Ultimate Guide to Literary Agents: From Query to Book Deal
So you’re looking for a guide to literary agents, huh? That means you’re officially seeking literary representation. What an exciting and maybe kind of nerve-wracking time in your author journey.
But mostly exciting.
If you’re in the process of finding a literary agent, you’re taking a huge step towards becoming a published author. You’ve poured your heart and soul into mastering the art of writing fiction (or possibly nonfiction), and now you’re ready to share your hard work with the world.
You just need a literary agent.
You came to the right place. This guide to literary agents has all the information you need to find the person who’ll one day connect you with a leading publisher—or at least a reputable publisher.
You’re about to learn:
- What a literary agent does
- Where to find one
- How to pitch your book to agents
- What to expect when working with an agent
And loads more. This is a super comprehensive guide to literary agents and there's a lot to cover, so let’s get to it.
A Guide to Literary Agents: Understanding the Basics
What is a Literary Agent and Why Do You Need One?
A literary agent is an industry professional who helps sell your book to a publisher in exchange for a commission fee.
And why do you need a literary agent?
If you plan to self-publish, you don’t—at least not right now. If a traditional publisher wants to acquire your self-published books later, you’ll probably want to find a literary agent to help with negotiations. For now, this guide doesn’t apply to you.
If your goal is to publish traditionally, finding a literary agent is almost mandatory, especially if you want to work with a leading publisher like Penguin Random House or Simon and Schuster. It’s difficult to get the attention of a Big Five publisher without literary representation.
Even if you choose to work with a smaller press that welcomes direct submissions from authors, you’ll probably still want an agent to handle contract negotiations.
But that’s only the beginning of what your rep can do for you in your publishing journey.
Role of Literary Agents in Publishing
Agents don’t just represent writers during the selling part of the publishing process. Here are some of the essential roles literary agents play over the course of your whole career.
Discovering New Talent
Literary agents discover promising authors, nurture their talent, and introduce them to the folks who would be thrilled to publish their work.
Now, you’ll likely have to do a little work to help an agent discover you. We’ll talk about that later.
Before an agent shops a manuscript to publishers, they work with the author to improve the manuscript.
See, they know great writing and what it takes to get a book deal. Their feedback helps you transform your manuscript into something that’s both masterful and marketable.
Connecting a Great Writer With a Reputable Publisher
Literary reps also serve as matchmakers. They know what your book needs to succeed and they know the goals and priorities of publishers.
With this insight, they can connect you with a reputable publisher who’d love an opportunity to bring your book to market.
Advocating for Writers
As I mentioned before, literary agents represent writers in contract negotiations. This is one of their most essential functions in the publishing industry; they’re the ones looking out for the writer’s best interest.
Your publisher probably wants you to succeed, but they’re still a business. Like any business, they want to maximize profits and minimize risk. If you don’t have a comprehensive grasp of book deals (most of us don’t), you need a literary agent to advocate for you.
A great literary agent is an outstanding source of insight and guidance. This is someone who both loves the craft and understands the business. They can provide professional advice on how to schmooze, pitch, and write to market while also honoring your creative vision.
How Literary Agents Make Money
So how do these people get paid for all that work?
Agents work on commission. You pay them a percentage of what you make from book sales.
Quick lesson if you don’t already know:
As an author, you get paid in royalties. That’s a percentage of the price of every book sold (minus production costs). It’s usually somewhere in the vicinity of 10%.
When you work with a traditional publisher, you’ll probably get an advance as well—an upfront payment against future royalties.
You can check out this article on author earnings to see some semi-concrete numbers for all this. Since this is a guide to literary agents, we’ll focus on their cut for now.
Agents typically get 15% (or 20-25% for foreign markets) of your advance and royalties. Some charge slightly less. Be wary of anyone who asks you for more.
So that’s the broad overview of literary representation. Let’s move on to the next step of this guide to literary agents—the step that probably brought you here in the first place.
How to Find a Literary Agent
Finding a literary agent is a long process that involves extensive research, crafting effective queries, and attempting to sell yourself and your book.
Now, I just said a lot of words most writers don’t love to hear, myself included. But this is an essential step if you want to work with a traditional publisher. So let’s plunge in and try to make it fun.
Where to Find Literary Agents
I’m about to give you a list of resources for finding a literary agent. In addition to checking these out, I fervently recommend building your writing community. Your fellow authors can help you workshop query letters, recommend you to an agent they know personally, and share their own go-to resource for finding literary representation.
In the meantime, try any or all of these:
- Do a Google search for literary agents in your genre and see what you get. Always check the dates of any articles or interviews you find. A literary agent might not have the same priorities and availability today that they had in May 2021. They might not even be with the same agency.
- Check out Publisher’s Marketplace. This is actually a go-to resource for agents themselves and has a wealth of information about who’s representing who and who’s selling what.
- Haunt the literary agent section of Writer’s Digest.
- Like Publisher’s Marketplace, Publisher’s Weekly is a great place to see who’s getting what kind of deal for which books.
