Harry Bingham’s 45 tips to help you find your literary agent
If you make it as a writer, it is highly likely that your relationship with a literary agent will be the most enduring and important of your entire career – so the decisions you make at this stage really matter!
The tips below won’t guarantee you that you find the right agent for you, but if you follow them carefully, they will help your chances of doing so. Keep reading – and good luck!
In finding agents, you need to have a reasonable understanding of your own genre. In some cases, that’s clear. (Got a detective? You’re writing crime.) In other cases, it’s not – in which case, you’re probably writing general, contemporary fiction. Which is fine. Not all work has a very specific genre. But if you’re in this broad, general category, it helps to know if your work is more commercial or more literary. If it’s in between (thoughtful, but accessible) you can describe your work as ‘suitable for book groups’. That’s a hot area for literary agents, so do use the phrase if it applies to you. (Whenever you search for agents through us, be sure to select your genre before making use of other filters.)
2. Don’t box yourself in
Plenty of work falls on boundaries between different territories. For example, if you are writing a near-future thriller, you could equally well describe your work as sci-fi, or as a techno-thriller. An agent who did like thrillers but didn’t normally handle space-opera type SF might well be interested. It’s fine to approach agents who work on either side of your boundary. Other common areas of overlap might be “chick-lit noir”, so look at all the genre options. Be willing to think about agents who work in areas adjacent to your own.
3. Don’t search for specialists
Most agents don’t specialise. My own literary agent handles high end literary fiction, and serious non-fiction, and popular non-fiction, and chick-lit, and crime. What’s more, he handles bestselling writers in most of those categories. The lesson for you is simple: you need an agent who is open to your genre. You do not need one who specialises in it.
4. Don’t look for an agent who is local to you
Most agents work in London. Most writers live elsewhere. But agents only congregate in London because that’s where the publishers are. Since you want your agent to really, really know the publishing industry, you shouldn’t select one on the basis of how close they live to you. Truth is, you won’t see your agent face to face all that much – and when you do, it’ll mostly be because you’re seeing your publisher.
The only real exception to this rule has to do with Scottish writers, who may prefer an Edinburgh-based agent, simply because travel to London is so expensive and time-consuming. Even then … all the big publishers are based in London. Personally, I’d want my agent to know those guys intimately.
5. You want an agent who wants you
Every world has its superstars, and there exists a handful of superstar agents with high name recognition. But those guys have starry names because their client lists bulge with bestsellers. Realistically, those guys are much less likely to offer you representation and they will have much less time to offer you if they do. 99% of new writers (and maybe 99.9% of them) will be better off with an agent who is genuinely eager for their business. You’ll get more time and more attention. Look for agents keen to build client lists, they are more eager to find and take on new writers.
6. Remember that it’s publishers who create bestsellers, not agents
A lot of writers will read the advice above and think, “I want my career to stand the best possible chance of success. Why wouldn’t I get the top literary agent out there?”
But you don’t want the ‘top agent’. You want the best literary agent for you. That means one who has the time to take you through editorial changes, who won’t ditch you as a client if things don’t immediately go to plan, and who will argue patiently and sincerely for your merits. In short, you want one who won’t be distracted because J.K. Rowling, Ian McEwan, et al., is on the other line.
And the core of any agent’s job is simple. It’s to think of 8-10 editors who might well like your work, then email it to them. That’s it. And any competent agent should be able to do that. You don’t need to be a superstar.
7. Look for points of contact
When you’re reviewing an agent’s profile, look for any points of contact. “Loves rock-climbing” might not mean much in terms of literary tastes, but if you’re a keen climber, you shouldn’t scorn that potential point of contact: you’re looking for anything. And if you’re not a climber, but your book has a superb climax set in the high Alps, then thats a definite reason to reach out.
8. Look for agents who represent your favourite authors
Perhaps there’s an author in your exact genre whom you love, in which case it would certainly be interesting to find out who represents that person. But you don’t really have to find authors in your genre. For example, if you are writing “chick-lit”, but there’s an agent who represents a couple more serious authors whom you adore, then that’s a meaningful point of contact – an indicator of shared taste. Just search the name of an author (surname only is fine) and their agent will appear, assuming that the agent-author relationship is public information.
