Books, Culture and Society

How Do You Find A Literary Agent?

A 12-step program for finding and securing a literary agent. If you can achieve step two in the program that follows, then we can pretty much guarantee the rest will be a doddle.

How Do You Find A Literary Agent?

Harry Bingham is a bestselling novelist, who knows how to find a literary agent (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/how-do-you-find-a-literary-agent/). His company, The Writers’ Workshop, can help you secure a literary agent (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/ ).

Finding a literary agent is easy – it’s writing the book that’s hard. So here’s what you need to know.

1) Figure out if you need an agent
You probably do, but you may not. Roughly speaking, if your book is written for a mainstream audience (ie: might sit at the front of the shop or be a bestseller) then you need an agent. If your book is very niche, then you don’t.

2) Write a good book
No, don’t smirk. That’s the only bit in this whole post that really matters. If you write a good book, and you aren’t a total numpty about approaching agents, then you’ll be fine. If, on the other hand, you are amazingly good at approaching agents but your book isn’t up to scratch, you won’t get anywhere. So write a good book. No – scratch that – not a good book. A stunning one. A dazzling one. One that echoes in the consciousness. One that makes a professional reader (ie: agent/editor) sit up late with tears in their eyes. That’s how good you have to be.

3) Get hold of a good listings directory
In the UK/Ireland, that means you need to get hold of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. In the US/Canada, that means you need to get hold of Writers’ Market. These directories are universally recognised as the authoritative works in their fields. (And if you write for children or young adults, then there are specialist versions available for you.)

4) Select your hit list
It’s fine these days to make multiple submissions to agents, and I strongly recommend that you do just that.

a) How many agents to approach?
My own view is that you should send your work to no more than 8-12 agents, in 1-2 waves of submissions. If you’ve gone out to 12 agents and haven’t yet found someone who loves your book, that’s 99% likely – probably 99.5% likely – because your book isn’t yet strong enough to sell, in which case you need to address your manuscript, not chase after more agents.

b) How to pick agents – the complicated method
If you want, you can research agents in a lot of detail. Research your favourite authors (not always necessarily in the genre you’re writing in) and find out who represents them. (Try author websites and/or acknowledgements pages for this info.) Make a list of notable authors in your genre and look at who represents them. From this info, make a list of your target agents. And if you do all this research, feel free to show that you’ve done your homework. You can write to Alison Agent saying, ‘Dear AA, I’m writing to you because you represent Charlotte Chicklit, whom I adore, and I think that your sense of humour may well be similar to my own. I’ve written …’

c) How to pick agents – the lazy method
Personally, though, I’m a fan of a simpler, lazier method. The thing to remember is that literary agents are very generalist. My own agent represents crime writers, chick-lit writers, literary authors, dead authors, serious non-fiction writers, popular non-fiction writers … indeed, there’s no category at all he would not represent if the right book came along. Nearly all agents are the same.

So here’s the lazy method: make sure that the agents you are about to approach don’t specialise in something completely different from your own manuscript. Apart from that, just get your stuff out there and see what happens. My agent has recently done a fantastic job selling my crime novel in the UK, the US, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and a fair few other places too. Yet there’s no way you’d look at his track record and figure him as a crime agent. He isn’t a crime agent. He just loved my book and knew how to sell it. Most agents are the same.

5) Write a good query letter
Americans can make their query letter a little more sales-y, a little more pushy. Brits should make their letters a little more businesslike. But the essence either way is to keep the letter short, informative and well-written.

6) Write a good synopsis
A synopsis is a short (1-2 page) summary of your plot. Basically, you are giving your story away, in full. You are not writing a sales blurb. You are not writing the stuff to appear on the back of the book.

7) Present your manuscript in a way that won’t make agents scream
Mostly that means writing in a decent sized font (12 is the standard), in a normal type face, with decent line spacing (1.5 or 2), and normal margins. Remember to number your pages. Punctuate properly and proofread your work before sending it out.

8 ) Don’t bother ‘copyright protecting’ your work
You don’t need to do it at all if you’re British, and you only need to do it once you’ve got a publishing contract if you’re North American. In the latter case a publisher will do it for you.

9) Light candles, tie a black cat into a knot – and go for it
Get your manuscript out there. See what happens.

10) How long to wait?
A really good agency will respond in 2 weeks or so. 6-8 weeks is more typical. Over 10 weeks is pathetic. Personally, I think it’s OK to nudge after 8-10 weeks.

11) What might they say?
There are basically four categories of response:

a) go away, we hate you. Maybe 90% of writers will get a standard-form response from a given agency, one that just rejects your work without giving you any reason why.

b) go away, but we don’t hate you. If agents are interested enough in your work that they ask to see the whole manuscript, you may get a personalised response which says, ‘I don’t want to represent you, but there were certain qualities in your work which I did like’. That’s a ‘positive rejection’. Congratulations!

c) we’re currently unsure if we hate you or not, so can we have a second date? If an agent doesn’t think your work is saleable, but they are keen to work with you, they may send back some editorial gripes and ask you to resubmit. In which case, work on your manuscript, then do just that.

d) we love you, we adore you, we want to have your (literary) babies. Yes: sometimes agents take on new authors. It’s happened to me, and could easily happen to you.

12) If I do all this and don’t get anywhere?
If you follow all this good advice and don’t get taken on by an agent … then may I gently suggest that you have not yet completed Step 2 – the one about writing a good book. In which case, you should get professional help: pay a literary consultant to read your book, tell you what’s wrong with it and give advice on how to fix it. Good luck!

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