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The Do's and Don'ts of Approaching Literary Agents

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Do you dream of getting your book published?

Can you just imagine it: A big 5 publisher tells you, “We’re impressed with your book and know it will be a success. We accept your request for publishing.”

Oh, what a lovely day that will be!

But before that happens— and I do believe that it can happen for you— you’re going to need a literary agent.

But Wait— What’s a Literary Agent?

Think of the literary agent as a companion guide to a world that you’ve never visited before— the world of traditional publishing. It’s a little bigger than Mars if you’re wondering. Without literary agents to help you, you won’t find your way to a traditional publisher. You won’t even eat (i.e. get paid). You simply cannot exist in the world of traditional publishing without an agent.

Your literary agent will be your business partner. They will represent you and manage your writing career.

An established agent will have relationships with acquisitions editors at many publishing houses. The acquisitions editor is the person that’s responsible for finding the next best-seller. Their job is to read a manuscript, decide if it will sell and then, if they think it’s a hit, convince the rest of the editorial staff to approve the book. You need an agent who’s built trusted relationships with acquisitions editors.

The majority of traditional publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Why? They’re drowning in manuscripts already. Each publishing house receives thousands of manuscripts each year and will only publish a small percentage of those. For this reason, most publishers will only review agented submissions.

Most literary agents hate to be thought of as gatekeepers. You can think of them as screeners instead. Publishers prefer agented submissions because these manuscripts have already gone through one level of screening— by the literary agent. A literary agent won’t destroy their reputation with an acquisitions editor by submitting a subpar manuscript. So, if you can win over a literary agent, it’s a huge step forward in your ultimate goal of getting published.

Beyond finding a publisher for your work, your literary agent will negotiate your contract and make sure that you get the best deal possible. They have an incentive to do so— Literary agents only get paid when you do. They make a commission from your deal with the agency (which is typically 15% for domestic sales and 20% for international).

But not all literary agents are equal. Here’s a guide to finding the best literary agent to represent your book.

Not all literary agents are equal. Here’s a guide to finding the best literary agent to represent your book.

Do Make a List of Agents You’d Like to Work With

Create a list of literary agents who you’d like to represent your book. Fortunately, literary agents abound and there are several ways to find a quality one. Check out Publishers Marketplace, find them on Poets and Writers, ask around in your writing community, or find them at a writers’ conference.

Do Research the Agent

Finding a Literary Agent

Now that you have a good list of agents to start with, take the extra step to research your agent fully— beyond knowing which genres they represent. Who have they worked with in the past? You can use this information to personalize your query letter. Impress your prospective agent by showing them that you’re intentionally querying them because you believe them to be the best person for the job.

Do Work With an Agent Who Has a Good Reputation

You don’t want to work with an agent who has a bad reputation. But you also shouldn’t work with an agent who has no reputation. You’ll rely on the strength of your agent’s network to get in front of the best publisher possible. So, if your agent doesn’t have a reputation to speak of, they also probably don’t have a network, either.

Make sure that you find out if your agent has other clients, how long they’ve been in the business, and what authors/ books they’ve represented.

Do Insist on a Written Contract

Any reputable literary agent will require a written agreement to represent you. This protects both of your interests. Don’t settle for a proverbial handshake and nod.

Do Research the Genre

Do your research about your selected genre before querying an agent. Figure out where your book fits and to which authors you may be comparable. This will help you when you approach the literary agent for representation.

Do Sell Yourself

When approaching literary agents (in person or in a query letter), don’t be modest. Now’s not the time to downplay your accomplishments. Prove that you’re serious about writing by highlighting the relevant information. Have you written a book before? Talk about it. Have you taken a writing class before? Share that. Think of your first interaction with a literary agent as an audition. You want to show your best parts first.

Do Prepare Your Novel Synopsis

Most agents ask for a query letter where you will introduce yourself and your book (similar to the back cover blurb). Some will ask for more, such as a one page summary of your book and the first three chapters. This synopsis should cover the main plot points of your story, from beginning to end; have this prepared ahead of time so that you don’t scramble at the last minute if you get the request.

Do Get Comfortable With Rejection

Do get comfortable with rejection. Everyone gets rejected. And by everyone, I mean even your favorites, like J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis. Don’t get down on yourself when (not if) you face rejection from an agent. Just realize that this is not the agent for you and move on to the next possibility. You’ll eventually find your match.

Do Pace Yourself

Don’t go crazy with querying. It’s best to limit your queries to five agents at a time (at the most). Also, avoid querying multiple agents from the same agency, especially at the same time.

Do Trust the Agent’s Advice

Some agents offer advice with their rejection letters. Don’t be sour. Take the advice and work on those issues for future queries.

Don’t Waste the Agent’s Time

Before you approach an agent to represent you, make sure that your manuscript is ready for prime time. It should be professionally edited and formatted. Your query letter should be free of typos because it acts as an advertisement for your writing ability.

Also, be careful to follow all of the submission guidelines with each literary agency. Don’t just assume that the same guidelines apply across the board.

Don’t Expect the Agent to be Your Editor

Don't expect the agent to be your editor. While the agent may offer suggestions to help you tidy up your manuscript, your agent is not going to provide a comprehensive edit or manuscript critique. You need to work with a professional editor for that. We can help you find a great editor. Get started here.

Don’t Forget to be Confident

Finding a Literary Agent

Never approach a literary agent without self-confidence. You’re discussing a book that you’ve worked hard on. Get excited because excitement is contagious. And never feel like you’re annoying or interrupting the agent. It’s their job to find new and interesting books like yours.

Don’t Rely on Agents to Do Everything for You

Don't rely on agents to do everything for you. While they will work on your behalf, there are some things that they cannot do, such as work as your editor, publicist, book marketer, social media manager, etc.

Don’t Copy and Paste Your Submission Letter Blindly

Don't copy and paste your submission letter without reading through it first. It’s important to personalize each query with what you know about the agent and their specialty. This will improve your chances of impressing an agent.

Don’t Expect a Response From Every Agent

You’ll send out your query and wait the respectable four to six weeks for a response. And then crickets. No response.

It’s just a fact of life that not every agent will respond to your query letters. They’re not being rude. They’re just busy. If they didn’t respond to your query within six weeks, you can follow up.

Don’t Pay a Literary Agency for Representation

Never pay a literary agency to represent you. That’s not how it works. Literary agents get a commission from your book advance and future royalties. They should never ask you to pay for standard representation.

Don’t Automatically Sign With the First Agent

You’ll get excited when an agent offers to represent you. Be delighted but don’t sign on their dotted line right away. Be sure to read the contract carefully and wait for any other offers (if you’ve queried multiple agents at the same time).

Don’t Get Discouraged

Don’t get discouraged. You will not find the perfect agent in the space of one afternoon. Research thoroughly, edit and customize your queries, and don’t give up until you find the ideal agent for your book.

Final Thoughts

If you want to have a successful career as a traditionally published author, you must partner with a literary agent. Your agent will connect you with the perfect publisher, negotiate contracts on your behalf, and advise you on the next steps to take in your career. Choose wisely.

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