How to Get an Agent

Literary agents are absolutely worth their commission, assuming they're good at their job. If you've written a novel and want to sell your book, a literary agent can help you.

Here are a few things that agents do for their clients:
  • Offer editorial advice. Some do this more than others. If you want an editorial agent, ask about this before signing. 
  • Submit to big publishers that don't accept submissions from unagented authors. If you want to be published by many big publishers, having an agent isn't optional. It's required.
  • Negotiate higher advances. Yes, agents charge a commission, but they often more than make up for this by negotiating a better deal.
  • Negotiate other aspects of the contract. Publishing contracts are complicated. An agent will review it with your best interest in mind. 
  • Provide motivation and writing advice. Publishing is hard. You'll want someone in your corner.  
  • Sell other rights, including translation rights and movie rights. 

Getting an agent is hard, but it's not impossible, not even for new writers with no publishing credits.

Good agents don't charge reading or representation fees. All the money they make comes from commissions. They only earn money when they sell a book. As a result, they are very selective about what they choose to represent. 

Agents also have their personal tastes. Most agents will only agree to represent books that they love AND that they think they can sell. If it's just not for them, or if they think it's great but don't think they could get a deal, they'll pass. 

At the same time, agents want to find new writers. This is how they make a living!

If you want a book deal, I highly recommend trying to get an agent first. It will probably be hard, and you will almost certainly face rejection, but it is the best way to get a publishing deal. And it doesn't have to cost you any money.

Here's how to get a literary agent for your novel:

Write and revise your manuscript first. You cannot approach an agent with an idea for a novel. You just can't. Don't try.

To learn more about how to write and revise your manuscript, read Learn to Write a Novel

Write your query letter. A query is a letter you send to an agent when you are seeking representation. It includes a pitch that introduces your main character and plot in an enticing way. It also includes a little relevant information about you, the genre of your manuscript, and the word count. It may include a couple of comp titles and some information on why your pitching this agent. 

Your query letter is very important, so spend some time on it. To learn more about query letters, go to the following websites:
Send your query to agents. To find agents who represent your genre, check out agentquery.com.

Follow each agent's instructions. Do not ignore the instructions and then tell the agent you're too busy to follow the instructions. This will only convince the agent you are too difficult to work with. Agents receive hundreds or thousands or queries. To save time, they specify how they want them. It's just like when you're applying for a job. Follow the instructions.

Many agents want sample pages included with the query. These should be the first pages. Don't take pages from the middle of the manuscript. 

Most agents accept electronic queries, either using email or an online submission form. This is great for you because you don't have to spend money on postage! Unless the instructions say otherwise, paste the query and sample pages into the body of the email. Send yourself some test emails to make sure the formatting is okay. 

Brace yourself. Some agents reply quickly. Others take months. Some never reply. Send your queries out in batches of five to ten. This way, if you don't get a good response, you can revise your query and sample pages before sending out more. Don't give up too quickly. You may need to send out more than fifty queries. 

Be professional. If an agent rejects you, don't ask for feedback. This is not the agent's job. Don't insult the agent, either. This will get you marked as unprofessional and burn bridges. No one likes rejection, but it's part of the business. Complain to a friend in private and move on. 

It Really Is Possible to Find an Agent by Querying.

Some people think it's impossible, or nearly so, for an unpublished, unknown author to get an agent. This simple isn't true. Most agents are always on the lookout for new authors, most of whom are unpublished and unknown. 

But, as I've said, agents are very selective. After receiving dozens of rejections, some authors assume the problem is that agents aren't interested in new authors. This is easier than recognizing the truth, which is that agents want new authors, but they're rejecting you anyway. 

I received hundreds of rejections on multiple manuscripts before landing an agent and then a deal. It hurt sometimes, but I didn't give up because publishing was something I really wanted. I kept writing, kept improving, kept trying. Eventually, I succeeded.

It's difficult. Sometimes people get discouraged and give up. Others start throwing away money in search of a shortcut. Don't do this. There are no shortcuts.

