How to get an agent for your thriller

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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  • Robert James Bridge

    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

    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.

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  • Robert James Bridge

    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

  • eileen wharton

    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.

  • Harry

    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!

  • Angela Elliott

    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

    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!

  • WJ Norris

    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.

  • Harry

    Agreed! Take care with all pushy self-pub outfits. They talk big & deliver small.

  • 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 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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  • Eileen wharton

    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!

  • I agree, Eileen. Whole-heartedly…

  • I too agree with Eileen. I resorted to self-publishing three years ago after finally being told by one London agent, who hadn’t even seen any of my work, that I had no chance of finding either agent or publisher, unless I already had a track record of successful novels, or was a celebrity. Since then — after first having had them vetted by people whose judgment I trust — I have published my backlog of five novels, the latest of which, a psychological thriller, ‘Voyage into Limbo’, was chosen by The Bookbag as one of their “top ten self-published books of 2014”. I now have another thriller almost ready to go, but, knowing that publishers can no longer afford to take a chance on unknowns, and having previously spent so much time waiting for the inevitable rejections to roll in, I shall probably simply go the self-publishing route once more.

  • Harry

    It just isn’t true that publishers won’t take a chance on unknowns. They do it all the time. They did it with me. They did it with the first JK Rowling book. They do it year after year after year. What IS true is that (a) the number of slots available to debut fiction has declined, and (b) the quality threshold is more demanding than ever it was. Self-pub works well as a way to get some readers, achieve some sales and get some financial payback for your work. But if you want to make a thoroughgoing career out of writing, the traditional route remains the premier way to do that. And agents are there precisely to make that happen.

  • I don’t know when “they did it with you, “Harry”, and J K Rowling published her first book in 1997, nearly twenty years ago. Things have changed immensely in the publishing world since then.

  • Tom

    We live in a world in which publishers do not have the same broad staff of editors as in the past (fewer than just ten years ago). The publishing climate is much harsher for writers today–you have to know someone or be someone, to get an agent. And, agented works are not always published.

    It also does not help that agents, in general, will not respond if they reject a given work (saying they are busy is no excuse for being rude and unprofessional).

    Writers are told to improve their work; however, agents will not take the time to give the slightest hint of what’s wrong with the works they reject. Then, what results from that is writers turn to paid editors to have their work analyzed and in the end they often come to the conclusion that if they have to pay, they might as well self-publish.

    If a writer today chooses to go the “connection” route, they must spend a lot of money attending conferences so they can connect with various agents. In truth, for most writers of fiction, money tends to rush away from them (for writing conferences, paid editors, etc), rather than coming to them.

    Sorry, Harry, but your thoughts about agents and publishers appear to go back twenty years or more and they do not resemble anything in 2015.

  • Harry

    Hi Tom – Sorry, you’re mostly wrong in what you say. The fact is that because the WW watches the progress through to publication of DOZENS of authors every year, we just know the scene. So here are the truths and not-so-truths in what you say:

    YES, it’s true publishers have fewer editors, and that’s because they’re publishing fewer titles. YES, it’s true that agented works may not get published. That has always been the case, but is more common now than it used to be. TRUE, agents don’t offer feedback on 99% of submitted work, but they never did. They WILL however, for the most part, offer some notes on those works in the top 1-2% that they liked but didn’t quite like enough. (The ‘nice rejection’ letter.) Agencies that don’t bother to reply to submissions – I totally agree with you: that’s utterly unprofessional and rude. It’s always happened but should never have done.

    Of course writers need to make their work of the right quality, but this has always been down to the writer themselves. Agents actually do more editing now than they ever used to.

    “You have to know someone or be someone to get an agent” – absolute balderdash. Nonsense. Just totally untrue and without any empirical foundation whatsoever. At the Writers’ Workshop we know and work with dozens and dozens of agents. I’d guess that not a single one of those guys doesn’t ROUTINELY take on totally unknown authors – and take them on from an ordinary slushpile submission too. You really couldn’t be wronger about that.

    “Writers turn to paid editors” – well, why not? What’s wrong with that? I have a paid editor, the only difference is that Orion provides one for me. If my work weren’t yet of publishable quality and a third party editor could help fix that, why not make the investment? Why should anyone else pay for you to obtain that service?

    “Writers . . .must spend a lot of money attending conferences so they can connect with various agents” – again, total nonsense. We RUN the UK’s largest and best writers’ conference so we’ve got a huge financial incentive to say, “yes, you have to come to our gig to get an agent”, but we don’t because it is completely untrue. Yes, you’ll have fun, learn loads and make some possibly useful connection — but if your stuff is good enough, it’s good enough. Just bung it in an envelope and get it out there. Completely unknown writers are taken all the time. That’s how the industry works and connections probably matter less now than ever before.

    “they might as well self-publish” – well, OK, if you don’t want print distribution, reviews in the mainstream press, access to foreign rights & TV sales plus a load of paid sales & marketing (and editorial and copyediting and design support). You know there IS a reason why even huge self-pub successes like James Oswald took a conventional deal.

    Again: all this comes from the basis of detailed, repeated and intimate knowledge of how today’s writers are getting agented. Yep, it’s hard, but that’s because the competition is – and should be – fierce.

