If you’ve written a novel, populated it with engaging characters and immersive settings, edited it within an inch of its poor little life and are convinced it’s the very best it can be, you may be ready for the next step in your journey towards author stardom: finding a literary agent.
Literary agents are essential in finding widespread success as a writer, but the road to getting one is riddled with obstacles and pitfalls for the unwary.
Not to fear; we’re going to guide you through how to find a literary agent for your book and reveal everything you need to know about navigating this aspect of the publishing industry.
What is a literary agent?
First off, what exactly do we mean by literary agent? Literary agents are to writers what band managers are to rock stars.
They have insider intel that helps you connect with publishers, bookshops, publicists, film producers, and everyone else on the express train to literary stardom. A good literary agent will go to bat for you and navigate the complex hierarchy of the publishing industry so you don’t have to.
Without an agent in your corner, even the most groundbreakingly brilliant novel will have a tough time making it out there in the cold, hard publishing world.
What does a literary agent do?
Literary agents liaise between authors and publishers and try to get people excited about your book.
They’re also expert readers and can help you work through any snags that might be dragging your story down. This is why it’s so important to find a great agent who knows your book’s genre and target audience (we’ll look more at finding the right agent below).
Your agent will help you make your manuscript the very best it can be, and then they’ll put together query packages, book proposals, and marketing plans to send out to publishers. It’s their job to know the ins and outs of what the publishing industry is looking for so they can champion your work as the perfect fit and get you the best deal.
Once your book is published, your agent will help you with the next steps—these are things like promotion, arranging interviews, and organising licensing deals like film rights.
Do you need a literary agent to publish your book?
So with all of that in mind, do you have to get an agent in order to publish your book?
The short answer is no—there are ways around the gatekeeping middlemen of literary agencies. You could try self-publishing, or you could approach small, independent publishers that accept submissions directly from authors themselves. These types of indie presses are a growing industry and worth having a look at.
However, the vast majority of books you see on the shelves of your favorite bookshop have been put there by literary agents. This is because bookshops are dominated by what’s known as the “Big Five” publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hachette.
If you take a quick look at your bookshelf, it might seem like there are a lot of different publishers represented there (the publishing company’s logo is usually at the very bottom of the spine). However, most publishers you may have heard of are actually a part of one of these larger groups.
For example, Tor Books, a major publishing house famous for fantasy and science fiction, is owned by Macmillan Publishers. And—this is important—these Big Five houses only accept submissions through literary agents.
The bottom line? A literary agent isn’t the only way to get your book into the hands of traditional publishers, but they will be able to open doors to opportunities you probably couldn’t find on your own.
How much do literary agents cost?
One of the big questions new writers often have is, what does it cost to hire a literary agent?
It shouldn’t cost you anything to secure literary representation for your novel. This is because a writer doesn’t “hire” an agent; they start a conversation and, if the agent feels they’re a good fit for each other, they enter into a partnership.
An agent shouldn’t charge you any reading fees, service fees, or editing fees. If they do, this might be a sign something’s not quite on the up-and-up.
A literary agent makes a living by taking a commission of what the author makes.
This is usually around 15%. For example, if they secure you a book advance of $1000, the agent is entitled to $150 of it and you get to keep the other $850. If you’re offered $300 to appear at a literary festival, your agent is allowed to keep $45 and you get paid $255.
This is why taking on a new author becomes a long-term investment for them. When you become successful, they become successful too.
How to find a literary agent
Now that you’ve decided finding a literary agent is the next step for you, how do you go about it? Here’s everything you need to know about finding the right person to represent your work and kickstart your career.
Research your favorite authors
If you love writing, chances are you love reading, too. If you check out the personal websites of authors who have influenced your writing, you’ll often find they mention the agent representing them somewhere on their website.
This will usually be in the “about” or “bio” section, or in the contact section.
By going through this route, you already know that this agent represents work that’s similar to yours. You can also mention to them that you found them through your favorite author, which makes your message feel more targeted and personal.
Get a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook
The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is considered the “bible” of the publishing industry, and it’s released every year kind of like an almanac. This volume has full, intensive listings of all publishers and literary agents who are currently looking for new authors, as well as tips, tricks, and news from the publishing industry.
You can usually purchase these a few months before the beginning of the new year; for example, the Yearbook for 2023 was released in late summer 2022.
If you don’t want to purchase a copy to keep on hand forever and always, you can borrow one from your local library for a few weeks while you search for your perfect literary agent—libraries often stock a few copies of the Yearbook each year.
