How to Decide if You Need a Literary Agent and Where to Find One
Guest Post by Ally Machate
The modern world offers us many ways to share our content, but if you’ve been thinking about going the “traditional” publishing route with your book, there are some things you should know. And the first is that you may need a literary agent to represent you before you even approach publishers.
Do I Need a Literary Agent?
The question of whether you need a literary agent is two-fold.
- Do the publishers you’re interested in accept unsolicited submissions? “Does not accept unsolicited submissions” is industry code for “unless an editor personally invited you to submit, you will need an agent to do it for you.”
- If the publisher does accept unsolicited or unagented submissions, might you still benefit from having a knowledgeable person review and negotiate your publishing contract and/or advocate for you throughout the publishing process?
If you receive that coveted invite to submit through a networking connection, and if you feel you don’t want an agent to rep you long term, one alternative to consider is hiring a publishing attorney to review your contract and make sure the terms are fair. They typically work for a flat fee, as opposed to the industry standard 15% of all advances and royalties that literary agents earn.
How Do I Find a Literary Agent?
Once you’ve decided to seek out representation for your book, the next step is to make a list—odds are that you will send letters to many agents before someone responds favorably, so I suggest starting with at least 25 agents that would be a good fit.
Many writers begin this process online by Googling search terms like “literary agent for mysteries” or using reference books like the Guide to Literary Agents. This can be fruitful, but there are hundreds if not thousands of good agents out there. So, while sending out email queries, I recommend you also try other, more direct tactics.
My best and favorite advice is to attend conferences and pitch sessions where agents will have one-on-one pitch sessions. This method takes more time and money than emailing dozens of names from a list, but it can be more effective because you begin with a warm invitation to submit. Even if the agent ultimately passes on your project, he or she is more likely to suggest colleagues who might be a better fit or offer feedback if they don’t feel your work is ready.
Other avenues to try include asking for recommendations from author friends, looking for mentions in the acknowledgements of books like yours, and services like Writer’s Relief.
How Do I Know the Agent is Any Good?
Though many writers feel like they’ve won the lottery if they get any response from any agent, you don’t want to sign an agreement with just anyone.
The right literary agent for you certainly will be enthusiastic about your work, but they will also meet the following criteria:
- openings in their client roster for new authors (you don’t want an agent who doesn’t have time for you!)
- a track record of selling books like yours to publishers (ask for examples and do research online)
- a network of editors who acquire books like yours (it’s okay to ask the agent to whom they plan to submit and why once you get far enough in your conversations)
- a “clean” Internet presence (i.e. no red flag warning posts showing up when you Google the person’s name or on professional writers’ warning websites)
- they may or may not be a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives or other professional associations
Some Best Practices to Improve Your Odds
Agents only take on projects they believe they can sell, and competition is incredibly stiff. So do yourself a favor and follow these “best practices” to improve your odds.
First, you need to make sure you have a viable commercial product. That means working hard to perfect your craft through practice and obtaining (and implementing) objective feedback from your peers and ideally from professional editors or instructors.
Next, you need to understand your market: What do agents typically require for a book like yours? Do they want to see a complete manuscript, or is a book proposal enough? Should you have a synopsis or chapter summaries? What kind of platform is typically expected of authors like you?
And finally, hone that query letter until no sane person could read it and not want to read your book. Practice pitching your book at conferences. Really nail down the best way to present your work verbally and in print so you’re prepared for any opportunity you may have to pitch your work to an agent.
Take Your Time!
Hearing that agents can take months to respond to queries or assuming it’ll take you years to get a “yes” may lead you to jump the gun, sending out queries before your draft is perfected, for example. Don’t do it! The traditional route is a slow one and success requires patience. (In fact, here’s one more criterion for getting an agent: If you are very impatient, self-publishing may be a better route for you!)
It doesn’t do you any good to get an agent’s attention if your pitch and your submission aren’t strong enough to hold it. So take your time and give your project the attention and best chance it deserves.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally. Get free gifts and learn more at www.allymachate.com.