How to Find a Literary Agent

By Mark Nichol

You do know, don’t you, that if you hope to have just about any trade publisher consider your book manuscript, you’ll need a literary agent?

Good. But how do you go about finding one? Here’s my advice:

  • If you know a published writer or are a member of a writing group that has one or more published writers, ask the author for a recommendation.
  • Peruse magazines geared toward writers, and other literary-themed publications, for profiles or other references to agents.
  • Attend writing conferences and attend presentations by agents. At smaller events, you might even have an opportunity to meet one.
  • Enter writing competitions that offer consultations with agents as part of their award packages.
  • Research and evaluate agents at online directories.

If you choose only one of these options, opt for the last one: Go to the Web site of the Association of Authors’ Representatives or to AgentQuery. AAR members abide by a reassuring code of conduct, and AgentQuery stands by the agents listed in its database, many of whom decline to join the AAR for one reason or another or have not yet qualified for AAR membership but are just as reliable. (There’s also Preditors and Editors, which evaluates literary agents and other publishing professionals.)

Never pay an agent up-front to review your manuscript or represent you, and never pay for editorial services an agent offers or recommends. No reputable agent will request money up-front (other than, possibly, a copying and postage fee; see below) or refer you to an editor who charges you for their assistance. (They may, however, suggest several such services without recommending one in particular.) Professional agents will represent you if they think your manuscript is ready to be published or may offer you some advice if they think it shows promise; rarely, they’ll actually offer to polish your novel a bit — free — before sending it out.

Increasingly, legitimate literary agents are inserting a clause into contracts specifying an expense-reimbursement fee of up to $500. However, their contracts generally also state that no additional fees can be charged without your written consent, and they will not offer to edit your manuscript or outsource that service if you put out some more funds. Furthermore, agents often don’t accept the expense payment if they don’t get you a publishing contract. Most reputable agents, however, refrain from charging you up-front at all.

How, then, do agents make a living? If an agent agrees to represent you, they are gambling on the chance that your manuscript will sell, and they will collect a 10-20% commission on sales for their services. If they suggest some revisions, invite you to resubmit the revised manuscript, and take you on, they’ll hope to recoup their expenses, and more, the same way. If they reject your manuscript outright, that means they do not feel that representing you is a good investment, and they will not charge you for turning you down.

If several agents reject your manuscript, they’re telling you something — and it’s not that you should pay someone else to represent you. They’re telling you that your manuscript isn’t ready for prime time, so get back to work on it, set it aside and get started on another project, or seek help in a writing group, class, or program. Before too long, it will be time to seek an agent again — and perhaps the next time, you’ll get lucky.

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15 Responses to “How to Find a Literary Agent”

  • Rebecca

    I’m looking for a literary agent for my teen non-fiction book. I sent out some queries but haven’t heard anything yet. I did hear back from a literary agent in NY about my children’s picture book but they declined. I was grateful I received a response.

    Some literary agents ‘claim’ they’ll get back to you, especially if you send your query via email. This isn’t true — don’t hold your breath. One of my goals is to open up my own agency/production company. I will get back to people, even if it’s to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I do my best to keep my word and to walk my talk.

  • Robinu

    I can’t speak for the US but in Canada this is not true. There are several trade publishers that a writer can submit their manuscripts to without having an agent represent them.
    Granted if your soul desire is to become a best-selling author, then yes you do need an agent to get into the likes of Random House or McLelland and Stewart, but in Canada many agents won’t touch you unless you have a proven track record so it’s advantageous to start small, get a book published by a smaller publishing house, and then start the search for an agent.

  • Micki Perepeczko

    Query Tracker.com is also another amazing site where you can find agents, track your queries and a successful forum – very friendly folk on this forum as well plus success stories from queries and book deals

  • shooby

    Hey, I really tried to find literary agent to publish my book. I went to many publishers to help me in my book, but it was useless. I take many dates and a lot of promises. Thank you for giving me good steps to find respectable literary agent.Sport

  • Michael Cole is a Tool

    Rebecca,

    You’re too emotional out of it. If “submitters” can’t endure that, they won’t survive out there, if their book hits big until Stephen King has to read it for his critic: look what happen to Stephenie Meyer (yeah, the hot mom who wrote Toilet — sorry, Twilight).

    If you become an agent, you could be VERY busy and can’t reply to those you’re not interested. So, don’t blame on them — if you don’t hear from them in a month, send a follow-up and a week no reply? It’s passed.