- If you just want to search a database and guide to literary agents, check out Manuscript Wish List.
- Same deal with QueryTracker.
- Find out who repped the books that most remind you of your own. Most authors give their agent a shout-out in the acknowledgements.
Of course, you don’t just need any ol’ literary agent. You need one that’s going to advocate hard for you. So let’s figure out how to find the best one.
Tips for Researching Literary Agents
It might seem like a good strategy to reach out to as many literary agents as possible and see who responds.
It’s not. Agents can tell when you don’t have a reason for reaching out to them specifically. And it’s a waste of your time to query someone who doesn’t represent your genre.
To research agents:
- Check agent databases to see which literary agents represent writers in your genre.
- Google the agents you’re interested in. Read any interviews you can find. Make a note of what they’re looking for, what they value, and any details that might help you connect with them better.
- Find and follow agents on social media.
- Visit the agency website for current submission requirements.
Create a spreadsheet to keep track of any reps who might be a good fit for you. Include their name, agency, contact information, submission requirements, and notes on why you think they’d be interested in your manuscript.
Finally, search every literary agent on your list in Writer Beware. This should help you weed out anyone who’s not legit.
Identifying Your Top Choices
You want to query your top picks first. Professional advice varies on this, but I suggest querying no more than ten literary agents at once. Don’t query multiple agents at the same agency.
Now, who should you start with?
Narrow it down to the agents you think are most likely to be an excellent fit. Consider things like:
- Do they seem especially passionate about the kind of books you write? Or is your genre just one on a long list of genres they accept?
- Do you think they’d have the capacity to be a fierce advocate for you when negotiating a book deal with a leading publisher? Or do they have a roster full of big-name (higher priority) authors?
- How’s their reputation? Have you found any information about what it’s like to work with them?
- Do you have a compelling connection with any of the literary agents on your list, like a referral from someone they trust? Did they show interest in your pitch at a recent conference?
Once you know how you’re going to prioritize your efforts in seeking literary representation, you’re ready to get this show on the road.
Strategies for Pitching to Literary Agents
No guide to literary agents would be complete without an extensive look at the book pitching process. Time to hold your breath, pinch your nose, and dive into the deep end.
First, get all your pitching materials in order. Here’s what you’ll need.
An Outstanding Manuscript
Your literary agent will help you get your manuscript in excellent shape for a traditional publisher. But you still need to show the agent your best effort now. Polish that baby until it shines.
Then keep it to yourself for a minute; don’t send it to a literary agent until they ask for it.
A query letter is brief letter that includes:
- A short book pitch
- Why this book is a great fit for that specific agent
- A few words about yourself. Very few.
A query letter is the first thing you send to literary agents. Depending on their submission requirements, you might also send a synopsis or sample chapters. But you’ll almost never send your entire manuscript right away.
Your goal is to write a query letter that gets them to request your manuscript. Crafting effective queries is a specific skill that really deserves its own article. (Oh, look, here’s one!)
A book synopsis is a short summary of your story. When (and if) literary agents request a synopsis with your query letter, pay close attention to their length requirements. They could ask for anything from half a page to several pages. Give the people what they want.
The art to writing a compelling synopsis is beyond the scope of our guide to literary agents. But we’ve got you covered with this handy article.
First Three Chapters
Or the first chapter. Or the first fifty pages. It’s not unusual for a literary agent to request a short sample along with your query letter or in response to your query letter. So make sure the opening of your novel ropes ‘em in and doesn’t let go.
Here’s some advice for starting a story right.
If you’re writing fiction, you may never need a book proposal. This requirement is more common for nonfiction writers.
Basically, a book proposal is a long document (about 10-25 pages) explaining what’s in your book, how it fits into the market, and why you’re the person to write it.
Literary agents use a book proposal to sell the book before the author has even written it. They might invite you to submit your proposal with a query letter, but it’s more likely that they’ll request in response to a query as they would a manuscript.
What to Expect During the Search
You’ve mastered the art of crafting effective queries and zapped those puppies out to the most promising literary agents. What happens now?
When, How, and If You Should Follow Up
So here’s a tough truth about the process of seeking literary representation:
Many agents simply won’t respond if they’re not interested.
They don’t mean to be cold. It’s just that they get thousands of submissions a year.
The upside of this is that if you receive a rejection with a personal response—something like “love the pitch but it’s not what we’re looking for”—that’s a fantastic sign. It means you’ve crafted an excellent query that made a busy person want to assure you that you’ve got something good.
And what if all you get is crickets?
Most literary agents have the policy that silence equals “no, thank you.” Unless their submission requirements encourage you to follow up after a certain amount of time has passed, move on.
Signs That It’s Time to Do Some Workshopping
If all you get is silence or form letter rejections from the first ten or so agents, give your query a second look.
Crafting effective queries is often a group effort. Ask fellow writers to help you workshop it. If you happen to have a friend in publishing, ask them if they have time to give you feedback, too.