9. Avoid the obvious!
You’re a crime writer? Yes, you admire Ian Rankin, of course you do. But Ian Rankin’s agent will get a lot of letters says, ‘Dear X, You represent Ian Rankin who is one of my favourite crime authors …’ Do you really think that the good Mr X is going to sit up and take notice?
10. Compile a shortlist of 8-12 names, and then double-check everything
We recommend a shortlist of about a dozen names, no more. Most books won’t even go out to as many as a dozen publishers and editors are even pickier than agents, which means if you can’t impress one in 12 agents, you don’t stand much hope with publishers. But don’t go to too few agents either. Approach six or fewer and you risk being rejected for essentially random reasons (too busy right now, lost your manuscript, don’t really like this kind of story, got a client who’s doing the exact same thing right now …)
Once you’ve got a shortlist of agents that you’re happy with, you should double-check their websites. Our own database is as up to date as we can make it – but there are limits to our reach and you are hoping to sign up with someone for the duration of your career. Now’s a good time to double-check your facts!).
So, in sum, find a literary agent in your genre, one looking for new clients (or at least open to them). Ignore location. Seek points of contact, including favourite authors. Then check and double check your shortlist.
How to write a query letter for literary agents
11. Get their name right
Is it John or Jon? Is it Mr Sam Spade or Ms. Sam Spade? Don’t offend an agent with your very first words. You also need to make sure that you have their current address and other details correct. If you don’t know whether it’s Miss Jo Johnson, Ms Jo Johnson or Mrs Jo Johnson, it’s just fine to write “Dear Jo Johnson,” In fact, Dear Firstname Lastname is probably standard these days, publishing is not a particularly formal industry.
12. Re-check the basics
If you’re writing children’s fiction, don’t send your work to an agent who handles only adult material. And while most agents wanta a fairly standard submission package (letter and synopsis and first three chapters), do check what this specific agency wants and follow their rules.
13. Keep it simple
A covering letter doesn’t need more than a page. Perhaps if your work is quite literary and you want to expand a little on theme and your impulse to write it, you can go into a second page – but that qualification applies to maybe one writer in twenty. In other words, it probably doesn’t apply to you.
14. The first paragraph should cover the basics, briefly
Your first paragraph should be just a sentence or two that sets out: (a) the title of your book, (b) the approximate genre, (c) a brief characterisation of the book and (d) a word count.
Thus, for example, if I had been a new novelist seeking an agent for my Talking to the Dead, I might have said:
“I am writing to seek representation for my first novel, Talking to the Dead. The book is a Welsh-set police procedural of about 115,000 words and features a young female detective, who is in recovery from Cotard’s Syndrome.”
See? That’s a perfect first para because it instantly gives an agent their need-to-know info (crime novel, Wales, police procedural, word count), plus a little teaser – a reason to read-on: “Cotard’s? What’s that? Sounds interesting …”
That opening paragraph is not hard to write. If you can’t write a perfectly good one, then your book is no good anyway.
15. The next paragraph can expand
The next paragraph should open out a little more. So my second paragraph might have said something like this:
“The detective, Fiona Griffiths, is a twenty-something junior officer, based in Cardiff. She’s highly intelligent, driven … and odd. As a teenager, she suffered from a genuine but rare disorder, known as Cotard’s Syndrome – a psychological condition in which the sufferer believes themselves to be dead. Fiona is no longer directly afflicted, but the illness continues to dominate her life and her sense of self. Then, as her Major Crimes team starts to investigate the violent deaths of a part-time prostitute and her, Fiona realises that the past feels dangerously alive again.”
That’s all you need. The paragraph expands our opening teaser into something with more meat on it – something that should tempt a reader to read on. But that’s all – about a hundred words should be fine. If you’re going over the 150 word mark, you probably need to rein back.
