Literary Agents: What They Do and How to Find One
What does a literary agent do? And where do you go about finding a literary agent? When you’re ready to submit a manuscript for publication, you might solicit top literary agents to represent your work. But, like most things in the writing business, actually getting a literary agent—especially a good one—proves much more difficult than it sounds.
Why are good literary agents hard to get hold of? Well, there’s a shortage of agents and a surplus of writers. Nonetheless, finding a literary agent is more than possible. This article will walk you through the basics.
From the agent’s basic job description to drafting the literary agent query letter to how to find literary agents accepting submissions, let’s jump in.
What is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent’s job is to sell your book to a publisher.
What is a literary agent? In short, they’re the person whose job it is to sell your book to a publisher. Literary agents work to present great manuscripts to potential publishers, and while the agent’s primary role is to sell books and negotiate contracts, your agent can also be your motivation, your first editor, and your biggest supporter.
Where Literary Agents Came From
The easiest way to understand the role of literary agents is to first understand their history. The idea of an agent for unpublished books was unheard of—until the late 19th century, when publishing and literacy had reached new levels in Victorian England.
To accommodate for the exponential growth in both emerging authors and emerging publishers, a new role began to develop: a middleman between writer and publisher. In the 1890s, much like today, the majority of writers were far more comfortable writing than engaging in “the business of writing”—in other words, what writers need to do to make enough money from writing. But if a business-minded individual who likes books were to come along to champion new titles, it might make all the difference for new authors.
Literary agents were born from this need for a middleman. Publishers used to despise these agents, but that has changed entirely, and many publishers now require an author to be represented by someone else.
What Does a Literary Agent Do?
The job duties of top literary agents can be divided into three categories: fielding new submissions, preparing finished manuscripts, and bargaining with book publishers.
1. Fielding New Submissions
Most literary agents work on multiple projects at a time, and the moment one project finishes, another soon takes its place. Later in this article, we list different spaces for finding a literary agent; in short, agents seek new works using social media like Twitter, websites like DuoTrope, and also by responding to emails and query letters.
2. Preparing Finished Manuscripts
The best literary agents have an ear on the contemporary book market: they know what makes a book easy to market and sell. Once they’ve selected a manuscript they’d like to represent, the agent might request certain edits or changes before they present that manuscript to the publisher.
An agent might request certain edits or changes before presenting a manuscript to a publisher.
Literary agents accepting submissions want to represent manuscripts they believe in. When an agent picks up a new author, it’s because they’re passionate about that book and want other people to feel the same. This step ensures the book has the highest possible chance of success when presented to publishers.
3. Representation and Negotiation With Publishers
This is the part of the job that most people are familiar with. After all, “agents” in any profession act as middlemen between artists and businesses. Literary agents are no different, and many authors rely on their agents for their legal and book publishing expertise.
Many book publishers only accept solicitation from literary agents. Unless you’re an author with a highly recognizable name, book printers like Penguin, MacMillan, HarperCollins, and even some indie presses like Graywolf will only speak with your agent.
Many book publishers only accept solicitation from literary agents. Why? Agents are simply easier to do business with.
Why is that? Agents are simply easier to do business with. They are passionate about the books they represent and also cognizant of the book publisher’s needs. Additionally, literary agents are a great tool for filtering out unwanted manuscripts, so when an agent approaches a book publisher with a new manuscript, that publisher knows the story has been vetted and approved by someone with a legitimate opinion.
Since literary agents make most of their money from commission, they will try to sell manuscripts to publishers for more money.
Finally, literary agents make most of their money from commission. Because of this, they will try to sell manuscripts to publishers for more money, since it’s in both the author’s and the agent’s best interest.
Is Finding a Literary Agent Essential for Getting Published?
Not at all. The publishing landscape is changing quickly: the Big 5 is probably consolidating, indie presses are resurging, and the internet has made authorship easier than ever. All of this, on top of the advancement of the self-publishing industry, has made literary agents an optional component of authorship.
However, there are certain opportunities solely afforded to authors with literary agents. These include:
- Earning a valuable eye on your manuscript before it gets sent to publishers.
- Having a much greater chance of selling your book to The Big 5.
- Negotiating better paying book advances and royalties.
- Fostering a relationship that often results in future book releases.
For many writers, agents help offload some of the business demands of writing. The best literary agents are cognizant of their authors’ current projects, upcoming deadlines, and financial needs.
At the same time, no two agents are made the same, so seeking an agent to represent your work can also be a risk. If the agent doesn’t quite grasp your work or has a poor track record of selling your book to publishers, you may end up wasting months of your time and have to restart the process with a better-fitting agent.
