How to find an Agent

Literary agents are one of the most important and least understood parts of traditional publishing. Literary agencies are the gatekeepers to the big publishing houses, and it is more or less impossible to be published traditionally without representation by an agent. This leads some aspiring writers to develop a resentment for agents, seeing them as something akin to dragons guarding a treasure hoard.

In truth, agents are far from monsters. They act as a combination of talent scout, editor, contract negotiator, manager, and hopefully friend. They will take a percentage of what you make (normally around 15%), but in my mind this is a minor price for the benefits effective representation offers. Publishers and editors will come and go, but an agent may well represent you throughout your entire career, and will be the person who sees your earliest, roughest drafts, the person who knows exactly which publishing house might be the best home for your great new idea. A good literary agent will be the best thing that happens to your writing career.

Unfortunately, finding an agent can be difficult. Representation is highly sought-after, and agents can receive upwards of two hundred queries a week. These are daunting odds, and your submission needs to be as good as you can make it, because you have to impress your potential agent in a very small amount of time. I would strongly advise against querying with the first draft of anything, as it will in all likelihood not be strong enough to interest an agent. Let it sit for a month or so, then try rewriting at least once before you send it out.

Your submission package to literary agents will normally consist of three things: a cover letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters of your novel. Different agents may have different submissions criteria (which it’s vital you read), and it’s not uncommon for them to ask for the first fifty pages rather than three chapters, but the basics will always be the same. Let’s run through them one by one.

  1. The cover letter will be the first thing an agent reads. This is a brief introduction to you and your work. Keeping it simple is best here. First off, ensure the cover letter names the agent you’re querying, and is not simply addressed to ‘Dear Agent’. I would then follow this up with the ‘elevator pitch’ for your novel. The elevator pitch is a short, punchy description of the novel’s plot or central conflict, which also establishes who your protagonist is. The pitch I sent to prospective agents for 13 Days of Midnight ran like this: ‘Seventeen year old Luke Manchett has long believed that his estranged father, a well known television medium, is an embarrassing fraud. It comes as an enormous surprise when Luke discovers not only has his father died, but he was living a secret life as a necromancer. Luke inherits his father’s money, his property, and his retinue of enslaved ghosts.’ Note that we immediately know who the story is about, and what the protagonist’s problem is. If you aren’t able to distill your novel down into a brief hook or pitch like this, you may not have found your story quite yet. After the elevator pitch, provide factual information such as how many words long the novel is, what it’s currently titled, who you imagine the audience to be (don’t say ‘every man, woman and child alive today’), and relevant biographical information (probably little to none, but mentioning your age won’t hurt, and if you have direct and unusual experience with something your book covers – you are a bomb-disposal expert who has written a novel about a heroic and handsome bomb-disposal expert, for example – I would absolutely mention it, as this is a potential marketing angle). End the cover letter by thanking the agent for their time and consideration.
  2. The synopsis is an absolute pig. You need to condense your entire narrative into a few paragraphs of summary, taking the reader all the way through, from beginning to end. Synopses are one of my least favorite parts of writing fiction professionally, and the time you take over the synopsis is likely to far exceed its eventual length. This will really test your understanding of the story you’ve created: which characters and events are vital and must be mentioned, and which can be left out of a brief summary. Aim for around a thousand words. You’re asked to include the full synopsis in your submission because if a reader likes your first chapters they’ll want to have a good idea of where the story is going to end up before they request a full manuscript.
  3. Finally, the first three chapters are just that: the first three chapters of your novel, polished to the best of your ability. Please do ensure these are the first three chapters. This may seem like a strange point to stress, but aspiring authors often send submissions with the middle three chapters, or the ending, or wherever they think the novel is most exciting. Don’t do this. Agents want to see the start of your story, so they can see how effective you are at pulling a reader into the world you’re creating. If you’re really unhappy about the idea of an agent seeing those first three chapters, and would rather show them the ending, then maybe your manuscript isn’t ready to be submitted yet! Maybe you need to rewrite the beginning, or maybe your story actually begins somewhere else.

Combine a pithy cover letter, excellent synopsis, and a compelling first three chapters, and you have yourself a submission package. Now get to querying! Buy yourself an up-to-date copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and search through the agent listings, looking for agencies that represent your genre. Choose as many as you like, check their submission guidelines thoroughly, and send your package out.

The process is slow. Expect to wait at least three or four months before you hear anything about your submission. Agents and their assistants juggle an unbelievable amount of manuscripts, and their priority is with the authors they already represent. As an unsolicited manuscript, your work is not the top of their pile. You have to learn to wait.

The process is harsh. Most manuscripts don’t make it. So much is submitted, and there’s so little time. 13 Days of Midnight was rejected eighteen times before I found my agent, and that’s really on the low side. You’ll have to get used to rejections. There’s no other way. Agents aren’t in the business of sparing your feelings, so the obverse side is that if they ask to see a full manuscript, they really liked your sample chapters. Feel proud.

A few final words of advice: I cannot stress often enough how many manuscripts are sent to agents each week. Take utmost care that your submission package is presentable and professional. Make sure it is double-spaced, set in a boring and sensible typeface, and that everything is spelt correctly. Some people react to the overwhelming odds and fierce competition for agents’ attention by getting creative with their submission packages: colorful paper, weird fonts, mailing the manuscript alongside an enormous bundle of flowers, etc. I would suggest you do not do this. These gambits are generally not endearing. Let your writing speak for itself.

This is a daunting and often frustrating process. It may take years. All I can say is the end result, if you succeed, is worth it. I’ve done my best to give a brief overview of the process, but I only have so much space. If you want more information, the blog Query Shark is an excellent resource, providing insightful critiques of submission letters and synopses. I also used to enjoy the Miss Snark blog, which performed a similar service, although it has been defunct since 2007. Reading through the archives of both should give you a thorough grounding in what agents want to see from your submission package. Many other literary agents have blogs where they talk about various aspects of submissions; I suggest that you take a look around until you find a few you like.

And good luck.