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How To Get A Literary Agent (+ Pros and Cons to Using One)

BY Sarah Rexford | Dec 20, 2022 | Business, Publishing

If you are a writer you have probably heard or read somewhere that you need to get a literary agent. Your following question was likely along the lines of, well, how to get a literary agent? What even is one? How do I find one? Why do I need one?

Don’t worry, because in this article we answer some common questions around the mystique of agents. 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 where to find one, 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 to sign with an 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.

With that said, in this article we cover the following:

  • What Is An Agent?
  • What Are The Benefits Of An Agent?
  • Where Can You Find One?
  • How To Know When You Don’t Need One?

How to Get A Literary Agent

Ready to learn and decide for yourself what is your ideal next step? Let’s get going.

What Is An 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?

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What Are The Benefits Of An Agent?

Many publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning, if you want to pitch your project to one of these publishers, they will not accept your pitch unless it comes through an agent.

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 not only don’t need to pay your agent anything upfront, but 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.

You must invest in paying and getting yourself to conferences.

You must interact with the right people at the right time.

You must hope your contact invites you to submit.

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

Where Can You Find One?

Publishers Marketplace is one of the best ways to find available agents. You can look up your genre or category and avoid sifting through agents who may not represent your niché. There are several aspects to remember when looking for agents:

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.

Make sure you get a feel for the agent prior to querying him or her: Do they seem like a good fit based on their website, social media, and reviews?

Follow their submission guidelines exactly.

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.

How To Know When You Don’t Need One?

If you choose to self-publish your book, chances are high that you will not need to find a literary agent to represent you. When you go the self-publishing route, you act as your own publisher, therefore negating the need to be represented.

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.

When you self-publish, you:

Do not need an agent to represent you to the publisher 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 a literary agent is unlikely to be the best option for you in this instance.

Take Your Next Step Today

Whether you determine an agent is or is not the route you should take, now you know what path you are on!

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 a team who can help you through your self-publishing journey. Best wishes as you move forward!

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Sarah Rexford
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