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How do you find a literary agent?

First, a confession. In a sense I’m not exactly the right person to ask. Yes, I’m a professional author with a stack of books under my belt. Yes, some of those books have done well. Yes, I work extensively with authors and literary agents. But … uh, how to put this … when I first tried to get a literary agent I think I did almost everything wrong. Indeed, I only did one thing right: namely, my book was actually quite good. (It had multiple publishers bidding for it and was sold in a six-figure deal.) Aside from that, I messed up.

But you don’t have to. Finding a literary agent is easy – there’s only one tricky part to the entire process. Here’s what you need to know.

1) Figure out if you need to get an agent

If, on the other hand, you are amazingly good at approaching agents but your book isn’t yet up to scratch, then you won’t get anywhere. Even if, by a fluke, you get taken on by a decent agent, there’s no way you’ll get a publisher. So write a good book. No – scratch that – not a good book. A stunning one. A dazzling one. One that echoes in the consciousness. One that makes a professional reader (ie: agent/editor) sit up late with tears in their eyes. That’s how good you have to be. More on this subject a little later.

3) Sign up with a good online literary agents listings site

In the UK/Ireland, that means you need to visit Agent Hunter. the leading search tool of its kind. In the US/Canada, there are a number of online sites, as well as the venerable Writer’s Market . If you’re from SA / Australia / NZ, then you are probably better off writing to London based agents than NY based ones, but it’s your call. You can go either way.

4) Select your hit list

It’s fine these days to make multiple submissions to agents, and I strongly recommend that you do just that.

How many agents to approach?

My own view is that you should send your work to no more than 8-12 agents, in 1-2 waves of submissions. If you’ve gone out to 12 agents and haven’t yet found someone who loves your book, that’s 99% likely – probably 99.5% likely – because your book isn’t yet strong enough to sell, in which case you need to address your manuscript, not chase after more agents. The one exception: there is a lot of prejudice against fantasy / sci-fi, so I usually recommend going to 15-20 agents. [But, if you’re North American, see Beth’s comment at the end of the article. She’s right, you know.]

How to pick agents

In the bad old days, getting an agent was a more or less random process. Yes, there were books which listed a range of literary agencies (though not a complete list of agencies, even so.) But so what? You’re looking for an agent, not an agency – and how do you find the one that’s right for your genre, your style, your voice?

Fortunately, those problems have now been solved by tools such as Agent Hunter which  for the first time make it possible to search in a genuinely rational way. Either look at this post for more info on AH’s functionality or skip straight along to the site itself to get the info direct.

In terms of how to make use of those search tools, we would recommend:

  • locating agents who accept work in your genre
  • avoiding the ones who are obviously too busy
  • prioritising the ones who seem more engaged with new writers
  • using client lists, likes/dislikes info, photographs, Twitter feeds and other ‘gut feel’ type criteria to make the final selection. Agent Hunter collates all that data in one place, making the whole process as easy as pie.

And do bear in mind …

Do also remember that literary agents are very generalist. My own agent represents crime writers, chick-lit writers, literary authors, dead authors, serious non-fiction writers, popular non-fiction writers … indeed, there’s no category at all he would not represent if the right book came along. Most agents do likewise.

So if you are writing a near-future techno-thriller, you are NOT looking for an agent who specialises in such things. I doubt if such an agent exists in the UK. All you’re looking for is an agent who is open to such work, but who may also represent non-fiction, literary fiction, chick lit, and whatever else. You’re probably eclectic as a reader. Agents are too.

And the results, by the way, prove the point. My agent has recently done a fantastic job selling my crime novel in the UK, the US, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and a fair few other places too, not to mention securing a major TV deal. Yet there’s no way you’d look at his track record and figure him as a crime agent. He isn’t a crime agent. He just loved my book and knew how to sell it. Most agents are the same.

5) Write a good query letter

Americans can make their query letter a little more sales-y, a little more pushy. Brits should make their letters a little more businesslike. But the essence either way is to keep the letter short, informative and well-written. You can see a sample literary agent query letter here.

