How to Find a Literary Agent

Everything you need to know to attract an industry expert
who can get you the best book deal.

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By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

They could be your best publishing ally, so it’s vital to know how to find a literary agent if you’re targeting traditional publishing. While self-publishing lets you control everything, that takes lots of time, will probably cause frustration, present a near-vertical learning curve, stop you writing and keep doors locked that an industry insider can unpick. You’ll pay them commission, but that means they’re invested in your success, motivating them to use booktuber, reviewer and literary periodical contacts to get advance copies into the most influential hands. You can’t buy that.

Such expertise means good agents are picky, so you’ll need to know how to find a literary agent through great preparation to make you a must-have client.

First, define your novel and ‘brand’. It sounds complex, but simply being clear on things like book category, genre, originality, tone and concepts will help an agent know instantly if you’re a good fit. So, what do they need to know?

Is your novel in the mainstream, genre or literary category? Mainstream fiction is mostly what’s likely to sell, with an easy transition to film being one factor, so emphasise this if you think you’ve written a potential screen hit. Genre fiction means ticking many trope boxes common to the likes of action–adventure, fantasy or new adult. Literary fiction often has character-led plots, emphasising writing style and exploring issues.

Knowing your genre is crucial too. In the same way you’ll lean toward some types of music or film, book lovers have favourites, and it’s important to recognise that by signposting your book’s type. Write your own novel without the need to slavishly follow genre norms, but at least know what they are, using them as a guide to where your book sits. The more genre ‘rules’ followed, the better the chances of finding an agent, but don’t shoehorn your manuscript into the wrong section. If you straddle genres and are unsure – like many authors – pick your ‘alpha’ genre. There might be a subgenre that helps here, with all the main classifications having them. Choose the one you’ve most closely followed, knowing you’re unlikely to tick all boxes.

Those empty boxes can be an advantage, showing originality. Your novel should fit into a genre while also defying some conventions and inverting cliches, shouting about its uniqueness above the whip-crack of slavish, predictable writing. Flag up the distinct place you sit within your genre to stand out.

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

Be clear on themes and tone. They’re linked, with serious subjects needing a harmonious tone, but limit the themes; too many means you won’t do them justice. Tell the agent your major themes and how they’re reflected in the book.

Now your novel’s defined, you’ve finished the first steps on how to find a literary agent, and your brand is next. It might seem like an odd word to use about yourself but, yes, you have a brand. It’s what makes you unique, and it lets agents know if you’ll work well together.

So, what are they looking for? Agents typically sign writers who are consistent in their genre and style, wanting to know you’ve written, say, a mystery or a thriller and plan to produce more. It’s easier to get signed and secure a contract if you’re thinking about future novels.

Author imaginations are rarely restrained when thinking about book success, so you’re probably eyeing a global bestseller. That suggests starting internationally in your agent search, but while it’s great to think in worldwide terms, begin in the UK if you’re based here. There’s likely to be a surprising number of agents near you. Check their suitability carefully, because even if they do offer to represent you, they might not be the best choice. Before committing, be sure they represent authors in your genre and have the contacts to get you published.

After an initial UK search has bagged an agent and led to publication, you might then be ready to search abroad if, say, your local agent doesn’t work internationally.

Finding a literary agent and getting a book deal can be confusing amid images of fame and fortune, the dream of working full-time as a writer and telling that boss what you really think. But, before those thoughts take over, be sure to read any contract carefully. There’s likely to be much legalese in publisher or agent contracts, so if you’re unsure about anything, get it legally checked.

Understanding the contract is crucial, because dreams can turn sour. If a publisher wants to buy the rights to the series rather than the novel, for example, you might want to light that celebratory cigar. Your agent could even light it for you, delighted at their highest-paying series contract. You buy more cigars with the advance, which is bigger than usual because it’s for the first two novels.

Your first novel is published and you can focus on writing the second. But, when the sales figures are in, there are no royalties left for you. You may not even be legally entitled to them until the second book is out and sells enough copies to cover the advance, which was for two novels. You have to live off the initial advance for the next few years. It might even be time to grovel to that former boss. Your writing suffers. The third book – which you need to finish to receive the next advance – is taking forever. The publisher owns the rights to your series, so they sack you and use a ghostwriter to finish your book. It sounds like fiction, but it’s a potential reality, with precedents. It could all have been prevented, though, by a proper look at the paperwork.

Before being able to check a contract, you’ll have to draw up a pool of potential agents. Make sure your novel’s in the best possible shape, with the help of a book editor and, with the book editing finished, you’re ready for that agent search. Your book editor might even have some suggestions. Think first of your genre, targeting agents working for authors in your category. Look also for experience, but not at all costs; there’s a ‘sweet spot’ here between a track record of success, having great contacts and enough time to devote to you. A new, hungry agent without all this could be better for you, with more time and a greater motivation to achieve the success that will reflect well on their fledgling agency.

If you find all the important factors in an agent and are signed on, think of it as improving your chances of success rather than guaranteeing it.

Before sending a query letter, do your research. Look at the authors the literary agent works with and read their books, noting similarities with your own. Who are the publishers, and are you interested in working with them? Is the author’s agent still in place? Long-term collaboration can show the agent’s expertise. Review the publisher’s marketing. Which books on their website are popular? Which ones aren’t? How much work goes into the covers and book details? You can change agent if there are failings in any of these aspects, but proper research is likely to prevent that need.

With your properly researched list, it’s time to approach agents, choosing a formal or personalised approach. It’s difficult to recommend one over the other, so assess everything possible about the agency, looking at the likes of their website to get a feel for them. Your book’s style is another factor, with a strong writing ‘voice’ likely to jar with an overly formal query letter.

If you go formal, the letter’s opening paragraph should provide a synopsis, word count, genre, category, topics, and whether it’s the first of a planned series. With a thank you and best wishes, end there.

A personalised letter is more challenging, but you now have the information to engage the agent after doing the research outlined above. You might, for example, mention an acknowledgement quotation from one of the authors they’ve worked with. That means crafting several tailored letters, but the extra effort might make the difference. The outline section of your personalised letter can stay the same as the formal one. Make sure to also include details of the protagonist’s obstacles, the decisions they make, their internal conflict and how they change by the book’s end. Remember, agents are busy, so keep everything as succinct as possible.

Your letter should fall between a synopsis and a blurb. A blurb will include lots of hooks to draw in readers but be less informative; a synopsis presents the action and events without any hooks. Striking the right balance between the two will ensure you’ve written the best possible query letter.

If all this has persuaded you to go take the independent route, factor in the huge amount of work needed to self-publish well, with a massive marketing and publicity effort if sales are your goal. Learning how to find a literary agent can remove many of those hassles, providing a valuable buffer between you and the publisher and ensuring you get the best possible book deal.

Extra tips:

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, querytracker.net, duotrope and PublishersMarketplace.com are superb resources to begin your search.

Avoid agents charging more than 15 per cent.

Be mindful of your agent’s workload. You’ll have questions, but don’t expect instant replies. They’re working with other clients too, and often those are the published authors paying their bills.

Don’t worry about the size of the agency, as this isn’t proportional to their quality or the size of your deal.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2024

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

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