How to write a pitch for a literary agent (and be published)
A complete guide to finding, choosing, querying and meeting literary agents.
Literary agents are there to sell manuscripts (like yours) to publishers. They’re salespeople, in effect, and the vital conduit between authors and publication itself.
It’s important to pitch to a literary agent you know loves your genre because getting an agent to agree to represent you is famously difficult.
Because agents are paid on commission. They take a percentage of any money they make on your behalf and that’s it. So if they don’t think they can sell your work (and sell it for reasonable money), they won’t take you on.
That fact has two implications for you:
You have to write an incredibly good book. A merely competent book will never be good enough.
You have to be very disciplined and methodical in the way you approach agents and choose the right agents to query.
So sit tight, and we’ll talk you through how to successfully pitch to an agent (and how we make finding literary agents easier, too).
First, do you need a literary agent?
Most large publishers (outfits like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and their peers) will only review manuscripts that are sent to them by literary agents. That’s because those publishers want to select only from the very best manuscripts out there, and rely on agents to do that first-stage filtering task for them.
And because the big publishers take that view, and because bookstores source their work, for the most part, from the larger publishers, that means that if you want a larger publisher and a more prominent placement in bookshops, you will need an agent, because there’s simply no alternative.
So yes, you do need an agent if:
You are writing a novel
You are writing general non-fiction (the sort that might sit front-of-store in a Barnes & Noble or a Waterstones)
You are writing mainstream fiction for children or young adults
On the other hand, there are plenty of books – business and academic textbooks, for example – which are not mostly distributed via ordinary bookstores. Those business & academic publishers DO commission work direct from authors, and they don’t generally expect to source work from literary agents.
Additionally, there are plenty of sectors of the book trade where sales are so small that agents aren’t involved, simply because there’s not enough money to make it worth their while.
So no, you don’t need an agent if:
You are writing a business / academic / professional textbook
You are writing poetry (no money there!)
You are writing very niche non-fiction (“How to maintain your motorbike“, for example)
You are writing in any other area where sales are most likely small
That still leaves one or two rather intermediate cases, where you could choose to go in either direction.
So, yep, you might want an agent if:
You are writing children’s picture books
You are writing niche non-fiction in an area where significant sales are possible (eg: some pieces of the history market, or the health market etc)
And, of course, these days there are loads of authors who make an excellent living by self-publishing directly on Amazon. If you want to self-publish then (duh!) you don’t need an agent at all. You can just follow our big self-publishing guide here.
How can I find an agent?
There are a few different ways to find agents. You can:
Google “literary agents”. You’ll find plenty of results this way, but Google has no idea which agents are good or bad, so the list you’ll get is effectively random. Some great agents will be buried, and there may be some quite marginal or irrelevant options showing in the search results.
Use old-style tools such as Writer’s Market (US) or Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook (UK). These are books and they’re okay. You’ll need an updated copy every year, though. You really want to be able to sort, filter and select data quickly. Books can’t do that. Computers can.
Use a free tool such as AgentQuery.com. AQ is a brilliant tool, though free, which means there are inevitable limitations as to how much data it provides and how easy it is to filter the information.
Use AgentMatch to collect available public data on literary agents and make it super-easy for yourself to filter that data any way you want.
Note that by taking out membership of Jericho Writers, you don’t just get access to AgentMatch. You get:
An AMAZING course on getting published
An AWESOME course on how to write a fabulous novel in the first place
TERRIFIC resources on self-publishing, if you’re curious to see how all that works
MASSES of free masterclasses on pretty much every subject you could imagine
and loads more
More here and needless to say, we’d love to welcome you.
(April 2018 note: US agents will be in the AgentMatch system from June 2018. We’re working on it right now.)
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How to build your shortlist and make your selection
OK, so it’s easy enough to find a list of all the agents out there. You can go low-tech and just google it, or buy a book. Or you can go higher-tech and use a tool specifically designed for the exact purpose you have in mind.
But what then?
So you query them all? Do you pick at random? Do you do what JK Rowling did and just pick a name that sounds cute?