If you want more help, you can get it here .

You also need to check what your agent wants. Do they want a query letter before you send your manuscript? Do they want you to send the letter, three chapters and a synopsis? Do they want a CV (unusual, but some people do)? Do they want submissions by email or in hard copy? Whatever the agent wants, you need to give it to them. You’ll be marking yourself down instantly if you don’t comply with the instructions you’ve been given.

6) Write a good synopsis

A synopsis is a short (1-2 page) summary of your plot. Basically, you are giving your story away, in full. You are not writing a sales blurb. You are not writing the stuff to appear on the back of the book. You are writing something like this .

7) Present your manuscript in a way that won’t make agents scream

Mostly that means writing:

  • in a decent sized font (12 is the standard)
  • in a normal type face (Times New Roman, Georgia, Garamond. Arial, if you must. Even Courier, if you really must.)
  • with decent line spacing (1.5 or 2)
  • normal margins – use your computer’s presets
  • single-sided
  • with numbered pages
  • A4 (if you’re a Brit) / letter size if you’re American
  • without too many typos
  • with proper punctuation
  • your name and title in the header / footer of every page

You should not need copyediting if you are not dyslexic and you are a native English speaker. (Copyediting is generally done for free by publishers, so no need to spend money that you don’t have to.) You can get further manuscript presentation tips here.

8 ) Don’t bother ‘copyright protecting’ your work

You don’t need to do it at all if you’re British, and you only need to do it once you’ve got a publishing contract if you’re North American. In the latter case a publisher will do it for you. No need to worry about this issue. It’s a non-issue. Copyright theft is virtually unheard of. Just don’t worry about it.

9) Light candles, tie a black cat into a knot – and go for it

Get your manuscript out there. See what happens.

10) How long to wait?

A really good agency will respond in 2 weeks or so. 6-8 weeks is more typical. Over 10 weeks is pathetic. Personally, I think it’s OK to nudge after 8-10 weeks. Some agents are prickly about being nudged, but if so they shouldn’t have been slow and unprofessional in the first place.

11) What might they say?

There are basically four categories of response:

  • go away, we hate you. Maybe 90% of writers will get a standard-form response from a given agency, one that just rejects your work without giving you any reason why.
  • go away, but we don’t hate you. If agents are interested enough in your work that they ask to see the whole manuscript – and sometimes if your opening chapters moved an agent without quite convincing them – you may get a personalised response which says, ‘I don’t want to represent you, but there were certain qualities in your work which I did like’. That’s a ‘positive rejection’. It’s grounds for encouragement, actually.
  • we’re currently unsure if we hate you or not, so can we have a second date? If an agent doesn’t think your work is saleable, but they are keen to work with you, they may send back some editorial gripes and ask you to resubmit. Sometimes they don’t actually ask you to resubmit but are clearly leaving the door open. In such cases, you’d be nuts not to have another crack at your manuscript and send it back when you’re ready.
  • we love you, we adore you, we want to have your (literary) babies. Or best of all – and this happens to about 0.05% to 0.10% of authors – you may get an agent asking to meet you, which is basically code for ‘we want to represent you’. Which is basically code for wanting to have your babies. In a literary way, obviously.

12) And if I do all this and don’t get anywhere?

Writing a good book is hard. A good agent reviews 1-2,000 manuscripts for each one that’s taken on. Some top agencies review more like 4000 manuscripts for every one they take on. So standards are high. If you approach agents in a professional way, and your work is rejected, then your work is not yet good enough. So get it right. Work harder. Locate the problems and fix them. This CAN be done. And, funnily enough, I know people who can identify the flaws in your manuscript and tell you what you need to do to fix them. The Writers’ Workshop uses only top professional authors and commissioning editors to review clients’ work and our results are exceptional .

Like I said at the start of this article, I was completely useless about approaching agents – but still got a great agent and a terrific book deal. That’s because I messed up everything except step 2. If you’ve done everything else right, but don’t yet have a stellar manuscript, then you’ve some work to do now before you start knocking on doors. And needless to say, if we can help, we’d love to .

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