Literary agents for crime fiction and thrillers

It’s easy to think that because you’re writing a crime novel or thriller, you need an agent who represents crime thrillers. And that’s logical enough … except that isn’t, as it happens, how the industry really works.

I write crime thrillers myself, yet my agent represents posh Hilary Mantel, dead-but-posh George Orwell, and many other esteemed literary authors. So you’d think he wouldn’t be the right person to represent a gritty crime thriller – and yet he and his team have just sold my gritty crime thriller to every major market in Europe and North America.

So, first big point: don’t get too hung up on genre. A large majority of all agents are quite eclectic. They like some balance and variety in their lists. That can actually mean that if you go to a ‘leading’ crime agent, you may get shorter shrift than if you go to a classy agent whose list happens to be a bit underweight in that area.

Nevertheless, it does make sense to target your submissions to some extent. It’s normally fine to call up an agency, and say, ‘I’ve written a book about [whatever], which of your agents would be most appropriate for this?’ You should keep your enquiry brief, businesslike and polite, but you may well get useful information. (I did. My first novel was rejected by CurtisBrown. Then a receptionist told me that the MD there loved my kind of book, and I resubmitted it to him … and the book was accepted almost straight away.)

So a little targeting is fine, just don’t overdo it. Other good tips include:

  • checking out your favourite authors and seeing who represents them. (Use author websites or ackowledgements pages to get the info). This is worth doing even if your favourite author happens to write in a different genre from you. If you and the relevant agent happen to share a taste for a certain kind of writing in one field, it’s a fair bet that you have some overlap in others. Try it out. Those connections are often weirdly accurate.
  • checking out who represents good but lesser known authors in your category. If you are writing a conspiracy thriller and you write to Dan Brown’s agent, you’re almost certainly wasting your time. For one thing, you can bet that that agent’s desk is awash with conspiracy thrillers. For another thing, the guy who represents DB is likely to set his bar quite high. If you find good quality authors who have not yet made the big breakthrough, those agents are probably far better targets for your submission letters.

If you still think that you’re somehow going to be disadvantaged if you don’t have some Very Well Known Thriller Agent on your side … well, think about this:

  • The Very Well Known Thriller Agents have long client lists (often 120+ clients) and you will be the least important person on it. Is that what you want?
  • The Very Well Known Thriller Agent is probably hardly looking for new writers at all. Most of the additions to their list will be already established writers who are moving home for some reason. Lots of ‘big’ agents take on very few genuine debut authors.
  • Selling a book ain’t rocket science. If an agent is competent enough to sell (say) a literary novel aggressively and well, then they’re competent enough to sell pretty much any other sort of novel too. It’s just not that technical. To the extent that an agent’s contacts are weak in a particular area, a couple of phone calls is all it will take to make the required connections. It truly isn’t that hard for a well-connected agent to locate the people they need to approach. (Two exceptions: fantasy/sci fi and children’s/young adult – those two markets are reasonably specialist.)
  • Publishers know damn well that the next wonderful book could come from anyone. When Bill Massey, my editor from Orion, opened a manuscript from Bill Hamilton (my agent), it just didn’t make a difference to him whether Bill H had an amazing track record in crime fiction. Why would it? Only two things matter at that point: (1) the editor loves the book, (2) enough other people in the company love it too. That’s it. That’s all that ever matters. The name of the agent making the submission matters for maybe half a minute. Then the editor starts reading the manuscript – and the agent becomes irrelevant. All that matters is your writing.

You can get my top tep tips on writing crime and thrillers here, or more info on approaching agents here. Either way – best of luck.

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13 Responses to Literary agents for crime fiction and thrillers

  1. Robert James Bridge says:

    I read you feedback with interest,but have to say getting an agent is a bit like getting an audience with the Queen!. I am age seventy four (Almost) so I do not want any wonderful offers or spam please?. I had three books in a series of fictional crime published in 2006 by Rain Publishing Ontario Canada, along with a book of historical fiction.All were remaindered in 2007 and copyright returned to myself.None were ever sold or marketed!. I have,at this moment another in the same series with Publishamerica,another dead duck who never markets my book or sell them in the uk.Try as I may to get an agent even interested in the uk,I find it almost impossible?.
    Please do not divulge my email to anyone else,and please do not ask me to join clubs since this has never worked for me either.I hope this is completely private ?Thank you Robert James Bridge.

    • Harry says:

      Robert – it comes down to the basics. If your work is good enough, you’ll get an agent. If not, you won’t. If you’ve made proper professional approaches to 12 or more agents and got nowhere, you need to conclude the work isn’t yet strong enough. So make it better. Either do that on your own, or get our help. Sorry to be tough, but there truly is only one answer to your question.