Well, OK, so that method worked out for JKR, but we’d suggest a more rational approach. So first, you build your longlist of agents by building a list of:
Agents who represent work in your approximate genre, and who also
Are open to submissions by new authors
The first point is kind of obvious. The second one a bit less so. Although most agents are theoretically open to new clients, many more senior agents will either be busy enough looking after their existing clients or they’ll get most of their new clients via private recommendation. (Picking up work from other agents; getting recommendations from existing clients; etc) That’s why – for most new writers, most of the time – we’d suggest looking for rather younger, hungrier agents. Those people are going to be more keen to pick up work, and will work harder (editorially, for example) in making your manuscript succeed.
Building that longlist of agents doesn’t have to be hard: AgentMatch lets you do it in a couple of clicks. Other tools are harder (or a lot harder), but the basic aim is the same: you want agents who are, theoretically at least, keen to see work like yours.
And once you have a longlist, you want to narrow that down to a shortlist of about 10-12 names. You find those names by looking for:
Agents who love the same authors as you (in the same genre)
Agents who love the same authors as you, but writing in different genres
Agents who share a passion (sailing, say, if your novel is partially set at sea)
Or agents with any other point of contact at all. Anything that sparks a connection.
Once you have your shortlist, then – good luck! – it’s time to start querying them.
How do I present my manuscript, synopsis and letter for agent queries?
Many writers worry more about literary agent letters and synopses than they do manuscripts. It’s in fact a lot easier to write these things than to write a novel.
How to write a query letter
You are basically looking to write a 1 page letter that says:
Why you’re writing
What you’re offering
Who you are
And doing all that in a way that makes you look and sound like the professional writer that you want to become.
That isn’t actually a huge ask, and if you are disciplined enough to write a novel and intelligent enough to research properly by reading articles like this one, you are more than capable of writing that letter.
You can get more advice on the query letter directly in this post.
You can read a sample query letter (with our tips and advice) in this post.
How to write a synopsis
Writing a good synopsis for agents is trickier than a letter, though most agents are less interested in your synopsis. (Again, your manuscript is the important part, so consider manuscript assessment if you need.)
The brief here is to create:
A document of about 500 words (ish. It doesn’t have to be precise)
That relates the plot of your novel, from beginning to end
That uses relatively neutral (non-salesy) language
That simply leaves out most of the detailed plot mechanics . . .
But that does clearly set out the structure of your story in its broadest possible form.
If you are a memvber of Jericho Writers, then you get free access to detailed help on all this via our superb Getting Published course. Just login to get access.
If you are not a member of Jericho Writers, then don’t you think you ought to be? Details here.
Or, if you just want simple to the point advice, you can get it via our post in writing synopses here. The same post also includes a sample synopsis, so you know exactly the kind of thing you’re aiming to deliver.
How to present your manuscript
Once you’re happy, any manuscript with clean margins, proper spacing, and a business-like choice of font will be fine. Check for spellings, typos and punctuation errors before you send. Furher tips here:
Agents have various responsibilities, but their core role is selling manuscripts to publishers. In effect, they’re salespeople – so to successfully fill that role, they need to be very plugged into the industry. They’ll have fabulous contacts among commissioning editors at the larger publishing houses.
As part of their role, agents know which editors at which publishing houses are suitable for your project, and they’ll know which imprints at those publishers are going to be most suitable. They’ll run an auction, ideal situation being where you have multiple publishers bidding for your work. (That doesn’t always happen, but lovely when it does!)
If you do get multiple bids, your agent should advise on your best course of action. Sometimes that means the biggest sum of money, but not always. A good agent will weigh other factors, too. They’ll negotiate a contract that reflects current best practice (in terms of e-royalties, reversion clauses, and much else). This area has become very technical, so it’s one you don’t want to enter without agent advice or knowledge.
Agents then organise the sale of other rights (US, foreign language, TV and film, etc.). Any medium sized agency (and even plenty of small ones) will sell foreign rights themselves. Most agencies will use partner agencies to sell work in the USA (but there are exceptions to this rule.) And, generally, only the biggest literary agencies have credible film and TV sides, so most agencies will export this work to suitable specialists. It doesn’t matter much to you quite how this is arranged, but it does matter that your agent knows the territory well.
Next – they oversee the publication process and advise you throughout.
Then – they do whatever editorial work is necessary prior to going out to editors and publishers. Agents only offer this service if they are already very excited about your manuscript. They’re there to perfect something that is already excellent, not mend something that is broken, so never submit something half-cooked and expect an agent to fix it. They won’t. Also, don’t send any novel that isn’t finished. An unfinished novel is not saleable, so a salesperson isn’t yet needed.
