Do you need an agent? Are they worth it? And how do you actually maximise your chances of getting one? A COMPREHENSIVE 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.
We’re going to tell you everything you need to know to get the literary agent of your dreams . . . but before we even get there, have you wondered:
Do I actually need a literary agent?
The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you are writing.
You definitely DO NOT need a literary agent if:
You are self-publishing your work on Amazon. You can just upload your material for free without anyone’s permission or approval. The only time you would need a literary agent as a self-published author is if you sold a lot of copies in the English language, and you needed an agent’s help with foreign language sales, audio sales, film/TV rights, and the rest.
You are writing poetry or flash fiction or other non-commercial art forms. Basically: agents are there to make money. If your work is basically art-for-art’s-sake then (a) great for you, but (b) forget about an agent – they’re in it for the $$$.
You are writing niche titles that won’t attract significant advances. Let’s say, for example, you are writing a book on “How to Care For Your New Alpaca”. I guess there IS a market out there for alpaca owners who need that kind of book. But any advance from a traditional publisher will be probably zero, or maybe $1000 at the very, very outside. Take 15% of that number, and it’s just not enough to get any agent excited. So titles like that are great. They totally deserve to exist. But forget about agents. They’re not interested.
Flipping to the other side of things – the zone where big advances are (often) sought and (sometimes) paid . . .
You DO need an agent if:
You are writing a novel. Basically: all the big publishers (the ones who dominate book stores; the ones who dominate the reviews pages in newspapers, etc) only take seriously submissions that come to them via literary agents. So if you don’t have an agent, you are seriously harming your chances of being taken seriously by the exact group of firms you most want to have bidding for your work. So get an agent.
You are writing a children’s novel. Read the paragraph above. Every word of that applies to you.
You are writing broad, general interest non-fiction. Walk into a large Barnes & Noble or a large Waterstones, if you live in the UK. Look around at the front tables and seek out any of them that are selling non-fiction. Ask yourself, “could my book live here?” If the answer to that question is YES, then you need a literary agent, essentially for the exact same reason as applies to novelists. If the answer to the question is NO (probably because the book you’ve written is too niche to appeal to the general reader), then it’s doubtful whether you need an agent . . . or an agent needs your business.
There are of course plenty of shades of grey in between these two basic blocks. So common “well, it all depends” type authors might be:
Authors of picture books or other very short books for children. Some of these authors choose to have agents. Some don’t. I think the best advice for newbies (given without me knowing your specific situation, obviously) is: Use a literary agent when you first enter the industry, then take stock after a year or two, once you’ve got a sense for how things work.
Authors of narrowly subject-led non-fiction, where the potential market is large. So books on health, diet and cooking can be niche and subject-led in some sense, but since books of that sort often pop-up on bestseller lists, agents are interested. You just have to be sensible in judging the sales potential of your work – agents will be ruthless in doing the same!
Clear? Great. There’s just a couple more questions we get asked A LOT, so we may as well clear those up too. They are:
How much do literary agents cost?
And this question has a really nice, clean, clear answer.
First: agents cost nothing. Not one dime upfront – or, in a way, ever. They charge only on commission – so, typically, they ask for 15% of any income earned on home sales and 20% of anything earned on overseas or film/TV sales.
So if they don’t make money for you, they don’t make money for themselves. But the upfront cost to you is $0.00 . . . or, if you prefer to think in the British pound sterling then, at current exchange rates, that comes to exactly £0.00.
(I’m writing as an author of 20 years experience and, aside from commission, I have paid my agent exactly nothing in those years. My agent has done very well out of my business, all the same!)
Are literary agents worth it?
And are agents worth it? Well, let me see:
You get access to publishers who would otherwise not take you seriously – and those are the publishers with the huge sacks of money available
You get access to the exact right person at those publishers (because it is an agent’s job to know who’s who there.)
You get someone with intense experience of conducting auctions for properties like yours
You get someone who can organise the exact same thing globally – and where your agent doesn”t know the territory themselves (Bulgaria say, or South Korea), they’ll work with a trusted counterparty who does
You can get someone who has trodden the book to film route before and can guide you through that (most treacherous) maze.