Search through agency listings
Another place you can look at in your agent search is in online listings that catalogue literary agents. Three of the most popular places to research literary agents are Publishers Marketplace, Writer’s Digest, and Manuscript Wishlist.
Publishers Marketplace is considered the leading industry hub where you can read up on industry gossip, forthcoming titles, and browse detailed agent listings for agencies that are open to new writers.
Each agent has a profile page which outlines their work experience, what they’re specifically looking for, their submission guidelines, and how to contact them.
Writer’s Digest is an online magazine that stays on top of the publishing world and frequently champions new literary agents that are looking to build their roster. They’ll tell you a little bit about each literary agent and what they’re hoping to discover in new writers.
Manuscript Wishlist began, as so many great literary sagas begin, with a twitter hashtag. Now, agents and editors use it to share their “wishlist” of what they’re looking for in new submissions.
Each literary agent has a personal profile that lists what they’re looking for, as well as some details about them so you can see if they feel like a good match.
You can also narrow down your search by their particular genre—for instance, science fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, commercial fiction, or young adult.
Attend conferences and events
Before we were lucky enough to have the world wide web at our fingertips, writers had to do things the hard way—on foot.
To go the extra mile, try broadening your search to include writers’ conferences or book fairs. You can search for industry events in your area where literary agents gather together, hoping to find the next big thing.
How to approach a literary agent
So you’ve narrowed down your search to a group of literary agents that you think might be a good fit for your book. What’s next? Here are the steps you need to take to submit your work for consideration.
1. Write an amazing book
Yes, you’ve done this bit already… right?? Absolutely do not ever reach out to a literary agent if your project is only half-completed or, worse, an idea in your head.
What happens if the agent gets excited to read your work only to have you say, “Er… it’s not quite finished yet.” They’re probably going to feel like you’ve cheated them out of their time and gotten their hopes up for nothing. Step 1: Write a book.
Once you’ve done that, make sure it’s the very best it can be. This means triple and quadruple checking for grammatical mistakes and plot holes, and getting developmental feedback from trusted friends.
You should only query agents once you have a publishable manuscript in hand. It’s rare that a literary agent will ask for revisions before taking on a new client, so consider this your only shot with this particular literary agency.
2. Write a query letter
A query letter is a one-page pitch that describes both you as a writer and the book you’re seeking representation for. You’ll sometimes see query letters being called a book proposal or a book pitch.
In your query letter you’ll summarize the plot of your book (this is called your “hook”), define your target audience, illustrate how your book is similar to other titles that have sold widely and reliably (these are called your “comp titles”), and give the literary agent some background on your own experiences as a writer.
There’s an art to writing a good query letter, so we’ve put together an entire article that breaks down everything you need to know about writing a stellar book pitch that will stand out from the slush.
3. Include a book synopsis
In addition to your hook, you’ll also need to include a full synopsis of your book’s plot. These are usually around 500 words.
A book synopsis is not the same as a marketing synopsis—it won’t look like something you’d see on a product page or on the back of a book.
That’s because unlike a marketing synopsis, the book synopsis you send to a literary agent will include all the major plot twists and the ending. Your goal is to show them that you know how to craft a well-balanced story with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end.
Your book summary will show how your characters grow over time and the lessons they come away with, giving the agent a sense of your writing skills and the overall story shape.
If you need some tips on crafting the arc of your story, you can check out some devoted lessons here.
4. Include an excerpt if requested
Most agents won’t want to see your full manuscript right up front. That’s because they’re receiving hundreds if not thousands of submissions every week, and they don’t have time to read every single manuscript they’re sent.
If they enjoy reading your query letter and sample chapters, they’ll ask you to send on your full manuscript later on.
This part of the process can vary from one agent to another, so make sure you read their submission guidelines very carefully. Some might ask you to just send a query letter and then wait to hear from them; others might ask for the first three chapters, the first ten pages, the first fifty pages, etc.
Because they need to get through so many submissions, seeing that you’re not following their guidelines to the letter is a quick and easy way for them to say no and move on to the next person.
Your excerpt should always be from the very beginning of your book. If you’re tempted to start at Chapter 12 because it’s your strongest and most thrilling one… chances are your first eleven chapters still need a bit more work.
5. Follow up
After you’ve sent out your query letter to a literary agent, it’s good practice to follow up with them… but not right away.
The agent’s submission guidelines should give you an idea of how long to wait before receiving a response; three to six months is fairly standard.
If their guidelines say something like, “I do my best to respond to all queries within three months,” wait until those three months have passed before sending a quick, polite email checking in on their progress. Things do sometimes get overlooked in the shuffle, and remembering to follow up might be the step that secures you that well-deserved book deal.
