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

In the rapidly changing world of book publishing, some people don’t think an agent is necessary anymore. Used to be, they were gatekeepers to the publishing world. No agent, no deal. Things have changed. After all, self-publishing is huge, and there are a variety of small presses and e-only publishers that don’t require you to have an agent. It’s true: If you’re a self-pubber, you don’t need an agent, unless you’ve truly hit it big and are now pursuing a print deal.

But if you’re going to work with a publisher, any publisher, even a small press, an agent can be a huge help. For one thing, they’re in your corner. They work for you, not the other way around. They aren’t looking out for the best interests of the publishers, either. Your publisher is (naturally) looking out for their own best interests, not yours. An agent is paid off of a percentage of what you earn, so they’re eager to make sure you make as much money as possible.

If things turn sour between you and your publisher, a good agent can be an intermediary, talking everyone down and convincing them to return to their corners. An agent also knows what is standard publisher practice and what’s not, and can warn you if a contract or publisher request seems fishy. I’ve also noticed agents seem to have better luck negotiating multi-book deals that do unagented authors. And if you want a deal with a big New York publishing house, the kind that can get you a print deal and get you in bookstores, you need an agent. The only exception I can think of is Harlequin, which does still work with unagented authors.

So if I’ve  persuaded you to at least consider pursuing an agent, how do you go about it?

It’s tricky. Certain agents are very active on social media, and that’s a good place to start research, but it doesn’t tell you everything. Lots of good agents aren’t especially great on Twitter, and just because an agent is a social media whiz doesn’t mean they’ll be easy to work with.

Start by looking at authors who are published with the publishers you’re targeting and find out who their agents are. Join Romance Writers of America (or whatever organization exists for your preferred genre). Most writer’s organizations, including RWA, keep lists of agents who represent their genres.

Such lists are only a place to start, however. You MUST to go the agent’s website and read their preferences. Don’t waste your and an agent’s time by sending your romance query to an agent who only represents literary fiction, or sending your novella to someone who only represents novels. Even if you find an agent who does represent your genre, they may be temporarily closed to submissions, or interested primarily in a subgenre that isn’t what you write. Do your research.

If you know published authors (which you probably do if you belong to RWA or another writing organization), ask them about their agents. There is a very active grapevine among writers and word of bad agents will usually spread quickly.

I suggest coming up with a list of at least 10-15 agents you’d like to start with. You might have to query many, many more. I’ve known authors to query 60 agents before they found the right one. You might not have success with the first book you query, either. I didn’t land an agent (the fabulous Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency) until the third book I queried agents with.

After you’ve come up with a preliminary list of 10-15 possibilities, READ THEIR SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Every agent wants something different. Some want a query only. Others want a synopsis. Some want the whole manuscript, but others want a few chapters or pages. Some want everything pasted in the body of a query; others will open attachments, but only of a certain kind.

Ignoring an agent’s submission guidelines and not bothering to research what that agent is looking for are the two fastest ways to get a rejection. (Or if the agent you’re querying isn’t particularly nice, your query will be deleted with no explanation and she’ll publicly mock you on Twitter.) Tailor your submission to that agent’s preferences and you won’t have to worry about that. It doesn’t guarantee an acceptance, but at least you won’t spoil your chances by annoying the agent right off the bat.

What are your experiences seeking (and maybe finding) an agent? Have you made any particularly cringeworthy mistakes you’d like to share?


About Linda Morris

Linda Morris is a multipublished writer of contemporary and historical romance. She writes stories with heart and heat, and a joke or two thrown in. When she's not writing, working, or mommying, she's doing yoga, reading, working in her flower garden, or baking delicious things she probably shouldn't eat. A beat-up old copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss's "Ashes in the Wind" that her mom bought for her at a garage sale years ago was her "gateway drug" into the world of romance novels. Her all-time favorite romance writers include Laura Kinsale, Patricia Gaffney, Elizabeth Delancey, and Marjorie Ferrell. Current favorites include Julie Anne Long, Erin McCarthy, and Shannon McKenna.
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2 Responses to How to Land a Literary Agent (And Why You Need One)

  1. lizkflaherty says:

    Linda, this is a great post! I don’t have an agent anymore, and this is the first time in a long time I’ve considered looking again.


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