How to Get a Literary Agent (And Why You Need One)

How to Get a Literary Agent (and Why You Need One)

26 Mar 2019 Publishing

Book publishing can be…

  • Confusing
  • Complicated
  • Stressful

Especially when you face it alone.

But even I don’t try to navigate the publishing world by myself, despite having been an author, an editor, a publisher, and a writing coach over the last 45 years.

That’s why I have an agent.

To land a traditional publishing deal—where the publishing house pays you and takes 100% of the financial risk, you’ll need an agent, too.

But know this: While you may be writing out of your passion for a burning message you want to share with the world, agents might appear to base their decisions solely on money.

But don’t despair.

That doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion—in fact you wouldn’t want an agent UNLESS they shared it. It simply means they must make a profit to stay in business

You want a literary agent who also:

  • Likes you
  • Clicks with you
  • Knows the publishing landscape
  • Has enjoyed success in your genre
  • Carries an impeccable reputation
Need help fine-tuning your writing before contacting an agent? Click here to download my ultimate self-editing checklist.

What A Literary Agent Does

He (and I’m using He inclusively here to represent men or women agents) handles the business side of your career, representing your writing to publishers.

While you would still work directly with the publishing house’s editor and proofreader, your agent would negotiate your agreement so you can stay in your lane.

It’s difficult to negotiate for yourself, even if you’re a veteran in the publishing industry.

Ultimately, an agent’s job is to make you money. He profits only when you do.

He receives thousands of manuscripts every year, searching for the next mega-bestseller, that rare gem that captures his attention so completely he forgets he’s reading.

That’s the one he will shop to publishers on the writer’s behalf.

He will negotiate every clause in the publishing contract to secure the best deal for the author.

Standard commission for a U.S.-based agent is 15% of all proceeds from the book, and 20% of any international income.

A common question is whether it makes sense for a writer to cede 15% of his income to an agent.

The answer is yes. It is unlikely you could negotiate a deal at the level an agent can, and they earn their cut.

What A Literary Agent Doesn’t Do

Landing an agent does not guarantee you a publishing deal.

Your agent will be your cheerleader and should guide you to your best work.

He may even help fine tune your manuscript before he submits it anywhere. But he not your editor, nor is it his job to rework your manuscript.

Do You Need a Literary Agent to Get Published?

Besides the instant credibility of an agent’s interest—establishing that you and your writing has survived a rigorous vetting process, you’ll also get valuable input and coaching on how to fashion your query and proposal.

Though it’s as hard to find an agent as it is to find a publisher, it’s nearly impossible to get traditionally published without one.

Most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but even those who do would insist that you find representation if they offer a contract, so there will be no question they took advantage of you.

They might recommend a specific one, but you should do your own due diligence to find your own.

How to Get a Literary Agent

Check The Writer’s Market Guide for agents who specialize in the general market or The Christian Writer’s Market Guide for agents in the Inspirational market.

Where else to look:

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: the process is difficult.

Writing and publishing coach Jane Friedman likens it  to finding a spouse—a deeply personal search best done by you alone.

How do you know who to trust? A credible agent welcomes scrutiny. Find reviews. Check with clients they represent.

Once you’ve determined potential agents who ply their trade in your genre, follow their submission guidelines to a T.

They’ll ask for a query letter, synopsis, fiction or nonfiction book proposal, and sample chapters.

If you’re new author, they may want to see a finished manuscript. (For help with your Query Letter, see my post How to Write A Query Letter That Grabs an Agent’s Attention)

If an agent asks for any sort of reading fee or other payment, eliminate them as candidates. Legitimate agents make their money placing your manuscript with a publisher.

Review the submission guidelines from these agents with whom I’m familiar:

Steve Laube’s guidelines

Alex Field’s guidelines

Hartline Literary’s guidelines

Their pages are helpful and sound and will give you an idea of what typical agents look for.

Once I’ve Submitted, Now What

Some agents say that if you get no response after a certain period, assume they’re not interested.

I find that rude. Sometimes you’re not even told they received your material. In that case, wait six weeks and follow up with a kind note asking about the status.

Ideally the agent asks for more. That’s rare, but it happens.

Agents reject nearly all submissions, usually within minutes.

Too many writers give them too many reasons.

My goal is to get you to where an agent sees you and your writing as the next success. That’s why they’re in the business.

They’re longing to discover the next bestseller. Be the one who writes it.

Need help fine-tuning your writing before contacting an agent? Click here to download my ultimate self-editing checklist.