From the start, I know that writing an explainer on how to get a literary agent is a fairly niche subject—especially on a website that is, obviously, not about creative writing—but I know the process is a frustratingly opaque one, and not many resources exist online, period. In addition to my day job as a staff writer here at Daily Kos, I’ve spent the last year or so querying literary agents to represent my adult, literary fiction novel. I signed with an agent last spring, and since then have been working on revisions with her directly. The hope? That the manuscript becomes polished enough to send out to editors at publishing houses and from there, that someone will be interested enough to make an offer to buy the book.
This sounds straightforward, and in a way, it is. In another way, it really, really isn’t. If you don’t have connections in the publishing industry (I didn’t), it’s easy to get lost in people’s anecdotal evidence and advice from generations past. (Hardly any agencies today, for example, will expect you to mail your manuscript on paper.) With the big caveat that my journey will almost certainly be different from anyone else’s, let’s break down some general tips and starting points.
If you’re writing fiction, you have to actually write the book. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s worth stressing that if you’re an unknown writer (and not, say, Stephen King), it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to get an agent or sell a novel with unfinished work. If you’re a former president or a big celebrity? Sure, maybe. But for most of us, you’ve got to have a completed, polished manuscript ready to send out.
The big exception to this is if you’re working in nonfiction. If you’re working on an investigative book—say, in the world of journalism, or an “ideas” book—you generally reach out to agents with a very, very detailed outline 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 some pages out. It’s more collaborative, and you’re not necessarily expected to have already done all of the work ahead of time. If your project involves interviewing folks at different farms across the country, for example, an agent isn’t going to expect that you’ve done all of that before pitching, but they’ll likely expect that you have researched the specific places you’d go and why.
So, once you have your manuscript ready, you’ll want to research agents. There are plenty of free resources for this, though my personal favorite was MSWL. I also participated in free Twitter pitch events, including PitMad and DVPit, which is actually where I connected with the person who became my agent. QueryTracker is another great resource I used—there’s a free version, though I personally paid for a year’s subscription and felt it was worth it. If you pay for Publishers Marketplace, you can also strategically search for book deals in your genre and age category and find out who might be a good fit for your book that way. You should never pay a service to query agents on your behalf, and you should never sign with an agent who asks you to pay for their services.
Once you have a list of agents—I’ve heard querying in batches of 10 is a good strategy, though I wasn’t that strict with numbers—you’ll work on your query letter. There are, luckily, lots of resources for query letters online. I referred to the free information given on the Jane Friedman blog, and have since shared my actual query letter on Twitter. I won’t go too into detail on how to write a query letter, but just know that you absolutely need one, and it’s considered a professional norm—you can’t just email and say “see attached,” sadly.
Once you’ve sent out your queries and sample pages (how many pages depends on each agent, so you’ll check their submission guidelines each time), you … wait. Response times really vary; I had some requests for the full book within an hour and got some flat-out rejections just as quickly. Sometimes people popped up in my inbox more than a month later, asking if the book was still available. I’ve heard the pandemic has slowed things down, too, but have no way of knowing that for sure. Just have your material ready to go.
Generally speaking, once an agent wants to make you an offer of representation, you’ll have a phone call together. They might make the offer verbally first or they might include it in an email when you arrange your call. There are lots of great resources available on questions to ask a potential agent, as well as red flags when it comes to agents and agencies. If you haven’t already checked out Writers Beware, this would be the time to do it.
For me personally, I found it was important to know how editorial the agent was, and how they thought they could work with me to improve the book and make it sellable without sacrificing my artistic vision and choices. It can also be beneficial to talk about other projects you're working on and your big-picture career goals, as agents sometimes represent writers for the entirety of their careers and not just the one book. It all depends.
Once you have an offer, it’s an industry courtesy to give other agents who have your materials two weeks to read and get their offer in or bow out. You don’t have to do this, of course, but it’s considered polite to give other agents time to read. It’s also good on your part as a writer, as you might hear other agents “pitch” to you and realize someone is a better fit than the first person who reached out. It’s also a way to make sure you're not inadvertently burning bridges in the event you end up querying agents again down the road, for whatever reason.
Once you accept an offer, you’ll sign a contract with the agency. While this part can feel very fun and affirming as a creator, it’s very important to read your contract and actually understand it—it’s a really, really important legal document, and one you should feel entirely comfortable with. Ask questions! Your agent should have no problem talking things out or explaining the contract to you. In fact, I’d consider it a considerable red flag if they’re evasive or try to advise you away from stressing or questioning anything—again, it’s a binding document, so it’s a big deal for both parties involved.
I’ve almost certainly left a whole lot out, but hopefully, that overview was a bit helpful to anyone intrigued! I’d love to know what sorts of books (or other creative projects) you’re working on, or what you’ve published in the past. Feel free to promote your own work, of course!