  2. Pingback: Getting a Literary Agent for Crime Fiction and Thrillers | Articles Carrier

  3. Robert James Bridge says:

    I am aged seventy four,and am a prolific writer who has been writing for many many years.I have come to the conclusion that most Agents and Publishers make thier money form those already on thier books,and are not willing to accept outsiders.Infact the standard rejection reply is,I think written into each and every one of them?.Most have not got the time to even look at a writers work let alone take them on?. I write almost daily and have had so many kickbacks I could write a book on that subject alone?. I continue to write because I love what I do,not because I am ever going to recieve payment for my efforts.I had a series of fictional crime ie three books published in 2006 along with my premier tome ,a book of historical fiction.None were sold or marketed,and were infact remaindered in 2007I have today two book published in America and its happening again?,they have sold nothing and have never marketed my books?.I think I can say the industry itself has far too many crooks in it?.I have never paid for publication but warn those that do?. Even the mere effort of joining a writers club fell at the first hurdle ( No names mentioned).So to sum up I would say like everything in this world its pure luck of the draw?.If your nmae or number comes up you have cracked it,if not then tough luck

  4. eileen wharton says:

    Getting an agent seems an almost impossible task. I’ve found a publisher for two of
    my books, one of them a children’s picture book, the other a crime (ish) novel and
    I’m still unable to secure the services of an agent. I spent the last two days putting together
    a pack for an agent who had very specific requirements only to receive a rejection by
    return email. The silver lining is at least I didn’t have to wait six months before getting the
    big F.O. and he said the novel sounds good. Tenacity, I think (and hope) is the key and
    perhaps a little luck. I wish you the latter. Regards, Eileen Wharton.

  5. Harry says:

    Please! There’s nothing impossible about it. It’s not about luck; it’s about the quality of your work. I have never yet seen a really good novel fail to get placed with a literary agent.

    So if you try 8-10 agents and get nowhere, you need to conclude your work is not yet strong enough. In which case, either write another book or figure out what’s not yet strong enough in your work. Our critique services are one (excellent!) way to do that, but really, the main thing is to get the work good enough any which way you can. If you do that, you’ll get an agent. Honest!

  6. Angela Elliott says:

    I have been a professional writer in TV for over 20 years. I have had three agents but the last didn’t want to sell a book which had been lauded in the States as my having a ‘new voice’ so I walked. I placed my first UK novel myself. Now I’ve got a big series of crime novels planned and the first is written and ready to go but I’m damned if I can get an agent to take me on again. I’ve so far contacted my former agents (at least the two whom I was still on friendly terms with) but no go. I’ve tried someone who was recommended by former publisher Judy Piatkus (whom I know) but again, no go. I’m about to try the fourth and I’m starting to worry that the things I’ve done in the past (treatments and scripts for major Hollywood producers, over 30 TV documentaries, published novel, etc…) are actually getting in the way. Plus, I’m concerned that maybe I’m trying to sell sixteen novels in a series, when all anyone wants is one. It’s a humdinger of an idea, but in these straightened times perhaps it’s too much of an ask? Your opinion would be most welcome.

    • Harry says:

      Hard to know without seeing the MS itself, but the following things are certainly true:

      1) If it’s good enough, it’ll sell (and find an agent).
      2) no publisher will commit upfront to 16 books, but 2-3 book deals are commonplace.
      3) crime lends itself to series, so you won’t cause alarm by writing series-type books
      4) your track record is helpful, if not terribly significant. Helpful, because pro writers have proved their ability to tell a story, albeit that the medium is different. Not very significant, because all that matters is the MS itself.
      5) These are tough times so the hurdle is higher – and needs to be higher. No use getting an agent if that agent can’t sell the book.

      For more detailed advice, we’d need to read the novel and comment on that, but I would say that 3-4 agents still isn’t enough for you to be sure of whether there’s a market for you or not. Hope that helps!

  7. WJ Norris says:

    It is noted above that someone has put their faith in the hands of PULISHAMERICA. I understand that they are very encouraging and positive — for everyone.

    Be quite careful,as they really have not carried a project through that can be documented.

    Be wise, be aware.

    Best to you.

  8. Hi Harry and yes its me again,I seem to be the only one that actually replies?. I am at this moment trying my hardest to get an agent even interested in my four book series of adult fictional crime which is ready now entitled The Hell Bent Series which is four stories in total around 170,500 words.Murder,Revenge,Blackmail and Corruption in the world of the publishing industry!. These all feature non other than Jim Bent ex met cop turned private eye,on the streets of London,England.Although crime is my forte I also write historical fiction which is on Amazonkindle.co.uk and has never been seen or read by an agent or publisher todate.A Bolt From The Blue-The Halifax Explosion taken from the true story I have woven a book of fiction around this!.Anyway back to my agent exploration and the rejection letters.

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  10. Eileen wharton says:

    It’s a bit misleading I think to say in effect that if you haven’t got an agent your work isn’t good. I know many many good writers who remain unpublished and unagented. I’m sure they’ll eventually succeed if they’re tenacious enough but I wouldn’t give up after eight to ten rejections and assume the work’s not good enough. It’s a subjective business and agents want to make money. Books can be good without being commercial and if they’re not commercial enough it can be difficult in the current climate to secure the services of an agent or to land a publishing deal. I know many talented writers who have resorted to self -publishing as they had no luck with the traditional route. It doesn’t mean their work isn’t good!

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