How do I find a literary agent?

How do I find a literary agent?

You may have heard that if you want to get published traditionally (i.e., get published by any of the big five publishers, which includes Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and MacMillan) that you need a literary agent.

This is true.

None of the big five, nor most of the smaller publishers, will take unsolicited manuscripts. This means that if you want a legitimate publisher to consider publishing your book, someone needs to represent you. In other words, if you want a seat at the great publishing table, you need someone at the door who can get you into the club. And that person is a literary agent. Read more below to see how to find a literary agent.

What is a literary agent?

Literary agents are basically salespeople. Yes, their job is to take your manuscript (or MS for short) and pitch it to publishers who are looking for books like yours, hoping to make a sale. Because if an agent never sells anything to a publisher, they are out of a job.

Literary agents tend to have worked in the publishing field. They could be authors themselves or have worked as acquisition editors before deciding to work as an agent or for an agency. Like you, they love books and honestly want to see new voices get their books published.

And like you, they want to make a living, so they need to find books that they think publishers will want to publish.

As an author, you need to see agents as your friend and your ally. So, if an agent asks you to do something before they will rep you, do it. More on this later.

How much does it cost to get a literary agent?

Nothing. No legitimate agent will ever charge you a fee for their services. The only cost, if you want to call it that, to get a literary agent is the time and effort you spend querying them before you find one who will rep you and your book.

How do you get a literary agent?

To get a literary agent, you need to query several agents until one expresses interest in representing you and your book.

For fiction, you need to send a query letter that summarizes your work of fiction. Some agents will also want you to send part or all of your manuscript. This differs agent by agent, but regardless of what they want to see first (most just a query letter with a synopsis) you need to have a completed manuscript ready to send them. In other words, don’t start querying fiction agents until you at least have an initial draft completed.

For nonfiction, you don’t need to have a completed MS; in fact, it’s better if you just have a solid idea, a chapter outline, and a few chapters written. You will want to send nonfiction agents a query letter (usually an email) as well, but be ready to also send them a finished book proposal. If you need help putting together a book proposal, see my post titled, What is a book proposal?

Here’s the key: no matter what your agent requests you to send in or do, do it.

How hard is it to find a literary agent?

This is a bit like asking how hard is it to write a book.

For nonfiction, if you have a book idea that you have spent a ton of time on and that speaks to a topic or solves a problem in a new way that many people would love to hear about, then you might have a chance at getting a literary agent to take interest.

For fiction, if you are telling a fresh, compelling story in a new way and have written a book that genuinely holds its reader’s interest and attention, then you too may have a chance to snag a literary agent.

Of course, for nonfiction, you actually don’t want to write your book entirely before finding an agent. No, you want to write some of it—having already planned it out—while also putting together what is called a book proposal. Not sure what a book proposal is or how to put one together? Have no fear, I wrote a blog post titled, What is a book proposal? that answers this question.

Of course, writing a winning book proposal or a winning fiction manuscript is no easy feat. If it were, everyone could do it, and trust me, not that many can. In fact, books have been written (and will continue to be written) on how to write a nonfiction book/proposal that sells or write a fiction book that sells.

Literary agents who rep fiction often state that they are looking for new, fresh voices, especially in areas that are under-represented (think LGTBQ, people of color, etc.), so if that is you, then that’s good news. But here’s the thing. Even if you are one of those underserved voices, your book still needs to shine.

This means that even before you try to query your agent you need to take your book through multiple drafts. Get feedback, but not just from your family and friends, who probably don’t know what to say to you even if they like your book but think it might still need work. No, hire an actual published writer or legitimate writing coach. You’ve spent a ton of time to get your MS this far, so isn’t it worth a little investment to work with someone who can give you honest feedback? I think it is.

What is the best site to find a literary agent?

I have one site I like above all the rest. It’s free, easy to use, and can get you tons of agents’ names and what they rep.

It’s called QueryTracker, and the exact URL is

Are there other sites? Sure. But I found this one easy to use, and it gave me tons of agents to query when I was querying an agent for a book a former client and I were thinking of pitching. Even though the agent we chose ended up coming from a referral, I still found several agents via QueryTracker who were interested in our book and were totally legit.

What percent do literary agents get paid?

The industry standard is 15%. If your agent asks for more, they aren’t a real agent. Find another agent.

Who pays a literary agent?

Your literary agent is paid by the publisher when your book deal is signed (and an advance is paid) and when royalty checks come in. You do not pay your agent. Let me repeat this: you do not pay your agent, the publisher does. Clear?

