How to Find and Query a Literary Agent, Part 1

looking for a literary agentPart 1: How to Find an Agent

If you’re an author who’s decided to go trad instead of indie, you will first need to find an agent to represent you. The major traditional publishers used to have what’s known as the “slush pile,” the mountainous heap of unsolicited manuscripts from authors seeking publication. Unsolicited manuscripts are no longer accepted by the big trad publishers (there are a few exceptions for some of their imprints, such as HarperCollins’ Harper Voyager, which has periodic “open calls” throughout the year). Because of all the mergers and dumb-sizing in the industry, no one has the time to search through the slush pile on the remote chance of finding a manuscript by the next John Grisham. The only way to get your MS seen is to have a reputable agent send it to them. That way, the publisher knows the agent found your work worthy of the publisher’s consideration.

How to find an agent. In olden days everyone either bought or borrowed that year’s edition of The Writer’s Market, and thumbed through its comprehensive list of agents who were interested in their particular genre. The Writer’s Market is still going, but it’s been updated to include contests, opportunities for freelance writers, how to promote your work, and other helpful subjects. Of course today there are online sources available. Here are two excellent sites:

Agent Query. With Agent Query, you can create a custom search of its database of agents. I recommend using the advanced search option. Let’s say you’ve written a mystery. First you search for those agents who are interested in representing authors in the mystery genre. Next you check the box that will only show agents currently accepting submissions. This narrows it down, but if you prefer to be more specific, you could add that you want to find agents who accept email queries (some still don’t, preferring snail mail.)

Query Tracker. In addition to an agent search, with Query Tracker you create a free account where you can maintain the list of agents you’ve queried and keep track of your progress.

Now you’ll have a custom list of agents to whom you can send your query letters. Don’t do that, though, until after you’ve done a bit of research on each one. First, go to the agent’s website (which will often be the agent’s page within an agency) and check her/his submission guidelines (more about this later.) Second, go to Preditors & Editors and make sure the agent is reputable. Another source for checking out agents (and publishers) is Absolute Write’s Bewares forum. Never get involved with an agent (or publisher) who asks you for money to read your manuscript.

Remember I said that the major publishing houses no longer deal with slush piles, preferring to accept submissions from agents only? You may wonder, how do agents have time to sift through a slush pile of manuscripts? Like major publishers, most agents stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts long ago. Instead, agents set ground rules called “submission guidelines.” You’ll find those on the agent’s website under “Submissions.” You must follow the submission guidelines for each agent you contact. Some agents require nothing more than your query letter (more about that in Part 2.) Others prefer to see a sample of your work with your query letter, and they will specify the length. Typical submission guidelines will ask for:

  • The first three, ten, or 25 pages (with or without a synopsis)
  • The first chapter, or the first three chapters (with or without a synopsis)
  • A synopsis only

The guidelines will often tell you to put the sample in the body of an email query letter, not as an attachment (for fear of computer viruses.)

If the agent is interested, she may request a lengthier sample. This is called a “request for partial.” Or, she might “request a full,” which of course means you will send your entire ms. After she’s read the full ms, in some cases, she will ask you to Revise and Resubmit part or all of your work (the “R&R”), but you’re under no obligation to do so, nor is she obliged to represent you after the R&R. Her objective is to bring your ms up to a level of quality that in her opinion will spark the interest of a publisher. If you are lucky enough to get a request for a partial or full, or an R&R, be sure to put “REQUESTED MATERIAL” in all caps on the subject matter line of your email, or on the outside of the envelope for snail mail responses. In rare cases, the agent may be so interested in your work that you will receive a personal phone call. The agent’s main objective is to get a feel for what kind of person you are to work with. The phone call is what every author dreams of, so be sure you are prepared. Don’t be like one talented but talkative writer I heard about who kept the agent on the phone for over an hour and wondered why she never heard anything back.

Of course, at any point the submission process, an agent may send you a rejection letter. Or, not. Some agents state that if you don’t hear from them within a certain amount of time (usually a few weeks or more) then you are to assume it was rejected. For those agents who actually send you a rejection, you’ll probably get a form letter. Sometimes you may receive a personal letter. A personal rejection will contain valuable information, such as mentioning the strong and weak parts of the ms. Give some consideration to any such comments. But don’t despair over the number of rejections you may receive. Many well-known writers received dozens, even hundreds, of rejection letters before their books were published (e.g., J.K. Rowling, Margaret Mitchell, and Stephen King.)

