All you ever wanted to know about literary agents

(But didn’t know who to ask.)

You have a manuscript. You want it published. You know that you probably need a literary agent. But that, roughly, is where your certainty ends.

And no worries: all newbie writers are in a very similar position. So here are all the questions you’re probably worrying about right now … plus some candid and totally straightforward answers.

Tuck in. Have fun. And if there are other questions you’d like to ask about, just drop us a line.

What are literary agents. What do agents do?

… and what is the role of the agent vs that of the publisher?

Agents are primarily salespeople: their job is to sell your manuscript to a publisher. In effect, they make their living from selling your intellectual property.

The buyers of that IP – your publisher, in other words – will produce and market the book to retailers and, ultimately, to readers themselves.

But though literary agents are primarily salespeople, they will also:

  • Help you edit your book into shape prior to sale (though they will only do this if your manuscript is pretty stellar in the first place.)
  • Figure out which editors at which publishing houses are right for your work.
  • Figure out the best approach to selling your manuscript
  • Oversee the publication process
  • Step in, if and when problems arise
  • Negotiate additional rights sales (eg: TV and film, foreign rights, audio, and so on)
  • Offer long term advice and career guidance

Agents may work solo, but typically work as part of a larger literary agency, which may have anywhere from two to a dozen or more agents. Most agents are based in New York or London, though in the US especially you’ll find literary agents in most large cities.

Are literary agents free? If not, what do they cost?

Literary agents charge nothing upfront. There is no fixed fee attached to their services. So how do they get paid? Instead, they charge commission, typically 15% for sales of your work to domestic publishers and 20% for more complex sales (eg: foreign or TV sales.)

The two great things about this arrangement are (A) that you only pay for an agent if they succeed in selling your work, and (B) their financial incentives are almost completely aligned with yours.

The not-such-a-small downside is that literary agents won’t agree to represent you unless they think they can make money. That means getting an agent is an extremely competitive business – an agent typically takes about 1 manuscript from every 1000 that she receives. (About 2/3 of agents are women.)

That level of competition shouldn’t frighten you exactly, but it should nudge you in the direction of thinking hard about the quality of what you’re putting out there. Is your manuscript really ready to go? Have you edited it hard? Does the story shine? The single biggest mistake you can make is to send your book out before it’s ready. If in doubt: do more.

Do I need to have an agent? Are they worth it?

Most big trade publishers take work seriously only if it comes via a literary agent. That means if you are writing a novel or mainstream non-fiction, you do really need an agent.

That 15% commission might sting a little, but think about it. You get a seasoned pro to sell your work, advise you editorially, assist with any problems in the publication process, sell additional rights, and manage your career. Quite likely, that 15% is the best money you’ll ever spend. If your agent can’t earn you multiples of what you would have achieved on your own, then they’re not really doing their job.

If you are intending to self-publish, of course, an agent is totally unnecessary – at least for now. When your sales are massive, agents will be begging you for your business …

What are literary agents looking for?

Go into any large bookstore. Look on the front tables. Ignore the work of past bestsellers and focus on books by debut or other newer authors.

Those books right there are the ones that literary agents are looking to buy: the sort of commercially successful debut work that commands big bucks from publishers.

To find the kind of books that are making waves in your genre, you can:

  • Look at what books in your genre are being heavily promoted by the bookstore. (Again: ignore major past bestsellers. So Stephen King will always command massive shelf space in the “horror” section, but he does that because he’s Stephen King.)
  • Look at what books in your genre are on sale at a major supermarket.
  • Look at Amazon bestseller lists in your genre, ignoring ignore books by self-published authors and by past bestsellers. That’ll leave you with newer, successful traditionally published authors in your genre.

In a nutshell: agents are looking for books that are the same-but-different. That is, they take an existing successful concept and give it a twist that re-energises it for the same broad audience. Another thing you’ll hear from most agents is that they’re looking for an original and compelling voice – that is, they want your writing to sound fresh and distinctive. Easier said than done, we know!

Where can I find literary agents?

You’re in the right place. Jericho Writers has a service called AgentMatch, which represents a complete database of all literary agents in the US, UK and elsewhere.

That database allows you to sort in a million different ways – for example, “Agents looking for science fiction” or “Agents in a smaller agency currently looking to expand their list.” It’s a natural first stop for almost any writer.

Go here to see what AgentMatch looks like.

Go here to get your free, 7-day trial (and free means free: we don’t even ask for payment details). Easy, right?

How many literary agents should I query?

