Do You Need a Literary Agent? Find Out—Plus Tips on How to Find One

July 15, 2016


In today’s competitive publishing world, it can be incredibly hard to grab the attention of editors and publishers, in order to make a case for why your book should make the cut.

To increase the chances of positioning your work in front of all the right people, many authors opt to hire a literary agent. With inside knowledge, contacts and information, an agent can ensure your manuscript falls into the hands of the right publisher at the right time.

Could hiring an agent be right for you? We break down what to expect from a literary agent—and how to find and attract right one.

What Does a Literary Agent Do, Exactly?

Literary agents offer valuable guidance to help you polish your manuscript and package your submission to gain the attention of editors and publishers.

They typically have positive working relationships with editors and other important figures in publishing houses and understand exactly what publishers want to see. These connections will often open doors that are typically locked to the general public.

In addition, an agent will usually receive more detailed feedback from a publisher who has rejected your manuscript and can help you shape it into a tighter package for the next pitch.

Other important functions of an agent include:

  • Helping you find the right markets for your work
  • Establishing contracts and negotiating terms
  • Facilitating communications between you and a publisher
  • Selling the rights to your work
  • Advising on opportunities for future books

The standard commission for a literary agent is 15 per cent on advances, royalties and sales of a book.

When Not to Hire an Agent

Literary agents don’t typically represent budding authors of short stories, poems, articles or essays. If you write in any of these genres, you’ll probably have better luck pitching your work to editors of literary journals or small publishing houses. Similarly, if you write about a particularly niche subject (industry-specific non-fiction, academic treatments, etc.), you may have more insider contacts in that realm than a literary agent who specializes in more general publishing.

If an agent charges upfront “reading” fees in order to review or pitch your book to publishers, walk away. Requiring funds from authors is not considered standard practice amongst respected literary agents.

How to Attract an Agent

Finding an agent to represent your work can be as challenging as finding a publisher for your manuscript. With rising costs and shaky markets, fewer titles are published every year, which means publishers and agents are increasingly selective.

Here are some tips to help you capture the attention of an agent:

Build Your Brand

Once upon a time, brilliant minds were “discovered” by publishers. When a book was written, edited and printed, a publishing company would invest time and money into promoting it until it became a bestseller. That’s no longer the case. Today, publishers are pushing titles that have already have established audiences, explaining the proliferation of books by authors who are already a household name—despite their lack in publishing to begin with.

If you’re writing a non-fiction book, it’s particularly important to try to create a platform for your work and start to build a personal brand. Create a blog to speak about your experience, be active on social media platforms that invite conversation (like Twitter), and find ways to become a subject matter expert. As a result, your agent will better be able to sell your work to publishers, knowing you already have an audience behind you.

Related: Make Your Work Pop with a Stellar Online Portfolio

Make Sure You’re a Match

Like publishers, most agents specialize in certain genres. For instance, if you’re a science fiction writer, it may not be worth your time to pitch to an agent who typically works with commercial non-fiction titles. Most literary agencies will clearly state the genre of books they are and aren’t looking for.

Be sure to approach agents who represent exactly the kind of book you’ve written. One way to narrow the search is by checking the acknowledgements section of books similar to yours to see if the author has acknowledged her agent. Bingo!

Follow Submission Guidelines to a T

When you’ve confirmed that you’ve found an appropriate agent or agency, look for Submission Guidelines on their website. Look out for the little details—reread before putting together your submission and, if a marketing plan is required, include one. If the guidelines indicate to include only two sample chapters with a maximum of 15 pages, be sure that’s what you deliver and not a page more. Note that most agents will not accept a full manuscript, so sending one may actually hurt your chances of being selected.

Write the Right Query

Query letters are similar to cover letters included with a resumé when applying for a job. The query letter may accompany a submission package or simply be a request to send a sample or a manuscript for consideration. You want to be sure that yours is professional, concise and personalized. It should include:

  • Why you’re reaching out to the agent specifically
  • A brief synopsis of your book
  • A short bio that includes information about your writing experience

It’s okay to send query letters to a number of agents at the same time. Just be sure that you tailor each one to the recipient in the first paragraph, so it doesn’t appear to be a form letter. 

Related: How to Create a Compelling Story Pitch

How to Find the Right Agent

Here are a number of resources to help you find an agent:

Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

Manuscript Wish List

Poets & Writers Literary Agents Database

Agent Research & Evaluation

Agent Query

Query Tracker

Writer’s Market

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog

Finding the right literary agent to fit your needs can sometimes feel like you’re hiring a publicist. Simply said, you’re placing your work into their hands and expecting that they represent you well. If you’re unsure about the commitment, take some time before you move forward to continue your research and connect with other authors.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Heather Hudson is an accomplished freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publishing, corporate and agency clients who depend on her to deliver high-quality, on-brand content and journalism with a fresh perspective. Learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.