How to find a literary agent

Before you even begin to approach an agent for representation, you will need a completed manuscript (or if your project is non-fiction, a fleshed-out proposal with sample chapters and an author bio if applicable) and a professionally written query letter with a polished synopsis. So let’s assume you have those two things ready to go. Now what? How do you go about finding an agent?

Do your research

The best place to start is with market guide books, which you can find at your local library or bookstore. Some of the most reputable ones are Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, 2013 Guide to Literary Agents, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, 2013 Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market (for illustrators), Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2013 (a market guide to the UK) and its Children’s version. You’ll find that a lot of these books also offer a wealth of practical information on topics like copyright law, crafting query letters, self-publishing, e-publishing, submission guidelines, industry terms, and the publishing process in general, so it’s important that you use the most current copy available to you.

In addition to these guides, I recommend familiarizing yourself with these websites as well:

Agentquery.com offers a free searchable database of over 900 agent profiles. Along with query letter and submission basics, they have interviews, live chat transcripts, message boards, genre descriptions (if you’re unclear where your manuscript falls), networking opportunities, etc. It might be beneficial to read through their search tips before you dive in.

Query Tracker is a site where writers submit their querying experiences with specific agents. Once you register (it’s free), you can be privy to this information, including response times, treatment of authors, genres of interest, etc. (It’s important to remember, though, that publishing is a subjective business all the way around.) You can also organize and track your query letters through their site.

Lit Match is a site I’m not all that familiar with. It pops up a lot as a reputable source, I just don’t have much user experience with it. Like Agent Query and Query Tracker, you can search the database and track submissions.

Preditors & Editors is a site that tells you which agents to avoid. Definitely run a check of the agents on your list through this site, but I recommend reading their Rating Criteria first.

Publisher’s Marketplace. Members can track deals, previous sales, reviews, agent and agency profiles, editor profiles and publishing news. You can also sign up for Publisher’s Lunch, a free newsletter that’s emailed daily and full of industry news.

Writer Beware offers some great information on contests and awards, self-publishing, small presses, agent info, etc. They also have “Thumbs Down” agency lists and publishers lists.

The Association of Authors’ Representatives, or AAR. Read their About page, Canon of Ethics, and membership criteria. Members must follow a code of ethics, but don’t check an agent off your list just yet if they aren’t a member (many reputable agents aren’t for varying reasons). Do continue to research them though.

The Guide to Literary Agents Blog at Writer’s Digest is a fun read and a fantastic resource for writers.

Do more research

Look at published books written in the same genre as your manuscript and try to find out who represented them. A few ways to do this is by checking the acknowledgement page in the book, the author’s website, or consulting Google.

If you’re a children’s writer or illustrator, join your local chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, or SCBWI. They often have conferences featuring agents and editors from major publishing houses, and it’s a great way to network with people who share your passion and quest for publication. (If you are a member, make note of it on your query letter because it signifies to agents that you take writing, the path to publication and the publishing industry seriously.)

Go to conferences and workshops, but be sure to do your research on these first. Many of the (good) ones will offer critiques by editors and/or agents and/or successful authors.

Read agents’ or agencies’ websites. Not all have them but a lot do. Make note if they’re open to submissions (if so, which genres?) and of submission guidelines, and follow these guidelines to a T.* There’s no quicker path to the trashcan for a query than by ignoring the guidelines set forth (and you can find those guidelines in many of the resources listed above. If you can’t, well, maybe it’s best not to pursue that agent.) The only exception to this rule is if you’ve had a direct request from the agent or agent’s assistant to do otherwise. It could be that you met them at a conference and they invited you to send in your full manuscript (in which case, be sure to remind the agent through your query letter where and when you met in order to jog their memory).

*Agents receive hundreds of manuscripts a month. That slush pile you read about? It isn’t proverbial. Every single manuscript to land in their office gets a look, and they all develop a system that works best for them in order to get through the huge pile(s) of submissions and assess your work in a way that’s fair to you and timely for them. It also proves to them that you know what you’re doing as an aspiring author, that you take their job and yours seriously and that you’ve done your research.

