Do you need a literary agent? Are they worth having? And how do you actually maximise your chances of getting a literary agent?
Getting a good literary agent and avoiding dozens of rejection letters may feel impossible, but it really isn’t.
In our comprehensive guide on how to query agents, we will be talking about what makes a good agent, how to find the right literary agent for you, and how the publishing industry works.
So get ready to discover your first agent. This may well be the blog post that changes your writing career!
Find A Literary Agent In 8 Simple Steps
Whether you’re writing literary fiction, or a commercial genre novel (such as science fiction or historical fiction), to get in front of traditional publishers – especially the big four, such as Penguin Random house or Harper Collins – you need a literary agency to represent you.
Here’s our very simple 8 point checklist which we will go into detail further along. If you can get past point 1, then you’re good to go!
- Write a wonderful book
- Have realistic expectations
- Prepare your manuscript properly
- Research agents with care
- Send out simultaneous submissions
- Prepare for agent rejections – it happens (a lot)
- Review your progress
- Get out there
But before we run through the list, let’s answer some urgent questions.
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 approaching independent publishers. Some smaller indie publishers don’t require you to have an agent. They may not pay a big advance (or any, in fact) but if they cater for your target audience and specialise in your preferred genre, then you may be happy to work with them direct.
- You are writing poetry or flash fiction or other non-commercial art forms. Agents are there to make money. If your work is art-for-art’s-sake then (a) great for you, but (b) forget about an agent.
- 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 most agents want to make money and that book won’t sell the kind of numbers they need.
You DO need an agent if:
- You’re writing commercial fiction. A traditional publishing house (ie the kind who dominate book stores and trade press) only takes submissions via literary agents. You won’t even get close to them without the right agent.
- You’re writing a children’s novel. Read the paragraph above. Every word of that applies to you too.
- You’re writing narrative non-fiction. Walk into a large bookstore and look around at the front tables bearing non-fiction. Ask yourself, “could my book live here?” If the answer is YES, then you need a literary agent for the exact same reason the writer of that book has one (because they will do).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, always exceptions.
Many commercial fiction authors are very successful working directly with digital first publishers, such as Bookouture, who you don’t need an agent for. Or they may already have a good relationship with an editor. Other writers with a large and established following (ie celebs or experts in something), may also be sought-after directly by a publisher.
The best rule of thumb before starting your agent search is think about what authors you want to emulate and see how they got there.
How Much Do Literary Agents Cost?
This is a very easy answer.
The only money you pay an agent is commission – typically 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.
Never ever pay an agent upfront, not to read your manuscript or to submit to editors. If that is what they’re asking, then they’re not to be trusted.
Are Literary Agents Worth It?
Let’s see what you get:
- Access to publishers who would otherwise not take you seriously – and those are the publishers with the huge sacks of money available
- Access to the best editor for your work (because it’s an agent’s job to know who’s who in the publishing world)
- Someone with a great track record of conducting auctions for books like yours
- 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 counter-party who does
- Someone who has trodden the book to film route before and can guide you through that (most treacherous) maze
- Someone of real editorial acuity who, most importantly, knows the market for your book and how to optimise your writing for that target audience
- Someone whose financial interests are exactly the same as yours (ie you both want this book to sell)
Is an agent worth it?
If you want your book to become a Sunday Times Bestseller, be in a book shop window, feature in the press, reach your ideal audience, be translated into other languages, be made into a movie, and make you money – then yes. You need a literary agent.
But how do you find these most elusive of angels? Let’s start with the hardest part…
1. Write A Wonderful Book
The bad news is that the best agents want the best books. Each submission is a long shot, but there are no shortcuts!
And the right agent doesn’t just want a great book, they want one that is easy to sell to an editor, who they will be able to sell to bookstores, who they can sell to the public.
See where this is going?