Because it’s hard to get an agent, we strongly recommend that writers query about 10-12 agents when they are ready to submit their work. Why 10-12? Why not more? Why not fewer? We’ll tell you:

Why not more?
Realistically, there are probably only 6-10 strong potential publishers for your book. That’s one for for each of the Big 5 publishers, maybe a couple more for leading imprints within each publishing house, and maybe one or two large independent publishers too. (ie: big publishers, but just not quite on that Big 5 scale.)

And publishers are harder to get than agents. Yes, most agents will sell most of the manuscripts they take on … but their overall success rate is still probably only 2 out of 3, or something like that. So if you can’t get 1 agent in 10 or 12 to take you on, the chances are you won’t find a publisher.

What that tells you is you need to do more damn work on your book. Only then will you be confident of success.

Why not fewer?
If you only go to a handful of agents, you’ll find that some are busy, some aren’t quite right for your book and … whoops. You’ve run out of agents.

And if you query 10 agents, and still get nowhere: well, you know that you need to take a further look at your manuscript. If you query 10, and get an offer of representation – then well done you!

Which literary agents should I choose?

Let’s say, you’ve got your manuscript into shape (quite possibly with the help of our amazing editorial services). You’ve decided (sensibly) to look for about 10-12 agents to approach. How do you pick those dozen? How do you find the ones most likely to respond to your submission?

Well, there’s no fixed rule there, but here’s what we’d suggest:

  • Look for agents who are looking to build their list. That means looking for newer / younger agents – possibly someone who has just set up their own agency, or someone who has just been promoted to agent within a larger agency.
  • Look for agents who are open to work in your genre – AgentMatch can help with this, but do always check back against the agent’s own site, as AgentMatch doesn’t always update the instant an agent makes a change.
  • Look for agents where you feel a point of contact. Maybe that’s something they’ve said in a blog post or interview. Maybe that’s because they represent an author you love. Or possibly something else. But look for something that speaks to you.

Those three guidelines should be your guiding principles. You’re looking for agents who want you (ie: they want new clients and they’re active in your genre.) And you’re looking for agents that you quite likely have something in common with (ie: those ones with some areas of identifiable overlap.)

You should be able to find these agents with a morning or two’s search. Again, you can get your AgentMatch trial here. Now it’s time to send your work out …

How do I query a literary agent?

What an agent wants to see when you query them can be a little variable, so do always check an agent’s website for details. That said, when it comes to fiction, most agents want to see:

  • A query letter (also called a covering letter in the UK.) Details on how to write a query letter can be found here.
  • A synopsis. A synopsis is basically a short, neutral summary of your story. To be clear, this is nothing like the blurb you’ll find on the back of a book. More info on how to write a great synopsis here.
  • A chunk of your book itself. Typically agents want about 10,000 words / 3 chapters / 50 pages. But again, do check the agent’s site, because requirements vary quite widely.

Writing a great submission pack is absolutely essential. It’s not too much to say that the fate of your query depends on it, and nothing else. To make absolutely sure you put together a great submission pack, use the Agent Submission Builder available free right here. That tool tells you how to structure both query letter and synopsis, and explains how to provide the content that the agent is looking to find.

Why do literary agents reject manuscripts?

The most common reason for rejection is simply that your manuscript just isn’t (yet) good enough to make the grade. An agent, or other professional reader, can very quickly tell whether:

  • Your writing itself is poor. (If your writing itself doesn’t feel competent and professional, an agent will say ‘no’ without reading more.)
  • Your basic concept is flawed (for example, there just isn’t a market for eco-thrillers that include long, long explanations of why plastic pollution is bad.)

That said, there are a million other reasons why your manuscript might not get an instant Yes. Common reasons are:

  • A given agent is just too busy. Their other work with existing clients is currently active enough that they have no time to spend on the slushpile.
  • Something random. For example, an agent is looking for new clients, they like your stuff … but they’ve just taken on something really similar and can’t handle both.
  • You haven’t properly understood what an agent’s tastes and interests are. In some cases, that’s because agents are poor at explaining what they’re after. In other cases, it’s because the information is out there, but you haven’t properly absorbed it.
  • You haven’t queried enough agents. As we’ve already said, you need to go out to at least 10 agents to get a real feel for the market.

If you are rejected, don’t feel too downcast. I’m Harry Bingham and I’ve been published all over the world, in fiction, and non-fiction, multiple times. But have I been rejected? You betcha. So many times I can’t even vaguely remember how often. By agents. By publishers. By TV and film companies. And truthfully? I hardly care. All you need is one Yes. A million Noes are neither here nor there.

What if a literary agent wants to call or meet me?

