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What you need to know about literary agents

Lady writerLiterary agents have many roles, but their central job is simply that they sell manuscripts to publishers. In efect, they're salesmen or (more often) saleswomen. In addition to that core job of making the sale, an agent will need to:

(A) know which editors at which publishing houses are suitable for your project.

(B) be able to recommend a course of action if you are in a position to choose (it isn't always about the money.)

(C) run an auction and negotiate a contract.

(D) organise the sale of other rights (US, foreign language, TV & film, etc).

(E) oversee the publication process and advise you throughout.

(F) Offer editorial advice prior to editor submissions. (But note that agents only offer this service if they are already very excited about your manuscript. They're there to perfect something that is already excellent, not mend something that is broken.)

(G) Think about your career - a role which almost always is assumed by an author's agent, not his or her publisher.

If your book is academic / professional / educational or otherwise of niche interest, you probably don't need an agent. Otherwise you almost certainly do - few large publishers take submissions seriously unless they come via a literary agent. (More about what agents do and who needs one.)

Hmm. It's good news, bad news time. The good part is that agents charge nothing upfront: they simply take a slice of any money they make on your behalf (typically 15-20%). The bad news is that because agents only make money on saleable work, they are intensively selective about what they do take on. As a rough guide, agents only take 1 in every 1000 manuscripts that come their way.

If that seems like a tough rejection rate, remember that most people who get rejected by agents are sending their work out way too early - ie: before it has reached the necessary quality standard. Agents aren't looking for promising writers: they're looking for excellence. They're looking to be dazzled.

Don't let your manuscript be rejected because you simply haven't put the work in. The Writers' Workshop can offer professional editorial feedback on either your agent submission package or your entire manuscript. (Learn more about manuscript feedback options.)

In terms of where to find them, you can get a basic list of (nearly all) agencies at the Association of Authors Agents. For much the same sort of thing in printed form, try the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. But if you want a comprehensive and searchable list of not just agencies but individual agents (complete with photos, biographies, genre preferences etc) you can get one at Agent Hunter, our sister site - we think it's the best agent-search facility anywhere on the web.

(Oh, and literary agents are also correctly known as authors agents - but you'll also find people talking about book agents, publishing agents, fiction agents, writers agents or even writing agents. The best term to use, though, is certainly just "literary agents".)

The normal practice is to send, by post or email, depending on the agent: (i) the first three chapters or approx 10,000 words of your manuscript, (ii) a synopsis of the whole thing, and (iii) a covering letter which is a very short introduction to you and your book. If you want to physically meet an agent, then an excellent place to do so is at our Festival of Writing or Getting Published day. (More info here.) Or watch our video:

 

WOWFOWCUT3 from video jon on Vimeo.

JK Rowling was a nobody. So was EL James. So are nearly all new authors when they write their first manuscript. It obviously doesn't hurt your authorial career if you're the first supermodel to win a Nobel Prize and have your own TV show ... but those things are mostly irrelevant. The only thing that really, truly matters is that you have a wonderful manuscript. And that's where we come in: our feedback services are designed to help your manuscript be the very best it can possibly be. And all our editors have sold work to major publishers themselves, so they know what it takes to succeed.
Yes - but with a catch.

First, the good news. We are very, very well-connected to literary agents and publishers. We run the country's biggest writing event, which hosts dozens of agents every year. Every single major London agency has been involved at one time or another, and many of them send staff every year. In addition, because we have notched up countless publishing successes, agents like us. If we recommend a manuscript, they take notice.

In addition, if we think a manuscript is strong enough, we always seek an agent for it, using our massive range of connections. What's more, we never charge a penny for that service. We do it, because you've deserved it. It's all part of the service.

The bad news, however, is that connections alone are never enough to place a book, let alone persuade publishers to acquire it. All that really, really matters is a relentless emphasis on excellence. That means the main responsibility is yours: to make sure your manuscript is as strong as it can possibly be. (Hint: you might want to think about getting feedback on your book or signing up to one of our courses.)
If you're about to send your manuscript out to agents, we recommend following something like the procedure below.

(A) Write a dazzlingly good book. Anything less won't do. (Need help? Then get it.)

(B) Develop a shortlist of 8-12 agents. (We suggest you use this.)

(C) Write an excellent covering letter. (Like this one, following these guidelines.)

(D) Write a fine synopsis. (Read our tips.)

(E) Make sure that your manuscipt is properly presented. (It's quite easy.)

(F) Then get your stuff out there. You can send your stuff out in one big wave, or divide your submissions into two waves, about 6 weeks apart. Don't approach agents one at a time - life is a lot too short for that.

Alternatively, it can be very useful to meet agents face to face and pitch your work directly. You can do this at one of our inspiring events, in particular our amazing annual Festival of Writing. But even here, it's not the wonderfulness of your pitch that matters - it's the quality of your manuscript.

(G) See what happens. Good agencies typically aim to respond in 2-8 weeks. At busy times of year (Christmas, and the London & Frankfurt Book Fairs; + the Bologna Book Fair for children's agents) you might want to allow an extra week or so. It's OK to nudge after 8 weeks. If you've heard nothing after 10 weeks, assume that agent doesn't want your book.

(H) Don't get too emotional. All writers get rejected. It's no biggie. The length of time an agent takes to respond means nothing about you or your book - it's just a question of what else they have on.

(I) If an agent wants your book - send it to them. If an agent wants to meet you, you certainly want to meet them: they will probably want to offer you representation.

(J) If you do all that, and no agent offers representation, then you have almost certainly failed to complete Item A above. In which case, are you sure you don't want to get that help?