Coming Next: Part 2, How to Query an Agent

Author: Candace Williams

Candace Williams lives with her husband and beloved rescued Iggys (Italian Greyhounds) in Texas. Her first novel, THE EARTHQUAKE DOLL, was inspired by her early experiences in post-war Japan while her father was serving in the Korean Conflict. Learn more about Candace on her website and her Author Central page.

19 thoughts on “How to Find and Query a Literary Agent, Part 1”

  1. Nice overview. I can’t remember which agent said it, but as agents go through their inbox of queries, they are looking for reasons to reject. This doesn’t mean they want to reject something good or won’t ultimately want to represent you. It’s just that they handle a full in-basket the way all of us do, by scanning through things to see what can be cleared out as quickly as possible.

    That tendency is one reason write-ups like this are so important. They tell us the rules, often reminding us that not following an agent’s rules to the letter is one of the reasons they are likely to reject a query quickly. So is sending an agent something in a genre they don’t handle.

    1. Thanks, Malcolm. I can see how an agent could get very cranky receiving Romance and Chick Lit queries when they clearly stated their only interest was in Literary and Historical fiction, or vice versa! A few minutes spent researching the agent’s interests before querying makes the world a happier place.

  2. Can’t emphasize enough the rule that no matter who you’re submitting to – agent, publisher, reviewer, blogger – read the submission rules and follow them. Yeah, I know that sounds simple.

  3. I’m a nonfiction writer with an agent. I’m currently writing my 3rd book under contract. I got my start in the late 80’s by selling my first magazine article with a query. About the same time, our local newspaper put out a call for freelance submissions and I wrote 8 articles that paid from $10 to $25. With published clips, using Writer’s Market, I sold my first book in the 90’s without an agent using a proposal based on one of my magazine articles and received a cash advance. When I got serious about my writing career 5 years ago, I queried agents listed online in the Assoc. of Literary Agents to find my current agent, listing the idea for a proposal which became my second book and several ideas for other books to follow. I’ve received advances based on proposals for all 3 of my books, they are placed in every B & N in the country and my 2nd was marketed around the world. A nonfiction author will benefit greatly by having published clips and a great book idea in the search for an agent.

    1. Richard, this is fabulous information. I didn’t cover nonfiction because I have zero experience querying for that. Thank you for your insights, and sharing your path to success!

  4. Good pointers, Candace. The process hasn’t changed a whole lot except for the digital part; now writers don’t have to rent a hand truck to take their ms down to the post office. I can remember those days. I’m hoping the turnaround on queries might be a bit quicker, too. It was always hell waiting months to hear back. Glad those days are over!

    1. Also in those days of sending out snail mail queries and typed manuscripts was the rule against simultaneous submissions. You could only send the query or MS to one place at a time; a wait of six months wasn’t uncommon. So, a year or two could go by with nothing to show for your work bu several form rejection slips.

        1. Some agents would only accept an original copy rather than a Xerox. By the time they sent it back, it would usually be too bent and stained to send out again. Most writers couldn’t afford a copy typist to do a fresh copy.

    2. The digital age has changed almost everything. I’m frankly amazed that some agents still prefer snail mail queries and submissions. I was on that snail-mail query-go-round with short stories back in the day.

  5. I had the best agent in this country. But he died. His wife told me that my novel was at centre-stage on his desk when he died.
    Now I have no agent because there are none left in this country worth bothering with. I’m thinking of looking overseas.

  6. Ah, yes. I recall talk of the dreaded “slush pile” during writers’ conferences I attended many moons ago. That most established publishing houses won’t consider unsolicited manuscripts anymore is more proof why the traditional publishing route is falling apart like the rest of the nation’s aging infrastructure. Publishers and book agents are struggling, as self-publishing has grown in both acceptance and viability, and writers demand more respect. Querying for a book agent now is almost tantamount to searching for an 8-track tape player.

    At one aforementioned writers’ conference I attended in the mid-1980s, a New York-based book agent recounted how a lonely scribe had contacted her, following many failed attempts with other literary gatekeepers. The woman turned out to be one of the agent’s greatest success stories. Only afterwards did the writer reveal why she had reached out to that particular agent. A tarot card reader suggested she contact a female agent with a last name beginning with a certain letter; the same as the one who spoke to us. When a conference attendee asked the agent if she’d taken on the woman as a client if she’d known that, the agent responded no.

    Such is the stuff of writers’ trials and tribulations.

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