Saturday, 13th September 2008.
While it may be technically possible to get published without a literary agent, it’s advisable to get one. Many publishers have stopped accepting submissions directly, and only consider material submitted through an agent. Agents can help you get a better deal, and can give you good advice on contracts, rights, the way the industry works, and all sorts of other things.
How to find good agents
Both the UK and the USA have a standard reference book that lists the literary agents for that country. In the UK, this is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, while the USA has Writer’s Market. Both are updated annually, and offer listings of agents and book publishers, along with their interests, contact details, and how to approach them. There’s also general advice about the industry, and listings for various other potential outlets for your work, like newspapers and magazines. Get the relevant book for your country—it’s indispensable.
You should also keep an eye on trade websites like Publishers Weekly in the USA and the Bookseller in the UK, both of which list some of the deals being made. Take note of any agents that seem to be making deals in your field. If there are other authors who write like you, try to find out who their agents are (this can be done with a little time spent on Google).
Choosing which agents to approach
Using the sources listed above, draw up a list of agents that seem to be suitable for your novel. Then, find out more about them. Take a look at their website if they have one, and get a better idea of who they represent, and how they like to receive material. Do some internet searches and check writers’ forums to see what other people are saying about the agency, and read below about “avoiding bad agents”. From this, you should be able to put together a shortlist of agents who have a good reputation, and might be interested in your kind of novel.
Querying your chosen agents
Once you’ve chosen the agents you want to approach, find out exactly how they like to receive submissions. Do they want a query letter by itself? With a synopsis? with one chapter? With three? Different agents like different things, so make sure you get this right for each individual submission. You can read more on our page about querying agents.
Avoiding bad agents
There are two main types of bad agent: the useless but well-meaning agent, who has no industry experience and won’t be able to get you a deal; and the out-and-out scammer, who will bleed you dry, and has no intention of getting you a deal. You can read more about the scammer agents in this post from the blog. While it can be exciting the first time an agent shows interest in your work, it pays to be cautious and do your research. Here are some general tips to help you identify the frauds:
- Reputable agents never ask you for money. They make their living by taking a commission when they sell your book to a publisher. If they ask you for money, or start recommending paid services offered by their associates (or by themselves), politely turn them down and start looking elsewhere.
- If an agent shows an interest in your work, find out what books they’ve sold in the past. Many agents have a client list on their websites. If not, it’s okay to ask. They should be able to give you actual titles and authors; beware any generic comments like “we’ve sold a novel by a doctor in New York, and a book by a plumber in Portugal”.
- Do some internet searches on the name of your prospective agent, and the name of their agency, and see what comes up. There are plenty of writers’ forums online, where people talk about bad experiences they’ve had with agents, and websites that list known frauds. You’ll find links to these sites at the bottom of this page.
- Don’t sign anything until you’ve done the research above, and are confident that your agent is competent and legitimate.