Publishing, Writing

How to find a literary agent

Finding a literary agent can be a pivotal point in a writer’s career. It can help you secure a book deal, get the exposure you need to build your readership and get your name known in the publishing world. But how do you go about getting one?

Navigating the publishing landscape

I was lucky enough to attend a wonderful workshop with New Writing North last week. It focused on the Northern Writers’ Awards, offering tips and advice on how to enter and candid insights from former winners on what bagging the prize really means.

Entwined within this was a fascinating talk about navigating the publishing industry. Writer, editor and publisher Richard T Kelly and literary agent Rebecca Jones discussed their experiences of finding and working with new writers, and passed on their tips for finding a literary agent.

What does an agent do?

This is important. Some new writers don’t understand the role of an agent and some established ones don’t appreciate how the role is changing.

Rebecca talked at length about her career as an agent and revealed some useful information for author’s trying to understand what goes on behind the agency doors. Here are some insights I think you’ll find useful:

  • Junior agents sift the manuscripts: Yep, unsolicited manuscripts don’t make it to the head agents until the junior agents have sifted through them all. Junior agents are looking to make their mark in the agency and the publishing world so might be more likely to take a chance on something a little bit different. Or, they might want to play it safe. It’s a tricky game to predict and one that often comes down to the personal preferences of the agent doing the sifting. The lesson? Be nice to junior agents!
  • Rights, rights and rights: As well as looking at the text, an agent deals with all the rights associated with the book. From film and TV to audio and translation, the agent will secure deals for all future adaptions of the manuscript. This element of an agent’s work has developed massively in recent years. Where once they focused on UK and European rights, it’s now an international game and agents are seeking global opportunities for the authors they represent.
  • Don’t distract them: Bad grammar, poor punctuation and weak syntax will distract an agent from the quality of your manuscript. The agent is not the editor and doesn’t want to polish your work. Get it ready and as good as it can be before submission and let the agent see the strength of your writing not the frequency of your typos.

The concept of 360 agenting is becoming a lot more common. Agents get involved in everything from marketing to sales, finance and design so be considerate of that when you’re trying to secure a deal. They’re busy people and need writers who are on the ball.

Remember that throughout this process, the literary agent is putting their career on the line in backing the books they pick up. They want to protect and grow their own reputation as well as their writers’ so bear that in mind when you’re working with them. They’re championing you to editors and publishing houses so keep it professional and deliver what you’ve promised.

Contacting literary agents

The biggest mistake writers make is to generalise agents. Sending off a generic introduction to your manuscript to countless agents will result in a high number of rejections or no response at all.

All literary agencies and agents are different and they should be treated as such. They work differently, have different preferences, and will respond differently. So, how do you find one that may be more likely to take on your work?

  • Research: Start with a blank sheet and build your list from there. Look for literary agents who represent writers of a similar genre to you or are working with publishing houses you’re interested in.
  • Understand: Learn more about how the literary agents on your list work. How do they like to receive a manuscript? How do they work with authors? Comply with what they’re asking for and you’ve already got a head start.
  • Approach: Junior agents are hungry for new work so find out who they are in each of the literary agencies on your list. Address your submissions to them, be personable and network. Getting to know key people associated with your list is important.

Richard and Rebecca praised the virtues of small presses (which are doing wonderful things right now and regularly reaching the upper echelons of literary prizes) as a route into publication. Small presses often accept unsolicited manuscripts, which the big publishers don’t, and are more likely to take chances on new authors. Make sure you have a few of the little guys on your list.

Like anything in this business, finding a literary agent will often come down to a bit of luck, the personal taste of the agent and a connection between the agent and writer. You can’t affect some of that but you can do your research and present yourself and your work professionally. Do that and the rest will follow.

2 thoughts on “How to find a literary agent

  1. […] Literary agents aren’t as prolific in the independent world as they are in the big league. Ed said that submissions to Myrmidon Books are split equally between overseas publishers, authors with agents and authors without representation. In fact, he was pretty critical of the quality of submissions offered by agents, preferring instead the work he’d seen directly from authors. Others disagreed, claiming agents can work well for many authors, so I came away thinking it’s best to find what works for you and your type of writing. […]

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