Friday, July 10, 2009

an intro to literary agents

One of an author’s greatest quests during his or her lifetime is finding an agent. But it’s not just about finding an agent to represent your work. It’s about finding an agent who will be your champion, who will not only pitch your work to editors but also talk you up to anyone who will listen. Most importantly an agent can, and should, be an asset to understanding the market better. A good agent will represent your work; a great agent will know where your book will fit best in the land of publishing and help you find a place for it.

Of course, before this wonderful agent of yours can do all these things for you, you need to find one first, right? Some say it’s harder to find an agent than it is to find an editor. There is some truth to this in that an agent must be extremely selective in the clients they take on. One agent can only represent so many clients in a 100% capacity, so it’s in their best interest to really pick and choose. Since each and every author wants an agent who will consider them their number one client (while recognizing they have other authors they feel the same way about, of course), it’s understandable to know that numbers are a big part of the game. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to be underrepresented by an agent. Still, the search for that champion can be daunting.

So, how does one go about finding an agent? What do you send them? How will you know if you will make a good team? And do you really need an agent?

Let’s start with the easy one: How to know if you need an agent. The majority of publishing houses really do prefer to receive submissions through an agent. Unless you have already established a relationship with an editor – either through previous publications or one-on-one sessions at a conference, for example – it’s tough to get an editor’s attention. Assuming you are an emerging author with no prior book publications, you will want to verify with your ideal publisher’s guidelines whether or not they accept unagented submissions.

While the vast majority will not accept ‘slush pile’ submissions, some will at least consider a query. Read the website info for the publishing house you want to submit your work to, and you’ll get an idea of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Of course, if you write in a genre, like romantic suspense or fantasy, you have a better chance of being able to submit on your own. Some publishers allow for at least a query letter, if not a partial. Each publisher has specific guidelines you are advised to research. That way, you’ll know that Avon accepts email queries, Silhouette Nocturne welcomes a query, synopsis, and a three chapter partial through regular mail, and that Samhaim will accept either a partial or a full submission through email only.

Now, if you happen to write mainstream or literary fiction, non-fiction, or in another area that generally requires an agent, you need to focus some energy on finding an agent if you want the best chance of success in seeing your book published.

Which brings us to our next question: How to find an agent. While there are countless market books out there, like the 2009 Guide to Literary Agents, and agent search listings such as Preditors & Editors, you will do a great service to yourself and to your writing career by trying to get more personal.

What I mean by that is, you’ll have a much more effective agent search if you target those agents that a) represent the kind of work you write b) have a history of selling the kind of work you write and c) are, in fact, open to receiving queries. In addition, you will also want to get a feel of an agent’s personality to determine if you think the two of you will be a good team. But how do you discover all of these things? You research.

Researching agents is not hard, especially in this web friendly age. An author can review submission policies and client lists at agency websites like BookEnds, Curtis Brown, or any of the other agencies with a website. And to get to know a specific agent better, all an author has to do is see who is blogging and follow their posts. Agents like Jessica Faust, Nathan Bransford, and Rachelle Gardner post a new discussion almost daily on their blogs. Many of them also use twitter to share news and updates on their clients, the industry, and other tips.

Once you have become familiar with an agent and have determined they are someone you would like to work with then you can confidently query them and let them know why you think you make a good team.

Which leads into this: What you should say when you query an agent. The most important thing, in querying an agent, is to professionally represent you and your writing. Assuming you have spent an enormous amount of time creating the best description of your manuscript possible, you will want to start by introducing yourself and letting the agent know why you are querying them. Maybe you have been following their blog for a year and based on what appeals to them in a submission, you think you’ll do well together. Or maybe you love three books represented by that agent, so you’ll want to say “I love this, this, and this book and thus I am writing to you about my manuscript in the same genre.”

What matters to the agent is that you are capable of presenting yourself as a professional who understands what they represent, knows the market, and can pitch in an enticing way. Some agents like to know about your publication history and others don’t care (unless you’re a NY Times bestseller, in which case I’ve heard it’s always good to mention this). When it comes down to it, an agent wants to know three things in a query: who you are, why you feel the agent is a good match, and a description of the project you want them to read and how it would work with their portfolio.

Yes, this topic is overwhelming and there are many finer points to get into. But this brief overview is meant to only introduce the basics. In time, I’ll get more specific about the author-agent relationship and how to focus in on finding your dream representation. Of course, feel free to ask questions or offer ideas for topics to cover. I’m open to your suggestions.

I also can’t stress enough how valuable it is to read blogs by agents and authors in the know. To help you out, I have listed a few blog links below to help you get started.

Questions you need to ask before signing with an agent

Tips for finding an agent

Your rights as an author

Tips on writing a query letter

Dos and don’ts tips from author Allison Winn Scotch

How to know when you meet the right agent

How to make an agent’s job easier

In the future, I’ll be sharing more tips on how to familiarize yourself with agents and editors. Plus, stay tuned for more Q&As to learn from author success stories.

Until next time… happy reading (and writing)!


  1. Great post Lori. I was wondering about the wisdom of submitting to publishers. I have heard that literary agents will be unable to submit your work to publishing houses that have already rejected your work, and if you were reject merely because you didn;t present yourself in the right way that would be a shame to say the least. Do you think it is better to put your efforts into finding and agent and leave the publishing houses and editors to them?

  2. Hi Tabitha,

    Good questions! This is a topic I would like to expand on, as you’ve pretty much heard correctly. While I’ll expand on it in a future post, the short answer is yes, it can be difficult to get an editor to look at a submission they have already passed on. The short explanation is that editors know when something is going to work or has promise for working within their area. Thus, once they have seen it and declined interest, it won’t matter than an agent is now representing it. They already know the story and didn’t want to pick it up the first time. That makes it hard for an agent to sell, who already has a tough job.

    The basic rule of submitting a manuscript is that you want to put your best foot forward because you usually get ONE chance at making that first impression. You want the editor to feel that rush of excitement the first time they read it and that gets lost when trying to approach them a second time with the same manuscript.

    Unless a ms is severely reworked and an agent feels very strongly it has a better chance the second time around, most agents would rather see the author work on submitting the next novel.

    Too, if an author is contemplating sending out submissions to publishers and to agents at the same time, this should be considered. If an agent wants to work with the author based on the book that’s with the publishing houses at the same time, what role can the agent play if the work is already submitted? It may be too late for that first ms and they’ll need a second ms to market. If the writer has that all ready to go, that’s not so much of a problem, but it’s something to consider. I think, in my shoes, I would first submit to an agent and let them take the lead in submitting to editors, if I had just the one ms ready to go at that time.

    Again, there is a lot more to this and I think this would be a great topic, so I’ll add it to my list and be sure to post it soon.

    Great questions, Tabitha!