How to find a literary agent

Get an agent with our simple 8 step guide

Getting an agent may feel impossible, but it really isn’t. There’s only one difficult step in the whole process (that’s step 1, below). The rest of it, honestly, is fairly easy. Just be disciplined, persistent, and follow this guide to finding agents.

Step 1. Write a wonderful book

Bear in mind you’re competing against the very best in the business. If you are writing spy thrillers, your books will be competing against John Le Carre’s and at the same price, with less publicity, less uptake from the bookstores.

The moral there is simple:

Hold your work to the highest of high standards. A competent book will never be taken on by an agent. A good book is unlikely to be taken on. A dazzling book WILL be taken on . . . and could well go on to sell for a lot of money.

Most writers don’t want to hear that advice, but truthfully? It’s the only advice that really, really matters. You can’t ignore it.

And though this blog post is not just going to pressure you into buying our services, it’s probably helpful to remind you that the gold-standard way of improving your manuscript is to get editorial advice from professional readers such as those we can supply. The details of what we offer can be found right here. If you’ve tried your luck with agents and got nowhere, then the chances are that one of the following apply to you:

  • You haven’t tried enough agents, or you’ve tried the wrong ones.
  • Your approach to agents has been howlingly bad.
  • Your book just isn’t yet good enough.

Of these, the third issue is by far the most common one, so if you’ve sought admittance to Planet Agent and got nowhere fast, then your probable next step should be to get editorial help. As I say, we can help.

The agent submissions builder

Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.

Step 2. Have realistic expectations

Literary agents spend most of their time handling existing clients. A typical agent might take on just two new authors a year, and most agencies receive 1,000 manuscripts a year. That means they reject most submissions. What’s more, very few publishers have interest in unsolicited contributions.

This is disheartening, of course – but if your manuscript is strong, it will be taken on – and authors who’ve sought our feedback or come to our Festival of Writing have achieved real success.

What does all that mean for you?

It means (1) you need to approach the whole business of finding an agent with the utmost professionalism; (2) you need to be realistic about the time it will take and the number of rejections you are likely to receive.

Step 3. Prepare your manuscript properly

Agents see hundreds of manuscripts. Don’t rule yours out on silly things. Eliminate spelling errors and don’t rely on a computer spell check (too to his four ewe).

If your spelling is poor, ask a friend to help. If your punctuation is bad, do the same.

And get the layout right. That means Times New Roman font or similar, with a size of 12. Normal margins. Double-spaced, or 1.5 line spacing.

Lay your manuscript out like a book, not a business document, which means no space between paragraphs, and with the first line slightly indented. Every page should be numbered, your title and your name in the header.

Your title page should contain your title, your name and your contact details. Nothing else. You do not need to worry about copyright, either – you already own the copyright. Making a fuss about it marks you as an amateur.

Step 4. Select your agents with care

Agents may take up to two months to read your book (or pretend to read it, anyway). You may need to apply a fair few times before you strike lucky, so we strongly recommend you make multiple submissions.

Do this as follows, using our own database to find your literary agencies and agents, with the tools to search by genre, experience, likes and dislikes, submission requirements, client list status (e.g. full, looking for new writers, etc.), and much else.

  • Pick a list of about six. Find agents looking to take on clients, who are interested in your kind of material, and whose lists and other interests suggest they could be suitable targets for your book.
  • Don’t worry over whether an agent has ‘clout’ in the industry. Any agent can sell an excellent manuscript, but no agent can sell a bad one.

Step 5. Send out your book

Most agents want the following:

  • Your first 3 chapters, 10,000 words, or 50 pages of your manuscript (check individual requirements);
  • A short covering letter;
  • A (maximum) 800-word synopsis, which should not run to more than 2 pages.

Most agencies take submissions by email, but again, check guidelines and follow agency guidelines scrupulously. (They will vary.)

You can check out advice for your covering letter, ditto your synopsis. Neither is hard.

How to write a query letter (or, covering letter)

Here, for example, is a perfectly decent covering letter.

Dear Mr Redintooth,

I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, The Silence of the Legs. The novel (of about 70,000 words) tells a love story, set against the background of a busy amputation clinic in Bangalore. I have enclosed the first three chapters plus a brief synopsis with this submission. I am a thirty-year-old accountant.

The book was based on my own experiences during a recent trip to Bangalore. The book attempts to deal with themes of loss and suffering in an accessible, moving, and uplifting way.

I have submitted the book to a small handful of selected agents, but will of course inform you immediately if I receive any interest elsewhere. I enclose a stamped addressed envelope for the return of my manuscript.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,

Ms Mildasmilk

If you have completed a well-recognised creative writing course, such as the famous East Anglian one, then say so. If you are a professional writer in any other capacity (in journalism, TV, radio, etc), then say so. Ditto, if you’ve won any prize that has real merit. If you have a recommendation from ourselves or any other person or organisation likely to command respect, then you can say so too – but expect to be checked up on.

How not to write a covering letter

Never write a covering letter which looks anything like the following.

Dear Ms Redinclaw,

Allow me to present my first novel, an epic tale of love and cannibalism set against the sweeping backdrop of the Hackney Road Cleansing Services department. My style combines the sassy, street-smart writing of Martin Amis with the philosophical scope and ambition of George Orwell. I’ve attached a five-page synopsis, blurb for the rear cover, a short three-page bio and photograph, and a sketch marketing plan for the North American areas.

I have sent the book to several agents and expect to be ready to interview my shortlist in the last week of December.

Yours in expectation,

Mr Littlelamb

When you’re ready, send out your letters (which don’t look like the above).

Step 6. Prepare for agents’ rejections

It doesn’t matter how good your book is, it’ll be rejected. J.K. Rowling was rejected, too – it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad – so don’t take this too personally.

We recommend approaching about a dozen agents and splitting that into two waves of submissions. If you want to approach as many as fifteen, that too is fine. If you can’t impress about one in ten agents, your chances of impressing a publisher (harder to sway than agents) are proportionally small.

If you have sent the book to Mr Jones at XYZ agency, then it is okay to send the book to Ms Smith at the same agency, and unless you’re very purist, don’t feel the need to mention your earlier rejection. (By the way, this tip was given to us by an agent. You don’t need to feel especially naughty doing it).

In truth, there are plenty of agents out there, so you shouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding possible targets.

Step 7. Review your progress

If you’ve received fewer than ten rejections, keep going. If you’ve had twelve or more, review your book – where is it flagging?

Remember that there are only two reasons why manuscripts fail:

  1. Your book isn’t there yet. This is overwhelmingly the most common reason.
  2. You’ve made a mess of approaching agents.

However much positive reception you have from your mother, or close friends, even from beta readers – this isn’t the same as getting professional editorial feedback.

Step 8. Meet agents

Finally, if you want to meet agents in person and get feedback from them directly, you can.

Our Festival of Writing brings committed writers face-to-face with agents every year. You’ll get direct feedback on work and, just as useful, hear agents talk about the realities of their industry, what they’re looking for, any tips and advice they can give. (Joanna Cannon is one author who signed with her agent just after the Festival.)

Keep up-to-speed with our events, hosted (chiefly) in London and Oxford. You’ll meet agents, editors, publishers – and it’s uplifting to realise the industry is warm, welcoming, open to new writers.

Happy writing – we’re rooting for you.

The agent submissions builder

Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.