Tips for Finding (And Securing) a Literary Agent
If you’re looking to get published, finding an agent is probably high on your to-do list. A literary agent acts as the middle-person between you and a publisher. A good agent has many connections in the publishing world; they’ll help you negotiate publishing contacts, sell sub-rights, and sometimes help you manage financial and business affairs.
Do you need an agent?
Sometimes. You don’t need an agent to submit your work to literary magazines or small independent publishers. And self-publishing through Amazon or Barnes & Noble is also an option for those who’d prefer to carve their own path. However, if you hope to get published by a larger press, like one of the big five, or a close runner-up, an agent makes a big difference.
Many large publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, but you’re up against some serious odds if you go that route. Your manuscript will most likely end up in publishing purgatory, AKA, “the slush pile.” Editorial assistants are often responsible for sorting through the slush, then passing works that pique their interest up the chain. It’s hard to say when—if ever—your mail will be opened. An agent can help you skip the mountain of manuscripts and get your work straight into the hands of an editor.
How do you find a literary agent?
Finding a literary agent requires a little luck and a lot of patience. In addition to finding the right agent for your genre, you’ll want to spend time carefully crafting queries and waiting for responses. However, there are a few things you can do to make your search easier.
Use a database. There are a handful of free databases you can use to help you find an agent. The Poets & Writers Literary Agents Database keeps track of agents and agencies that represent poets, fiction writers, and reactive nonfiction writers. The database also includes the types of books and clients the agents represent and their contact information.
Another great option is Agent Query, which is a searchable database for all agents on the web. You can search by genre, name, or keyword to find a good match for your work. Each agent has a profile that details the genres they publish, whether they accept queries, special interests, past clients, and more.
The final database, and my personal favorite, is Query Tracker. One of the most robust databases on the web, Query Tracker doesn’t just help you find and contact agents. It’ll also help you organize and track your queries. The site also lists the average response times for each agent and how often they reply.
Nail down your genre. It’s important to select an editor in the correct genre. It can be hard to find an agent for poetry, but it’s best to submit to fewer agents than to cast a wide net to agents who will have no interest in your genre. Your work will fare much better when an agent enjoys it themselves.
Check their history. Be sure to check an agent’s client history and sales to see their successes. Make sure the person you choose has a proven track record of publishing works in your genre. The last thing you want is for your manuscript to sit in the hands of an agent with a poor reputation or limited connections. No agent is better than a bad agent.
Write a bomb query letter. The query letter is your first impression to any agent, so take your time and make sure it’s airtight. Your mission is to convince the agent that your project is worth investing time in—in one page or less. First, check whether the agent you’d like to contact prefers email or snail mail, and make sure your query letter meets their guidelines. (Quick tip: if you go the snail mail route, be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope [known as a SASE] so the agent can easily respond.) Also, read plenty of sample query letters in your genre, and even take cues from cover letters for literary magazines.
The basic query letter consists of three parts: a pitch (or hook), evidence, and some information about you. The pitch should sum up the nature of your book in one or two strong sentences. The evidence section should explain why the project is worth the agent’s time. If there are books from their sales history that are like yours, consider mentioning one here. Then, tell them about yourself—previous publications, experience, whether you have any kind of following (social media or otherwise), and most importantly, why you’re the perfect person to write this book.
And finally, get a critique. Send your letter to teachers, friends, or family members to get a second opinion before you start shopping your book around. The last thing you want to do is miss an erroneous typo when pitching yourself as a great writer.
Watch out for red flags. The internet is full of hungry scammers ready to pounce on authors pursuing their dreams. Remember, you should never pay an upfront fee to an agent. Agents make their money charging a commission on the sale of your manuscript. Commissions usually range from 10-20%. They don’t get paid until you get paid, which is why they’re so selective about who they represent. Taking on a new client is a big risk for an agent because they will have to spend time pitching your book for free, banking on the chance that it will sell.
How to increase your odds
Finding an agent is more of a marathon than a sprint, so remember to be patient and persistent. Poetry can be an even tougher genre to crack, so here are some ways to increase your odds of finding representation as a poet.
Pad your publishing credits. Publishing work in literary magazines or newspapers can help build your reputation and give you some bragging rights. While poems should be your main squeeze, it doesn’t hurt to write book reviews or opinion pieces as well.
Be courteous and self-aware. There are a lot of etiquette rules in the publishing biz, so be sure to do your research and follow them closely. Diverging from the process might make you stand out, but not in a good way. For example, I once worked as an editorial assistant for a small literary magazine. An author sent poems and drawings scribbled on napkins, which the editor threw straight in the trash. While the author may have thought his organic, creative genius would shine through, our editor didn’t see it that way. “Are we not worth the effort of a second draft?” was the editor’s response.
Get straight to the point. Time is of the essence—especially in publishing. No one wants to spend time unfolding origami swans or shuffling through pages of a manuscript they never asked for. Limit your letter to one page or less, and don’t send your manuscript unless they ask for it.
Make sure your manuscript is ready. It should go without saying, but don’t send out a query if your book is still in progress. If the agent wants to see it, you’ll have nothing to show. Have a clean, polished manuscript ready-to-go if and when you hear back.
Be gracious and receptive to criticism. Sometimes you won’t hear back at all, sometimes you may hear a simple “No, thank you,” and other times you might get some feedback—solicited or not. Avoid acting defensive or responding in anger. It could come back to haunt you down the road. Sometimes it’s not a good fit for the agent, but that doesn’t mean your work is bad. If you get feedback, take it as a compliment! Agents are busy people, so they must recognize some potential if they take the time to write more than a simple “No.”
Keep trying. Finally, don’t give up. Querying is tough and time-consuming, and sometimes it can feel like you’re getting nowhere. But plenty of authors send 100 or more queries before they start seeing traction (not all at once, of course). If you don’t hear back after the first 10 or 20, don’t get discouraged. Stay strong and query on!