How To Get A Literary Agent in 13 Simple Steps

Sarah Rexford
April 10, 2024 | 11 mins

If you are a writer you have probably wondered if you need to learn how to get a literary agent. Do you need one? What even is a literary agent anyway?

Don’t worry, because in this article we answer all the common questions about how to get an agent for writing, and how to decide if it’s the right choice for you.

The truth is, many writers need a literary agent, and many writers don’t. It’s crucial to find where you fall so you can move forward with confidence.

Once you determine what a literary agent is, the benefits, and how to get a literary agent, then you can assess for yourself if you need one or not.

Before going further, one clarification: Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, if you decide on getting a literary agent, you do not need to pay the agent anything upfront. If you reach out to an agent and they ask for any form of payment, steer clear.

Today we will dive into all the details on how to get a literary agent, but first, let’s make sure you understand what a literary agent is and why you might want one.

What Is A Literary Agent?

A literary agent is an individual who knows the publishing world and represents your work to publishers. Depending on what type of book you write, you will either want to query agents before finishing your book or soon after.

In traditional publishing, publishers can help you set the trajectory of your nonfiction manuscript. With the massive focus on author platform, a publisher wants to feel confident your book is heading in a solid direction that will sell well.

Because of this, when pitching a nonfiction manuscript, you need to write the first three chapters and provide a brief outline for subsequent chapters. For fiction, publishers want to know you can finish the book you started writing. Generally, fiction sells based on the power of the story over the reach of the author’s platform.

So, if you write nonfiction, you can start querying agents relatively early in your writing process. If you write fiction, you could focus on getting your story written and then query agents after the fact.

An agent is also an invaluable asset because they believe in you and your writing so much that they choose to represent you to publishers. This knowledge will encourage you as you go through the highs and lows of securing your first book deal.

This is what an agent is, but what exactly are the concrete benefits?

What Are The Benefits Of A Literary Agent?

Many publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning, if you want to pitch your project to one of these publishers, getting a literary agent is necessary first.

Before you worry that you’ve already invested time and money into learning how to write and don’t want to invest more in a literary agent, it’s crucial to understand agents are paid based on commission.

Standard literary agents take 15% of your published work, from your book deal to your film rights, so you never have to pay them a single dollar out of pocket. This works in your favor, as you don’t need to pay your agent anything upfront, and they want to work with you to publish your work as soon as possible.

An agent can also help you:

  • Strengthen your book idea
  • Tighten your book proposal
  • Negotiate your book contract
  • Decide if you want to sell foreign rights
  • Get you in the door with big publishers

With an agent representing you, you can access publishers you could never dream of interacting with otherwise.

Of course, if you attend writing conferences and sign up for one-on-one meetings with acquisitions editors, you may be invited to submit your manuscript. This is one way to act as your own agent, but the going is slow. If you go this route, you must:

  • Invest in paying and getting yourself to conferences.
  • Interact with the right people at the right time.
  • Hope your contact invites you to submit.

While it’s important to network, getting a literary agent can save you the time and investment above by submitting your proposal to multiple publishers via email, all in a matter of hours.

But just because you’ve decided an agent would be beneficial doesn’t mean you know how to get a literary agent, so let’s dive into the steps you’ll have to take.

How to Get a Literary Agent in 13 Simple Steps

Here are 13 easy steps to follow when learning how to get a literary agent:

1. Finish Your Manuscript

The first step in learning how to get a literary agent is to make sure your manuscript is complete, polished, and as strong as possible. Literary agents typically want to see a finished work, so don’t submit a work-in-progress.

Make sure you’ve done a thorough self-edit if your manuscript before working on how to get a literary agent. You don’t want a potential agent’s first impression of you to be glaring typos!

2. Build a Platform

Having an online presence, such as a blog, social media presence, or website, can help demonstrate your ability to market yourself and your work. Agents often look for authors who can help promote their books, so this is an easy step to take that will help with how to get a literary agent.

Make sure you have an author website set up so you can market yourself well to potential agents.

3. Understand Where Your Book Fits Into the Industry

Before you are ready to truly learn how to get a literary agent, you have to understand who to target – and that requires an understanding of the publishing industry and how your book fits in.

You need a true understanding of your book’s genre and subgenres, and who your book is going to speak to most. From there, you can research literary agents who represent books just like yours.

While you might not want to pigeonhole your book into a niche, it’s crucial for learning how to get a literary agent. And, in the end, it will help your target readers to find your book.

Is your book literary or commercial? What types of tones do you use when writing? Are there any similar authors who you took inspiration from?

Having a clear understanding of your book will make it easier to recognize the right agents when you find them.

4. Attend Writing Conferences

Participating in writing conferences or workshops can provide networking opportunities and a chance to pitch your work to literary agents in person. Conferences are also a great way to improve your writing skills and knowledge of the industry.

I cannot emphasize enough how important networking can be when trying to find a literary agent. Even if you don’t find the right agent at a writing conference, you might meet people within the industry who can hook you up with the perfect agent for your book.