When They Request Your Manuscript
Send it! Make sure you follow their instructions to the letter. Need help formatting your manuscript to look professional as all get out? Doug has some tips for you.
If the literary agent tells you how much time to give them before following up, mark the date on your calendar. Don’t check in any earlier than that.
If they don’t specify a timeline, wait six weeks or so to check in.
When you’re seeking literary representation, rejection is inevitable. The average literary agent receives thousands of queries each year. That means they have to reject a lot of novels, plenty of which are fit for publication with a leading publisher.
The fact is, most authors don’t find representation or a traditional publisher for their first book. So embrace rejection and use it to improve your craft.
If you get a few requests for your manuscript but no one makes an offer to work with you, consider this an opportunity to learn. Did they give you any helpful feedback? If you compare your manuscript to your query letter, do you see a discrepancy between the story you promised and the one you delivered?
In case it helps, here are more tips on overcoming a fear of rejection.
They’re Interested! What Now?
What happens if (squee!) a literary agent loves your manuscript and wants to talk business?
This is where our guide to literary agents gets exciting.
Meeting With a Prospective Agent
When you meet with your maybe-soon-to-be literary agent, be ready to discuss things like:
- Your vision for your career
- What you’re working on next
- Other completed manuscripts you might have
- Your vision for a sequel or series, if you have one
Also remember that you’re deciding if you want to hire this person. It’s so hard to find literary representation in the first place that we often think of ourselves as lucky to get anyone’s attention. But you need to make sure this literary agent is right for you and your novel.
Don’t be afraid to politely ask things like:
- How many clients do you represent?
- What kind of book deal will you be pursuing?
- Do you have any specific houses in mind?
- What type of revisions do you think my manuscript needs?
Inviting More Offers
Follow up with any other literary agent who’s requested your manuscript. Let them know you have an offer so they can decide if they want to hurry up and schedule a meeting themselves.
Once you’ve struck a deal with your new literary agent, you’re both ready to get down to business.
Navigating the Publishing Process With Your Agent
Throughout this process, you should expect regular updates from your agent. But keep in mind that you’re not their only client. So feel free to check in, but give them time and space to do their job, too.
The Editing and Revision Process
Hopefully, you’ve already done your due diligence to make sure your chosen agent is someone who understands your creative vision. That means you can confidently take their feedback seriously.
And you should. You hired this person not just for their sales skills but also for their professional advice. You can gently push back on revisions you don’t agree with, but remember that they’re here to help you prepare your book for a reputable publisher.
Receiving an Offer From a Publisher
Don’t be afraid to ask questions when your rep presents you with a potential book deal. Remember, it’s the agent’s job to represent writers. They should be able to show you a redlined contract demonstrating their efforts to get you the best deal.
They’re not miracle workers, and again, you want to take their professional advice seriously. But know that you’re well within your rights to politely ask for details.
In the Meantime…
While your agent is busy landing a book deal with a publisher, your job is to focus on the future.
Write the next book. Build your author platform. Network and grow your professional community.
Get ready to make the most of this book’s success.
Tips for Increasing Your Chances of Getting Published
You’ve already learned a lot about how to crush your search for representation in this guide to literary agents. But if you could use a few more tips for increasing your odds of finding an agent and landing a deal with a leading publisher, here’s more professional advice.
Write Fiction Like a Rockstar
An exceptional manuscript is your best tool for finding a good agent. So take the time to master your craft.
Take a fiction writing class. Study your genre. Read buckets of articles on writing like the ones in DabbleU. Get feedback from friends, family, other writers, and any publishing pros you know.
Oh, and read your face off. Learn everything you can from your favorite authors.
Get really good at writing fiction and polish your manuscript within an inch of its precious, little life.
Build an Author Platform
Start a blog or a vlog or a newsletter. Master the art of creating social media content. Build whatever kind of platform makes sense for you and start now.
You need a literary agent, and a literary agent needs a writer with a following. It’s just good business.
Build a Network of Writers and Industry Professionals
One of the most powerful things you can tell an agent is that you were sent to them by someone else. If you can tell them a respected colleague or client of theirs thinks they’d love to read your manuscript, chances are high they’ll ask to see it.
So get out there and meet people. And when you can help other writers make connections, do it.
Staying Up-to-Date With Industry Trends and Developments
Know what book deals are happening, who the current bestselling authors in your genre are, what trends readers are obsessed with… all of it.
Not only does this help you write books that will sell, it also prepares you to demonstrate your professional commitment when meeting a prospective agent.
Join the Dabble Community
If there’s one thing I hope you learned in our guide to literary agents, it’s that this particular part of the publishing process is long and challenging. Having a community makes it way easier.
I recommend checking out Dabble’s Story Craft Café. This community is fast becoming a go-to resource for advice, support, and camaraderie. Plus, there are daily group word sprints to help you stay on top of your writing goals.
Membership is free. Click here to join and let us stand with you in your authorly mission.
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