You can read more about this step in our lesson on writing a query letter.
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. It may sound trite, but this wisewoman’s adage is a reality of the writer’s life. Expect to amass a healthy stack of rejection letters, which you can then loan to literary museums once you’re rich and famous.
It’s not unheard of for a writer to query a hundred or more literary agencies before securing representation. Some writers have even received late rejection letters from agents after their book had already been published!
This is why it’s good practice to have multiple submissions on the go at any given time. Aim for a batch of ten to twenty agents who represent your preferred genre, wait a few months, and then send another ten to twenty queries. Wash, rinse, repeat.
There could be many reasons why a literary agent chooses to reject your query letter; they may have just signed another author with a book very similar to yours, they may be scaling back their client list while they focus on family, or they may not find your hook grabs their attention quite enough to stand out from the crowd.
If you’re receiving one rejection after another, it may not be a reflection of your work; however, consider giving your query letter another look to see if there’s a way you can enhance it to catch the agent’s attention more effectively.
Patience is essential in this process, so don’t tear yourself down if securing representation takes a bit longer than you might like. Somewhere out there is a literary agent who’s the perfect match for your book—you just have to find them.
What to look for in the right literary agent
So you’ve got a literary agent (or several) interested in representing your prized first novel. Congratulations!
But before you go throwing yourself head first into a long-term professional relationship, remember that you don’t need to accept the first agent that gives you an offer. You’ll be building a career with this person, so it’s essential that you partner with a literary agent who’s driven, reputable, and has your best interests at heart.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when signing on with your dream agent.
They should be excited about you
The trouble with bagging a prestigious agent is that you might take a back seat for a while to their more well-known client list (read: the ones that are making them more money).
When a literary agent makes you an offer, you want to have the sense that they’re excited about your work—that they think it’s something really special that needs to be out there in the world. They’re not doing you a favor by taking on your novel, and if they make you feel like they are, consider looking elsewhere.
They should have a proven track record
The days of cloak-and-dagger secrecy are, thankfully, behind us. The literary agent should be able to showcase other writers they’ve represented or publishers they’ve worked with, and you should be able to see that they’ve secured a positive response for their clients—their books are being published and sold.
Sometimes, reaching out to a new agent can be a fast track way to get your book into a publisher’s hands. When an agent is just starting out, they’ll be more likely to take risks on unknown debut authors.
But, a new agent should still be able to prove they know the business and are able to get results. They might have a background as a professional editor for a major traditional publisher, and are now shifting gears and joining a literary agency; or, they might have worked their way up through a large agency and are now breaking off to start an independent agency of their own.
They’re familiar with your genre
The best agents are always going to be ones who know the type of book you’ve written and the sort of people who are going to read them. If they’re not, they won’t know how to shape your story and use genre expectation to engage your readers.
For example, if your literary agent has mostly represented hybrid memoir-cookbooks, they probably won’t be able to support you effectively as you polish your epic high fantasy novel.
Likewise, if you’re submitting a collection of short stories, you’ll want to find a literary agent who’s familiar with this type of storytelling—not just sprawling trilogies. If you’ve written an ambitious historical novel, you’ll want someone who knows what readers of historical fiction are looking for.
This is why, when you’re querying agents, it’s so important to narrow down your search to people who seem to “speak your language.”
They should give you a good “gut feeling”
One of the biggest mistakes new authors make is agreeing to the first offer that’s extended to them—even when they know, deep in their heart of writerly hearts, that something doesn’t feel right.
Your agent is someone you’ll want to build a good relationship with, and that means beginning with a foundation of mutual respect and trust.
Remember: reputable agents will never try to get money off you. Agents work with you, not for you, and their job is to secure an investment from a traditional publishing house so that everybody wins.
If they’re asking you to pay for a service up front, or if they dodge questions about past clients, or if they tell you how lucky you are that they’re feeling magnanimous and are willing to put themselves on the line as a special favor (this is called “gaslighting,” by the way—if you wouldn’t accept it from a potential life partner, don’t accept it from a literary agent)… move on.
If an agent is giving you uncertain vibes, one thing you can do is check Writer Beware. This is a database of known publishing and agency scams that’s constantly being updated with the latest industry news. They keep detailed no-fly lists of disreputable agents and publishers to avoid during your agent search.
A good agent is the next step in your publishing journey
If you’re looking to get traditionally published, finding the right literary agent is your ticket into bookshops, festivals, awards, and worldwide acclaim. It can be a long, labour-intensive process, but it doesn’t have to be scary; use these steps to get that offer and launch your career.