  • Charlene Oliver

    I am a published author with the publisher Beautiful-Books in London, my autobiography titled “I’ve never Been to Me” is my life’s story being the first white woman signed to the Motown Label, than having a number one hit world wide has made me want to really put my hand to writing, not just song writing, but novel writing. Being in the music industry for 30 years + It has given me a skin as tough as nails, knowing the ups and down in the industry is earth shattering, no American Idol here, it’s called pay the price the hard way; Earn It…..
    I have written a suspense thriller titled ” Oliver’s Army: The Book and the Quill. I guess my character thinks the way I do, that is press through the toughest moments in life, and when you have been kicked in the teeth one more time get up and do it again. Persistence is the name of the game in all areas of writing, live it, breathe it, love it and never quit and your dreams will happen.
    Charlene

  • Joanna R. Himes-Murphy

    I’ve written a book about surviving domestic violence, but I don’t know where to look for an agent to help me. It used to be when I was a freelancer I could go to Borders or Barnes and Nobles. I really need some advice on this.

  • Tim De Felice

    OK! I have a self published a children story. I have also been writing a novel for many years and I have not been able to get an agent to accept my querry for either of them. I am not sure but it seems I am losing to the numbers game. is there any way to find an agent that can be recomemded to a new author? I need help and i want to be published, and i am willing to be patient. it just seems the light at the end fo the tunnel keeps getting further and further away. Thank you for your advice.

  • GN001

    I’ve just started taking my writing seriously after throwing out several small stories written on the fly on the internet and receiving very positive pieces of feedback from hundreds of readers (Even fanart based on my characters! Thank you so much guys!).

    I’ve been buzzing around /lit/ websites researching the industry and it looks as tough as I thought it would be, the articles on this website are immensely helpful to the budding writer, thanks guys!

    Chris R

  • Jamesha Barton

    My name is Jamesha, and I am currently seeking an agent to assist me in finding a legit book publishing company. I have been searching for months to find an self publishing company to help get my book out, but after doing some intense research, I realized that, that is not what I want to do. I have been hopping to find someone to represent me to a company that will help me succeed my goals.

    thank you, much.

  • Andrew

    A research manuscript, regarding “A United Republican Opposition in the Age of Obama,” almost ready for production or publication. How can I find a conventional, paying publisher(s) to get a quality-Random/Penguin publisher for my manuscript?

  • mike

    What are your credentials that makes your political opinion carry any weight? Are you a former politician, reputable journalist or an amateur who’s opinion doesn’t matter? Political Science PhDs with real bona fides don’t get published by those houses. Most political books for the masses aren’t research based and are frankly BS. Academic presses publish the research boks and you won’t make a living that way, unless you are lucky like the woman who wrote about Lincoln that president Obama read. You have to make your Bones in another career to make it as a political author.

  • Alexander Duncan

    The whole retail/commerical structure of publishing in Canada and the world is dying. No one reads books. Books are cheap or free online. Amazon can mass sell most if not all books much cheaper than bookstores. Copyright is an almost meaningless concept now. My recommendation to an aspiring author is publish yourself online, using a free POD press if you want to create physical books, and promote yourself using blogs, etc. And don’t ever imagine that this is going to make you money or that you are going to be famous. If that’s your motive, give up now. The world of the future is a world of universally available, free or near-free, online accessible information. Unless you are extraordinarily lucky, in such a word you will never be more than a drop in the bucket. Get over it! 🙂

  • Sara

    Wow, Alexander, I don’t even know where to begin.

    “No one reads books.”

    WTF?! I read constantly. As do my mom, dad, sisters, friends…. When my husband and I moved we had more boxes of books than anything else and that was after we already got rid of some. I know many people who won’t so much as get a kindle or a nook because of how much they love the feel of a book in their hands. People read books.

    Furthermore, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, dear. Things that are “given away for free” on the internet are done so 1. in a promotional/beginners capacity, but will not be free forever, 2. because they are of a quality that no one would be willing to pay for, 3. paid for by advertisers – the piper’s still getting paid, just not by you. Although we do have access to many “free” things via the internet, and it has admittedly changed many, many things, the future of the world is not a future where everything is free or our economy will simply collapse.

    I’m not saying that publishing a novel is the fast track to fame and fortune, but there are many successful writers out there who have found their niche and done quite well for themselves. Think of your favorite authors (although I suppose no one would have any if no one reads…) and remember that they were once just “a drop in the bucket” who refused to accept it and became more.

  • Leanne

    Sara, nicely stated!

    Alexander, everyone needs a dream. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning, and makes the day worth living. I have found that again in writing. I wake up early and write whenever I can. I stay up very late at night editing the hell out of it. Getting published, and sharing my work, is a big part of that dream. I aspire to be better, and to make my dreams come true.

    Your world of everything “free” sounds boring and gray, to me. I hope you find some light.

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