Agents help offload some of the business demands of writing; but seeking an agent to represent your work can also be a risk.
Additionally, some authors balk at the cost of having an agent. The industry standard for literary agents is a 15% commission on all book advances and royalties, and a 20% commission on overseas sales. While the agent will try to negotiate a higher price for selling your book, that negotiation won’t always offset the agent’s cut.
Industry standard for agents is a 15% commission on all book advances and royalties, and a 20% commission on overseas sales.
This isn’t to discourage you from finding a literary agent, only to raise certain cautions. Putting your writing in the world often carries an emotional risk—if not also a professional risk. Although literary agents absorb some of that risk, they can also amplify it in different ways.
Do Poets Need Literary Agents?
Very, very rarely. Literary agents accepting submissions will almost always turn down poetry manuscripts, as poetry tends to be an unlucrative publishing opportunity, and an emerging poet’s best chance at publication is through independent presses.
There are, of course, some exceptions. You may need a literary agent for poetry if you want to solicit larger indie presses like Graywolf, Europa, Melville House, and Algonquin Books.
Getting a literary agent a poet is much harder than other genres.
Getting a literary agent a poet is much harder than other genres. For starters, many agents refuse to consider poetry manuscripts. If they do, they will probably devote more time to fiction and nonfiction projects.
Additionally, even though independent presses take bigger risks on their authors than the Big 5, they still want to publish poets who are marketable and manuscripts that are salable. Poets with recognizable names in the community have the best chance of securing an agent, so if you’re a poet thinking about traditional publishing, it may benefit you to develop your self-branding and social media following.
Pros vs. Cons of Literary Agents
Not sure about finding a literary agent? Consider these pros and cons before making a decision.
How to Find a Literary Agent Step-by-Step
Once you have a manuscript that you’re ready to show to the world, follow these steps.
1. Finding Literary Agents
From databases to social media, today’s authors have more opportunities than ever to secure an agent. Keep these four venues in mind:
- Literary agent databases
- Published books
- In person events
Databases for Literary Agents
The internet is continuously updating with new databases for literary agents. Here are some of the most comprehensive:
- The Directory of Literary Agents
- Poets & Writers
- Agent Query
- Directory of Literary Agents
- DuoTrope (requires paid subscription)
- Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.
Note: since these resources are publicly available, they are also highly competitive. Be prepared to send a lot of literary agent query letters before you start getting solid responses.
Also, Writer’s Market publishes a comprehensive and annual review of journals, publishers, and agents accepting queries. The most recent version, at time of writing this article, is the 2020 publication, but be sure to purchase the most up-to-date copy out there.
Many writers, journals, and top literary agents accepting submissions use Twitter as their social media of choice. If you don’t have a Twitter, it may be worth signing up—especially while you’re finding a literary agent.
Some agents source the majority of their writers from Twitter alone. In fact, the practice of finding new talent on Twitter has led to the creation of specific hashtags, as well as Pitch Parties: events where agents allow writers to pitch their work in 280 characters or less.
Some agents source the majority of their writers from Twitter alone.
Pitch Parties are usually hosted by publishers or agents. The host will create a hashtag like #pitdark, #PBpitch, or #LGBTNpit, then review the book pitches that are sent to that tag. Pitch Party hosts are usually looking for specific submissions, so make sure you review the host’s Twitter page before you post to their hashtag, and don’t submit a pitch for a book that’s clearly out of their genre. If the host is looking for literary fiction about living in the American South, don’t submit a pitch for an urban fantasy novel set in New England.
So, when can you submit your pitch? Take a look at this calendar of pitch parties in 2021.
What should you tweet to the Party? Your book pitch is like a condensed form of the literary agent query letter, which we discuss further below. Writing the pitch is difficult, as you want your pitch to be snappy and comprehensive without being too wordy. It’s always good practice to have someone review your book pitch or query letter before you submit it, as this pitch acts like your handshake with the publishing world.
It’s safe to say that a majority of book readers don’t spend much time reading the book’s Acknowledgments page. The page is mostly irrelevant to the book, and certainly not the reason you bought it in the first place.
But, when you’re ready to start querying literary agents, the book’s Acknowledgments Section may be your best friend.
Let’s say you have a completed manuscript, and you can point to specific books and authors that helped inform your work. Chances are, the agents that published those influences are still active and still seeking new authors. As we’ll discuss in a bit, it’s helpful to include in your literary agent query letter how your manuscript fits into the canon of current publications; if your book is relevant to other authors that the agent has represented, they may represent you, too.
For example, let’s say you’ve just finished a novel that grapples with religion and childhood in postcolonial Nigeria—similar in premise to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus. If the work is original and compelling, it may interest the agent mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments section. Adichie acknowledges her agent “for believing,” and if your work piques the agent’s interest (and she’s accepting submissions), she may believe in your work, too.