An agent also considers your career carefully. They’re invaluable.
Do I need an agent?
If your book is academic, professional, educational, or otherwise of niche interest, you probably don’t need an agent. Otherwise, you almost certainly do. Very few large publishers take submissions seriously unless they come via a literary agent.
Is it easy getting a literary agent? And how much do they cost?
Agents charge nothing, just take a slice of money they make on your behalf (typically 15-20%). If that seems like a lot of money for making a sale, please review the above list of what agents do and ask yourself if that sum is unfair. Or talk to any agented author who will almost certainly tell you that they owe their career to their active, intelligent and committed agent.
However, because agents only make money on saleable work, they are intensively selective about what they do take on. As a rough guide, agents only take 1 in every 1,000 manuscripts that come their way. Younger or less experienced agents will tend to have shorter client lists and therefore be hungrier for new clients. More senior agents will already be busy with their existing clients, likely to offer representation only to writers whose work has, in their view, exceptional promise.
If it seems like a tough rejection rate, remember most people who get rejected by agents are sending work out too early, before it has reached the necessary quality standard. Agents aren’t looking for writers with potential. They’re looking for excellence. They’re looking to be dazzled. This game is not about odds, but is about quality. If your book is good enough, it will be taken on.
And that leads to one very simple moral.
Never let your manuscript be rejected merely because you’ve chosen not to put the work in. We’ll offer outstanding editorial feedback on either your agent submission package or your entire manuscript.
Where can I find agents?
If you need a comprehensive, searchable online database of not just agencies but individual agents (listing genre preferences, biographies, and more), this exists in AgentMatch – perhaps the best agent-search facility anywhere on the web. You can filter data to make it as easy as possible to get a shortlist of agents that suit your and your project. An excellent investment in your writing future.
You can also get a basic list of most (but not all) agencies via Association of Authors’ Agents. (You won’t get names of individual agents, or genre preferences, etc.) There’s also the annual reissuing of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, updated and reprinted each year.
How do I approach literary agents?
The normal practice is to send, by post or email, depending on the agent: (i) the first three chapters or roughly 10,000 words of your manuscript, (ii) a synopsis of the whole thing, and (iii) a covering letter which is a very short introduction to you and your book.
On your first three chapters: be aware that an agent will never make a final decision on the first three chapters alone. They are basically just asking to see a sample of your work, so they can make a quick decision about who to reject. If your first three chapters are strong, an agent will get back to you and ask for the full manuscript, which does mean you need to have finished writing. It’s no use going to agents unless your novel is 100% written and wonderful. (Different rules apply to non-fiction, where it is often okay to approach agents with three chapters and an outline.)
If your chapters are unusually long or short, then it’s normally fine to send about up to 10,000 words in total, ending the chunk at a natural break in the text.
Your synopsis needs to summarise the plot of your novel between 500 and 1,000 words. You’re not pitching the book, or writing a blurb for the back cover. Your job is simply to relate the story in simple, clear and neutral language. (The manuscript itself should be atmospheric, of course, but the synopsis is a working document and should be relatively business-like in approach.
Your covering letter should introduce the book (title, genre, word count) in a line or two, then offer a more detailed paragraph or two about the book – that’s the place to introduce the book’s USP or a few lines that indicate why the book is special. You should also write a line or two about yourself, but you truly don’t need to go into much detail. It’s the manuscript that matters and you are just its transmission device. Do peek at our free sample letter.
Is it possible to physically meet agents? And do they ever give one-to-one feedback on writers’ work?
Our events make it possible to physically meet agents – so yes.
Most of the time, agents are too busy with regular business, though most agencies will have a ‘news’ section on their websites, which can be a good place to look for any workshops or seminars in your area (like our London and Oxford events).
Better still, attend one of the large annual writers’ conferences in the UK via the Festival of Writing, which takes place each year, and you’ll be able to book sessions with agents to pitch your work in person.
Will they hate me if I’m a nobody? I mean, I’ve never been published, I didn’t go to Oxbridge, etc.
Most new authors when they write their first manuscript weren’t famous, and agents know that. It obviously doesn’t hurt if you appeared on TV, but such things are mostly irrelevant. Agents are aware the very best new authors tend to come out of nowhere.
The only thing that really, truly matters is that you have a wonderful manuscript.
If I send my manuscript to you, can you guys get me a literary agent?