16. That paragraph should convey your elevator pitch or USP
That second paragraph has one crucial job: it’s to force the agent to turn to page 1 of your manuscript with a smidge of excitement and interest. That means you need to convey the Unique Selling Point of your book with brevity and force. Note that you should not say, “The Unique Selling Point for my book is …” That just feels heavy handed and clunky. (Want to know more about Elevator Pitches? Find out here.)
17. You do not need to summarise your plot
That’s the job of your synopsis. Notice that my sample paragraph above (point #15) said nothing at all about plot. Yes, it mentioned the initiating murders, but that’s it. It doesn’t say anything about what happens thereafter. It doesn’t need to.
18. You are not writing a book blurb
The blurb on the back of a book belongs on the back of the book. You are addressing a potential agent, not a potential bookshop browser. Thus the paragraph above about Talking to the Dead mentioned Cotard’s Syndrome, which no book blurb would ever do. (Because that would ruin one of the big reveals at the end of the book.) Focus on the agent and your USP or elevator pitch. The blurb will come much, much later in the process.
19. You don’t need to explain everything
If you are writing about a fantasy world where – I don’t know – gravity is upside down, or England has a good footie team, or Amazon pays some tax, you can pick out anything that is key to your brief overview of the book. But you don’t need to explain every little thing. The covering letter needs to offer a glimpse of stocking, no more. The book itself will do the rest.
20. Finally: a few words about yourself
And that means a few words. “I am a thirty-something mother of two. I currently work part-time as an accountant, but am retraining as an exotic dancer.” Or whatever. Unless there is a direct and important relationship between who you are and the topic of your manuscript, you don’t need more than the very briefest sketch of who you are. No one cares and no one ought to care: it’s your book that matters here; you are merely its transmission device.
21. Your website, your Twitter account, or your online footprint are much less important than you might think
You will see suggestions online, including from some people who should know better, that these days agents really care about your social media profile. And that is simply not true. Yes, admittedly, if you have 100,000+ blog visitors monthly and your book is a non-fiction work directly connected to the subject of that blog, then agents will be impressed, and so will publishers. But that’s it. Blogs or sites with smaller followings don’t mean much in sales terms, and they certainly don’t mean much when it comes to promoting fiction. So you just don’t need to say anything about your current online footprint. If publishers want to discuss it with you down the line, then they will, but it’s not something to worry about for now.
(And by the way, my Fiona Griffiths crime series has been published all over the world, is critically acclaimed, and has been televised. In all that time, I’ve only had one conversation in publishing about my e-footprint, and that was early on, and was never followed up. That’s how little publishers care.)
22. If you’re impressive, say so (for fiction writers)
A covering letter is not the place to mention your school prizes or your work on the parish magazine, but if you have accomplished something genuinely noteworthy say so.
“The maritime scenes in my novel draw heavily from my own experiences at sea: I have sailed single-handed round the world and have competed in a number of international yacht races. The shipwreck scene towards the climax of my novel is largely based on a similar accident that befell me a few years back.”
A paragraph like that would do very nicely – but, if you’re writing fiction, it’s not all that likely you have a similar connection to make. In which case, don’t worry. Most people don’t.
23. If you’re authoritative, say so (for non-fiction writers)
While it’s relatively rare for fictioneers to include much biography in their covering letter, the reverse can be true of non-fictioneers. For example, if you are writing a book on artificial intelligence, then you will certainly be expected to demonstrate authority. So:
“I am current head of Google’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory …”
Or, “I am Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Wherever …”
Or, “I have worked extensively as a smart systems consultant to blue-chip companies including …”
“I am the Science and Technology editor on the XYZ newspaper …”
Any of those things would do just fine. “I’m a keen amateur student of these things and think the subject is really, really important” – that kind of thing would not fare so well. As a non-fiction author, you are expected to demonstrate compelling knowledge.
