How to Find a Literary Agent: The Manuscript, the Query, and More

Securing a literary agent is one of the hardest parts of being an author. It’s harder even than getting your book published—dozens of small presses will publish unrepresented work, and of course we are living in the heyday of self-publishing. But for those who dream of seeing a Random House or HarperCollins logo on the spine of their book, it’s nearly impossible to get attention for your book without a literary agent.

Why is that? Well, agents are the gatekeepers of publishing. Editors at big houses know that if a respected agent has put his or her stamp of approval on a manuscript, it is worth a look. So if you’re someone who wants a shot in the big leagues, start by looking for representation. I’ve put together the five basic steps for finding and querying an agent below. Good luck. 

Step One: Your Manuscript

Most agencies require fiction works to be completed and nonfiction works to have at least a proposal written. Unless you are an established author, you’re likely to get rejected if you’re still in “the idea stage” when you try to query an agent. Have the manuscript or proposal ready to go: completed, proofread, and formatted nicely—i.e. don’t use a program like Word Perfect or Text (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin).

Step Two: Preparing Your Query

Query letters are a common part of the process. A good query letter has an intriguing hook, a brief synopsis, an even briefer author bio (unless working in nonfiction where the author’s credentials are incredibly important), and your contact info. Don’t forget that last part. Need help writing your query? There are dozens of successful examples online (I particularly like this Mediabistro/GalleyCat page). Some agencies will offer “feedback giveaways” where they provide advice about your query (you can usually learn about these offerings via social media). Also check out the blog Query Shark for helpful tips.

I also suggest putting together a longer synopsis (1-2 pages, double spaced) about your book. Some agents will ask for this, and it helps to have it handy so you’re not scrambling to put one together upon request.

Step Three: Finding an Agent

Your first stop should be Literary Marketplace. Create an account and start looking at the hundreds of agents listed on the site. Other helpful search sites include Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and AgentQuery.com. Look for agents that represent your genre and are currently looking for books like yours. Another way to find an agent is to check the acknowledgments sections of your favorite books in your category. Most authors will mention their agent, and then you can look them up online.

Step Four: Querying an Agent

Be sure to keep track of each agencies submission requirements. If they ask for e-mail submissions only, don’t send a hardcopy. If they want a five-page sample, send five pages, not fifty. Every agency is different, and most will not give your manuscript a second thought if you disregarded their directions.

A tip for new authors: look for new agents. Established agents usually have full client lists, whereas new members of a company are looking for fresh talent. Those agents will be more likely to review your work, and, if they like it, help you grow as an author.

A tip for ALL authors: if you are querying multiple agents at the same time (nothing wrong with that), be sure to mention it in your query letter. And if you do get an offer of representation, alert the other agents you submitted to—it may make them want to pay closer attention to your work!

Step Five: Wait

Unfortunately, there are millions of folks out there who want to be authors, and agents can only read so many submissions in a day. The average wait time for a response on a query is six to eight weeks. And then the agent may ask for a partial manuscript—add another four weeks. Then comes the complete manuscript—another four to eight weeks. So instead of obsessively checking your email, take a break and work on another project until responses start coming in.

The Wrap-Up

Finding an agent can be a long and challenging process. If you end up being one of the lucky few who gets representation, congratulations! If you are not so lucky, don’t worry. There are plenty of other avenues to get your book out there, whether it’s by looking for a smaller press, self-publishing, or working with a digital-first initiative. Just keep looking until you find the right fit.

For more information on literary agents, check out Agent 101: What Every Author Should Know About Literary Agents.

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