You get someone of real editorial acuity who, most importantly, knows the market for your book and how to optimise your writing for that market
You get someone whose financial interests are slam-bam exactly the same as yours.
So, uh, is an agent worth it . . .?
It’s a daft question. Personally, I’ve made a lot of money from writing over the years, and have shared a chunk of that with my agent.
And also: I’m almost certainly more plugged into the market than you are; probably know more about selling books; have better contacts; and much else.
But my agent hasn’t just earned back his 15% over the years; he has increased my income severalfold over what it would have been if I’d had sole charge.
I’m a very experienced author with superb industry contacts and I wouldn’t even dream of being without my agent. So if you are in the “gotta have an agent” category above, then get a damn agent.
You need one. You’ll make more money that way. You’ll also have a stronger and more personally/artistically rewarding career. So just do it, OK?
Right. Preamble over. Now let’s jump into how to actually find that literary agent . . .
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
Your novel has just totally misjudged the market – for example by having a word count that is either way over or way under what agents and publishers are seeking. (Word count guidelines here.)
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.
Need more help? Members of Jericho Writers can get free access to a ton of materials, including our 17-video course on How To Write – a course that has had a zillion rave reviews from writers like you already. The course itself is quite costly to buy outright, but Jericho members get free access to it, and everything else. Learn more about our cancel-any-time membership, or just treat yourself and sign up.
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 agents receive around 2,000 manuscripts a year. That means that, inevitably, they reject most submissions. What’s more, very few publishers have interest in unsolicited contributions.
This is disheartening, of course – but it’s not about odds, it’s about:
Quality. If your book is strong enough, it will sell. We have virtually never seen an exception to that rule, and we have handled thousands of client manuscripts over the years.
Professionalism. We’ve had clients who have sent their (very good) manuscripts out to 2-3 agents. They didn’t get a positive response. So they gave up. I once encountered such a client at a crime writing festival. I knew our editor had rated her manuscript, so I asked how she’d got on. She told me that she’d been to three agents, hadn’t got anywhere, and just shelved the manuscript. I pretty much yelled at her. You can’t do that. I told her she needed to reach out to at least a dozen agents in total before drawing any final conclusions. So she did. And she got an agent. And then a book deal.
Persistence. And let’s say you take your first book out to 12 agents. No one offers you a deal, but you get back some encouraging comments. What then? What choices are you going to make. if you quit, you are not a writer and never really were one. That’s when the real writer keeps going. You might write another book. You might take your existing book and get editorial help on it. You might rework your idea, and just take your original idea down a different and more exciting road.
Shortly before writing these words, I watched a TV show here in the UK, in which a writer – Mandy Berriman – talked to a major TV host on primetime TV about her debut book deal.
I was so proud, I actually had tears in my eye.
You want to know why? Because Mandy had been one of our first ever clients. More than ten years previously, I’d read the first words of creative writing she’d ever written as an adult. The work was raw, but still shone with a warmth and authenticity that I always believed would and should result in a book deal.
It took a long time – and there were agents and rejections aplenty along the way – but she got there.
Persistence or talent, which would you rather?
After a long time in this game, I can tell you that persistence wins every single time.
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 Garamond or something similar, with a font size of 12. Normal margins. Double-spaced, or 1.5 line spacing. If you really want to go sans serif in your choice of font (what’s sans serif?) – and we’d advise against – go with something normal and widely seen, like Arial or Calibri.
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.
Really though, there are no absolute rules when it comes to manuscript presentation – unlike in screenwriting, for example, where incorrect formatting means you’ve failed before you’ve started. That means that as long as you produce a clean, professional-looking document nothing else really matters.
Pro tip. Don’t name your documents for your convenience; think about your agent instead. So whereas you are unlikely to be confused by a document called novel.doc on your computer, that’s of no help to an agent sifting 30 unread manuscripts on her e-reader. So call your manuscript, for example, A Farewell to Legs, Ernetta Hummingbird, First 10K words. doc. That’s cumbersome from your point of view – but amazingly helpful to the agent. And it’s the agent you’re trying to impress!
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 simultaneous submissions. The old “one agent at a time” rule was only ever for the benefit of agents, not authors, and you should ignore it completely.
