How to Get a Literary Agent
This is a question I am asked frequently. My advice does not change and I often dig out the last email I wrote and forward that on. So, next time someone asks, I can direct them straight to this blog!
The subject for a future post or posts will be what is an agent, why would you want one, where do they fit in the publishing industry, and so on. But, for now, let’s say you’ve asked me how to approach a literary agent – here’s what I’d tell you:
What kind of book have you written or are you writing?
If you’re writing a novel – fiction – then you need to have finished the whole book before you approach agents. This is to prove you can finish a book. This is not easy! That’s why you have to show you can do it.
If you are working on non-fiction, you need to have a proposal which is usually minimum a synopsis, list of chapters, the introduction and a draft chapter. Around 10,000 words.
If it's a children's book, it might not even be 10,000 words. That's fine. If you're writing picture books, you should have three to five stories ready to showcase your work.
Now figure out what kind of book it is. What books is it like in the market? What current (published in the last five years) book titles would it be recommended on Amazon alongside in that ‘customers who bought this book also liked’… feature? Think about: content, story, style, etc.
If it’s a children’s book, try your best to figure out what age group it’s for. Go to a bookshop or your local library to browse the competition! Does your book sit alongside Helen Oyeyemi and Ali Smith? Or Marian Keyes and Beth O’Leary? Or Cressida Cowell and Pamela Butchart? Or Gretchen Rubin and Glennon Doyle?
Now figure out which agents to approach
Who represents clients in a similar market? This is a good Google! You can start by looking up those competition authors you found – some authors have their agent info on their Twitter handle (‘Represented by…’) or on their own website. Or type ‘name + literary agent’ into Google and that should get you to their agency’s website.
You can also find literary agents through the Writers and Artists' Yearbook, see who is open to submissions and who seems like a good fit. Check carefully whether they are accepting submission at the moment or not! Some big agents already have full lists and can’t take on any more clients. Young, up-and-coming agents are always looking for new talent.
There is no point sending your serious adult literary fiction novel to an agent who represents children’s non-fiction. Do your homework here.
Then send your manuscript for submission – PAY ATTENTION TO THE GUIDELINES
So you’ve figured out what kind of book you’ve written. You’ve got a nice little list of agents who represent these kinds of books. Now – and I cannot emphasise this enough: check their website very very carefully and adhere absolutely to their submission requirements.
Some might ask for the first three chapters, or the first 10,000 words, or just a synopsis, or no synopsis, or three chapters and a synopsis and an author biography.
Every agent is slightly different and have their reasons for whatever they ask so make a good first impression. You want to show you will be a great client to work with. Start by reading what they say and following their advice!
In your submission email, say why you’re approaching them personally – for example, because they represent an author you admire, or you're both from Newcastle and think you'd get along really well, or you love their puppy tweets, whatever – and there are plenty of resources online on how to write a good submission letter (called a ‘query letter’ in the US, lots of blogs on that side of the pond too).
Also take care to note the agents’ turnaround times. It will be minimum 8-12 weeks and don’t pester them before then. They can get 100 submissions a week. They read everything but it takes time! I always suggest you tier your list of agents – maybe submit to up to 6 in the first round, then after a fortnight submit to your next-favourite 6, and so on. It keeps up momentum in what can be a long process.
What happens next?
If an agent likes your sample manuscript, they will request a full manuscript. At this point, it’s worth sending a polite email to any other agents you’re still waiting to hear from to say someone has requested the full manuscript. Then again if you gets an offer of representation, it’s worth nudging other agents as well. Nothing like competition to stir them into action! And if you gets an offer of representation ALWAYS have at least a phone call, or Zoom, or ideally an in-person meeting. This person is going to manage your literary career for ever, you want to make sure you get along!
That’s the overview. In short, to look for a literary agent:
- Identify your genre
- Find agents who represent those books
- Pay close attention to their submission guidelines
- FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES
- Be patient, polite, and persevere
Publishing is a long game at every stage. Have courage, have faith, and keep writing. Good luck!