How to find a literary agent

How do you find a literary agent? It can feel a bit daunting, so stay strong. Remember literary agents want to sign talented writers just like you and we're going to run through the steps you need to find one.

What do literary agents do? 

Book literary agents help you sell your work to publishers. They work on a commission basis for the work they sell and usually take between 15%-20% . Some agents are more hands on than others and will work with their authors to develop their manuscripts.

In the video below author Lindsay Cummings answers the question, 'What literary agents do,' from the point of view of an author. Lindsay is represented by Peter Knapp at Park Literary Agency in New York:

Why do you need to find a literary agent?

Having an agent is not compulsory but literary agents are well connected. They know the editors at the publishing houses and which ones might be interested in your manuscript. Also many publishing houses only take submissions from agents so they’re important gatekeepers. 

Can you do it alone? Yes you can. It largely comes down to what you're writing. For example Jini Reddy author of Wild Times negotiated her first two book deals without an agent. Her first two books are non-fiction and fairly niche. 

There are a couple of instances where you don't need to worry about finding an agent: if you're going to self-publish or if you're writing picture books.

Writers all take different paths. At the London Book Fair author Philip Womack explained that over the course of his writing career he has had three agents and is currently unagented. He made his last book deal himself which he said meant he made more money. However, he is very established as a writer and journalist.

If you don't have an agent and receive a contract for your book The Society of Authors will look over any contract you receive and offer advice.

How to find a literary agent: Where should you look?

When you're looking to find a literary agent, the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start (I’ve bought a few.) The huge red tome contains a complete list of all the literary agencies. Apart from a list of agents it contains a wealth of valuable information for writers and illustrators. 

It contains information about various routes to publication from traditional, hybrid to self-publishing. 

You’ll find advice about writing for newspapers and magazines, writing a book or poetry, writing for television, film and radio, finding a literary agent, art and illustration advice and listings, digital and self-publishing information, a resources for writers section, a copyright and libel section and a section about finance for writers and artists. I make sure the latest edition is always on my Christmas list.

If you’re solely interested in writing for children then they offer a much smaller green coloured edition focusing on children.

If you’re just after a list of UK agents there is  searchable online service called Agent Hunter to which you can subscribe or there's another large searchable database of agents. 

Another way to find agents is to search the internet (but make sure you do your homework and ensure they’re reputable.) Agent sites contain biographies, what they’re looking for and what they’re not after and importantly if they’re open to submissions.

Follow agents on Twitter. I follow quite a few and often they will tweet when they’ve just opened to submissions. Also, you can get a feel for what they’re like. The relationship between an author and agent is so important. You both need to feel you’ll be able to work together for a long time.

Book Literary Agents: Do they charge reading fees?

A literary agent should not charge a reading fee. If they do AVOID them.

Watch the video below by Alexa Donne who talks you through the seven signs of a dodgy agent that you should look out for:

How to find a literary agent: Getting signed

How do you get signed by an agent? Firstly, write the best book you can and it needs to be ready. Don't submit a book that isn't finished and don't submit your first draft. Hone your manuscript. 

Consider joining a crit group or getting some professional editorial feedback before sending off your book.

Then research agents that are open to submissions and are interested in the subject you’ve written. 

Panel of literary agents at SCBWI Agents' PartyPanel of literary agents at SCBWI Agents' Party

At the  SCBWI Agents’ party the literary agents were asked questions about their likes and dislikes. One said she hated science fiction, then added that it actually came down to the story and she might take on a science fiction book if she liked what she read. This sounded quite common. So, don’t be put off applying to an agent if they say they’re not looking for a book in the genre you’ve written. Your book might grab them.

How to find a literary agent: Stand out 

Find a literary agent - Covers of The Hurting

Agents receive hundreds of submissions from writers and take on very few writers. Winning literary competitions can help you stand out from the crowd. Plus, some contest prizes can win you some sort of contact with a literary agent. 

Author of The Hurting, Lucy Van Smit, won the inaugural Bath Children’s Novel Award in 2015 and later signed with agent Sallyanne Sweeney at MMB Creative.

Lucy said, "It certainly helped my agent to find me. Sallyanne Sweeney was the award judge."

Make sure you follow agents' submission guidelines carefully, write a great synopsis, query letter and make sure your opening chapters shine. 

How to find a literary agent: Writing a synopsis

At the London Book Fair author and publisher Scott Pack had the following to say about writing a synopsis:

  • Everyone hates a synopsis. Agents and publishers hate reading them and writers hate writing them but you still have to write them.
  • Agents use them to see how a story unfolds and look at your chapters to see if you can write.
  • A synopsis should be a straightforward summary of the main plot.
  • A synopsis should be no longer than a side.

How to write a synopsis

  • Try to sum up your book in one sentence, then expand that sentence to 50 words, then 250 words, then 500 if necessary.
  • Another way to approach a synopsis is to summarise your story in bullet points then fill it out into sentences.
A book that Natalie and I have found really useful, recommended by author James Nicol, is Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide

How to find a literary agent: Writing a Query Letter

Writing a query letter is quite straightforward. Here's an example:

Dear X

I am seeking representation for my middle grade novel, X , complete at X words. Enclosed with this submission are my first three chapters and synopsis.

Then include one to two paragraphs about your book.

Next include any writing experience you might have and any competitions you might have won. For example:

I’m a member of SCBWI. In addition, I trained in journalism and was invited to join Egmont Book’s database of writers for their 2HEADS list.

Then say why you wanted to submit to them. For example:

I was keen to submit to you after we met at the SCBWI Agents’ Party because of your interest in quirky children’s fiction.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kind regards

Your Name

Below author Will Dean talks through the query letter he sent that landed him his literary agent.

How to find a literary agent: Putting your package together

Some final advice from Scott Pack: "When preparing to send out your sample chapters triple check them for errors and never use comic sans."

  • Check your letter, synopsis and sample chapters for spelling and punctuation mistakes
  • Double or 1.5 space your manuscript
  • Use a font such as Times New Roman, Garamond or Arial
  • Indent your paragraphs (except for the first paragraph of each chapter)
  • Have a clear title page with your contact details in the top right corner and title of the book in the centre
  • Include page numbers
  • Add your name and title of the book to the header of every page
  • Give your manuscript a name that will make sense to the agent, such as the title of the book rather than version 7 for example.

If you need further help there is plenty of advice online and editorial services  who will help you put your package together.

How to find a literary agent: Things to avoid

  • Don't send your manuscript to every agent on your list in one go. Only send it to a small batch of agents at a time. Three to five is a good rule. Then if you get feedback you can act on it before submitting to a further three to five agents.
  • Make sure you get their details correct. Don't write Dear Jodie if her name is Kate.
  • Don't cc other agents. Write to each one separately 

Find a literary agent - How I found mine: Kim Chance

Watch this video from author Kim Chance who explains how she landed her agent and most importantly how she kept querying despite rejection after rejection until she finally triumphed.

Have you started looking for an agent?

How are you getting on? We love to hear your stories, below. 

Have you started looking for an agent?

Have you started looking for an agent yet? Perhaps you've just signed with your dream agent. We'd love to hear where you are on your journey.

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