Is it better to get a literary agent or to self-publish?

The real question here is whether you want to publish traditionally or self-publish, because you only need to work with an agent if you are going to attempt to traditionally publish your book. There are pros and cons to both, which I will list here.

Pros to self-publishing

  • Quicker time to market—as quick as a month or two
  • Total control over your book’s title, cover, and contents
  • All incoming book revenues are yours, after you meet printing and distributing expenses

Cons to self-publishing

  • Lacks the cache or status of having been traditionally published
  • Harder to distribute nationally and sell in large volume
  • You alone are responsible for promoting your book
  • Much harder to secure foreign distribution or sell to media buyers

Pros to traditional publishing

  • Status of being traditionally published
  • National distribution and possibility of achieving national bestseller status
  • Help with editing and execution of book’s contents, title, and cover
  • Possible sale to other media buyers

Cons to traditional publishing

  • Much longer time to market—could be a year to two years
  • Less control over your book’s title, cover image, and contents—publisher’s marketing department will choose your book’s title and cover art, whether you like what they chose or not
  • Limited help to market your book—most publishers no longer spend as much on marketing rank-and-file books
  • You share royalties with publisher (who gets most of the revenue) and agent

The above lists are by no means exhaustive, but they cover most of the pros and cons. Ultimately, which way you decide to go depends on your end goal. If you want to write a book that helps promote your business and that you can sell at the back of the room after you give a speech or presentation, and you aren’t worried about trying to write and launch a bestseller, then self-publishing, or some form of it, is likely the better choice. With self-publishing, you will launch your book much quicker, keep most of the revenue (again, minus printing and distribution costs), and have total control of your book’s content, title, and look and feel. Also, when you self-publish, you are able to write a shorter book because you no longer have a publisher standing over your shoulder, demanding that your book be a certain length.

Of course, if you want to become famous, rock the world with your book, and eventually get a movie deal (for fiction), traditional publishing is pretty much the way to go.

While there have been self-published books that have eventually sold millions of copies and have gone on to be picked up by a major publishing house, such a thing is rare.

What can a literary agent do for me?

A literary agent can submit your proposal (for nonfiction books) or manuscript (for fiction books) to multiple publishers at the same time, which is something you cannot and should not do, partly because publishers hate when you make multiple submissions at the same time but more importantly because most publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions (submissions by anyone other than an agent).

In other words, your agent can eventually help you land a traditional book deal, if your book is of high enough quality and the publisher thinks that there is a market for it.

Your literary agent can also negotiate the terms of your deal, for both domestic and (when applicable) foreign rights and distribution. Literary agents know the going rates for book deals and can almost certainly get you a better deal than you could have on your own, though again, because publishers usually don’t work with individuals, that isn’t usually possible.

Is it worth getting a literary agent?

Yes. Again, if you want a seat at the traditional publishing table, you need an agent’s help to get you there. Don’t worry about the percentage they charge. Because if you want to write a book and possibly hit the big time, a literary agent is a must. End of discussion.

Now, if you feel that you’d rather pursue self-publishing or want to work with a hybrid publisher or take your chances with a vanity press, that’s your call, and you don’t need an agent for any of those options.

But if traditional publishing is your goal, then an agent you must find.

What are literary agents looking for?

No two literary agents are looking for the exact same list of books, so it’s your job to find agents who are looking for your book’s genre and whose preferences (they may often list the books they like or have repped) match with the kind of book you’re offering.

Some agents may even indicate that they are no longer taking on new clients or submissions, so make sure to query only those agents who are looking for submissions.

Again, if you produce a fresh take on an old subject or tell a new story—or an old story in a compelling way—you may just attract an agent.

At the end of the day, no one, not agents, not publishers, and not the media, knows what will definitely sell. So, even if you get rejected dozens of times, if your book is truly remarkable, someone will eventually see its worth and take a chance on you. Remember, many agents and publishers rejected the Harry Potter books before one agent caught the vision. At the same time, you need to make sure that the book or book idea that you are submitting is relevant, marketable, and something that others might want to buy. If this were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author.

What should I submit to a literary agent?

You generally need to submit a query email or letter and whatever else your agent asks for. For fiction, agents usually ask for a completed manuscript, though a few may ask for a synopsis, the first chapter or first few pages. For nonfiction, agents tend to want a query letter (email) as well as a copy of your completed book proposal, but some just want the query letter and will only ask for the proposal if they are still interested.