How to find an agent the hard and painful way
It’s easy to find an agent the painful way.
You just Google “literary agents” and spend the next three days solid researching. Bear in mind that Google has no idea which agents are good or bad, so the search rankings on Google have virtually no relation at all to agent quality.
Not happy with that?
OK, here’s another painful approach you could take.
You could buy a book. (Remember those? Things made out of pulped up wood. You used to see them around a lot.) In the US, you’d probably buy Writer’s Market. In the UK, you’d get the quaintly named Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. Then you’d sit there turning pages, and hitting the internet hard, when the text was insufficient.
How to find an agent in a clunky but acceptable way
Better than either of those approaches would be to sign up to AgentQuery.com – a free agent-search tool that is remarkably good given the price point. The tool is OK-ish for the US, and a bit crummy elsewhere, but I’d still prefer to start a search there with Google or with a book.
One step up again, and you have the agent database tools of Writer’s Market. Those are paid-for and better than AgentQuery, but frankly they still look like something developed ten years ago and not improved since.
The world of today can surely do better than that, right?
How to find an agent with ease and happiness
Or of course you could become a member of Jericho Writers. Our AgentMatch tool is quite simply the best in the world.
If you want to find, let’s say “A relatively new literary agent, who is actively seeking new clients, and is open to SF/fantasy submissions” then you can perform that search in approximately 15 seconds. Or maybe just 7 seconds if your fingers move fast.
Then when you want to learn more about any given agent, you just dive into their individual profile, where one of our native English-speaking graduate researchers (most of whom have BAs / MAs in English or Creative Writing) has put together a detailed profile, along with a ton of specific data about that agent.
In the meantime, you can view our comprehensive lists of:
Sounds interesting? Course it does. Learn more about becoming a member of Jericho Writers or just sign up now.
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 query letter (or covering letter; they mean the same.) Get help on your query letter here.
A 500-700-word synopsis, unless agency guidelines explicitly ask for something else. Synopsis help here.
Most agencies take submissions by email, but again, check guidelines and follow agency guidelines scrupulously. (They will vary.)
How many literary agents should you approach?
You are aiming to generate a shortlist of about a dozen names. What you’re looking for is:
Agents who are open to your genre
Agents who are genuinely open to new clients (which will often mean younger, newer agents)
Agents with a good attitude to authors generally – something you can often tell from how open and transparent they are on their website or in interviews.
Agents with whom you can find some point of contact. So it might be that a given agent represents one of your favourite authors (in your genre or out of it), or said something in a blog post somewhere that really resonated with you, or shares a passion (for sailing say, or synchronised swimming.)
Why a dozen agents?
Answer, because if you approach fewer than that, you risk being rejected just because the handful of agents you approached had their hands full of existing work at the time you approached them.
So why not more than that?
Well, OK, you could go to more. 15 would be fine, and maybe even 18 wouldn’t be crazy. But really, as soon as you are querying 10 or more agents, one of those guys WILL pick your book up, if your book is good enough.
If you send your book out to 12 agents, and get either rejection slips or silence then you are normally better off getting top quality editorial advice on your manuscript (we recommend our services!), than just badgering more agents. In at least 99% of cases, the issue is to do with the manuscript, not with the initial selection of agents.
How to write a query letter (or, covering letter)
It’s not hard to write a good query letter (still often called a covering letter in the UK.) In fact, if you can write a half-decent book, you can unquestionably write a perfectly good query letter.
Here for example, is a fine example of the genre:
Dear Mr Redintooth,
I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, A Farewell To 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.
[Then one short paragraph of no more than 100 words describing the setting / hero / premise of the book]
The story arose from 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 was particularly keen to write to you, after your success with Goodbye, Little Ear, the autobiographical work by Mr Van Gogh.
I very much look forward to hearing from you.
I look forward to hearing from you.
If you have completed a well-recognised MFA or creative writing course, 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.
But it’s really OK if you are Mr or Ms Unknown of Nowheresville. My own literary agent once had a totally unsolicited submission from an unknown Englishwoman living out in the Middle East. He liked her writing and took her on . . . and that author has gone on to write (and sell) a book or two – and win a small mountain of literary prizes to boot.