Debut authors who are about to start querying often call literary agents ‘gate keepers’ like it’s a bad thing – but it’s not. They are the filter between books the public are most likely to buy, and books (no matter how brilliant) that probably won’t sell.
So how do you write a book that will grab an agent’s interest?
Look at what sells: You can’t easily pre-empt the market or trends, but if it’s easier to find agents with a romance or thriller (rather than your horror book featuring cowboys and unicorns) then look at changing genre
Know your comps: If your books is unique yet still sits comfortably between two best sellers in its genre, then use them as comparisons
Get your pitch ready: If you can’t get a potential reader excited about the premise in less than a minute then an agent with 300 manuscripts to read in their inbox won’t give yours any more time either
Learn to write: This may seem obvious, but you can have the best premise, but if your sample chapters are littered with bad grammar and clunky prose then no good agent will take it on
Get an editor: This may seem counter-productive, many agents work with writers to strengthen their story before submission. But have a professional editor look at your work first will ensure that at least it won’t be the writing, language, pace or plot stopping your work from being taken on. Details of where to find this level of support can be found right here.
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, inevitably, they reject most submissions.
This is disheartening, of course – but it’s not about odds. Finding a literary agent is about:
Quality. If your book is strong enough, it will sell. At Jericho Writers have virtually never seen an exception to that rule, and we have handled thousands of client manuscripts over the years.
Professionalism. Even when you get a no, keep it professional and courteous. Publishing is a small industry and you will cross paths with all these people again!
Faith in yourself. 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. We’d helped edit her manuscript, so I asked how she’d got on. She’d been to three agents, hadn’t got anywhere, and shelved the manuscript. I pretty much yelled, ‘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, she got an agent, and then a book deal!
Persistence. 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?
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. Or you rework your book and take your original idea down a different and more exciting road.
After a long time in this game, I can tell you that persistence wins every single time.
3. Prepare Your Manuscript Properly
Agents see hundreds of manuscripts, so don’t miss out because you didn’t follow their submission guidelines. Even the font and size matters. Check!
Also, eliminate spelling errors and don’t rely on a computer spell check (bee shore of what ewe right).
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.
You do not need to worry about copyright, either. Making a fuss about it marks you as an amateur.
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 through 30 unread manuscripts on her e-reader. So call your manuscript, for example, A Farewell to Legs, Maggie Mildasmilk, 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!
4. Select Agents With Care
Time to research literary agents!
Remember many take up to three months to get around to reading your book (even though most know within a few pages if it’s right for them). Therefore send your submissions out in batches, much like applying for many jobs, because even agents don’t expect you to wait for their response before moving on.
The Simplest Way To Find An Agent
You can Google search for days, hunt through Twitter, and look at the acknowledgement pages of your favourite books – or you could become a member of Jericho Writers. Our AgentMatch tool is quite simply the best way to find a literary agent, and we often run free trials!
In one easy search you’ll be able to find all the UK and US agents you need, listed by genre or agency size or experience.
Then when you want to learn more about any given agent, you simply 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.
5. Send Out Simultaneous Submissions
Most agents have submission guidelines that require the following:
- Your first 3 chapters, 10,000 words, or 50 pages of your manuscript (check individual requirements)
- A short query letter (download our FREE template)
- A 500-700-word synopsis, unless agency guidelines explicitly ask for something else
Most agencies take submissions by email, others provide an on-line form, so follow instructions or your query letter and manuscript may get lost or dismissed.
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 or newer agents)
- Agents with whom you can find some point of contact. So it might be that a given agent has one of your favourite authors on their client list (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?
Because if you approach fewer you risk being rejected just because the 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 too crazy. But really, as soon as you are querying 10 or more agents, one of those guys WILL ask for a full request if your book is good enough.
If you send your book out to 12 agents, and get either rejection slips or silence, then you need to ask yourself why. Either the book idea is not exciting enough, or your writing isn’t good enough (painful, but important to know).