Writers’ conferences are one of the few spaces where book lovers can freely interact with each other. These conferences connect writers, editors, publishers, and agents across the writing community, and some conferences include opportunities to network and pitch your manuscript.
You can find an upcoming list of conferences here, though bear in mind that some of these conferences may be cancelled, postponed, or moved online, depending on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Drafting the Literary Agent Query Letter
You may connect with an agent in person or over social media, but chances are, you’ll find the best literary agents that interest you—and that you don’t have any connections to—from books or databases.
Here enters the literary agent query letter. Draft this right, and you’re sure to find an agent that’s both willing and excited to represent your work.
The literary agent query letter gives the agent all the information they need about you, your style, and your manuscript. Think of it like a cover letter, except you’re applying for an agent instead of a job. While there’s no strict formula, successful query letters tend to include the following 8 components—and avoid these common query letter mistakes.
- Brief introduction to a specific person. Do not address a general organization, and do not start your letter with to whom it may concern. Always address a specific person.
- The intent for writing to the agent. Include what call for submissions the letter is responding to, if any.
- A brief, summaristic pitch of the manuscript.
- 4-6 sentences, describing more about the book, such as its major plot points, length, intended audience, etc. This is where you can really sell the project and show the agent your voice.
- A brief paragraph on why this project has a good chance of being successful—its uniqueness, marketability, etc.
- What published work your manuscript might be similar to.
- Tip: don’t tell agents your work is inspired by Great Classics, like The Great Gatsby or Ulysses, unless those works are extremely relevant to your manuscript. Otherwise, it will likely come off as self-inflated and unawares.
- A bit about who you are (previous publications, college degrees, other professional achievements).
- Brief closing sentence.
Let’s look at these 8 steps in action. Below is a copy of the literary agent query letter that Justin Kramon submitted to his (now) agent, Ayesha Pande. This letter was previously published at Writer’s Digest.
You’ll notice that Justin doesn’t include all of the steps in order, but by the end of the letter, the reader has a sense of his writing style, his potential readers, his literary influences, and the connections he has that can help him market his book.
Notice, also, that Justin is pitching both his short stories and his novel. Since this is an unprompted query letter, he has the capacity to pitch multiple projects at once, though he has to make sure that both projects get their due attention.
Finally, notice that Justin ends by including sample work. If you have a completed manuscript, it’s common to include 10 or so pages with your letter—unless the agent’s web page explicitly states that they don’t want unsolicited writing submissions. This gives them a proper sample of your writing and informs them of the work they would represent to publishers.
Good query letters demonstrate the author’s personality, talent, and potential.
Every published author has a different story and a different background, but one thing unites all of their query letters: they demonstrate the author’s personality, talent, and potential. While these three goals are a bit nebulous, they are nonetheless what your query letter can achieve with these 8 steps.
3. Sending Simultaneous Submissions to Literary Agents
Throughout the process of researching literary agents, you hopefully made a list of the agents you’d like to connect with. As a result, you should prepare to write many different query letters, each properly addressed and written with each specific agent in mind.
In other words, do not copy and paste one letter, change the name, and then apply to a different agent. This is bad practice for cover letters just as it is for query letters. Your literary agent query letters should feel personalized, acknowledging the agent’s own work and background. You should even consider writing different pitches to different agents, depending on what their tastes might be and how they might connect with your work.
It probably seems tedious to write this letter over and over, but sorting through tedium is inevitable when it comes to the business of writing. Write and submit your query letters well and wisely!
4. Responding to Rejections and Acceptances
Here’s the harsh truth: you’re going to get a lot of rejections before an agent decides to work with you.
You’re going to get a lot of rejections before an agent decides to work with you.
It’s nothing personal, and rarely reflective of your talent as a writer. Remember, an agent is taking a risk bringing new talent in: agents are paid in advances and royalties, so if they don’t think they’re the right person to get your book published, they will let you know pretty concisely.
There are three types of rejection letters that literary agents typically send out:
- The simple “no.” Because agents field a large number of queries, don’t be surprised if the rejection letter you get feels a bit copy-pasted. It’s nothing personal, just that the agent knows your work will be better handled by someone who shares your vision.
- The polite rejection. An agent might respond to your query letter asking for more work, then decide against representing you. Again, this is nothing personal, just a simple reflection of the time constraints all literary agents face. The agent may reply with some feedback about why, ultimately, they decided against representing your work; take note of their feedback, perhaps put it in a spreadsheet, but don’t act on it right away.
