Finding A Literary Agent

Your first step to a book deal is finding a literary agent. No agent, no book deal. It's that simple, at least for first-time authors. Note: There are changes in the wind. Agents are watching self-published books that are selling well and a few are pursuing successful self-published authors, signing them and landing nice contracts with traditional publishers. Many traditional publishers are hiring agents in-house to do the same thing. Self-publishing is no longer a taboo thing for authors (actually never was).

Most people coming to my site are interested in a traditional publishing contract. You may be one of them. Before you read further you might take a look at my Traditional Versus Self-publishing page to get an overview of the pros and cons of going for a traditional publishing contract.

Anna Genoese (recommended editor) has an excellent article telling authors how to find a literary agent. She also told me while she edited my latest book that she knows four agents off the top of her head who have pursued self-published authors to offer representation and many others who are currently offering a self-published author a contract. A growing number of traditional publishers are actively scouring self-published books that are selling well. This is a new twist and very good for new authors. Traditional and major publishers as well are tired of seeing self-published books make the New York Times bestseller list. In 2013, over 491,000 writers self-published a book, according to R.R. Bowker. Traditional publishers produced only 250,000 titles.

As a self-published author, you don't need a literary agent unless you want to get published by one of the big boysa traditional publishing company that sends you a nice advance, pays royalties and pays for everything. You, the author, don't invest a dime. You just become rich and famous. Oops! They will expect you to market the dickens out of your book.

The chance of success may be slim, but your book might be really good.
 With even a small chance a professional agent might decide to represent you, it is still a possibility  worth pursuing. You have nothing to lose but the time and effort it takes to send email or snail mail queries to literary agents. 
Exception: There a number of traditional publishing companies that accept queries from writer's of Christian books. Check it out on the Christian Writers' link.

Fact: It is possible to self-publish first, then find a literary agent who can get you a deal with a traditional publisher. Read more on the Book Marketing page (lower half of page).

Why do you almost always need a literary agent?

Precious few major publishers accept queries from authors.
They will only entertain queries from literary agents accompanied by a proposal or, in the case of novels, full manuscripts. It's that simple. If you try to send a query letter or a proposal directly to a publisher, you will get a polite rejection letter saying they don't accept submissions from "unagented authors." You may not hear from them at all.

 and to get more detailed information about literary agents. I recently discovered a link to more, detailed advice for authors seeking literary representation.

Your first step to literary fame is writing an earth-moving, cage-rattling, mind-grabbing, killer query letter.

Just Remember:
when you submit a query letter to an agent, make certain you follow the strict guidelines that vary from one agent to another. Most agents prefer email queries.

What is a literary agent?

Just that—an agent who represents literary works by authors.
The dream of being a best-selling author requires getting a commercial (traditional) publisher to buy your manuscript. Since most of the big boys won't even look at you because they don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, your only chance is finding an agent to represent you. Reputable agents know the publishers and their editors. They know which publishers will be open to the genre of your book. In other words, they have connections and you don't. For that reason, if you are a serious author, you should at least try to find representation.

*There are dishonest literary agents.

Unfortunately, there are dishonest literary agents just as there are less-than-honest vanity publishers. They have one goal: to extract money from you, the inexperienced, new author. So how do I find a reputable agent? By understanding the differences between good agents and  bad ones.

Here are some basic guidelines to help you identify unscrupulous, dishonest or incompetent literary agents:

1. Professional literary agents get paid,
but never up front.
The moment an agent contacts you asking for any kind of fee up front, you are dealing with a questionable agent. True literary agents work much like  real estate agents. They don't make a penny of commission  until the property sells and you know going in just what the commission percentage is. Literary agents make 10-15% commission after they sell your book to a  publisher. Keep in mind, you will never invest a dime. Unlike buying a house that may require a down payment, commercial publishers pay for everything, including the agent's commission which comes out of your royalties.

2. Suspicious fees that should set off your Check Engine light:

~Marketing or submission fees at contract signing.
~Reading fee with a submission.

~Critique or manuscript assessment fee.

~Offer of paid editing by the agent or someone else. A real agent will help with editing and revision to bring your manuscript up to submission quality without charge (deducting it later from your advance or book sales).

~A writing contest that requires a paid editing fee. Read the facts about writing contests. There are a few bonafide contests and a whole lot of phonies looking to extract money from inexperienced new authors.

~Selling related or additional
services like Website design, catalog insertion, book fair showing, etc. Anything that will cost you money upfront.