If an agent wants to call you or meet with you, it’s highly likely that they are very interested in your work. Any exchange between the two of you is likely to involve as much of them marketing themselves to you, as the other way round.

Great. That’s the good news.

In terms of you marketing yourself to the agent, you’ve already done most of the work. Your manuscript IS your marketing tool. If that’s in really great shape, you’ve done 99% of what you need to do. That said, you can make yourself seem even better, if:

  • You are reasonably articulate. Trad publishers may want to push you out on book tours or newspaper interviews. If you can string a sentence together when in public, that’s helpful.
  • For non-fiction authors, indeed, this capacity can be essential. I remember one Jericho Writers client who had written a great non-fiction book that got interest from three major NY publishers. Trouble was, they all wanted to meet the guy before they confirmed their indicative offers. At meetings, he was a difficult combination of over-confident and not truly articulate. None of those three offers materialised. Whoops!
  • You are prepared for the idea that agents may want some editorial changes to your manuscript or title. Unless you really hate the idea presented by the agent, you are strongly advised to be open to their suggestions. That doesn’t mean to say there can be no further discussion … but if you seem closed to any advice at all, an agent may think you are not going to be a valuable client.

A lot of the selling, however, will come from the agent’s side not yours. After all, if one capable agent loves your work, the chances are there’ll be another one who thinks the exact same thing.So things you want to ask include:

  • Why did you like this book? What made it stand out to you? That’s not you seeking praise. That’s you checking that your understanding of the book’s purpose matches what your agent sees.
  • What editorial issues do you see in this book? What will I need to work on? Most books will need further work before submission. So you better make sure that you’re going to be happy with the agent’s workplan.
  • What is the agent’s policy on communications? Will they check a draft submissions list with you? How often would they update you with progress?
  • If your work is rejected by publishers, will the agent still want you as a client? Another way to put this is, is the agent making the choice to represent you, or the book? How involved will the agent want to be in developing and thinking about the next book you write?
  • How involved will the agent be during the publication process? Do they intend to accompany you to publishers’ meetings?
  • What is the agent’s attitude to self-publishing? Will they be OK with you self-publishing some material at some point in your career? It’s worth laying down this marker now. You may well have no current intention to self-publish, but increasingly professional authors will straddle both traditional and indie publishing routes.
  • How are foreign rights handled?
  • How are TV and film rights handled?

That gives you a great set of talking points … but in the end, your decision will be made as much in terms of chemistry as anything else. Yes, you want your agent to give the right answers to these questions – but most agents will. If you come away from your agent feeling excited, then you’ve found a perfect match. If you come away with more negative feelings, then you really may prefer to go on looking.

What do I do if a literary agent rejects me?

Let’s say you’ve sent out your work to 10-12 intelligently chosen literary agents. Here’s the spectrum of possible responses:

  • An agent offers you representation
  • An agent offers you representation if you make certain changes to your book
  • An agent gives you a warm, but reluctant, rejection after having read your manuscript in full
  • An agent doesn’t ask for your full manuscript, but rejects your submission in a warm, encouraging and clearly personal way. (That is: the email or letter isn’t just boilerplate that goes out to everyone.)
  • An agent sends you out a form rejection
  • You hear absolutely nothing at all.

Unfortunately for writers, the vast majority of responses fall into the last two categories. That’s just the brutal fact of competition in this hardest of industries. So what do you do? Well, you can give up and play golf. But you’re not going to do that, because you’re a writer to the tips of your tippy toes, so you’re going to saddle up again and try again. The options facing you are roughly these:

  1. Query more agents. Not recommended unless you had 2-3 near misses from this batch of submissions.
  2. Revise your novel.
  3. Write a new book
  4. Self-publish.

There are virtues to all of these routes. When it comes to revising your novel, I would urge you to consider getting editorial help (of the sort that we provide, for example.) Professional, third party editorial feedback remains THE gold-standard way to analyse and improve a manuscript. That’s why we offer the service. That’s why so many of our editorial clients go on to succeed. If you’ve had some near-misses with agents, that’s a screamingly huge clue telling you not to give up. If you’re that close already, one more heave with a top quality editor (like one of ours) may well do the trick.

If you think that there may be a fundamental issue with the concept behind your book, then writing a new book can be a great idea. What I would say, is that you need to make sure that your basic skills are in shape. Editorial feedback on your current manuscript is one great learning tool. Going on a writing course (like, yes, one of ours) is also a really good step to take. And because you’ve already written one book, you’ll be in vastly better shape to absorb and make use of the skills transmitted.