24. If you’ve self-published, that’s fine, but be realistic
These days, agents will receive plenty of self-published manuscripts, and it’s fine if yours has already seen the light of day. But agents will only be impressed if your manuscript has seen a lot of downloads. That means 30-50,000 downloads, if the manuscript was being offered for free. And it means at least 10,000 downloads if the manuscript was being sold at a meaningful price. ($0.99 or £0.99 as an absolute minimum.)
25. Be careful about mentioning competing similar works
If you are writing fiction, it’s fine to place your novel by triangulating from other authors. For example, you might say, “This is, roughly speaking, Philippa Gregory territory, but transposed to Dark Ages Mercia.” That helps an agent understand the kind of book you’ve written. (Though even in that example, it would probably be better to convey the same message without the PG reference.)
On the other hand, it is not clever to say, “My book combines the philosophical grandeur of a Saul Bellow, the prose of John Banville and the compelling narrative of a James Patterson.” You’re welcome to think all those things – but don’t say them out loud.
If you are writing non-fiction, a couple of references are very often useful. For example, “The book is a lively, popular account of quantum physics, in the footsteps of such texts as Quantumly Wonderful by Mr A and Oh What a Wonderful Atom by Ms B.” If you do use that kind of tactic, be very clear about how your book differs from those fine texts.
26. Don’t misspell anything
Humans make typos and most writers are human. And that’s fine: a well-presented manuscript doesn’t have to mean a flawless one, but an agent submission pack is the first thing the agent reads. So no misspellings. None. No excuses.
That also means you need to avoid all other hideosities. No it’s when you mean its. No references to my “fiction book”. (It’s called a novel.) No bad punctuation.
You want to be a professional writer. So be professional.
27. No horrible sentences
And mere tidiness is not enough. You also can’t express yourself badly. You need to eliminate any clunky, ugly, or badly phrased sentences. So don’t write sentences like this:
“Emily (who is the hero in this bit) then finds herself in a dungeon which is really like the one in Game of Thrones (second series) except that my one has this big arched window really high up, which Emily tries to climb out of for an escape attempt but can’t because she slips and really hurts her ankle.”
Don’t write sentences even a bit like that. Please. They make our gums hurt.
In sum, keep your letter short. All you need is a couple of overview-type sentences, then a paragraph or so on your book, then a short paragraph of background about you. That’s it. Make sure that you get the basics right (spellings, punctuation, who you’re addressing) and make sure you write with economy and professionalism.
How to write a wonderful synopsis
28. Don’t stress
Most writers stress over their synopses. They shouldn’t: the things just aren’t that important. Some agents ask for them but hardly read them. Get your synopsis right, yes, but don’t fret about it. Half a day should be easily enough for the task.
29. Keep it short, but not crazy-short
Anything from 500 to 1,000 words is fine. Less than 500 words seems a little on the thin side (unless perhaps your book has a notably clean narrative line, in which case OK.) More than 1,000? No need. That’s just more words. Keep it tight.
30. Tell the story
A synopsis tells the story of your novel. That’s all it does. You’re not pitching the novel. You’re not writing a cover blurb. You’re just telling the story. Which you know intimately, right? This is not a hard assignment.
31. Keep your text neutral
A synopsis isn’t usually a good place for atmosphere, humour, detailed characterisation, or anything else. Those things are for your book. A simple factual narrative is fine.
32. Don’t worry about spoilers
Of course there are spoilers in the synopsis, just like there’s alcohol in beer. That’s kind of the point. If you really, really don’t want to give away the very ending, you can say something along these lines: “Jones is all set to raid the warehouse, when Karen arrives with news that will devastate them both – and lead to a final, bloody and unexpected finale.”
But, if you can steel yourself to do it, just tell the whole darn story including the ending. That’s what agents want.
33. Put key names in bold
When you first mention the name of a key character, you should set it in bold, or even bold caps. Like this:
“KAREN, a thirty-something police sergeant, is appointed to ….”
That makes it easy for an agent to see who’s who and to check back if they get confused. (And synopses are confusing; that’s just the way they are.)
34. Presentation matters. So does your prose
As with the covering letter, you should make sure that your synopsis is well-presented and free of horrible sentences.
