Nine Tips For Finding a Literary Agent

by Todd James Pierce (reproduced with permission of author)

Do you need a literary agent? That depends. If you plan to write for regional magazine–even good regional magazines, such as Buzz or The Oxford America–you probably don’t need an agent. If you want to publish short stories in literary journals, you don’t need an agent. If you’d like to publish your novel with a good independent or university publisher, such as Graywolf, SoHo, or the University of Pittsburgh Press, you probably don’t need an agent. But if you want to enter New York publishing, you’ll need an agent–and a good one at that.

In recent years, large houses, such has Hyperion, who previously allowed open submissions, have closed their doors to unagented writers. The big question for many aspiring writers is, How do I find a good agent? In the past 10 years, I’ve seen over two dozen books on agents, but the problem with many of these books is that they offer misleading or outdated information. Some appear to stroke the reader’s fantasy of being a best-selling author, rather than getting down to the nuts and bolts of establishing a good agent-author relationship. To right these wrongs, I’ve put together nine tips you won’t find in most of those books–where to find an agent, what to look for, what to expect.

(1) Do You Really Want Anne Rice’s Agent?

The answer, in short, is probably no. Most high profile agents have a full client list, and even though they occasionally do take on new clients, most of their time is going to be spent on their best-selling clients, as it probably should be. So if you’ve been thinking that Anne Rice’s agent (or Danielle Steele’s agent, or Jonathan Kellerman’s agent, or Tobias Wolfe’s agent, etc.) would be the easiest way for you to break into New York publishing, the first thing you need to do is reconsider your strategy. True, you may have a shot with Anne Rice’s agent (Her name is Lynn Nesbit, by the way), but realistically you will have a much better shot with a number of early- or mid-career agents who are just coming into their own in the publishing world. As a good rule of thumb, your experience as an author should more-or-less match your agent’s experience as an agent. If you’ve just sold your sixth novel to Random House, then maybe you should switch to Anne Rice’s agent, but if you’re just starting out, you’ll be better served elsewhere.

So the revised question for most aspiring authors should be, how do I find an early- or mid-career agent? Or more precisely, how do I find an agent actively looking for new clients.

(2) So How Do You Find an Early-Career Agent?

Start by reading Publisher’s Weekly. This trick rarely is discussed in books on agenting, but the fact is, most important literary agent news is reported in Publisher’s Weekly a year or two before it is ever reprinted in book form. PW, if you’ve never seen it, is a thin, weekly news digest devoted to the world of publishing and bookselling, and as part of its mission, also chronicles the movements of literary agents. In particular, you’ll want to read the “Hot Deals” page, which regularly highlights new agents who are starting to make big sales. Often, the “Hot Deals” page notes significant books sold by first-time authors. More importantly, PW will alert you to new agencies and new agents. Trust me, new agents are always looking for new authors to represent. Recently, PW announced that the Jane Dystel Agency took on three new agents (Jessica Jones, Stacey Click, and Jo Fagan), all of whom have had significant experience in the publishing world. At about the same time, they reported that two established New York editors who left their posts were becoming successful agents on their own: Brian DeFiore and Wendy Sherman. None of these people have yet appeared in a published agent directory, such as Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, and most likely by the time their names do appear, they will have fairly full client lists. To find these opportunities, you need to follow the publishing business.

You can find PW at some bookstores, as well as at most libraries. You can also find it on line: www.publishersweekly.com.

(3) Are There Other Places to Find New Agent Listings?

Yes, there are two other places to find such information. First, I run a web site, The Guide to Literary Agents, which follows literary agent activity, especially for fiction writers: www.literaryagents.org. To find a listing of new agents, scan my “Agent News” page. I update it every other month. Second, Agent Research & Evaluation publishes a newsletter which also follows agent activity. It’s a little pricey ($35/year), but can be useful. They also sell the addresses of agents who have set up shop in the past two years ($45). You can find them on the web as well: www.agentresearch.com.

(4) How Do You Find a Mid-Career Agent?

A mid-career agent is an agent who has already had some success; that is, an agent who has sold dozens of book, but is still willing to consider new clients. As a rule of thumb, you’ll have a harder time landing a mid-career agent if you’re a new author than you would an early-career agent. These agents can afford to be very selective, taking on only one or two new authors a year. But don’t be discouraged. There are three standard ways to contact a mid-career agent.

(a) Ask another writer to recommend you. By far, this is the most effective way to get the attention of an established agent. Ask a published writer to read your work, then recommend you to their agent. Because an agent’s time is limited, they often network through their own clients to find other talented writers.

(b) Attend writers’ conferences. These conferences can be expensive ($500 and up), but the better ones allow young writers direct access to agents. A good conference, such as Squaw Valley, Sewanee, or Breadloaf, will invite three or four agents each year. Go out of your way to meet with these people. Have coffee with them. Talk to them after readings or workshops. If they’re at conferences, they will consider new clients. Though it’s considered bad form to bring your whole manuscript to a conference, you can bring a small sample, such as 10 or 15 pages, to offer to agents.