- The potential “yes!” A literary agent might respond with a “Revise & Resubmit,” or R&R. This means that they like your work, but require some edits before they can confidently represent your work. This is more like a “maybe” than a “no” response, but remember, the agent still reserves the right to refuse your work after resubmitting it. Additionally, the agent’s comments might contradict your writing style or ideas, which is also an indicator that they might not be the right agent for you. If you receive this rejection letter, be methodical about revising your work—or deciding against those revisions.
Rejection letters might sting, but receive them professionally—without being angry, snide, passive-aggressive, or trying to change the agent’s mind. News travels fast in the industry, so unless you want to be blackballed by most major publishers and agents, let your frustration out elsewhere.
Whether you receive an acceptance letter in 10 days or 10 months, it’s a high professional achievement, as well as great validation for your writing. Someone likes your book so much that they want to represent it to publishers! Sure, that’s the literary agent’s job, but it’s a great feeling nonetheless, and one that you should enjoy.
If you agree to work with that agent, there are a few last steps for you to take.
First, it’s good practice to inform the other agents you’ve sent your work to. If you haven’t received a response from certain agents, feel free to send them a message saying your work has been accepted by an agent. You can also let them know you’d like to withdraw your submission, but it may be wise to wait—more on that in a moment.
Second, you’ll want to touch base with your new agent about next steps. Some literary agents will tell you to sit back and keep writing—they’ll take it from here. Other agents might be hands-on, helping you establish a digital presence or requesting certain edits before they represent your manuscript. The agent knows best how to sell books to publishers, so take their advice when they offer it.
Finally, go celebrate! You’ve jumped a major hurdle that many authors aspire to achieve.
What if Multiple Literary Agents Agree to Represent Your Work?
There is a chance that multiple agents will accept your work. This chance can even increase after you’ve obtained an agent. Some top literary agents will only read work that has already been accepted by a different agent; in a way, the first agent vets whether or not the book is worth publishing, so instead of combing through countless submissions, another agent will wait until the author has proven themselves competitive in the market.
In other words, you might receive an acceptance letter after telling a different agent you’ve been accepted. What then?
If the first agent you accepted feels like a perfect fit, trust your instincts and stick with them. If you’re not sure whom to choose, then take a step back and consider what you want from your agent. Are you looking for a professional advisor? A hands-on editor? A fellow book nerd?
If this happens to you, you may end up having conversations with multiple agents, with each agent aware that they’re competing against someone else for you. Use this opportunity to vet your top literary agents, not only for their ability to sell books to publishers, but also for the lifetime value they might bestow on your writing journey.
What to Look For in Potential Literary Agents
While researching or conversing with literary agents, you want to know what your working relationship with them will feel like. This might include knowing the following:
- The agent’s publishing history—whom do they represent? Is their other authors’ work similar to yours? How successful were those publications? What is their rate of acceptances versus rejections from publishers? Which publishers do they solicit?
- The agent’s “agenting” style—how do they support their writers? How might collaborating with this agent benefit your professional career in the long run?
- The agent’s submission and negotiation style—What do they do in the negotiation room? Literary agents have to submit to publishers the same way you have to submit to literary agents; knowing how the agent approaches the publication process, as well as the provisions they guarantee their authors, helps create expectations for your working relationship.
- The agent’s interpersonal style—does the agent try to meet their authors in the middle? Do represented authors have the power to say “no” to certain edits? Or do they have permission to discuss changes rather than take orders? Most agents aren’t authoritarian, but you want to know you’ll have a comfortable working relationship.
Kid Lit has a great list of questions to ask your agent. Bookmark these questions for when you start getting acceptances!
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I have found this article particularly helpful as a semi novice in these MATTERS.
I’m so happy to hear that! Wishing you great luck on your publishing journey.
After struggling through my quest to get published for over two years now, I can’t help but feel that it would be so very helpful to get even a smidgeon of feedback, not just boilerplate rejection. I know agents get inundated with queries but I’m not sure if any of these rejections have even bothered reading what I’ve sent, especially the ones who ask you not respond in any way to their email. It apparently is not bad enough to get a door slammed in your face but you’re not even allowed to thank them for their time in rejecting you. Even worse are the ones whose very silence is supposed to count as a rejection notice. At the very least contact people is a civilized manner, not just ghost them. It is no wonder that more people are turning to self-publishing, which in my opinion will just lead to lower quality work being on the market.
A nicely written, helpful article. I have self-published one book (Democratizing Finance), which has been well reviewed, but have now written a personal/political memoir for which I am considering seeking an agent. Your afticle helps met think about it.
Thanks, Clifford! Best of luck on your publishing journey.
How do I find out the details of the literary agent for a specific book as I am writing something along the same lines and would like to approach them when completed.