A quick and non-exhaustive guide to obtaining a literary agent

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If you’re writing fiction, you have to actually write the book. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that if you’re an unknown writer (and not, say, Stephen King) you’re extremely unlikely to find an agent or sell a novel with unfinished business. If you are a former president or a big celebrity? Of course, maybe. But for most of us, you need to have a finished and polished manuscript ready to send.

The big exception to this is if you work in non-fiction. If you’re working on an investigative book – say, in the world of journalism, or an “idea” book – you’re usually talking to agents with a very, very detailed plan and proposal that highlights your sources. , your arguments and your relevant expertise on the subject. Then, if the agent signs with you, they work with you to flesh out certain pages. It’s more collaborative, and you don’t necessarily expect you to have already done all of the work in advance. If your project involves interviewing people at different farms across the country, for example, an agent won’t expect you to have done all of this before presenting, but will likely expect you to have researched the specific places you were going and why.

So, once your manuscript is ready, you’ll want to research agents. There are plenty of free resources available for this, although my favorite is MSWL. I have also participated in free pitch events on Twitter including PitMad and DVPit, which is actually where I connected with the person who became my agent. Follow-up of requests is another great resource I used – there is a free version, although I personally paid for a 1 year subscription and felt it was worth it. If you pay for Publishers Marketplace, you can also strategically research book offerings in your genre and age category and find out who might be a good fit for your book that way. You should never pay for a service to interview agents on your behalf, and you should never sign with an agent who asks you to pay for their services.

Once you have an agent list (I’ve heard that batch 10 queries is a good strategy, although I wasn’t that strict with the numbers) you will be working on your query letter. Fortunately, there are many resources for query letters online. I referred to the free information given on the Jane Friedman’s Blog, and have since shared my current query letter on Twitter. I won’t go into too much detail on how to write a query letter, but just be aware that you absolutely need it and it is considered a professional standard.

Once you’ve submitted your queries and sample pages (the number of pages depends on each agent, so you’ll be checking their submission guidelines each time), you… wait. Response times really vary; I had a few requests for the complete book in less than an hour and had outright refusals just as quickly. Sometimes people would show up in my inbox over a month later, wondering if the book was still available. I’ve heard that the pandemic has slowed things down as well, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Simply prepare your material.

Generally speaking, once an agent wants to make you an offer of representation, you will have a phone call together. They can either make the offer verbally or include it in an email when you set up your call. There are many great resources on questions at ask a potential agent, as well as red flags when it comes to agents and agencies. If you haven’t already checked Beware of writers, now is the time to do it.

For me personally, I found it important to know how editorial the agent was and how they felt they could work with me to improve the book and make it marketable without sacrificing my vision and artistic choices. It can also be beneficial to talk about other projects you are working on and your big career goals, as agents sometimes represent writers for their entire career and not just for a single book. Everything depends.

Once you have an offer, it is a courtesy of the industry to give other agents who have your documents two weeks to read and get their offer or opt out. You do not have to do this, of course, but it is considered polite to give other agents time to read. This is also a good thing of you as a writer, as you might hear other agents “introduce” you and realize that someone is better suited than the first person who contacted. It’s also a way to make sure that you don’t inadvertently burn bridges in case you end up interviewing officers on the road again, for whatever reason.

Once you accept an offer, you will sign a contract with the agency. While this part may sound like a lot of fun and asserting as a creator, it is very important to read your contract and actually understand it. To ask questions! Your agent should have no problem discussing or explaining the contract to you. In fact, I would consider this to be a huge red flag if they are evasive or try to avoid stressing you or questioning anything – again, this is a binding document, so c is a big deal for both parties involved.

I almost certainly left out a lot of things, but I hope this preview was a bit helpful for anyone who is intrigued! I’d love to know what types of books (or other creative projects) you’re working on, or what you’ve published in the past. Don’t hesitate to promote your own work, of course!

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