35. You can briefly restate your book’s USP before the synopsis proper
If you want, you can have an italicised line or two before the synopsis proper that sets out the book’s premise or broad narrative arc – anything that reminds the agent why they like the idea. So, for example, this would be nice:
“Jacob is a diamond dealer in Rotterdam. When his warehouse is burgled, he wonders how the thieves got past his security system … and why his wife was driving the getaway car.”
That sets up an enticing premise in slightly more than 30 words. Or you can sketch the whole story in the same kind of space:
“Two brothers quarrel in the trenches of the First World War. They separate and each found a mighty oil business – one striking rich in the sands of Persia, the other sprouting up in the oil fields of East Texas. Then another war comes and the two men are obliged to confront their pasts – and each other.”
That’s fifty-something words and sketches a book that is 600 pages long (my third novel, as it happens.) These introductory snippets don’t excuse you from writing a full synopsis, they just enrich the one you’ve written.
So recap your story in about 500-1000 words. Put key character names in bold. Keep your prose clean and reasonably neutral. Avoid howlers. You get bonus points for a short, tempting intro.
How to prepare your manuscript for literary agents
36. Check: Are you really ready?
Most writers send out their manuscript before it’s ready. That can mean anything from poor prose and a lousy concept through to a text that is really pretty good but in need of a good, hard, final edit. A lack of polish can kill your chances, so be professional. Give your manuscript another close read. Be picky: agents will be.
(Not sure if you’re ready? You can get paid-for editorial advice for your manuscript. It’s very rare that writers are not helped by professional editorial feedback.)
37. Your first three chapters: getting that right
Most agents ask for a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters. But what do the first three chapters really mean? What if your chapters are strangely long? Or short? And should you count your prologue?
The answer is that agents don’t really care about these things. Just send about 10,000 words, ending at a natural break in your text. That’ll do fine.
38. Check for common errors
This post isn’t long enough to list them all, but here are the top fifteen.
39. Check spellings, punctuation, typos, prose
No horrible sentences, okay? A few typos don’t matter, but good presentation is still essential.
40. Make sure that your text is properly formatted
There are no strict rules here (unlike in the screenplay business), but do check that:
– Your margins are normal (your program’s default settings are fine).
– Your text is 1.5 or double-spaced.
– Your dialogue is correctly presented.
– You begin each chapter on a fresh page.
– You avoid weird fonts.
– You lay your book out like a book, not a business letter. That means no blank line between paragraphs, but each paragraph should be indented (anywhere from 0.2″ to 0.5″). You should set the indents with the Paragraph Format menu or with the Tab key. You should not rely on the space bar.
– Either left hand justified or both-sides justified text is fine.
– It’s still better to print on one side of the page only. If that offends your eco-sensibilities, plant a tree – or look for agents who take work by email: most now do.
41. Remember to insert page numbers
This gets its own bullet point, because a lot of people forget, and then have to print their stuff off again. And while you’re at it, pop your name and manuscript title in the header or footer of each page. (So when an agent drops your stuff, they can put it all back together again.)
42. Nice clean title page, please
Your title page should ideally contain:
– Your title (in a font as large as you like)
– Your name
– Your contact info
– A word count, rounded to the nearest 1,000 or 5,000 words
– And nothing else
You do not need a dedication, or an acknowledgements, or anything along those lines. This isn’t a book yet, it’s a pile of paper. Also, it’s a bit fancy-pants putting an epigram on a manuscript, but some manuscripts are a bit fancy-pants. In which case, put it on the title page, or on the page immediately following.
43. No copyright notice
You don’t need a copyright notice – it’s legally meaningless and, in any case, no agent steals copyright.
44. No cover art!
A publisher is not going to use your cover art. So don’t show it to agents.
45. The Golden Rule
There is only one golden rule of the agent submission process and that is the hardest. You must write a wonderful book. Good is not enough. Competent is not nearly enough. Agents take about 1 in 1,000 submissions. Your work has to dazzle.
Happy writing, and best of luck!
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