ALL agents have stories like that, so you need have no anxieties about being unknown. It’s the manuscript that matters, not the person behind it.
Need more help with your query letter? Probably – it’s really important to get things like that right. Well, funnily enough we have an entire video course on Getting Published, with a full length video on writing the perfect query letter . . . and writing the perfect synopsis . . . and absolute everything else mentioned in this blog post. If you wanna get your hands on the course, you can buy it (but it’s pricey), or become a member of Jericho Writers and get unrestricted access to it – and everything else – at no additional cost. Interested? Learn more, or sign up here.
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,
When you’re ready, send out your letters (which don’t look like the above).
Should relate the story of your novel, from start to finish.
Should be about 500 words long, and no longer than 800 words. (It’s true that some agents as for bizarrely long synopses, but those guys are definitely in a dwindling minority.)
Is not a book blurb. It’s not selling text, and it doesn’t cut off at a “would she solve the crime? or lose her life?” type of cliffhanger. It just relates the whole story, soup to nuts.
Should be written in clear, good English
Should sketch in character’s emotions and emotional journey
But here’s a time where you should definitely tell not show. (So you’d say, “Feeling hurt by the rejection, Briony . . .” This is not a time when you’d say, “Tears of hurt and fury trembling on her lashes, Briony . . .”)
Does NOT have to detail every plot twist of the story. You can’t do that. You don’t have room – and the agent doesn’t want all that here anyway.
How do you do all that without going insane?
You do it by building up, not paring down. Starting with the structure and building upwards from there.
One really good tip to make sure you do this right is to make sure you don’t have your manuscript at your side or open on your laptop when you put together your synopsis. If you do that, you’ll start to worry how to incorporate that stunning plot twist in chapter 27, and how to convey Dorothy’s perplexity in Chapter 41.
You’re going to tell me you’ve got really great training material on all this, aren’t you?
Uh-huh. Like really great. material that will help you write a great synopsis in one hour flat.
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.
Reasons why literary agents may reject your work
They’re busy with clients
They’re on maternity leave and haven’t updated their website
They’re not very efficient and have 2,000 unopened submissions. (Not a fictional idea that – we’ve come across worse in our time.)
They’re just not that into your book, but thought it was basically fine
They have an author who is writing closely competing work
They have gone mad / fallen drunk / decided to follow the Buddhist path
They really, really liked it. They just didn’t like it quite enough
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. Again, using AgentMatch, our proprietary search tool, should make all that a lot, lot easier.
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:
Your book isn’t there yet. This is overwhelmingly the most common reason.
You’ve made a mess of approaching agents.
If you handle your submissions process with proper professionalism – and the fact that you’ve read a monster post this far already is a very good sign! – then #2 above won’t apply to you.
So then the question is, how near or far are you from success. The submissions process itself should give you some clue:
You have had warm, personal and encouraging rejections. That’s great. That means you are in the zone. You just need to identify any remaining issues in your text, then nail them. If you are in this category, you would be nuts not to seek professional editorial feedback. We recommend our services, cos they’re the best!
You have had at least one request for your full manuscript. Sort of like the above, except the slightly dilute version. Again, if I were in that camp, I’d certainly be seeking editorial help.
You have had no full manuscript requests / no warm feedback / silence / standard issue rejection slips. All that means – nothing much. Your manuscript could be in the top 10-15% of all manuscripts submitted and come to that same end. You really could be a future bestseller, and have that outcome with your first round of submissions. (We’ve actually had numerous clients of whom something like that is basically true.)
Remember I told you earlier that I rated persistence above talent?
Yep. Well, this is the stage where you find out quite why that matters so much. You just keep on keeping on. You’re a writer. You’re made of steel.
Step 8: Meet agents / Further Help
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.
Oh, and lengthy as this guide is, we know that some of you will still have questions. For that reason, we’ve put together our jumbo literary agent explainer – a kind of FAQ for all things agent. You’ll probably want to take a peep at our Getting Published guide as well. You can get that here.
Hope that helps.
Happy writing – we’re rooting for you.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)