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~In other words: DON'T PAY ANY UPFRONT FEES OF ANY KIND. Professional agents don't sell any of these services and commercial or traditional publishers pay for everything. The above fees are generally scams. 

Exception: a growing number of professional agents may have an "up-front reimbursement of expenses" clause
(of $300-500) in their legitimate agency-client contracts, but it is usually combined with another clause stating no additional up-front fees can be charged without the writer's express knowledge or written consent. Even then, it is standard practice to allow these expenses to accrue and then deduct them from the author's advance once the book is sold to a publisher.  These agents will have a solid, verifiable track record of sales to traditional and major publishers.
3. A true literay agent will provide a verifiable track record of sales to publishers
 (at least 10 sales in last 18 months). The agent should freely provide a list of recently published books sold to traditional publishing companies that you can verify with the author and the publisher. Reluctance of an agent to do so, may indicate a fabricated track record (although some agencies may simply show published authors and their works). Agents will not, however, divulge info about clients they are representing that have not yet been sold to a publisher.

*If an agent is new, he should provide verifiable information showing his prior experience in publishing as an editor or as a former professional agent with a reputable literary agency.

 A few more red flags in a nutshell:

4. Be wary of agents who specialize in new writers, who are looking for poets, who advertise, who solicit you to let them represent you,  who claim they can sell your book idea to Hollywood or want to place your proposal on a Web site for a fee (which can be little more than hunting grounds for other dishonest agents and vanity publishers).

5. How do I contact a literary agent? Two ways: email and/or snail mail. (Each agent will specify preferred contact methods.)
6. How and what do I submit?

As I mentioned earlier, you need a good query letter and not much else to start with. (Fiction authors should have their manuscripts finished before sending queries.)
A query letter is a one page note that introduces you and your book. Non-fiction agents may want a couple of chapter samples (but don't send anything extra unless they ask for it).

Each agent will give you specific submission guidlines.
Don't create a "one size fits all" proposal (and don't, under any circumstances, send anything extra unless the submission guideline specifically asks for it). You can always revise your proposal for different agents.

A good query letter (according to should have three simple paragraphs: a hook (a one-sentence headline or teaser that catches the agent's eye), a synopsis (stuffing your 200 page book into a 150 word paragraph), and your bio (a short paragraph about your writing experience and why you wrote this book).

It has a single goal: to get an agent to contact you. (If you don't have previous writing experience, that's okay—it leaves more room for the synopsis.)
*Important (in case you missed it): A query letter is one page and one page only, single-spaced in #12 font with Word default settings. If you have to reduce the font size and increase the margins to get your query to fit one page, it is too big. Cut and gut until it is simple, simple, simple. A three-quarter page, or even a half-page query letter is not uncommon.

7. How do I find an agent? You need a source list for literary agents (see below) and details on how to submit and what to submit for each agent.
Below are four lists to help you: (You should still check references of any agent who contacts you.)

1. Agent Query (a free and reputable list), 

2. AAR
(Association of Authors' Representatives-a few dishonest agents have slipped into this reputable association). If you are contacted by an agent from this association who asks for any up-front fees, contact AAR and let them know. 

3. Literary Agents Who Represent
Christian Authors
(Maintained by Michael Hyatt, CEO for Thomas Nelson Publishers). He also has great advice in his article, Before You Hire A Literaray Agent.

4. Uk Literary Agents List. Some agents have closed their lists (don't approach them). Be sure to adhere to each agent's submission guidelines. Send them only what they ask for and nothing more. *Vanity publishers advertise on this site (like dust; they are everywhere).

5. Agents around the world. No matter where you live, there is an agent nearby.

BIG QUESTION: What if I find a traditional publisher that accepts proposals or manuscripts from authors?

ANSWER: Get ready to sit on the Slush Pile of unopened book proposals and manuscripts.

Read a 2010 article by Katherine Rosman, The Death of the Slushpile. Few, if any, major publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts. They only read submissions provided by literary agents.
*If you want to seek representation, you should learn the process of:
Submitting To Agents and How To Write A Query.

Also, check out advice from three professional literary agents (also found at the bottom of Author Resource Links page).

Last but not least, learn what to do If An Agent Offers To Represent You. This is a crucial time. Be prepared.

SWFA offers a sample
author-agent contract and a links to agents page that is very helpful if you are looking for an agent.

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Next, learn Why you may need a book proposal.

                  You are on the Literary Agent page.


                                 Updated February 15, 2015