Don’t use up your chances with other potential agents by trying to flog a dead horse, go back and look at your book proposal and see why it’s not working.
How To Write A Query Letter (ie Covering Letter)
It’s not hard to write a good query letter. In fact, if you can write a half-decent book, you can unquestionably write a perfectly good query letter (download our FREE template).
Here’s an example:
Dear Mr Redintooth,
I am currently seeking an agent for my first novel, A Farewell To Legs. The novel (at 81,000 words) tells a love story, set against the background of a busy amputation clinic in Glasgow. I have enclosed the first three chapters plus a brief synopsis with this submission.
[Then one short paragraph of no more than 100 words describing the setting / hero / premise of the book]
I’m a 30-year-old accountant from Leeds. This story arose from my own experiences during a recent trip to Glasgow. 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 biographical 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.
6. Prepare For Agent Rejections – It Happens, A Lot
It’s all good knowing where to find a literary agent, and it doesn’t matter how good your book is, you will receive at least one rejection letter in your writing career. Every single successful author – from Rowling to King – have been rejected.
And most of the time it has nothing to do with you, your book or your query letters!
Reasons Why Literary Agents May Reject Your Work
- They’re busy with clients
- They’re on maternity leave/left the company/not taking anyone else on and haven’t updated their website
- They’re overwhelmed/not very efficient and have 2,000 unopened submissions
- They have an author who is writing closely competing work
- They didn’t like it
- They really liked it. They just didn’t like it quite enough
This is why we recommend you send your manuscript off to five or so agents at a time (one agent per agency, to start with). Then, for each rejection you get, send another off.
Keep a spreadsheet with the date, their name, agency, email address, notes and feedback – and colour code it for Waiting, Rejection, Full Request and Offer. Some authors even buy a big box of chocolates, and eat one with every rejection.
Well, you may as well get some pleasure from the pain!
7. Review Your Progress
If you’ve reached the end of your list and you’ve still had no bites, then it’s time to look at where you’ve gone wrong. 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 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.)
- Your book just isn’t good enough (YET!)
If you handle your submissions process with proper professionalism – and the fact that you’ve read our monster post this far already is a very good sign! – then #4 may be the issue.
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 then seek professional editorial feedback. It may simply be a matter of changing the genre or a few plot tweaks.
- You have had at least one request for your full manuscript. 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. 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 still have that outcome with your first round of submissions…or you may really need to hone your writing skills.
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. So either get professional help with your novel, or write your next book and start querying that one all over again.
8. Get Out There: Go To Events And 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.)
Through our in-person and on-line events, you’ll meet agents, editors, and publishers – plus it’s uplifting to realise the industry is warm, welcoming, and always open to new writers.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you get a literary agent for a screenplay?
Much like authors, screenwriters also need agents. Here is everything you need to know on perfecting your screenplay and finding representation. You can also take advantage of our screenplay and script coverage service.
How do you get an agent for TV?
There are two ways of seeing our story come to life on the big screen. If you’re a screenwriters, see above, or choose an agent for your novel with experience in film rights (then hope your book gets optioned). Most agencies either have an in-house agent who specialises in film rights, or they work with a partner agency.
Who are the literary agents looking for new authors in 2022?
The best way to know who is looking for what this year, is to take part in our Agent Match free trial. Alternatively, for a comprehensive look at the top 400 UK literary agents looking for new talent this year, check out this article. And for the US you can click here.
How do you get an agent for poetry?
Most agents take on commercial fiction, genre fiction, children’s literature, and non fiction – but there are a few who are interested in poetry. The easiest way to discover which agents are looking for poets is to visit our Agent Match page and search via genre. If you’re not a Jericho Writers member then look out for our free trial and discover a whole world of agents around the globe!
Find The Agent Of Your Dreams!
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
So off you go, get that literary agent of your dreams, and don’t forget to visit our blog for further research. The best agents, top traditional publisher, and best deal is out there waiting for you!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page.