International writers often have to make choices about which literary agents to approach. Here’s a quick guide to help you make a decision.
(If you’re unsure about what literary agents do, then have a quick read of this first.)
US vs. UK agents — which to choose?
On the whole, it’s simple.
British authors write books. They send them to UK literary agents – often ones based in or close to London. A British agent finds a British publisher. Then, once that first crucial deal is in the bag, the process of international sales begins.
For US authors, it’s the same. You find a literary agent, often one based in New York. They find a US publisher. You sign your US book deal, and off they go to see what you can get overseas.
There are countless complications, though. What if you’re Irish? Or Australian? Or South African? Or Canadian? Or of dual citizenship? Or resident in one place, but citizen of another?
There’s no easy way through such complexities. It all depends on your situation, the book you’re trying to sell.
International Agent Submissions: The Basic Rules
To start off super-simple, American authors (when resident in the US) will almost always seek a US literary agent in the first instance. British authors, resident in the UK or Europe, will almost certainly seek a British agent. So:
In general, authors in the two largest English-speaking publishing markets should seek an agent local to that market: American agents for American writers, British agent for British writers.
It’s not much more complicated if you are Irish or Canadian (or Aussie, or whatever) and writing a book of strictly local interest.
So it’s pretty clear that The History of Kilarney Castle will have its best market in Ireland. Likewise, How To Care For Your Moose is likely to have a better market in Ontario than Orlando.
In these cases, again, you can just play it simple.
Authors in smaller publishing markets writing books of strictly local interest
should query local agents (if there are any) or just submit directly to local publishers, who will be happy to receive submissions.
But of course plenty of Irish and Canadian authors are writing books with obvious international sales potential. So Colm Toibin and Tana French (both of Ireland) are great examples of smaller-market authors with terrific international sales. I’m reasonably confident that Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel (both of Canada) have sold a book or two in their time as well.
This type of author has a choice. In the case of Ireland and Canada, these are both obviously satellite markets orbiting a much larger one right next door. So, one way or another, authors from these countries need to find a way to access that much bigger market
Canadian authors with international sales potential can approach Canadian agents or US agents. Either way is fine. Likewise, Irish authors with international sales potential can approach Dublin-based agents or British agents. Either way is fine.
If you’re opting for a locally based agent, you probably want to check that the person involved has a decent track record of sales into the larger market . . . but those checks are almost certainly going to come back in the affirmative, because Irish agents would struggle to live on sales into the local market alone. The same goes (if rather less emphatically) for Canadian literary agents.
For more distant locales – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere else come to that – you need to play it a little bit by ear.
UK literary agents tend to be more naturally international, and UK publishers have closer connections with the Commonwealth (which, in publisher-land, includes Ireland but not Canada). Overall, writers from the Commonwealth will naturally knock on a London door first, but there are exceptions. If I were an Aussie sci-fi writer, for example, I might well be attracted to the US market, because of its depth.
So, our (slightly fuzzy) fourth rule runs as follows:
International authors from Commonwealth countries should probably query UK literary agents in the first instance.
International authors from non-Commonwealth countries should probably query US agents.
But this rule is fuzzy, because US agents would be perfectly happy to receive a great submission from India / Singapore / Nigeria / Australia. Likewise British agents would be perfectly happy to receive a great submission from Argentina / Japan / the Philippines.
Often when (say) a Nigerian writers does choose to query a US literary agent as a first step that’ll be because he or she has some kind of connection with the US that makes it a natural thing to do. So when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie chose to seek US representation for her first novel, she did so because she was studying in the US. She felt part-American. She was resident there. For her, it would have been unnatural to query an agent in London, simply because Union Jacks once flew in Lagos.
You can apply the same basic tests. Truth is, no one cares too much. And if your manuscript is absolutely amazing, then no one will care at all.
But what about if you were an American living permanently in the UK? Or a Brit living permanently in the US?
Well, our even fuzzier fifth rule is:
You probably want to prioritise residency over passport when it comes to querying agents.
(But no one really cares.)
(So you can go either way.)
As a matter of fact, if the circumstances of your life are such that you can provide plausible sounding reasons for submitting queries to both major markets, then our (whisper it quietly, tell no one you’re doing this) sixth rule is:
If you want to query agents in both markets . . .
And you’ve got reasonably plausible reasons for choosing either market . . .
And you don’t tell agents, “Hey, I’mm just querying everyone,” . . .
Then you’ll probably get away with it.
After all, it’s not like anyone checks. Or cares that much.
You’re not breaking any rules.
There’s one curious issue, though, to which there’s no good answer.
Bestselling thriller writer (and one of our Festival of Writing speakers) R.J. Ellory writes very good US-set thrillers, but he’s British . . . and for a long time he struggled to find an agent.
UK literary agents were reluctant to take him on because his books sounded like they’d been written by an American. US agents were reluctant to take him on because he was British, without representation in London or a UK book deal. That meant that American agents, even if they liked his work, felt kind of suspicious. How come this guy hadn’t got local representation? It sounded like there might be a catch somewhere.
In the end, he was so good that he was taken on (in Britain, first). His career took off.
This story brings us to our seventh rule, the super-essential Ur-rule for all agency submissions:
Write a super-incredible dazzling book
If you obey that rule, then the truth is that nothing else really matters. Any agent from anywhere will want your work.
Where Do You Find A List Of International Literary Agents?
Why, you find it here, of course. On Agent Match.
Agent Match here on Jericho Writers is a complete, searchable, database of literary agents. It’s the biggest agent database on the planet, covering nearly every literary agent active worldwide.
And it’s not just a comprehensive database, it’s a smart one. Let’s say you wanted to search for:
“Literary agents in the US
who are open to historical fiction submissions
and who are currently seeking new writers”
. . . well, you could perform that search in about twenty seconds.
And get a complete answer.
And a complete set of agent profiles for absolutely everyone on that list.
I mean, maybe you’d prefer to spend a week on Google (and get a slightly worse set of answers), but it’s totally your call.
Access to AgentMatch is restricted to members of Jericho Writers . . . but since membership of JW confers an awesome cornucopia of writerly fabulousness, you probably want to consider membership no matter what. Which leads us to a bonus rule, rule number eight…
Find out more about Jericho Writers!
You’ll be rootin-tootin glad you did.
I do hope you come and join us. We’d love it if you did! Any more questions? You can contact us here.