First, the good news. We are very, very well-connected to literary agents and publishers.
We run the Festival of Writing, hosting dozens of agents every year. Every major London agency has been involved at one time or another, and many send staff every year.
In addition, because we can share author successes, agents like us. If we recommend a manuscript, they take notice. In addition, if we think a manuscript is strong enough, we’ll always try to seek an agent for it, using our connections.
The bad news, however, is that connections alone are never enough to place a book, let alone persuade publishers to acquire it.
All that really, really matters is a relentless emphasis on excellence.
That means the main responsibility is yours and making sure your manuscript is dazzling, as strong as it can possibly be.
Do I need an agent who specialises in my genre?
No. Few agents are genuine specialists, as most genres aren’t large enough to supply a given agent with enough authors to sustain a career. Additionally, most agents (like most people) are eclectic readers and are, for example, perfectly able to enjoy a literary novel or a crime novel or a stimulating piece of non-fiction. An agent’s client list is therefore likely to reflect broad preferences. All you need to do is make sure that your agent does indeed like your genre. He or she does not need to specialise.
Do I need an agency who also handles TV and film rights?
Most authors dream their work will, at some stage, make it to screen. Any half-decent agency will be able to make the most of opportunities that do arise. The largest agencies (like United Agents, or Curtis Brown, or Peter Fraser Dunlop) will have in-house dramatic rights departments, but most agencies do not operate on that scale. Instead, a typical small or mid-sized agency will work closely with a specialist film and TV agency. The actual difference from the author’s point of view is often small, and we would reiterate that a film deal is not that likely. It’s much better to concentrate on getting the book right.
How about American rights? Do I need a US agent? (and what if my book is set in the US?)
Every British agent will be able to sell work in the US, usually via a US agency with whom they have a reciprocal relationship. If you live in Britain or Ireland, or elsewhere in Europe, you are almost certainly better off having your primary agent be in your “home” territory. Your agent will be very used to making overseas sales and you will not lose opportunities in the US. (Oh, and if your book is set in the US, that’s often not in fact very helpful. After all, US agents have plenty of US clients capable of writing perfectly well about the US. If they choose to sell the work of a British author, that’s as often as not because the author in question is excellent at bringing some aspect of British culture alive for an American reader.)
Why are nearly all agents based in London? Don’t I need an agent who is local to me?
Agents are generally based in London because you can’t be any good at your job unless you know publishers well, and every single major publishing house is in London. That means it’s much easier for London-based agents to know editors – not merely on a professional basis, but on a social one, too. It’s the strength of those connections and the knowledge that lies behind them which makes your agent able to represent your interests effectively. Don’t make the mistake of restricting yourself only to agents who live near to you. Apart from anything else, outside Edinburgh and Oxford, it’s hard finding agents who aren’t in London or the commuter belt surrounding it.
I want to submit my manuscript. Can you condense this and give me a checklist?
If you’d like to send your manuscript out to agents, essentials are above, but we recommend following something like the final procedure below.
A) Be sure you’ve written a dazzlingly great book.
(B) Develop a shortlist of between eight and twelve agents. (AgentMatch can help you choose a literary agent that’s right for you and your genre.)
(C) Write an excellent covering letter. Sample letter links are higher up the page.
(D) Write a compelling synopsis. Scroll up for those tips.
(E) Make sure that your manuscript is properly presented.
(F) Send agent submissions in one wave or divide into two waves, about 6 weeks apart. Don’t approach agents one at a time, life is too short. (Alternatively, the Festival of Writing means you pitch work directly.)
(G) Wait and see what happens. Good agencies typically aim to respond in up to eight weeks. At busy times of year (say Christmas, or the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs, or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair for children’s agents), allow an extra week or so. It’s fine to nudge after eight weeks. If you’ve heard nothing after ten weeks, assume that agent doesn’t want your book.
(H) Remember that all writers get rejected. It’s no biggie. Also, the length of time an agent takes to respond means nothing about you or your book, it’s just a question of what else they have on.
(I) If an agent asks for your entire manuscript, send it to them. If an agent wants to meet you, go and meet them. They’ll probably want to offer you representation.
(J) If you do all that, and no agent offers representation, then return to A above – and, in this case, remember feedback helps, ditto AgentMatch for finding the best literary agents for you and your book pitch.
Very best of luck.
The agent submissions builder
Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.