  • Tom


    Thank you the reponse. 🙂

  • Tom


  • Eileen wharton

    From what I can gather many people who’ve had the talent, tenacity or/ and good fortune to be picked up by a top agent or publisher think of publishing as a meritocracy. It’s easy to see it as a meritocracy when you’re on the right side. For those still struggling to break through, procuring the services of an agent or publisher can seem impossible. I still think it’s unfair to say they aren’t ‘good enough.’ This is simply not the case. There could be many reasons for their lack of success: publishing is subjective. (There are also many successful works which are drivel. I won’t name them) One agent’s meat is another’s poison. Agents and publishers are in the business of making money so if your work isn’t commercial they might be reluctant to take you on. Doesn’t mean your work isn’t good enough. Sometimes it’s about being at the right place at the right time so there is an element of luck involved. You can to a certain extent ‘make your own luck.’ If you can afford to, use the services of a professional critique service, make your work the best you possibly can. Be tenacious, listen to advice and believe in yourself. Listen to your inner voice. Don’t listen to the smug who say you’re just not ‘good enough.’

  • Nicolas Olano

    Publishing is very difficult, getting your work sold almost impossible. The cost of promoting a book is prohibitive and small publishers simply can’t do much. I have the first book of The Carducci Trilogy on Amazon, “The Carducci Convergence”, it’s sold a couple of hundred books and it’s beginning to get great reviews, but looking at promotional budgets gives me the creeps. Any tips?

  • Carol Tapp

    Feedback from reliable sources claim my book is ‘excellent’ et cetera. However, am struggling to find an agent. Had a letter yesterday from one, saying they’re ‘interested enough’ (after reading first 3 chapters) and could I email full manuscript. Did so, then found out that these cowboys are self-publishing agents. Who can you trust in this business?

  • Harry

    Carol, the only meaningfully reliable verdict on whether your book is “excellent et cetera” comes from agents offering representation or editors with a chequebook in their hand. You can find agents via – every single agent in there is genuine, not a self-pub idiot. But if you’ve tried the regular routes into the trade and haven’t succeeded, then your book isn’t yet strong enough. In which case, you need to find and fix the issues that are holding you back.

  • James Michael Curley

    Stumbled upon this thread while doing some research on agents. I had a well-known agent for two years whose career spiraled out of control for personal reasons. Now I’m “back in the woods,” as a writer friend of mine put it.

    I was told years ago, on the sly, by an extremely famous writer from my hometown that getting published is around 99% luck. That doesn’t mean that poor writing has as good a chance of getting published as good quality material does. It means that for every potential slot in the market for a new novel, there are probably 100 very well-written manuscripts that could fill it. There are plenty of people writing salable material, but far more than the market can absorb. So getting noticed is a roll of the dice.

    This isn’t a cynical, sour-grapes attitude, it’s just simple math. I think persistence is one of the biggest factors in getting published. And that’s why I send out three more queries for every single automated rejection. Best of luck to all my fellow writers out there!

  • Tom Arnold

    Well, I suppose the 17 or so agents who rejected JK Rowling put paid to that comment. Lucky the agent who saw merit in her work and much poorer the ones who rejected her. I suggest your personal marketability, the zeitgeist, the way in which the work will find a waterstones market – all play as much a part as literary merit. Tenacity is certainly important and a very thorough and brutally honest approach to editing and literary quality. But also don’t be patronised by people saying ‘ if the work is good enough etc…’ History has shown its not always the case.

  • Bill Butler

    Nice and helpful site. Thanks.

  • vic ceren

    Well i don’t need a note from my mother or doctor to find a literary agent, but here goes.

  • For nearly a year, I have been implicitly following all of the recommended methodology to link with a literary agent. I now understand that the odds of achieving this goal are massively against me.

    I published two casino crime thrillers on kindle, solely to track the response from random thriller readers. Being encouraged by their reviews, I am currently writing my third book and have the plans for three more.

    My sole objective is to link with an agent, change what is needed, and move on to be published, writing a new casino crime thriller every year.

    My website gives an outline of myself and my books, which can be read in any order

    Below is a response from John Grisham’s literary agent.

    Dear Chris,

    Thank you so much for sending along DARK CASINO and HIDDEN CASINO, the latter of which we have now had a chance to read. There is much to admire in your work – we love the intriguing premise and the exotic locale, as well as a mysterious cast of characters. Your plotting and sense of pace are excellent, as is your writing. Unfortunately, I found that I was unable to connect to the material as much as I’d hoped. In this crowded market, I can only take on work that I feel I can truly champion, and am unable to offer representation at this time.

    This is, of course, a subjective opinion and I’m quite sure other agents will feel differently. I wish you the best of luck in finding the enthusiastic representation that you deserve, and want to thank you again for reaching out to me and giving me the chance to review your submission.

    All best,
    David Gernert

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  • Mick Sherman

    That encouraging statement ‘Think of all the rejections J.K. Rowling/James Herriot/XXX got’ reminds me of the response ‘That’s what they said to Einstein/Leonardo/Copernicus/XXX’ when somebody says ‘You’re crazy!’ Just as that was also said to a vast number of people who were crazy, so the vast mass of stuff that is rejected DESERVES to be rejected.

  • bollocks 61 agents turned down jk rowling

  • NJ Mellor

    ‘If your work is good enough, you’ll get an agent. If not, you won’t.’ Utter rubbish. A book could be really well-written but perceived by the agent to be difficult to place. This has got nothing to do with being ‘good enough’.

  • Harry

    Look, what is quality? It means saleable into the market for books as it exists today. If your book is “well-written” but appeals to no audience large enough to sustain it, then – in my terms, and the terms used by agents & publishers – that book just isn’t good enough. And agents and editors just don’t get those judgements wrong. I mean, yes: individual agents & editors will miss wonderful manuscripts from time to time, but if you submit a strong book to a dozen agents with a sensible covering letter etc, then good work WILL be picked up. It just will.

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