5. Browse Through Literary Agents

When learning how to get a literary agent, Publishers Marketplace is a great place to start looking. You can also use resources like the Writer’s Market, Literary MarketPlace, QueryTracker, or AgentQuery to find agents who are actively seeking clients.

You can look up your book genre or category and avoid sifting through agents who may not represent your niche.

There are several aspects to remember when learning how to get an agent for writing:

Only query agents who represent your genre. This will save the agent time as well as your own time. If you write both fiction and nonfiction, consider finding one agent who represents both instead of two agents.

Get a feel for the agent prior to querying them. Do they seem like a good fit based on their website, social media, and reviews?

6. Write Query Letters

A query letter is a one-page letter that introduces yourself and your work to literary agents. When learning how to get an agent for writing, you should practice writing personalized query letters that are tailored to each agent.

You need to be able to tell the agent why you’re pitching them in particular and exactly why your book would be a good fit for them.

I recommend sending out your query letters in batches when you are working on how to get a literary agent. If you do them one at a time, it could take you ages to find the right agent. Send a batch of 10-15 query letters out and wait for responses.

You should hear back from agents requesting partials within six weeks. If you don’t, that means you need to take another look at how you are crafting your queries. If your batch brings back a lot of partial requests, but no requests for your full manuscript, that might mean your opening chapters need some work.

When crafting your query letters, each letter should be concise, well-crafted, and include a brief synopsis of your book. Which brings me to the next step…

7. Craft a Synopsis of Your Book

If you have not already written a synopsis of your book, you need one! A synopsis is a brief summary of your entire book. It should convey the main plot points, character arcs, and resolution.

Agents use your synopsis to gauge the overall story and its marketability to decide if you are a good fit to work with so it’s important to have one when learning how to get a literary agent.

8. Prepare Submission Materials

Literary agents often request a variety of submission materials. Make sure to follow their submission guidelines exactly when learning how to get a literary agent. You’ll probably need to include your query letter, synopsis, and a sample of your manuscript (typically the first few chapters).

If you choose to query multiple agents at once (which will help speed up the process) some agents require you to include that your submission is simultaneous. This simply lets the agent know they are one of several queries.

Before sending everything out, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I addressed the correct person, and spelled their name correctly?
  • Have I followed all of the agent’s submission guidelines?
  • Are my materials within the specified word count?
  • Have I proofread all of my materials?
  • Did I start my query letter with a strong hook?

9. Prepare for Rejection

Rejection is a common part of the querying process. When learning how to get a literary agent, be prepared for rejection and don’t get discouraged. Many successful authors faced numerous rejections before finding the right agent.

10. Follow Up

If an agent expresses interest in your work, be prepared to provide additional materials or make revisions based on their feedback. Follow up with agents in a timely and professional manner. They are busy, and just because they don’t respond right away doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in your book. Sometimes you have to follow up a few times to gain traction.

11. Be Patient and Persistent

Finding the right literary agent can take time. Keep sending out queries and refining your approach based on feedback and results.

12. Consider Multiple Offers

If you receive offers of representation from multiple agents, carefully consider which one is the best fit for you and your work. Ask questions about their vision for your book and their track record in the industry.

13. Sign a Representation Agreement

Once you’ve chosen an agent, you’ll sign a representation agreement outlining the terms of your partnership. This is extremely important when learning how to get a literary agent, as you want to make sure your book is being represented well and that you aren’t being taken advantage of.

Learning how to get a literary agent can be a long process, especially because you want to find the right fit. To be honest, it’s a bit like dating! You can’t expect things to work out on the first try.

Of course, you might not need a literary agent at all…

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

If you choose to self-publish your book, chances are high that you will not need to learn how to find an agent for writing. When you go the self-publishing route, you act as your own publisher, therefore negating the need to learn how to get a literary agent.

An agent helps you get in the door of the right publishing house, secure a contract, negotiate your contract, and create your career’s trajectory. But when you self-publish, you:

  • Do not need to learn how to get a literary agent because you act as your own publisher
  • Do not need to negotiate a contract because you act as your own investor in the publishing process
  • Can speed up the process as much or as little as you like

With these points in mind, investing in some form of coaching could be helpful. In traditional publishing, the publisher hires an editor, graphic designer, and publishing team to take your project from draft to published book.

In self-publishing, you run your own show. There is an exciting freedom that comes with this opportunity, but it can also be intimidating.

You are more than able to hire a coach or team to help you on your journey, but learning how to get a literary agent is unlikely to be the best option for you in this instance.

Take Your Next Step Today

Now you know how to get a literary agent, and hopefully have given some thought to whether you really need one or not. If you are planning to self-publish, learning how to get a literary agent is unnecessary.

Now is the time to take your next step in either querying agents or setting out on your self-publishing journey.

So you can take either of the two next steps: Browse Publishers Marketplace for your ideal agent, or reach out to self-publishing companies who can help you through your self-publishing journey.

Best wishes as you move forward!

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