There are, however, a couple of alternative ways of connecting with agents. If you're sick of cold querying, you can consider attending a conference or participating in a contest.

Attending Conferences 

There are many reasons to attend a writing conference. Maybe you want to get expert advice and tips that will help you hone your writing skills and improve your chances of getting published. Or perhaps you want to meet other writers and publishing industry professionals.

Some people also attend writing conferences so they can meet agents and submit their work to them. This can work, especially with agents who are normally closed to unsolicited queries, but rejection is still far more common than acceptance. Agents may invite you to query them because you went to a conference where they spoke, but if they don't absolutely love your manuscript and think they can sell it, they'll still reject you.

Conferences are great, but there is a downside. They're expensive. They also take time and may require travel. 

You don't need to pay for access to agents.

If you can afford to go to a conference, and if you want to attend in order to meet other people in the industry and learn about writing, that's great. Have fun and learn, and sure, do some networking while you're there.

But don't spend money you don't have expecting it to be a shortcut to finding representation. Also understand that while a conference can be a great way to learn about both the craft and the business side of writing, it is not the only source of this information, especially in the age of the internet. Learning on your own through books and websites may be more difficult, but it's definitely possible.

If you want to attend a conference but can't afford it, contact the organization. You might be able to volunteer at the conference to gain free or reduced entry. There might also be scholarships available.

If you attend a conference, please make sure you understand the difference between networking and harassment. Don't shove your manuscript into agents' hands. Don't interrupt them while they're talking to someone else. Don't follow them into the bathroom so you can pitch to them while their in the stall. Seriously. Don't. 

Participating in Contests

You can also try to reach agents through a hashtag pitch content on Twitter. These have become pretty popular, and there are several different ones that focus on different genres now. Basically, you log into Twitter on the designated day of the pitch. Then you tweet a short pitch along with the necessary hashtags. If an agents "likes" your pitch, that agent wants you to send a query. 

      #PitMad is a big one. See pitchwars.org/pitmad for details.

      #DVPit is for marginalized authors and illustrators. See dvpit.com for details.

      #SFFpit is for fantasy and science fiction for all ages. See dankoboldt.com/sffpit for details.

      #PBPitch is for picture books. See pbpitch.com for details.

Hashtag pitch parties are easy and free, but you'll still have to write and send a query. It can be a good way to catch an agent's eye, and you might discover new agents. Before sending in your material, however, make sure you research the agent. I've heard of at least one case of an internet troll posing as an agent in order to mess with unsuspecting writers. 

Some other types of contests charge entry fees. These may or may not be worth your money. Before entering, research the contest. Even if it sounds legit, don't feel that you have to spend money. If your manuscript is good enough to get an agent and a publishing deal, you can succeed without spending any money, simply by querying. If your manuscript is not something that agents are interested in, a contest won't change that.

What to Look for in a Literary Agent

Just as a good literary agent can do wonders for your career, a bad one can hurt it.

When looking for a literary agent, avoid scam artists as well as well-meaning but inexperienced agents.

  • Don't pay a reading fee or signing fee. Legit agents earn a commission off sales, and that's it. The commission is usually 15 percent, but it may be higher for foreign rights and television/film rights, especially if a sub-agent is used.
  • Look for experience. In most cases, this means you're looking for a track record of sales to respectable publishers. New agents are often building their client list and can be a great opportunity for new writers, but you still need to make sure they have the necessary support and experience. Most new agents will work at established agencies and receive support from senior agents. Some new agents have worked in publishing before switching to agenting. Avoid a new agent who has no experience, connections, or support. 
  • Make sure the agent represents your genre, as well as other genres you plan to write.
  • If an agent offers to represent you, ask to speak to other clients, including those who have and who have not gotten a publishing deal yet.
  • Some agents are very editorial, meaning they go through revisions with clients before submitting manuscripts to publishers. If an agent offers to represent your manuscript, ask whether they are editorial, and what revisions they think your manuscript needs.
  • When signing with an agent, discuss communication preferences, including the preferred method and frequency. Agents have many clients and tend to be very busy, but you shouldn't be afraid to ask your agent questions. 

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