And self-publishing? Well, look, I love self-publishing. But I do think you need to attack it as a Plan A type option, not a fallback because you couldn’t crack the trad industry. Standards in self-published books are now very high, and it’s going to be seriously hard to build a career and a loyal readership unless your books are of a quality to rub shoulders with anyone else’s in your genre.

Agents + trad publishing vs self-publishing: which is better?

OK, this is a real apples-and-oranges question if ever there was one. The two publishing routes simply offer very different things and require very different approaches. The books and authors best suited to trad publishing are just different from those best suited to self-publishing.

That said, for a rough guide, self-publishing will tend to be favoured by:

  • Authors with quite an entrepreneurial, small business mindset
  • Authors writing genre fiction (or subject-led non fiction, for example “How to write a business plan” or “Equine Care: all you need to know about looking after your horse”.)
  • For authors of fiction, ones who write in series, rather than standalones
  • Authors who have the capacity to be quite prolific. It’s common enough for indie authors to set 20 books as their benchmark for when they can make a full-time living from writing. Personally, I think that benchmark should be set a lot lower than that – but the point about being prolific is good, no matter what.
  • Authors who aren’t afraid of a little tech and a few numbers. You certainly don’t need to be massively technical or numerate, but you will need to deal with a few different platforms and services and you will be dealing with some spreadsheets and some dashboards. If you hate and loathe those things, you’ll never realistically make a go of self-publishing.
  • Authors who primarily want to make a living from writing. That means that the various other attractions of trad publishing (the kudos, having your book in physical bookstores, getting book reviews in newspapers, etc) are of relatively lower value.

Traditional publishing on the other hand will work better for authors who:

  • Prefer to hand the whole publishing process over to others
  • Write more literary fiction, or one-off works of non-fiction (eg: “Fear: Trump in the White House”)
  • Write standalones rather than series
  • Are not especially prolific, and who don’t especially want to be
  • Authors who really don’t want to get down and dirty with mailing lists and ad-tech and all that
  • Authors who place a high value on the various things that tradititional publishing can offer (the kudos, your books in physical stores, the possibility of newspaper reviews, etc)

Truth is, you probably already know which kind of author you are – and if you think you know, you’re probably right!

Who do I need ? Literary agents vs managers vs publicists.

If you have a book to sell then you need a literary agent, period. The term “manager” just isn’t really used in the literary world, but in effect your agent is your manager. They’re going to be the one making sales on your behalf, turning down bad offers, chasing good ones, advising you on which opportunity to pursue next. And because your financial incentives are highly aligned with your agent’s, you can (nearly always) rely on the basic truthfulness of what you’re being told.

On the agent versus publicist question: well, this is usually asked by people who have self-published their work on Amazon, find it’s not selling, and are wondering what to do next.

If you’re in that position, then you need to ask yourself, what you really want. If you want to self-publish, then you don’t need an agent or a publicist: you need a self-publishing strategy and you need to write more books. You can find our short guide to self-pub right here. But you’ll notice that guide doesn’t talk about agents or publicists at all. Those guys can’t help.

A lot of writers will want to reject that advice. Their argument will be, roughly, “Yes, but I have self-published. My book exists. Now I just need to get the word out.”

Hmm. Well, an agent definitely can’t help with that: their job is selling manuscripts to publishers and you’ve chosen to self-publish. You can reverse that decision and seek trad publication instead (that’s fine), but you can’t both self-publish and have a trad deal.

Hiring a publicist is a very slightly better idea, but it’s still a terrible one. For one thing, a half-decent publicist will cost $10,000 or more … and for another thing, they’ll reject the assignment. A publicist needs something to work with, and “self-pub author releases new book” just isn’t a news story. There are way over 7,000,000 e-books on Amazon. What makes yours special? Why would a newspaper or radio show want to cover your book?

And truthfully, even if – which would never happen – you got a 1,000 word book review in the New York Times Review of Books, possibly the world’s most prestigious review outlet, what then? The answer is you’d sell maybe 20 or 30 additional copies, then everything would go back to just the way it was. $10,000 for 30 extra sales? It doesn’t even remotely add up. That’s why no indie author that I know uses a traditional publicist in any meaningful way. It just isn’t how self-published books get sold. (What does? Well: email lists, price promotions, book discount sites, paid advertising, cross promotions with other authors … and a whole bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with traditionally oriented publicity.)

In short: either self-publish properly, or seek proper traditional publication. Attempting some mash-up of the two will be a horribly costly way to sell almost no books at all. Oh yes, and I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, so sorry!

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