Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)



The scoop on day-to-day agent responsibilities.

A writer’s job is to write. A literary agent’s job is to find publishers for her clients’ books. Because publishing houses receive more and more unsolicited manuscripts each year, securing an agent is becoming increasingly necessary. But finding an eager and reputable agent can be a difficult task. Even the most patient writer can become frustrated or disillusioned. As a writer seeking agent representation, you should prepare yourself before starting your search. Learn when to approach agents, as well as what to expect from an author/agent relationship. Beyond selling manuscripts, an agent must keep track of the ever-changing industry, writers’ royalty statements, fluctuating market trends—and the list goes on.

So, once again, you face the question: Do I need an agent? The answer, much more often than not, is yes.


For starters, today’s competitive marketplace can be difficult to break into, especially for unpublished writers. Many larger publishing houses will only look at manuscripts from agents—and rightfully so, as they would be inundated with unsatisfactory writing if they did not. In fact, approximately 80 percent of books published by the six major houses are acquired through agents.

But an agent’s job isn’t just getting your book through a publisher’s door. The following describes the various jobs agents do for their clients, many of which would be difficult for a writer to do without outside help.


An agent possesses information on a complex web of publishing houses and a multitude of editors to ensure her clients’ manuscripts are placed in the right hands. This knowledge is gathered through relationships she cultivates with acquisitions editors—the people who decide which books to present to their publisher for possible publication. Through her industry connections, an agent becomes aware of the specializations of publishing houses and their imprints, knowing that one publisher wants only contemporary romances while another is interested solely in nonfiction books about the military. By networking with editors, an agent also learns more specialized information—which editor is looking for a crafty Agatha Christie–style mystery for the fall catalog, for example.


Being attentive to constant market changes and shifting trends is another major requirement of an agent. An agent understands what it may mean for clients when publisher A merges with publisher B and when an editor from house C moves to house D. Or what it means when readers—and therefore editors—are no longer interested in Westerns, but can’t get their hands on enough thriller and suspense novels.


Although it may seem like an extra step to send your work to an agent instead of directly to a publishing house, the truth is an agent can prevent you from wasting months sending manuscripts that end up in the wrong place or buried in someone’s slush pile. Editors rely on agents to save them time, as well. With little time to sift through the hundreds of unsolicited submissions arriving weekly in the mail, an editor is naturally going to prefer a work that has already been approved by a qualified reader (i.e., the agent) who knows the editor’s preferences. For this reason, many of the larger publishers accept agented submissions only.


When publishers write contracts, they are primarily interested in their own bottom line rather than the best interests of the author. Writers unfamiliar with contractual language may find themselves bound to a publisher with whom they no longer want to work. Or, they may find themselves tied to a publisher that prevents them from getting royalties on their first book until subsequent books are written. Agents use their experiences and knowledge to negotiate a contract that benefits the writer while still respecting the publisher’s needs. After all, more money for the author will almost always mean more money for the agent—another reason they’re on your side.


1.    Finish your novel manuscript or short-story collection. An agent can do nothing for fiction without a finished product. Never query with an incomplete novel.

2.    Revise your manuscript. Seek critiques from other writers or an independent editor to ensure your work is as polished as possible.

3.    Proofread. Don’t ruin a potential relationship with an agent by submitting work that contains typos or poor grammar.

4.    Publish short stories or novel excerpts in literary journals, which will prove to prospective agents that editors see quality in your writing.

5.    Research to find the agents of writers whose works you admire or are similar to yours.

6.    Use the Internet and resources like Guide to Literary Agents to construct a list of agents who are open to new writers and looking for your category of fiction. (Jump to the listings sections of this book to start now.)

7.    Rank your list according to the agents most suitable for you and your work.

8.    Write your novel synopsis.

9.    Write your query letter. As an agent’s first impression of you, this brief letter should be polished and to the point.

10.Educate yourself about the business of agents so you will be prepared to act on any offer. This guide is a great place to start.


Beyond publication, a savvy agent keeps in mind other opportunities for your manuscript. If your agent believes your book also will be successful as an audio book, a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection or even a blockbuster movie, she will take these options into consideration when shopping your manuscript. These additional opportunities for writers are called subsidiary rights. Part of an agent’s job is to keep track of the strengths and weaknesses of different publishers’ subsidiary rights offices to determine the deposition of these rights regarding your work. After contracts are negotiated, agents will seek additional moneymaking opportunities for the rights they kept for their clients.