The point is, submit exactly what your agent asks for, no more and no less. And make sure what you submit to them is well-written, well-researched, error-free, and formatted correctly (double-spaced in Times New Roman font with one-inch margins all around, etc.).

What time of year should I get a literary agent?

Conventional wisdom says to query literary agents during the first three months of the year (definitely after the holiday season is done) and to skip the summer (when people tend to go on vacation and fewer book deals are done) and resume querying in the fall.

How many literary agents should I query before giving up?

How  many literary agents you query before you give up is entirely up to you. Given that querying literary agents is now done mostly via email, and you no longer have to incur postage and printing costs, it makes sense to query every agent who reps your kind of book before giving up.

What percentage of writers get an agent?

There are no firm numbers, but the percentages are low, anywhere from 1% of 5% of would-be authors are accepted by agents. This number appears to be lower for fiction than for nonfiction, which is less competitive than fiction.

If you want to increase your chances of landing an agent, you need help, especially from someone like a ghostwriter. Both of the clients I helped were able to find an agent. Of course, finding an agent is only the beginning of your journey to getting published traditionally.

What percentage of first-time authors get published?

According to various sources, the percentages are low, maybe between 1% and 2%. First, if you submit to a publisher without using an agent, your chances of getting published are almost non-existent, since most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Your chances are higher if you go through an agent, but even agents reject most submissions. Why? Because most submissions (especially in fiction) lack originality, a well-defined story, or just plain aren’t appealing. Also, most submissions are riddled with grammar, usage, and spelling errors.

If you want to stand out amongst the crowd when you submit to an agent (again, don’t bother publishers), submit a copy that is clean, error-free, original, and compelling. This is true for fiction and nonfiction.

Do literary agents look for authors?

If you are a Joe unknown writer, don’t expect an agent to magically find you. If agents do look for potential authors (and I’m not sure they have to, given the number of queries they all get), they won’t be looking for you unless you and your story made big news and you’re now famous. If you are not famous already, you must find an agent on your own.

Did JK Rowling have a literary agent?

Her literary agent used to be Christopher Little, who helped her get her first book published by Bloomsbury. She later ended her association with him and now uses agent Neil Blair.

How long does it take to write a book?

The vast majority of books (for nonfiction at least) take a few months to a year or even years to write. The results are as varied as the writers and the size of the book and complexity of the project.

If you are writing a 140-page business book on a subject you know well, however, you might expect your book to take anywhere from four to six months to write. Again, how long your book takes to write depends on how much time you can spend on planning, writing, and revising.

Much the same is true for fiction books, though I understand some fast-writing authors, like Stephen King, finish their books in a matter of months. King said in his book On Writing that if you take too long to finish your novel you lose momentum. Given how prolific and productive he is, he may be right.

Should I leave my literary agent?

If you already have a literary agent but feel that they are not doing their job, it may be time to look for a new agent. However, make sure that you aren’t blaming your agent for something that isn’t their fault. In other words, if your current MS isn’t as strong as it could be and hasn’t yet found a publisher, or publishers are willing to publish your book but aren’t offering what they once were, that may not be your agent’s fault.

Even if you change literary agents, your current agent will still be paid on books that they repped for you. You may even owe them a percentage on future titles—this all depends on the agreement you have in place with them. So, before cutting ties, make sure that you aren’t financially shooting yourself in the foot. At the very least, you may need to settle with them financially before you can move forward. When J.K. Rowling switched agents back in 2011, moving away from her original agent, Christopher Little, he initiated legal action, and the two ended up settling financially out of court before she was able to move forward fully with her new agent, Neil Blair.

Again, even if you are no longer pleased with your current agent, it’s likely that they did work for you and helped you secure the publishing deals you now have. Again, with moves like these it’s best to proceed with caution.

How many books do most first-time authors sell?

No one knows the actual numbers. I’ve read estimates that self-published authors tend to sell books in the hundreds (depending on their network), while traditionally-published authors sell a few thousand (between 2000 and 3000) books on average during their first year.

Since you have to sell over 5,000 books within a single week to become a New York Times bestseller, it’s clear that most books don’t achieve bestseller status.

Do literary agents drop clients?

Yes. It’s not something that they advertise, but clients whose books fail to find a publisher can be dropped by their agents. Some agents will keep you on even if your first or second book (or more) does not get picked up, but most will not keep working for you indefinitely. A good agent will work with you first to make sure your book—or book proposal—is the best it can be to increase your chances of landing a publisher.

If you still have questions or want to know more, or if you think you might need help writing your book—or finding your own agent—fill out the form below:

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