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How to Find a Literary Agent

When you've finished writing a book, it's time to get published. Here's how to find a literary agent for your book.

Whether you've been working on a book for years, or you just finished one after starting it in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the next step is publication. If you wish to have your book published through a traditional publisher, you need to find an agent.

Literary agents have multiple roles. They seek out new talent, negotiate contracts, but also serve as gatekeepers for publishers. Most traditional publishers don't accept unagented submissions, so it is essential to find an agent if you want your book to be handled by a large publisher.

Here are some tips to help you find an agent.

What do literary agents do?

On the most basic level, a literary agent negotiates a contract between an author, and a publisher. They determine the best fit between book and publisher, and, benefiting from their connections with editors, submit manuscripts to publishers. They may also negotiate other contracts, such as for foreign rights, or film and TV rights.

But literary agents do much more than that. When an agent finds an author whose work they like, they help that author hone their book. They offer editorial suggestions, and help an author refine their voice. Since literary agents make a percentage of what authors receive from publishers, it is in their interest to help authors develop their career. They give tips to authors, sharing their expertise, and help authors think beyond just one book.

For these services, literary agents generally earn 15% of what an author makes from publishers. This is enough to motivate the agent to obtain better terms for contracts, and to seek out new opportunities.

Do you need a literary agent to get published?

Decide whether you want to go the traditional publishing route or self publish your book There are plenty of authors making a career through self publishing, but the traditional publishing channel has many advantages.

If you have written a general fiction or non-fiction book, and want to be published by the large traditional publishers, then you need an agent. If you are an academic, seeking publication by a specialist publisher, then you generally don't need an agent. If you want to submit a book to a midsize publisher, some may accept unagented manuscripts, but many will not.

But if you self publish, you do everything on your own. You're responsible for things like copy editing, cover design, marketing, and promotion. See Navigating the Publishing Process: Traditional vs. Self-Publishing for a comparison of the two publishing options.

How do you find a literary agent?

There are lots of literary agents, so it can be hard to find one who fits with what you've written. Start by looking at authors you appreciate, in the genre in which you write. This doesn't mean that if you write horror fiction you should try to snag Stephen King's agent; look at mid-list authors and who represents them. Most authors will mention the name of their agent on their website. Publishers Marketplace is a good website to find agents, to find out which authors agents have published, and the type of deals they've concluded.

After you've made a list of several agents, visit their websites to see if they're accepting new clients. If so, carefully read their submission guidelines. Prepare your manuscript appropriately; many agents get so many submissions that they will ignore any submissions that don't comply with their guidelines. Some agents may want to see a synopsis and the first ten or twenty pages of a book; others may want to see more.

You should then write a query letter. This should contain information about your book, title, genre, and its word count, one to two paragraphs describing the book, and some information about you, your experience, why you wrote the book, and why you think the agent might be right for your work.

You shouldn't expect the first agent you contact to be interested in your manuscript. Identify several agents, maybe a dozen or more, and send your query letter to all of them. And make sure each letter is personalized. For example, mention other authors the agent manages whose books are similar to yours.

Many may not respond, some may respond, saying they're not interested, and, if you're lucky, you may get a nibble. It's a good idea to keep a list of the agents you write to in a spreadsheet, so you don't accidentally send another query letter to an agent you've already contacted, but also to follow up if you haven't heard back in the time they say they will take to look over your work. Many agents will say that they simply won't reply if they're not interested, but if you haven't heard back, it can't hurt to nudge, in case your submission slipped through the cracks.

Don't assume that the first agent who is interested in looking at your manuscript is the right one for you. Working with a literary agent is a two-way relationship, and, even if you find one agent who likes your manuscript, you need to figure out if they are the right fit. You will eventually have some telephone or zoom conversations, and you'll be able to tell if this agent is someone that you would like to work with. Remember, if you find the right agent, you will be working with them for your entire career. This isn't exactly like a marriage, but it is a long-term relationship, so it's important that you be compatible.

Finding the right literary agent is important for your book, and for your potential writing career. Make sure you research agents carefully, pinpoint the ones that seem appropriate for your work, and send out query letters. You may get rejections, you may even get lots of rejections, but if your work is good enough, you will find an agent.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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