An escalator is a bonus an agent can negotiate as part of the book contract. It is commonly given when a book appears on a bestseller list or if a client appears on a popular television show. For example, a publisher might give a writer a $30,000 bonus if he is picked for a book club. Both the agent and the editor know such media attention will sell more books, and the agent negotiates an escalator to ensure the writer benefits from this increase in sales.


Because an agent receives payment only when the publisher pays the writer, it’s in the agent’s best interest to make sure the writer is paid on schedule. Some publishing houses are notorious for late payments. Having an agent distances you from any conflict regarding payment and allows you to spend time writing instead of making phone calls.


Besides standing up for your right to be paid on time, agents can ensure your book gets a better cover design, more attention from the publisher’s marketing department or other benefits you may not know to ask for during the publishing process. An agent also can provide advice during each step of the way, as well as guidance about your long-term writing career.


Now that you know what an agent is capable of, ask yourself if you and your work are at a stage where you need an agent. Look at the to-do lists for fiction and nonfiction writers in this article, and judge how prepared you are for contacting an agent. Have you spent enough time researching or polishing your manuscript? Does your nonfiction book proposal include everything it should? Is your novel completely finished? Sending an agent an incomplete project not only wastes your time, but also may turn off the agent in the process. Is the work thoroughly revised? If you’ve finished your project, set it aside for a few weeks, then examine it again with fresh eyes. Give your novel or proposal to critique group partners (“beta readers”) for feedback. Join up with writing peers in your community or online.

Moreover, your work may not be appropriate for an agent. Most agents do not represent poetry, magazine articles, short stories or material suitable for academic or small presses; the agent’s commission does not justify spending time submitting these types of works. Those agents who do take on such material generally represent authors on larger projects first, and then adopt the smaller items as a favor to the client.

If you believe your work is ready to be placed with an agent, make sure you’re personally ready to be represented. In other words, consider the direction in which your writing career is headed. Besides skillful writers, agencies want clients with the ability to produce more than one book. Most agents say they’re looking to represent careers, not books.


Although there are many reasons to work with an agent, some authors can benefit from submitting their own work directly to book publishers. For example, if your project focuses on a very specific area, you may want to work with a small or specialized press. These houses usually are open to receiving material directly from writers. Small presses often can give more attention to writers than large houses can, providing editorial help, marketing expertise and other advice. Academic books or specialized nonfiction books (such as a book about the history of Rhode Island) are good bets for unagented writers.

Beware, though, as you will now be responsible for reviewing and negotiating all parts of your contract and payment. If you choose this path, it’s wise to use a lawyer or entertainment attorney to review all contracts. Lawyers who specialize in intellectual property can help writers with contract negotiations. Instead of earning a commission on resulting book sales, lawyers are paid for their time only.

And, of course, some people prefer working independently instead of relying on others. If you’re one of these people, it’s probably better to submit your own work instead of constantly butting heads with an agent. Let’s say you manage to sign with one of the few literary agents who represent short-story collections. If the collection gets shopped around to publishers for several months and no one bites, your agent may suggest retooling the work into a novel or novella(s). Agents suggest changes—some bigger than others—and not all writers think their work is malleable. It’s all a matter of what you’re writing and how you feel about it.


1.    Formulate a concrete idea for your book. Sketch a brief outline, making sure you’ll have enough material for a book-length manuscript.

2.    Research works on similar topics to understand the competition and determine how your book is unique.

3.    Write sample chapters. This will help you estimate how much time you’ll need to complete the work, and determine whether or not your writing will need editorial help. You will also need to include 1–4 sample chapters in the proposal itself.

4.    Publish completed chapters in journals and/or magazines. This validates your work to agents and provides writing samples for later in the process.

5.    Polish your nonfiction book proposal so you can refer to it while drafting a query letter—and you’ll be prepared when agents contact you.

6.    Brainstorm three to four subject categories that best describe your material.

7.    Use the Internet and resources like Guide to Literary Agents to construct a list of agents who are open to new writers and looking for your category of nonfiction.

8.    Rank your list. Research agent websites and narrow your list further, according to your preferences.

9.    Write your query. Give an agent an excellent first impression by professionally and succinctly describing your premise and your experience.

10.Educate yourself about the business of agents so you can act on any offer.