How to Find a Literary Agent

Kimberly Bartosch
reviewing paperwork

Literary agents represent writers and their work. It's their job to get their clients' work published or sold as well as negotiate a fair contract. They work on a commission, receiving a percentage of their clients' sales and royalties. Finding a literary agent takes time, research and patience, but the effort is worthwhile for authors who are seeking success in the publishing world.

Where to Look for a Literary Agent

In an interview on PositiveWriter, top-ranked literary agent Mark Gottlieb indicates that writers who are ready to promote their work need to look for an agent. He states, "once an author has gone as far as they can go with the writing/editing of the manuscript and honed in on a knock-out query letter/hook, then it is time to begin the process of querying a literary agent." There are a number of places to look.

Online Resources

Today, online resources are the primary source when looking for an agent. There are many websites to choose from, but the most helpful are:

  • WritersDigest.com/Guide to Literary Agents is a blog that contains new information every week on agents looking for clients as well as new agents in the field.
  • AgentQuery.com is a free searchable database that lists agents seeking writers. It also contains other resources and guides in the publishing field.
  • QueryTracker.net has a free listing of agents but also enables you to keep track of who you've queried and who rejected your project.
  • WritersMarket.com has a more detailed listing of agents but requires a $5.99 per month subscription fee.
  • ManuscriptWishList.com lists agents and the types of manuscripts they are seeking.

Agent Directories

Published directories of agents can also be good resources. A few of the most widely used publications are Writer's Market, Guide to Literary Agents and Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.

All of these books have a large listing of agents along with contact information, websites, submission guidelines, what types of work the listed agents represent, and common terms. Jeff Herman's Guide also provides more in-depth information about the agents, such as a description of their personality, what they do when not working, how they became an agent, and more.

Twitter

Twitter can be a good place to find an agent. Agents often use this social media site to post what type of books they're looking for, which is referred to as #MSWL (manuscript wish list). In the Twitter search bar type #MSWL and you will see several agents and editors manuscript wish list. To narrow your search add A (adult) YA (young adult), MG (middle grade), CB (chapter book), PB (picture book) and genre, such as romance, mystery, adventure, thriller, etc. Once you find a good match, click on that agent's profile and find their website to see how to submit to them.

Another approach is to participate in #PitchWars and #PitMad on Twitter, which is a contest in March where you pitch your book within 140 characters to hundreds of editors. If they like your pitch, they will reply to your tweet asking you to submit it to them. Find out more about this contest on PitchWars.org.

Writer's Conferences and Festivals

presentation in conference room

Writer's conferences and festivals are great places to meet and find an agent and introduce yourself to the publishing world. There are a lot to choose from and many offer critique sessions with an agent. Susan Harrow, author of How to Get a 6 Figure Book Advance, found her first agent this way.

Harrow states, "I found my first literary agent when I spoke to American Society of Journalists + Authors (ASJA) - my second public speaking engagement ever." Don't assume that you won't find a well-connected agent this way. Harrows's story indicates the opposite. As she states, the agent she met this way "...was Patti Breitman - the agent for John Gray (Men Are From Mars) and Richard Carlson (Don't Sweat the Small Stuff)."

At the conference, network with as many agents as possible by presenting them a short pitch of your book. Don't hand them a query letter or your entire novel because it will just go in the trash. Be considerate of their time. If they like your short pitch they will ask you to submit your work to them.

There are a number of important book festivals to consider. Some national organizations have state chapters that offer smaller and more affordable conferences. These conferences can range from $200 to thousands of dollars plus travel expenses, so choose your event wisely. Make sure it fits your work's genre and audience.

Ask for Referrals

It can also be beneficial to utilize your network to ask for referrals when searching for a literary agent. Consider reaching out to your friends, neighbors, family members to ask if they know of a good agent. Also ask people you are connected with through social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn, as well as people you have met in writing groups or other networking activities. Having a fellow writer recommend you to their agent can be a great way to get your foot in the door with a knowledgeable publishing professional.

Narrow Your Search

Once you have used your research skills to identify potential agents, you will then need to narrow your search.

Target Agents in Your Genre

As Meredith Jaeger, author of The Dressmaker's Dowry, explains, "Every agent has a specialty. It would be a mistake to send your query letter to an agent who is seeking historical fiction if you have written a fantasy novel. She suggests asking yourself these questions to start with:

  • What is your novel's genre? (Is it Mystery, romance, science fiction, etc.?)
  • Is it for adults, young adults, or children?
  • Is it a thriller or a memoir?

Then, she recommends, "Look at an agent's website to see what they are seeking." If your work isn't within the scope of what the agent is looking for, this is not the right person for you to target.

Level of Experience

Research each agent who seems to be a fit online and see if he or she is credible by attempting to verify their level of experience and past sales. If you decide to go with a new agent, it may be best to see if he ore she has experience in publishing or has worked at an established agency.

It is also a good idea to visit each agent's website and review their social media presence to help you better understand their experience. You may also want to check to see if they are members of a reputable professional organization, such as the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR). Publisher's Weekly and Writer Digest are also good places to look for publishing news regarding agents.

Introduce Yourself by Submitting to Your Agent List

Now that you've done your research, narrowed down your search and made a presence online and at conferences, it's time to submit to your agent list.

Submission Process

Manuscript

Visit the agent's website and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. For fiction, agents ordinarily ask for a query letter along with the first ten pages of your manuscript. With non-fiction pieces, you will provide a query letter that includes your platform along with a book proposal.

Simultaneous Inquiries

Unlike editors, you can submit simultaneously to multiple agents. Don't be afraid to submit to as many agents you like.

Key Tips

When trying to land an agent, there are some important tips to follow.

  • Personalize your query letter. It's very important to make a quick connection with the agent, so you should never send a 'to whom it may concern' query. As Jaeger explains, "Always address the agent by name and tell them why you are querying them specifically." If you met them at a conference, include that in your opening . If an established writer recommended them, mention that as well.
  • Distinguish your book from the competition. According to Harrow, you should never use the phrase 'this has never been done before' in your query letter. She explains that no agent or publisher will not take a chance on something unknown. Instead, you should show how your book will be more successful than other competitive books.
  • Get the agent's attention right away. You only have five seconds to capture an agent's attention with your query, so you must have a captivating title and pitch. As Harrow points out, "Top agents get over a thousand unsolicited queries every month. Yours has to pass the five second test" if you want a chance at being successful.

Now You Wait

Now that you've submitted to your agent list now you wait and maybe begin another project. Sometimes it will take months before an agent will get back to you, and you may never hear back at all. If you do not hear back within six months, the agent is not interested. That doesn't mean you should give up, though. Continue to reach out to prospective agents on an ongoing basis. Eventually, one will see your work's potential and will represent you.

How to Find a Literary Agent