Have you written a book of fiction or non-fiction and want to seek commercial publishers? Maybe you’ve got a great idea for a book, but you’re looking for ways to bring it to fruition and ultimately deliver it to a mainstream audience. If so, you’re going to want to know how to get an agent.
In this article, we’ll cover what a literary agent is, why you need an agent, and ultimately how to get an agent.
What is an Agent?
A literary agent is someone who is hired to represent writers in the publishing industry. Also known as “publishing agents,” they are a crucial component for writers to enter a professional publishing capacity. Essentially, literary agents are in charge of negotiating and selling the works of writers. This includes traditional publishers, but also extends to film studios, television/media producers, theatrical productions, as well as handling the rights and royalties that writers are compensated by.
Typically, agents work on commission. They are paid a fixed percentage on the proceeds from sales that they help negotiate and facilitate. This ensures that literary agents are acting in the best financial interests of their clients. If you encounter an agent that charges an upfront fee or steers your work towards vanity/subsidy presses, this is a surefire sign that your money and work are best directed elsewhere.
Why Do You Need an Agent?
Agents might seem like an unnecessary step to novice writers. After all, couldn’t a writer just handle all of the business-end on their own? The answer is most likely no.
While the recent developments in self-publishing may have leveled the playing field for writers looking to publish their works, traditional publishers still rely on agents to act as intermediaries. Agents help discern quality writers from those that aren’t up to par and also forge relationships with editors at publishing houses. Agents help land manuscripts into the hands of publishers far easier than other methods.
But publishing is only one function of a literary agent. They serve a number of other functions, including:
- Editorial guidance
- Explaining the legal language of contracts and terms that are negotiated
- Contract mediation between publisher and author
- Finding new publishing opportunities
- Selling the rights to your work
And so forth. An easy way to think of a literary agent is a person that you subcontract/delegate the business- and industry-related tasks so that you can focus more on writing.
It should be understood that literary agents typically come from other functions in the publishing world. Therefore, they have a keen sense of what type of books in the specialty are the most marketable, as well as the prerequisites that a professional manuscript should have before submitting.
Types of Agents
Just as there are different types of writers, literary agents also come in different varieties. Literary agencies range in size and function. For instance, smaller agencies may just consist of one literary agent with a few clients that they represent; larger agencies may have a more complex hierarchical structure that includes specialists devoted to foreign rights, merchandising, editorial/proofreading, and so forth.
Most agents and agencies tend to specialize in different types of writing. Genres like science fiction and topical non-fiction have different styles, publishing schedules, and audiences. Therefore, agents with an intimate knowledge of these avenues increase the likelihood of an author’s work being sold on a large scale.
Just like other professionals, literary agents and agencies have professional organizations to belong to. The AAR, or the Association of Authors’ Representatives, is one such organization that not only guarantees that the literary agent has previously sold a minimum number of books/works, but also requires an adherence to a Canon of Ethics. However, belonging to the AAR and other organizations is not a prerequisite to becoming a literary agent. Using professional credentials as a way to determine legitimate agents versus unscrupulous agents can help narrow your choices.
How to Get an Agent: Basics
Unless writers have been approached by agents due to the popularity of their work, finding the right literary agent is in the hands of the author. But where can we start looking for a literary agent?
One approach is to gather a list of books that you not only admire, but are also in the same genre of your work. Chances are that a literary agent was responsible for getting those books into your hands. Therefore, you can simplify your search by tracking the agent down. Most authors list the agent(s) that helped create their book in their acknowledgements in the front or back of their books. If the name of the agent isn’t included there, you can contact the publishing company’s publicity department and ask for an author’s representation. If that doesn’t work as a solution, try contacting an author directly. Some public email accounts are handled by agents themselves, so you may be able to speak to them directly before sending out a query letter (see below).
I personally get a lot of questions along the lines of,” How to get an agent” and “Can” your agent help me”. And I know the name applies to theory writers. In the case of, “How to get an Agent” most writers are happy to advise. But you might want to avoid the second questions. Authors work long hours, they get a lot of requests and it’s not fair to ask them to critique, advise and recommend on behalf of a stranger.
How to Get an Agent: The Search
As with any type of business interaction, it helps to meet face-to-face rather than contacting an agent without any introduction. Literary agents typically attend writer conferences and industry-related events to scout for new talent and network, so starting there is an excellent approach to meet receptive literary agents.
If either of these approaches doesn’t work, you can try contacting agents from a list that you make from online sources. Some online lists include:
Our own P.J. Aitken is actually a paid-up, traditionally published author. He can tell you how to get an agent using first-hand experience. So, be sure to check out the articles below to see what he has to say on the matter.
How to Get an Agent: Contact
Once you’ve managed to create your own list of viable agents, your next step is to do the proper due diligence before contacting them. This is your detective work beforehand to ensure that the agent you find is a good fit for your work. Be sure to find any personal agent webpages, as well as their professional social media presence. For example, Twitter and LinkedIn provide ways to see if your agent has a recent streak of successes or if they’re using social media as part of advertising their clients. It’ll also give you clues to an agent’s personality and the type of material they may prefer. Also, some agents may publically disclose that they are accepting new clients or not.
After obtaining all of the necessary information, send a query letter to each of the appropriate emails or physical addresses. Tailor each query to the specific agent you wish to contact, while also strictly adhering to the submission guidelines. Failure to do so can have your query rejected immediately.
Your query letter to each agent should follow a simple form:
First Paragraph: Explain the specific reasons why you are contacting the agent. If you have met the agent in-person beforehand, include a brief mention of when and where. Likewise, if another author that is directly related to the agent gives you a recommendation, mention this as well.
Second Paragraph: Pitch your book, aiming for 3-4 sentences that summarize the work. Aim for a balance between the familiar parts of the book’s genre with what makes it unique/sellable. Avoid too much detail or eccentricities.
Third Paragraph: Conclude the query by including a short biography, relevant links to your work/skills, and recent awards. Finally, reiterate your purpose for contacting the agent, offering to send your manuscript to further the conversation.
Keep the tone formal and professional, as an agent will be helping you to handle the important business aspects of your work and career. Also, don’t send any manuscripts or excerpts if they aren’t specifically asked for. However, if the guidelines do ask for samples of your work, then make sure to include them with your query.
How to Get an Agent: Agency Contracts
Once you’ve found an agent that is interested in your work, the next step is to formally enter a business relationship by signing a contract.
Unfortunately, the particulars of every agent differ, as well the terms and conditions on every contract. While the topic is beyond the scope of this article on how to get an agent, it should be noted that you shouldn’t sign anything you fully understand.
Also, just as you performed due diligence beforehand to find a decent list of agents, be sure to continue this process during negotiation. It is better to avoid scammers or time-wasters before committing to a legally-binding contract that may impede your future output and career.
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Are you ready for an agent? If you’re looking to take your writing career to the next level, it helps to have professional representation on your side. After all, writing your book is only half the battle; an agent can help you get your book into the hands of your potential readers.