agents · editorial · publishing

How to get a literary agent

I thought I’d written a post on this before but somebody asked me about it the other day and I realised I hadn’t! I’ve written about how an agent can help you and how I got my own agent but I thought it’d be helpful for me to write a more general post about the best way to try to secure an agent of your own. Please note the following advice is mainly applicable if you’re writing fiction – the guidelines around non-fiction are slightly different, mainly in that you usually need a proposal and sample rather than an entire finished manuscript – but lots of the other tips can be applied to both!

  1. Finish your manuscript! This might sound really obvious, but actually I think a lot of people send off their first three chapters to agents without having actually finished their whole book. I totally understand the desire to email agents as quickly as you can and get the ball rolling, but it’s far better to finish your manuscript, and make sure it’s in the best possible condition before you begin querying agents at all. This is because, once you’ve emailed an agent with your three chapters, synopsis and introductory letter, they can ask for your full manuscript at any time and you don’t want to be caught out if you haven’t finished it yet! Often it does take a little while for agents to respond (e.g. up to 12 weeks) but at other times, they can be super speedy (my agent asked for my full manuscript a few days after I emailed her!) Agents are busy people and they get A LOT of queries, so it can depend on how much else they’ve got on that week and how many other authors they are working with as to when they will read your email – but you want to be prepared if they do get in touch. You might only get this chance to impress them, so it’s best to be ready and professional with your manuscript ready to go.
  2. Do your research. There are lots of amazing agents out there, but each of them will have their own wish-lists and requirements and there really is no point in querying an agent who doesn’t represent or isn’t looking for the kind of book you’ve written. Most agents have individual profiles on their agency websites which specify the kind of thing they’re after, and also list what they’re not after. Don’t pitch your YA sci-fi novel to an agent who is only interested in rom-coms! It’s a waste of both your time and theirs. I’d also recommend having a look at which authors the agents you’re wanting to query already represent – do they feel similar to you? Do you think you’d sit alongside them well? Agents are people and they have different and subjective tastes as well as knowing their market, and so it’s always worth checking to see whether you think your writing fits in with the current authors they have on their list. Once you’ve done a good amount of research, you can draw up a list of agents you’d like to query, in the knowledge that you’re targeting people you have a solid chance with.
  3. Keep track of who you’ve submitted to. When I was first querying agents I kept a big Excel spreadsheet with the name of the agent, their agency, the date I’d submitted on and then a column for whether they had replied / rejected / wanted the full manuscript. That way I could make sure I didn’t accidentally query the same agent twice (it could happen when you’re sending out a lot of emails at once) and I could also check how long I’d been waiting. A lot of agency websites now have guidelines as to how long they might take to get back to you – if it goes past their timescale it’s fine to send a polite email asking them about your query, but try to resist emailing them again before that time! And if it’s been AGES and they still haven’t got back to you, I’d cross them from the list (I always used the rationale that I wouldn’t really like to be represented by someone who took 8 months to respond!) But as I say, it can take a while simply because of the sheer volume of emails agents get, so patience is a virtue in this game and keeping track of the dates on a spreadsheet can help you to feel slightly more in control of the whole thing.
  4. Hone your cover letter and pitch. I know lots of authors who spend quite a while making sure their pitch is as brilliant as it can be – and it is worth taking the time to ensure you are presenting the very best person of yourself and your book. Try to think of your hook – a one-line elevator pitch that will make an agent instantly want to read your novel – and ensure this is prominent in your covering note. Make sure you keep your letter succinct, whilst not being afraid to show a little of your personality. If you’ve won prizes for your writing in the past, say so! If you haven’t, and this novel is the first thing you’ve ever written, that’s fine too! Always be clear, polite and professional – remember the author/agent relationship is a working relationship and you want to ensure you respect that from the very first communication.
  5. Stick to the agency guidelines. Different literary agencies have different rules – some agents want the first three chapters, some want the first 10,000 words, some want your work in the body of the email and some want it as an attachment. Some might want a PDF, some might want a word document. Occasionally agents may want it in the post (though this is pretty rare now). I know it might feel frustrating having to tailor each submission but it is worth it – doing so shows you have taken the time to do your research, shows you can follow instructions, and will make the agent’s life easier. It doesn’t take long to ensure you stick to the guidelines, and remember you don’t want to give any agent an excuse to reject your work before they have even read it!
  6. Make your first three chapters as brilliant as they can be! I really can’t stress this enough. Your first three chapters (your first sentence really!) should showcase your very best work. Agents (and editors) get so many submissions that they have to make quick judgements, so there’s no use in saying ‘oh but my book really kicks in around chapter four!) as unless the first three chapters are good, nobody will ever see that excellent chapter four! Spend time honing them and making sure they are as impactful as possible, as it will pay off. On the flip side of that, try not to fiddle for too long once you know you’re happy with it – it’s always tempting to just tweak one more word but at some point you will need to set your writing free and send it out into the world, so it’s just about knowing when something feels good enough to you and then resolving to send it out.
  7. Make sure your synopsis really is a synopsis! Include your ending (and any spoilers, even in crime!) and try to keep to about one page. You don’t need to include every detail, but you do need to include the main characters and main plot events. This isn’t about keeping the agent in suspense, or writing a marketing blurb – it should be an outline of what actually happens in the novel, stage by stage, over a couple of paragraphs. Minor details and character descriptions don’t need to be included – these will come through in the writing of your manuscript! A lot of writers do find writing synopses quite painful, so prepare to give it a few goes until you get it right. Draft and redraft, and if you can, get someone else to read it over for you too.
  8. Keep your expectations in check. An agent might request your full manuscript but then still not offer you representation, and they might even ask to meet you and STILL not offer! (Both of these things happened to me!) This is not the end of the world, and it’s still great that they requested your full manuscript (your first three chapters must be working well!). When an agent does offer representation, it’s really exciting, and the bumps along the way will make it feel even more worth it!
  9. Never take rejection personally. As an editor I’ve never rejected a book for a personal reason to do with the author – I always judge books based on their content, their hook and how well it will fit with my list and agents are broadly making the same decisions. If you are always polite and professional, it’s safe to say a rejection won’t be any reflection on you or your personality! Rejection in publishing is absolutely inevitable and has happened to EVERY SINGLE AUTHOR I KNOW INCLUDING ME. Don’t take it to heart – if you get a rejection, resolve to send out your query to another agent that same day so that you feel as though you’ve done something positive. Remember, it only takes one yes!
  10. Check your contract! If you do get an offer of representation (yay!) first of all, celebrate! It’s a big achievement and hopefully something that will open doors for you. But first of all, make sure you check your contract, check what the agent is offering you, and that it’s in line with the standard. And remember, the author and agent relationship can be crucial for your career so make sure you take the time to ensure it feels like the right fit for you – a good agent should answer any questions you might have, and reassure you if you have any worries – it is a big decision and whilst it’s tempting to bite their hand off, do take the time to sit back, evaluate how you feel, and be sure you’re making the right decision before signing on the dotted line.

Hopefully this post is helpful and do feel free to ask questions in the comments below if you have any!

Phoebe x

8 thoughts on “How to get a literary agent

    1. Hello – yes, if it’s a physical contract you do get an advance and then once that has earned out you start receiving royalties; with digital first you get higher royalty rates but no advance usually. Often foreign rights sales bring money in too. I did get paid but I feel uncomfortable disclosing the amount – it really varies from a few hundred pounds to thousands. A lot of writers have other jobs to support themselves – I hope this helps! X


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