Selecting a Literary Agent
by Dani Hedlund
There’s a great deal of debate about the importance of obtaining a literary agent. Moving into the digital age of self-publishing and e-books, most writers have turned against the idea of an agent, viewing them as just another person to pay. On the other hand, agents can be an invaluable gateway into the publishing world.
Literary agents know the ins and outs of the competitive commercial world of writing. They also work as a strong mediator between you and a publishing house, monitor royalties and negotiate higher advances, and can market you globally.
At TBL, we highly recommend that you seek representation from an agent if you are hoping to make writing a full-time career. However, submitting for representation can be just as hard as submitting for publication, so one must be organized, dedicated, and patient.
The Importance of Having an Agent
Choosing the best literary agent requires research. Depending on 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. An agent can target these large publishing houses.
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 provide extra 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—they should match your genre and expectations.
Qualities to Look for in an Agent
Start by looking for an agent who is accepting new writers, published or unpublished. 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 who has shown interest—whether in person, on the phone, or by video conference—to cross-check 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
Although there are several places to look for an agent, the easiest and most accessible is agentquery.com. This website is the largest database of literary agents on the web. It also offers easy-to-use search functions to find agents who represent your genre, and includes information about their clientele and whether or not they are actively seeking new clients.
Another place to search for an agent is in your local bookstore. Also, in works like Writer’s Market, lists of agents are printed (though it should be noted that this will not contain the up-to-date information sites like agentquery.com offer). Agents can also be found in the acknowledgement sections of your favorite books. Find novels, nonfiction works, and collections that are like the one you are trying to sell. See who represented the book by looking in the acknowledgment section (authors always thank their agents). You can then google the agent’s name (or look it up in an agent database) to see if they are accepting queries.
If you prefer to be more hands-on by selling your book in person, try writing conferences. Writing conferences have grown in recent years to include agents openly seeking new clients. At conferences, they occasionally set aside time to meet with writers. This is also a great way to get a good look into the industry.
Another common route that seasoned writers take is to talk with other writers. Signed authors can recommend agents through their own connections, placing you on top of the overwhelming heap of submitted manuscripts. They can also offer an insider’s perspective on 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 and 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. 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.
If your writing is nonfiction and requires extensive research, you can generally acquire an agent with just the first few chapters (roughly 50 pages). The book does not necessarily need to be finished.
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 have 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 through which you can obtain an MFA. This will not only attract agents, but will also allow you to immerse yourself in the craft and become a better writer.
Tethered Tidings author Bruce Machart attended 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.
Once you’ve researched and targeted specific agents to whom you wish to submit, 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 letters out to agents and help to keep you sane. Generally, you can use the same query letter prepared for publishing houses when searching for a literary agent (this will also help keep you sane). For more on how to write a comprehensive query letter, please visit “Writing a Query Letter.”
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 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 50 pages) to get a feel for your style and see if you’d be a good fit.
Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
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