Publishing: How Do You Find the Right Agent?

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Suppose you have a book, a novel, or a piece of nonfiction you think has commercial appeal. You know it will sell. For some reason, you just know you’ve touched a nerve and you think many people will want to read your work. If it’s fiction, you think it is a very sellable topic. If it’s nonfiction, you know there is a large group of readers who will be interested in it. You want an agent, and you want that agent to submit your book to top publishers. So how do you find the right agent for your work?

First of all, if you’re a new writer, your book has to be complete.  Even if you have the greatest idea ever, an agent will usually accept only a completed book from a new author. For nonfiction, you can sometimes submit a proposal without having a completed manuscript, but you should be an expert in your field. For instance, if you’re writing a book about a specific bird, you should be a professor of ornithology with years of experience. But suppose you’re an amateur with years of experience in the field and you want to write a book about bird-watching? Finish the manuscript before you search for an agent. That way, when an agent expresses interest, you’ll be ready.

Once you’ve finished your book, share it with your critique pod members. (You do have a pod, right? If you’re not a member of Writers Alliance, try to find a local writers group that will critique your work.) You must have it edited. (You do have an editor, right? Yes, your mother can edit your book – if she’s an English teacher.) Agents generally do not edit books for you. Once you have it in a professional format, double-spaced, 1-inch margins, a good font, maybe Times New Roman or Ariel, what do you do next?

Learn how agents work. The agent doesn’t get a salary from you; the agent gets a percentage of the profits from your manuscript. So even an agent who loves your book is not going to take it unless he or she thinks it will sell. Agents do not ask for any money up front. If an agent asks you to send money for a certain reason, run. Again – legitimate agents do not require money up front. Most literary agents charge a commission of 15% to 20% on foreign sales, so they basically get paid once your book is picked up by a publisher.

Do your research to find the right agent. There are a number of books and web sites devoted to finding a literary agent. The Association of Author Representatives has a searchable database of agents. It’s a good idea to ensure that your potential agent is a member of AAR or some other reputable organization – the agent has been vetted by someone. AAR agents must abide by the standards listed on the AAR website.

Publishers Marketplace is another excellent resource for finding an agent, but subscriptions are expensive — $25 per month. You can pay month to month, so when you’re ready to submit your work, you might spend one month researching potential agents and then cancel if you must. Or get together with friends and split the costs.

Writers Market is another option. You can buy their hardcover book in most bookstores or online, or you can sign up for their online web site here: Writers Market. The monthly cost for the online site is $5.99; an annual subscription is $39.99.

There are some free options. Poets & Writers has a database of literary agents who represent fiction and nonfiction. Unfortunately, books of poetry or short stories are highly unlikely to be accepted by a literary agent. You will probably have to approach publishers directly to get books like these published, enter writing contests (these usually have hefty fees), or self-publish.

Another good service is Agent Query. This free service provides a searchable database of agents. It also provides examples of query letters that received agent attention and even representation. Before you write your query letter – your one-page query letter that will get the attention of a potential agent – you should take a look at many successful query letters so you’ll know exactly what works.

To find query letter samples, take a look at the Writers Digest blog on literary agents. Not only do they list various agents, but they give samples of query letters in a unique format.The actual agents who took the books describe what it was about the letters that inspired them to accept the clients. Look for blog posts marked, “How I Got My Literary Agent.”  Another good section is “New Literary Agents.” New agents are more likely to seek new clients, for obvious reasons.

So, now you know where to find information about agencies and specific agents. It’s time to do your homework. Before you submit to an agent, take a look at various agents’ web sites. Do they publish books similar to yours? Have you read any of the books? If so, you might want to mention the book in your query letter. Be sure your book is a good fit for the agent. If you’ve written a horror novel and the agent you’re querying has never represented a horror novel and expresses no interest in that genre, that agent is probably not a good fit. Don’t slack on this part of the process. Research is crucial when you’re trying to find the right fit for your book.

Writing a query letter to an agent is a whole different column. But here are some things to remember:

  • Make sure the query is only one page. Agents don’t want to, and won’t, read your thirty-page letter telling them how great your book is. If you can’t express it in one page, don’t bother.
  • Send what is requested and nothing more. Most agents have very specific requirements for a query. For instance, some only want a letter. Others want the first three chapters or the first fifty pages. Still others want a synopsis of the manuscript.
  • Don’t rub agents the wrong way. There are a couple of things no agent wants to see. For instance, they don’t want you to query every agent in their agency. They don’t want you to send a pretty pink piece of stationery when their web site clearly says “electronic submissions only.” They don’t want you to attach your whole manuscript when their web site says, “Send query letter only.”
  • Be professional. According to Chuck Sambuchino, a contributor for Writers Digest, “All work is copyrighted the moment you write it down in any medium, so saying something that’s obvious only comes off as amateurish. On the same note, all work should be edited, so saying that the work is edited (even by a professional editor) also comes off as amateurish.”

So, did you think you were done just because you finally finished that book?  Nope, now it’s time to get the book into print.  Start doing your research and get your manuscript out into the world. Where it belongs.


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Wendy Thornton is a freelance writer, editor, and instructor who has been published in dozens of major literary magazines. Her memoir, Dear Oprah, was published in 2013, her mystery, Bear Trapped, in 2015. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been Editor’s Pick on multiple times.

One Response

  1. Connie Morrison
    | Reply

    Thanks, Wendy. This is a treasure trove of pertinent information!

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