Finding a literary agent is a little like finding a spouse. First, you have to be clear that you actually want one, then decide what type you would like – their credentials, traits, etc – and finally, find one. It’s difficult, just like finding Mr. or Ms. Right – but it’s not impossible. Follow these steps for a better chance of success!
Decide Whether You Really Want an Agent
About 80 percent of books acquired by publishing houses got sold by literary agents. Experienced agents know better than an author which publishing houses would most likely be interested in a specific book. Agents also play an important role in negotiating the best deal for you, protecting your rights, making sure you are paid fairly – and they act as the middle-man or go-between between you and the publisher.
The best agents will advise and manage you and your work for the life of your writing career. Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your book, and they receive a commission (usually around 15 percent) on everything you get paid (like advances and royalties.)
Do You Need An Agent?
If you want to be published by one of the major New York houses like Simon & Shuster, Penguin, or HarperCollins, then you need to have an agent. Large publishing houses simply won’t accept manuscripts without an agent.
If you’re writing for a certain, centralized market (such as vintage cars, for example), then you might not need an agent. Agents look for clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If they don’t think they’ll get a decent advance, you might not be worth their time, and you’ll have to sell your project on your own.
Understand Your Book’s Potential
Some books are suitable for the big, traditional publishing houses, while others are more suitable for mid-size or small presses. Not every book is worthy of being published by a New York publishing house – or even of being represented by an agent. Most writers have a hard time being honest with themselves about their book’s potential. In order to be considered by a large publishing house, your book must fit into a large-audience genre, such as fiction, romance, mystery/crime, thriller, science fiction, fantasy or young adult. Nonfiction books require a strong hook or message/concept, and a huge author platform. Usually the big publishers won’t sign a nonfiction book unless it anticipates being able to sell at least 10 or 20 thousand copies, minimum.
If it turns out your book really isn’t a good candidate for a big publishing house, don’t despair. There are several smaller publishers who might be thrilled to publish your book. You just need to find them.
Finish Your Book BEFORE Searching for an Agent
Your manuscript should be finished (and polished) before you search for a literary agent. There’s nothing worse than finding an agent who’s actually interested in your work, only to have to say, “umm…let me get back to you…” because you don’t actually have a manuscript to turn over upon request. You should also be confident that you’re submitting your best work – re-reads and revisions should be complete.
A good place to start when researching agents is Firstwriter.com. Their agent-search forum is fantastic – you can insert all your criteria, such as genre, country, whether or not they charge a fee, what their required commission percentage is, whether they will accept inquiries via email, and of course, whether they are currently accepting new clients.
Read the Agent’s Submission Guidelines!
Every agent has their own requirements for submissions. Some want just a query letter, some want a query letter including bio, first chapter, synopsis, etc. Read and pay attention to each agent’s submission guidelines so you aren’t thrown out because you can’t follow directions.
Query letter. This is a one-page letter that gives a brief description of your book. For instructions on how to write one, go to How to Write a Query Letter.
Synopsis. This is a brief summary, no more than one or two pages, of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. Here’s how to write one.
Sample chapters. When sending sample chapters, start from the beginning and send, say, Chapters 1, 2 and 3. As tempting as it may be, don’t select a middle chapter, even if you think it’s your best work.
You should know that most agents don’t accept full manuscripts on the first contact. That’s what they mean when they say, “No unsolicited materials” in their submission guidelines.
What to Expect
After you send out queries, you’ll get a mix of responses, including:
No response at all. That means it’s a rejection. Don’t sweat it – just move on.
A request for more material like sample chapters or a synopsis.
A request for the full manuscript (woo-hoo!)
Note: Do not submit to one agent, then wait for a response before submitting to another. Honestly – you’ll be 184 years old by the time you find an agent. Agent replies can take weeks to arrive – and most, unfortunately, contain a clear “No thank you.” So don’t waste time – go ahead and submit to as many appropriate agents as you can find. No agent is going to ask you, “Have you submitted this to any other agents?” And even if they did, it would be none of their business.
What if it Doesn’t Work?
I’m tempted to say that if you receive no requests for your manuscript, or if you receive requests then rejections of your work, then there might be something wrong with your query letter, synopsis, or with the book itself. But honestly, how can you know? The reasons an agent might not be interested in your work are countless – who knows why they rejected it? Maybe they’re too busy – maybe the book is too long or too short – maybe they don’t want anything in that particular genre right now – or maybe they don’t like the way your name is spelled. Really, who knows?! I say do your best work – on the book, on the query letter, on the synopsis. Then put an honest and thorough effort into finding an agent or publisher who is interested in your book. Have faith, and follow your instincts.
Remember, almost every successful author in the universe received rejection after rejection before finally being published. Finding an agent and actually getting a book published is beyond difficult – it can be one painful slug in the gut after the next…believe me, I know. But you’re not alone in this. You’re going through what every serious writer goes through. Try to hang in there and don’t give up!