also keep you updated with your readership and the market.
A key part of learning how to get a book agent is to pay equal attention to every query letter you send out. For this to happen, you must organize the process, which involves creating batches and assigning priority levels. You can set criteria like experience, client list, and style of work to help you sort the agents you’ve listed.
This will require some in-depth research on your rough list of agents, but it is crucial. This will not only tell you which agents to prioritize but also help make your query letters specific. You can look up an agent’s website, blog or interviews, and social media presence to find out more about them.
It’s best to create batches of 10–15 so you can edit your material according to the response you get. Once you’ve done your research and assigned target priority, it’s time to start writing the query letters.
You don’t have to write individual letters for each agent—that’d be far too much work! What you should do instead is edit the first two paragraphs of your letter (the introduction), highlighting:
Use your research here, bringing up a book they’ve represented or a statement they’ve made. If you have any common acquaintances or share an interest/cause that’s relevant to the book, make sure to mention that!
Take care not to overdo this. Mention only relevant details in your letter and don’t waste time on empty flattery. Instead, convey your genuine enthusiasm to work with them. Also, make sure you’re following the submission guidelines provided by the agent.
Naturally, a personalized introduction is not enough on its own to sway an agent, but it shows you’ve done your homework. The rest of your letter should be relevant to the agent and in line with their previous work.
Now, it’s time to start sending your material. Submit your query letter and synopsis/proposal to each agent individually, carefully proofreading everything. Agents typically take up to six weeks to respond to queries, so be patient until then! If you get a request for sample chapters or a partial manuscript, your query has been successful.
No response is almost always a rejection and most queries will result in this. Don’t be disheartened! Instead, focus on the following:
In case a full manuscript gets requested and subsequently rejected, the agent will most likely offer some feedback. In this scenario, you can choose to revise your manuscript or keep sending queries for some more feedback. You can also work with book editing services to find out which areas of your book can benefit from rewriting.
While no response is almost always a rejection, it doesn’t hurt to do a double-check. So once the six-week window runs out, go ahead and send out a polite follow-up email. If it’s a plain no, you don’t have much to lose. But if the follow-up results in a request for partials or even a rejection with feedback, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Agents receive hundreds of manuscripts daily, so it’s not unlikely that they might miss out on a query. So if you want to find a good book agent, follow up on your queries as a final effort. Unless, of course, an agent’s submission guidelines mention that no response is always a rejection. In that case, it’s best not to be pushy!
So now you know how to find a literary agent for your book! However, an important part of finding a literary agent is ensuring that they’re a good fit for you. An agent’s communication style can tell you a lot about their working style. You want an agent who communicates well and is excited about representing you. Trust your gut!
We won’t lie: Traditional publishing is an uphill battle and very few authors manage to find representation. Most others opt for self-publishing services, choosing to retain their rights and royalties while building their author brand. If you’d like to read more about book writing and publishing, here are some resources that might help:
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