(c) Finally, send your work directly. Though not as effective as the other two options, you can always send your work to these agents. It lacks the personal touch of the referral or the conference meeting, but many authors meet their agents through the mail.

(5) How Do You Find The Right Agent?

Other than using the three references listed above (PW, Authors Research & Evaluation, and my own site), I have a couple other ways to begin looking for an agent. But be prepared: finding an agent takes time and effort.

Though many of the agent guides can be helpful, I suggest you don’t start there. Instead start at your local bookstore. Carefully review books which are, in ways, like yours. In particular note those books written by other freshman or sophomore authors. If you’re writing a horror novel, look at other new horror novels. Check the acknowledgments page. Often authors thank their agents by name. If you can’t find the agent’s name in the acknowledgments, call the book publisher. Seriously, call. Ask to speak to the assistant editor who worked with that book. You’d be surprised how helpful publishers can be. Explain that you’re a writer and would like to contact the agent associated with that particular project. Finally, if all else fails, consult your local university research librarian. In a multi-volume reference guide called Contemporary Authors, you’ll find short bios about most published authors. Often these bios will contain agent information as well.

(6) How Many Agents Should You Submit To?

Agent submissions, done by mail, should be done in two phases. In the first phase, you should send a cover letter introducing yourself, a short overview of your manuscript, and a sample chapter of no more than 20 pages. For this phase, cast a wide net–a very wide net. Send this packet to as many suitable agents as you can find. Let’s say, 15-20.

Now for the bad news: expect rejection. Some agents will never respond to you. Others will send you a short form letter. Hopefully a few will call or send a short personal note asking to see your whole manuscript. If you have the money, overnight the manuscript–not because the agent will read it immediately (they won’t) but because this shows professionalism and a business-like readiness on your part.

Now for even more bad news. Of these agents who receive the whole manuscript, some won’t call back, even if they said they would “call you next Monday.” Monday is the standard day for agents to call new clients: they do a good deal of their reading over the weekend. Don’t let a single positive phone conversation or letter stop you from submitting your work elsewhere. Keep your manuscript in the mail until you have a bona-fide arrangement with an agent. Remember: an agent’s main responsibility is to his or her clients; as a “prospective client,” you come second. Don’t be surprised or offended if an agent doesn’t get back to you immediately. This is simply how the business works.

(7) How Long Should You Wait Before Contacting an Agent?

As a rule of thumb, wait two weeks longer than the agent said they needed to read your work. If he or she said, “I’ll get back to you next Monday,” wait three weeks before contacting them. If he or she said, a couple weeks, wait a month. And here’s another tip: call; don’t send a letter. As a prospective client, you’re attempting to establish a business relationship. A phone conversation–even a brief one–is much more effective than a letter.

(8) If You Still Can’t Find an Agent, What Should You Do?

(a) First of all, keep trying. Many talented authors spend months, even years, finding an agent. The old adage is often true: it’s almost as hard to find a publisher as it is to find an agent.

(b) Second–and this is important–work on your writing credentials. Unless you’re going to be a one-hit, nonfiction wonder because of a unique personal experience (Colin Powell, for example, will probably never write another book after finishing his autobiography) you should begin to think of yourself as a “career writer”, that is, as a writer who will continue to write many book-length manuscripts. As a “career writer”, devise a strategy that will help you work towards finding an agent. Most agents like to take on clients who have published well. In short, they’re looking for authors who have already proven themselves. If you want to publish a novel, keep sending out short stories until you’ve gathered enough publication credits so that agents cannot ignore you. If you work in nonfiction, continue to write magazine pieces until you have a tidy list of published articles. Strive to publish in those magazines and journals which will give you the most exposure.

(c) Lastly, if you’re a “career author,” consider publishing your first book with a smaller house, such as Graywolf, SoHo, Milkweed Edition, etc. Such publication will not only impress agents but also help establish you as a book author. I’ve known a good number of writers who moved to a large house for their second book, especially if their first book sold well or received good critical notices. I should also point out that although there is nothing wrong with self-published books, they will not help you find an agent and only in the very rarest of cases (read: odds of winning the lottery are better) will these books ever be republished by a commercial New York house.

(9) Final Words

Finding an agent, and eventual publication, may be one of the most difficult and challenging projects of your life. Most writers like the challenge. Wallace Stegner said that it takes most people 10 years of serious writing before they find significant publication. If you’re a career writer–and you should be–listen to that voice which draws you back to writing. Seven years ago I enrolled in an MFA program (UC Irvine), and from that experience I’ve learned that writers who continue to write and survive rejection eventually find agents and are published. The key to finding an agent is perseverance and a never-ending belief in your own work.

Todd James Pierce holds an MFA (U.C. Irvine) and a PhD (Florida State University). His work has appeared in over 30 magazines and journals, including American Short Fiction, Fiction, The Indiana Review, The Missouri Review, The North American Review, Shenandoah, and Story Quarterly. His first novel, The Australia Stories, was published in April 2003 by MacAdam/Cage.