Finding literary agents in the UK and US

On the whole, it’s simple.

British authors write books. They send them to UK literary agents – almost always 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 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.

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The easiest case is where your book is strictly of local interest. The History of Kilarney Castle will have its best market in Ireland. In such cases, either use a local agent or go direct to publishers yourself. Only around 20% of authors in Canada, for example, have a literary agent. That’s fine. They’re not making a mistake, they’re taking responsibility for their own careers.

Where your book does have international sales potential, you need to be more tactical. If I were, let’s say, a Canadian Stephenie Meyer and I felt in my gut that I had a special book to sell, I’d want an excellent literary agent to sell it. I wouldn’t care so much if that agent were based in New York or (less likely) in Canada. The only thing I’d really care about is that the agent was well-connected – that is, that they’d made big sales in the US market. If I were an Irish Stephenie Meyer, I’d similarly want a literary agent, most likely one based in the UK.

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.

If I were an American living in the UK, I’d probably try for a British agent first, unless my book was crying out for a US launch first and foremost. Same thing the other way around.

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. 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. In the end, he was so good that he was taken on (in Britain, first). His career took off.

Finally, you don’t need to worry too much about finding an agent that is local to you.

If you’re Scottish, you should certainly try the small handful of good Scottish literary agents – but all big publishers are based in London, and you want your literary agent to be rubbing shoulders with them. Meeting you for tea is (sorry) less important.

And if in doubt – ask.

You can ask us, of course. Or you can call a UK or US literary agency and ask what makes sense to them. Nine times out of ten you’ll get a prompt, clear, and helpful answer.

Meanwhile, you can always look up more agent advice as you polish and prepare submissions.

Good luck!

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Write a perfect query letter and a brilliant synopsis. In just one hour.