Wednesday, 6 August 2014

How to find a literary agent

If there is one question I can guarantee will come up at readings it is: how did you find your agent? These days, the answer to that is that I have found and lost three agents in my twenty year writing career, and have been published by six publishers (three global and three independent). Currently, I am not represented by an agent at all, and am lucky enough to deal direct with my publishers.

So finding an agent is only the beginning. And if you do find one, although this is an important step as so many publishers will only look at work that has been submitted by a literary agency, it is not the end of the journey towards being a Published Writer. You may well find an agent who loves your work, but they may not succeed in convincing a publisher that they should take you on. These are tough times for new writers, and indeed for any writer who is not already famous and deemed to be a reliable and bankable commodity.

Nonetheless, if you can find and keep a good agent, you are likely to find the path to publication easier, and you will be able to offload some of the aspects of a writing career that authors traditionally dislike - e.g. anything to do with numbers. (I speak as someone with established number dyslexia.)

So here seven habits of highly effective agent finders. Be warned – there are no short cuts here. Good agents are inundated with would-be clients, and you will need to invest time if you want to convince someone that they should represent you.

·        Write a good book. Write the best book that you possibly can. Or ideally a slightly better book than you possibly can. The bar is set very, very high for new writers. Your writing must stand out.

·        Research the market. This means looking at literary shortlists, best seller lists in newspapers, online communities, reviews, book group choices and whatever else you can find. If yours is a genre book, make sure you are an expert on the genre and the readers of that genre.

·        Check out each agency. When I found my first agent, there was no internet, and all I had to go on was the Writers & Artists Year book. This is still an invaluable resource for all professional writers, but you can also now find a huge amount online, and research not only agencies but the interests and preferences of individual agents.

·        Be realistic. Don’t just send your work to a famous agent who everyone has heard of and sit there waiting for the phone to ring. You could be lucky, but try and reduce the odds. Check out their agency and send it to the most junior person who is taking on work in your genre. Or send it to an independent which has been set up recently. You are more likely to attract a new agent who is still building their list than an established player who is too busy to read new submissions.

·        Enter competitions. If you are shortlisted for a major competition, you may find yourself in the pleasant position of being courted by more than one agent. Of course, such competitions are in themselves a lottery, and this may seem like a long shot. But there are dozens of competitions of various kinds out there, and the more you enter, the more chance you have of getting somewhere.

·        Get published. Writing short stories used to be the tried and tested way of starting a writing career, and to some extent this is true today, largely because of the rise of online magazines and literary websites. Be proactive and try and get your word published as widely as you can – short short pieces and micro fiction can be very useful in this respect. Agents do look at literary journals and websites.

·        Network. Go to literary events and talks which include agents. Ask questions and try to speak to them at the end. Personal contacts are very useful in this game. (But the good news for night workers or those living far away from the nearest bookish metropolis is that these contacts can now be made online.)

 I hope this is useful - do let me know if you disagree with any of the points I've made, or if you would like more information about any of my suggestions. It's good to have ambitions for your writing, but don't confuse having an agent with being a writer - you can get on perfectly well without one. We are living in fast changing times, and the publisher-agent-writer template is still the conventional way to launch and manage a writing career, but is by no means the only show in town.


  1. Thanks for this post! A few more questions:

    1. Is there an approved format for initial contact with an agent? Email vs. letter, handwritten vs. typewritten, formal business language vs. friendly, etc. Should a copy of the book be included, or only an excerpt?

    2. If you submit an unpublished story to a competition, what prevents someone from stealing your work or your story idea? Do you have everything under copyright before submission?

  2. Hi Marcheline, thanks for these follow up questions! Here are my replies:
    1. If you can't find any guidance on this, then call them and ask. 99 per cent will be happy with an email and attachment, but one or two still like to be sent hard copy submissions. Your covering letter doesn't need to be handwritten, though, typewritten looks more professional. There should be guidance on their site about how much of your work they want to see, and again, if you can't find this information, it is best to ask.I have never come across an agent who asks to see a whole novel as part of their general submissions policy, though some will ask to see the whole book once they have met you/corresponded with you and they know they are interested.
    2. You don't need to worry about people stealing your story ideas from competitions. Plagiarism is considered very shameful in the publishing industry, as well as being illegal, and no competition judge would jeopardise their professional reputation by stealing work they have had access to in a competition. Do bear in mind that there is no copyright in ideas or titles, though, and that sometimes people have the same or a similar idea at the same time - Julian Barnes and Jeanette Winterston both wrote novels inspired by Noah's Ark which came out at a similar time (A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters and Boating for Beginners.)
    Sending your work out there is a bit like your child leaving home - you have to say 'yes' to the uncertainty, and ideally feel excited too!