After you do your research, you should have a list of all the reputable agents who are open to submissions in your particular genre. And now you’re ready to send out query letters and play the waiting game. Good luck!

If you have a personal question on the agent/querying/publishing process, feel free to email me at joylovelyjoyblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

(I’ve tried to feature the best resources to my knowledge but if I’ve missed something, please let me know!)

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What exactly does a literary agent do?

If you’ve read this post or have clicked on that Hire Me link up at the top of the page, you know that my publishing career began at a literary agency where I was the senior assistant to the vice president. I’m prefacing this post with that information so you can get an idea for why I think I’m qualified to write about agenting and the publishing process.

One of the questions I get asked most often by aspiring authors is, “What does an agent do?” So I’m going to attempt to answer that question here and then you can decide if querying agents is the next step for you or not.

An agent offers editorial guidance

It’s an agent’s job to know the marketplace. They know what’s selling, what’s on trend and what’s up and coming. A good agent will also be someone who listens, who will bounce ideas around, who will alert you to loopholes in your plot, character inconsistencies, and weak moments in dialogue or scenes. They will cheer you on when you think you can’t possibly face another revision or rejection.

An agent submits material to editors

Aside from the fact that many editors don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, agents have working relationships with a slew of editors in their field of expertise. They know which editors like fantasy or science fiction or humor or reality or non-fiction or memoir. They know if an editor is drawn to funny or funky or sweet or quiet. They know who’s looking for what and if they’ve just published (or signed) something similar to your manuscript (in which case the editor probably won’t even try to acquire your manuscript, no matter if they love it). Basically, they do the research for you.

An agent negotiates contracts

Agents sell the rights to your work and then they negotiate the terms and fees. Most agents work from boilerplate contracts that have been negotiated with the publisher, and most reserve rights for which an unagented author might unknowingly sign over (film rights, foreign language rights, audio rights, etc.). But just because they work off of boilerplate contracts doesn’t mean there won’t be certain language or terms that can’t be negotiated further.

An agent acts as your accountant

Have you looked at a royalty statement lately? Some of them are like complex coded messages, and it takes a skilled professional to crack the code. Agents can deconstruct these statements and determine if there are any mistakes. If so, they know exactly who to contact and will probably be more successful at getting those missing funds than a single author or illustrator.

An agent acts as your business manager

An agent handles the business side of publishing so that the author can focus on writing and the illustrator on illustrating. They’re also troubleshooters. They’re seasoned professionals at handling problems that can arise during the publishing process.

*Even if they’re not “seasoned professionals”, most junior agents work under an agent or group of agents who offer a system of support, so don’t be scared off by a newbie agent. As long as they’re with a reputable agency, they’re privy to a wealth of knowledge, experience, support and resources.

So what’s in it for them?

The standard commission for an agency is 15% on actual earnings (advances, royalties, permission fees, etc.) for the life of the book. If an agency doesn’t have an in-house foreign rights department or film department, and these rights need to be negotiated, a co-agent who specializes in those areas will be recruited, in which case the fee will be higher than 15%.

How does the payment process work?

A publisher will send a check to the agency who will take their 15% and then, in turn, cut a check to you for the remaining balance. At the end of the year you will get one 1099 (even if you work with more than one publisher) that will state all earnings, commissions, expenses*, etc.

*Expenses are usually very minimal charges for things like copies.

What doesn’t an agent do?

An agent doesn’t work for you, as in they are not your employee. I can’t tell you how many calls I received where the caller on the other end of the line said something to the effect of: “I’m looking for an agent and I want to know what you’ll do for me.” Or “You tell me: Why do I need you?” Or “I’m interviewing agents. Go to my website and fill out the form.” (I kid you not.) An agent wants to cultivate a professional relationship that will hopefully last for many (successful) years. They have to feel that you two are a right fit for each other. The respect has to be mutual.

Also, a legitimate agent will never charge a “reading fee”.

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So there you have it. Hope this sheds some light on the elusive job description of the literary agent. I’ll be posting soon on how you go about finding agents who might be a good fit for you and your work.

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments or email me at

joylovelyjoyblog (at) gmail (dot) com.