How to Get an Agent for Your Book

Written by Caitlin Jans | March 27, 2017

Most of the big 5 traditional publishers work with literary agents for most of their imprints. The same goes for some smaller presses. There are still wonderful publishers to submit to if you are going without an agent, but then your manuscript has to go through the dreaded slush pile.

There are lots of arguments for finding an agent. The right agent will guide you to the right publisher. The right agent will help you negotiate a favorable contract. The right agent can help you with any number of things, in exchange for a percentage of the money you make with a book contract.

As long as you submit to agents and manuscript publishers who accept simultaneous submissions, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying both at the same time. In some ways both processes are remarkably similar, however this article focuses on submitting to agents.

The first step of any submission process is the same. You have to start out with a complete manuscript. Not a first draft. This manuscript should be edited. For my last manuscript, which was around 250 pages in length, I found a good independent copy editor who went through one draft for around $1,600. Most of my pages have an average word count of 250 words.  If you cannot afford an editor, this article offers some wonderful free options (and also a few really expensive ones).

The next step is to write a query letter. This article by Emily Harstone really breaks down the process. This article on The Seven Most Common Manuscript Submission Mistakes is very helpful when it comes time to refine. As is this article on Querying Etiquette.

Want the opinion of a literary agent? Read Joyce Holland’s What Not To Do: An Agent’s Perspective.

Along with a query letters, most agents want the first twenty pages of the manuscript. I highly suggest that you find an excellent editor to focus on editing just the query letter and the first twenty pages. If you don’t want to spend the money, please run it by a writers group or a group of friends for their feedback.

Some agents also want a full synopsis of the book, although this is rather rare. If they ask for one, provide one. If they don’t, do not include yours anyways. It is very difficult to write a great (or even a good) complete synopsis of a book. This article does offer some very practical advice in terms of synopsis writing.

Now that everything is ready to go – your query letter, your first twenty pages (or so, as it does differ from agent to agent), and a synopsis just in case – your next big task is to find the right agents. There are many ways to go about this. I think a great place to start is with this rather long blogpost by Neil Gaiman called Everything You Wanted to Know about Literary Agents.

How I look for potential agents is a two step process. The first step involves using Agent Query and then reviewing the agents I find there through watchdog sites. This process usually includes a quick Google search, and always includes searching the forums at Absolute Write.  Sometimes I also start with browsing the forum there.

I never submit to an agent without researching them. I don’t see any point in doing so. To me, research is the most important step of the submission process. It is vital.

You can also learn a lot about the agent or agency just by browsing their website. A good agent will have the names of at least some of the authors and books they have represented right on their website. It is important that these books and names are currently relevant. One example, if they represent only one or two authors that were successful 20 years ago but have not published in a decade, they are to be avoided, generally.

I usually compile a list of agents who I would be proud to be represented by, at least 5 agents long, and then I submit to each of them. Carefully including names and reviewing submission guidelines to make sure I meet their individual needs, which sometimes vary.

I keep a word document where I track each of the agents I have submitted to. I update it when I hear back from an agent. I always note personal rejections (which are rare) and I always keep track of which agencies have rejected me before. All of this is one centralized and well organized file.

There is no step after this one, you just keep repeating this step. Although you might get rewrite requests, which will require editing again, or you might decide to revise your book on your own.

The other option you have available to you is attending and pitching at writers conferences or at other events where you directly interact with agents. I think generally the success rate when meeting an agent is much higher.  Learn more about writers conferences here and here.

I wish you the best of luck in this process. Always remember research and persistence are the key.