Selecting a Literary Agent
There’s a great deal of debate about the importance of obtaining a literary agent and the purpose they serve to modern writers. Moving into the digital age of self publishing and e-books, most writers have turned against the idea of an agent, seeing it as another person they have to pay on an already weakened salary. However, agents can be an invaluable gateway into the publishing world. They know the ins and outs of the competitive commercial world of writing, work as a strong mediator between you and a publishing house, monitor royalties and ask for higher advances, and can market you globally. Submitting for representation can be just as hard as submitting for publication, but with the correct approach and an understanding of the market, you’re sure to succeed.
The Importance of Having an Agent:
Choosing the best literary agent for you requires some research; however, considering what you expect your agent to do, it’s worth a thorough hunt. As a writer, you have limited access to certain publishing houses due to restrictions against unsolicited work from unpublished writers. An agent represents your work to a wider spectrum and can target specific houses that match your style and genre. Sometimes, agents can even be contracted by a particular publishing house to specifically look for new writers. As well as creating publishing gateways, agents can help smooth out the communication between a writer and a publisher. They’re there to prepare complicated contracts, limit royalties taken by houses, and expand the reach of your literature by connecting with publishers on a global scale. Agents can secure extended contracts for two- or even three-book deals and can maximize your advance payment on your novel.
While agents serve professional purposes, they also lend an extra amount of motivation to any writer. They keep you writing and can even improve your craft depending on their level of experience. Keep in mind that this is a person you are going to be working with on a regular basis and in doing so, they should match your genre and expectations.
Qualities to Look for in an Agent:
The best agents are the right agents specifically for you. Start by looking for an agent who is accepting new writers, whether published or unpublished. Writer’s Market offers a regularly updated database of agents who are actively seeking new writers. Never inquire into an agent that charges an upfront fee for viewing your work. More often than not, this is a common scam used to obtain untraceable funds. Most agents accept manuscripts from new authors and are willing to look over your work free of charge. However, after signing with an agent, it is customary for them to charge an upfront minimal printing fee. This is common in the publishing world as most agents need to make copies of your manuscript to mail to publishing houses. With this in mind, understand that agents openly accepting work are incredibly busy and can receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. Search for an agent who actively works in your genre, has publishing ties to a house you’re interested in, and if possible, has a list of published writers they have worked with. This will allow you to compare your writing goals with their publishing interests. If they match, you have a better chance of having an agent accept you. A good writer typically juggles and compares several interested agents before choosing just one. Meet with every agent you inquire into that has showed interest—whether that be in person, phone, or video conference—to crosscheck compatibility and expectations. Read the work of authors they represent and, if they are contracted with a specific publishing house, double check the requirements of the house. These prerequisites typically match what the agent requires when looking over your work.
Where to Look for an Agent:
Some of the most beneficial resources to finding an agent are writing conferences. Writing conferences have grown in recent years to include agents openly seeking new clients, and they occasionally set aside time at these conferences to meet with writers. This is also a great way to get a good look into the industry. Additionally, Writer’s Market offers an up-to-date database of agents openly seeking work from published and unpublished writers. This is an incredibly reliable source when looking for reputable agents and is well worth the investment to pick up a copy at your local bookstore. Another common route that seasoned writers take is to talk with other writers. Signed authors can recommend you to agents through their own connections and can give your work an edge, placing you on top of the overwhelming heap of submitted manuscripts. They can also offer an inside perspective to dealing with particular agents.
How and When to Submit your Work to an Agent:
Most agents are interested in larger works, such as novels or trilogies/series. Unfortunately in such a competitive market, agents are disinclined to promote or sign an author on the sole basis of a short story collection. You should begin submitting for an agent when you have a polished and prepared novel.1 This should be no different than submitting work to a literary journal. Think of it as an application and prepare your best possible work for them to review.
Consider submitting smaller pieces of your work for publication to literary journals to build a publishing credit before looking for an agent. Competitions and literary journals typically accept open submissions and the more you have published, the more promising you look to an agent. For more on the importance of building a publishing credit, visit “How to Build a Publishing Platform.”
Agents who are seeking new clients are looking for serious writers who are dedicated to their craft. While there are many avenues to establish yourself as a prolific writer, a popular—albeit enormous— step to consider is joining a creative writing program. Many universities offer comprehensive and rigorous creative writing programs where you can obtain an MFA. This will not only to attract agents, but will also allow you to immerse yourself within the craft and become a better writer. Tethered Tidings author, Bruce Machart, attended the Ohio State University where he obtained his MFA in creative writing. He stated that his creative writing program is what greatly molded him as a writer. For more information about choosing a creative writing program, please check back for our upcoming article “How to Choose a Creative Writing Program.”
Once you’ve researched and targeted specific agents you wish to submit to, make a detailed list of every agent you are interested in. Include contact information, publishing houses they may be affiliated with, authors they’ve worked with, and genres they support. This will allow you to stay organized when sending your query letters2 out to agents and help to keep you sane. To streamline an agent’s review of your work, prepare a brief and concise query letter that includes a short synopsis of your proposed work. If the agent is aligned with a specific agency, check their guidelines for how much work they accept (if any) at a time and by what means you can send it (i.e. electronically or by mail). Generally speaking, agents only need the first few chapters (approximately fifty pages) to get a feel for your style and see if you’d be a good fit.
If an agent selects you, be clear on what you expect from them and have a few publishing houses in mind to submit your work to. Your connection with your agent should be comfortable, but they should always be moving you forward and propelling your career toward publication. Stay clear and firm on where you’d like to end up and communicate these expectations with your chosen agent so they understand your desire to be published. The more eager you are to work, the more they will extend their reach to get you higher in the publishing world.
Researching, choosing, and submitting to an agent is a big step for any writer and should be understood as a serious move toward becoming a more active and attentive writer. If you’re hoping to be a career writer (yikes!), consider the amount of time you can allow your writing since continuity and time spent immersed within your craft will be expected.
1 If your writing is non-fiction and requires extensive research, you can generally acquire an agent with just the first few chapters (roughly fifty pages). The book does not necessarily need to be a finished.
2 Generally, you can use the same query letter prepared for publishing houses when searching for a literary agent. For more on how to write a comprehensive query letter, please visit “Writing a Query Letter.”