How to Find a Literary Agent

author shaking hands with a literary agent

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Literary agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world. If you are seeking to go the traditional publishing route, know that most publishing houses will not accept your manuscript submission unless you are represented by an agent.

Beyond simply landing a publishing deal, though, having an experienced agent can help you fine-tune your writing and guide you through the publishing industry. They can be your biggest champion.

All of this means, of course, that it is difficult to find a literary agent — they are in high demand, their inboxes are inundated with submissions, and it is a challenge to rise to the top of the slush pile and get your manuscript noticed. But never fear, landing representation with a literary agent is possible, and I’ve got some advice to help you.

Polish your manuscript

Before you start pitching your book to an agent, you need to make sure your manuscript is perfect. This means that not only do you need to write and rewrite and pore over every word of your manuscript yourself, but you need to hire an editor. Writers cannot edit their own books — they just don’t see their own mistakes.

What to look for in a literary agent

Authors often have the mindset that they need an agent, but the best way to approach landing an agent is to try to find the right literary agent for you. Before beginning your journey for representation, bear in mind that just because someone likes your writing and wants to represent you, that does not mean you should immediately sign on the dotted line. A great agent can advance your career — the wrong agent can stall it.

So, what should you look for in a literary agent?

Experience

Ideally, you want someone with experience to represent you. An experienced agent knows everyone in the industry. They know what editors are looking for and which will be the best fit for your book. They can even sell your book with one phone call. This isn’t hyperbole; it happened to me. When my illustrator and I were trying to sell the Mr. Pants book series, our agent set up a meeting with one editor who immediately bought the series.

If you sign with an agent who’s new to the game, they won’t know the key players, and you may be spinning your wheels for a while. I’m not saying you should never sign with a new agent, but if you do, know what you are getting yourself into.

Genre and niche specialization

You don’t just want an agent who is experienced, you want someone who is experienced in your genre. You don’t want someone who specializes in business books to represent your romance novel. And again, this isn’t hyperbole. I once signed with a highly successful agent who didn’t know children’s books. As a result, they were unable to sell my books. Why I signed with them in the first place is outside the scope of this article, but the lesson you should learn from my travails: pursue agents who know your market.

Sales record

When looking to find a literary agent, seek someone who has actually sold books. What’s more, you want an agent who has sold manuscripts to the big five publishers. So how do you find out this information? Publisher’s Marketplace. Yes, it costs $25/month, but you can find out a lot of information in just one month, and you can cancel at any time.

Personality and communication style

Should you manage to talk to an agent, or perhaps see one speak at a writer’s conference, pay attention to their personality and communication style. Using the web to search for an agent is a lot like online dating. Their profile may make them seem like the perfect fit for you, but the reality may be quite different.

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Red flags

You don’t need a degree or a license to be an agent, which means that not everyone who claims to be a literary agent is trustworthy. You don’t need to be paranoid going into your agent search, but here are a few red flags to keep in mind.

  1. The agent isn’t listed in Publisher’s Marketplace. That’s a big red flag — you should probably move on.
  2. Authors keep firing the agent. When searching on Publisher’s Marketplace, you can see when the agent sold their various properties. If it’s been a while since they sold a book for one of their authors, they either aren’t a very good agent or they got fired by their author.
  3. Too many authors. An agent representing 50 authors or so isn’t uncommon. But if they’re repping 80 or more, there’s a good chance those authors aren’t getting the right amount of attention.
  4. Asking for money. No reputable agent will ever ask you for money. Period. Agents get paid when they sell your books. If a potential agent is asking for money prior to landing you a book deal, you should run.
  5. They don’t have a clear strategy. Ask the agent what their plan is for selling your book. If they’re not naming specific editors or imprints, they probably don’t know the industry well enough to represent you.

How to research literary agents

Here are the best ways to find a literary agent.

Online directories

In addition to Publisher’s Marketplace, there are other noteworthy sites for finding the right agent. Manuscript Wish List offers a free and easy way to search for agents by genre. It’s a great resource because each agent lists exactly what they’re looking for. QueryTracker is another great resource. It offers both free and subscription services.

Writing conferences and workshops

Agents often attend writing conferences and workshops, so this is another great way to discover the right agent for you, especially if you’re a new writer. I found my first agent at the SCBWI conference in New York. I saw them speak on a panel and knew this was the right agent for me. These events also offer you a chance to speak to agents in person, and they may offer to look at your manuscript, which is what happened to me. So, I highly recommend attending an event like this. Search for writing conferences for your genre and you are sure to find one in your region.

Word-of-mouth from other authors

Networking is another great way to find an agent, so be sure to talk to other writers, see who represents them, and how they like their agents.

Social media

Editing Guide bannerFollowing agents on social media is a good way to see what’s going on in the publishing world and get a good sense of agents’ personalities. Agents will often put out calls for manuscripts on their social media pages, too. The hashtag #MWSL (where the Manuscript Wish List website came from) is a good search term to use.

The querying process

Once you’ve found an agent, you’ll need to query them. Each agent has unique requests when it comes to querying, so be sure to give them exactly what they ask for. Some want you to email your query, some only accept submissions via QueryTracker. Some will want the first ten pages of your manuscript, others may want the first three chapters. Some will even want a synopsis. But what nearly every agent will want is a query letter.

Important: Do not query every agent who represents your genre. Just because someone represents romance does not mean they want the kind of romance novel you’ve written. Do your research. Use the above-mentioned resources to find agents who are looking for books similar to yours; otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.

How to write a query letter

A query letter acts as a brief introduction to you and your manuscript. Query letters should conform to a specific format. There is too much information on how to write a great query letter to go into detail here, but this article gives you the basics. Once you understand the format, Query Shark is a great website to learn what makes a good query letter great.

Following up

Agents will usually get back to you within a few weeks after submitting your query. If you do not hear from an agent within 4-6 weeks, send them a follow-up email. (Following up used to be frowned upon. The unspoken rule was that silence meant “no.” Nowadays, it’s considered OK to follow up. After all, if they’re already saying no without actually saying no, your follow-up email isn’t going to change things for the worse.) Be polite and brief.

Alternatives to finding a literary agent

Unfortunately, you can do everything right and still not land an agent. It happens all the time. It doesn’t mean your manuscript is bad. Your query might get rejected by an agent for many reasons. Maybe they just accepted something too similar. It might not be exactly what they are looking for at that moment. Maybe they looked at your query right before lunchtime and were too hungry to appreciate it. Who knows?

Don’t let rejections get you down. Why? Because you don’t need to find a literary agent to have a successful writing career. You can self-publish. And if you think self-publishing is for people whose books aren’t good enough for traditional publishing, you should know that some of the most successful books of the past twenty years (and throughout history) were self-published, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Leaves of Grass, Mrs. Dalloway, Legally Blonde, Eragon, Still Alice, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey, Wool, Beautiful Disaster, The Atlas Six, and many more.

Good luck with your agent search!

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. McCormick,
    I am writing my second novel, a sequel to the first mystery thriller. I wish I had read your comments and explored your suggestions earlier, but better late than never. Really appreciate your advice

  2. Thank you for the great read! I find this page to be informative especially with kicking off the rust on my brain cells. I’m finally ready to get back to writing after a horrific motorcycle accident in 2016. Sucks that I have to relearn everything, but I get to learn everything and hopefully more this time :) Before that nasty drunk driver, my pen name reached #300 on Amazon for all books; my goal for 2025 is to break the top 100!

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