We get asked a lot of questions over the course of a month, but perhaps the commonest questions boil down to these: how do you find a literary agent? Do you know literary agents who are taking on new and first-time writers?
And the answer, of course, is yes.
Pretty much every agent listed on out sister site, Agent Hunter, will take on new authors now and again.
When I was a complete newbie with nothing previously published, no connections, I sent my manuscript out to around a dozen agents. I got three positive responses. One of those three was from an agent who had not, I think, actually read my book. I binned him pretty quickly.
The other two offers of representation I took seriously. One was from a man who was, and is, at the head of one of Britain’s largest and best-known literary agencies. Another from a woman who had only fairly recently co-founded a two-person literary agency. I met both agents and went with the second one. (I thought they were both terrific but reckoned I’d get more personal attention from someone who really needed my business. It was probably the right call.)
The point, however, is simply this. Nearly all agents, great or small, take on new authors. If they didn’t, they’d go out of business. Not straightaway, maybe, but out of business nevertheless.
There’s a second point here too. Which is that all agents have to submit to the same bunch of editors (and quite a small bunch at that: most books will be pitched to just 8-12 publishers in the first round of marketing). So it’s no good some newbie agent taking on somewhat weaker manuscripts in the hope of slowly building a business, because those manuscripts won’t sell. By and large, agents are all looking for manuscripts that meet a certain quality threshold. If they find one, they’ll agree to take it on. If they don’t – they won’t.
OK. That’s the homily. A homily which boils down, as ever, to the first and second commandments of getting a literary agent:
- Write a good book.
- If you need help with (1), get help.
But since I’ve now delivered myself of the homily, I am happy to tell you that, yes, it is somewhat easier to secure a less well-established agent than a Giant of the Industry. That’s not because quality standards are lower – they aren’t – but because a newer agent knows he/she has to work harder to build a list. So if you come to such an agent with a novel that is dazzling but imperfect, they may well be prepared to put in the work needed to fix it. An agent with a longer list may (regretfully) turn the book down.
If you want to find a literary agent who genuinely welcomes first-time authors, as opposed to merely accepting them, you will do well to approach those who have been less long established in the business – basically, you’re looking for youngsters, or those who have come into the profession from elsewhere in the industry.
It is NOT a sensible strategy simply to pick smaller agencies, because (1) there are plenty of one- and two-person agencies who have been in the business a long time and whose lists are already amply populated. Also, (2) the larger agencies will all have new recruits who are hungry to build up their lists. You shouldn’t rule those people out from your search.
With the bigger agencies, it’s fine to call the switchboard and ask for suggestions about which agents might be right for a particular project. Not all agencies (or receptionists) will be helpful, but enough will to make it worth your while. Indeed, it was good advice from an office receptionist that encouraged me to approach the Well-Known Literary Agent who ended up offering to represent my first novel.
As always, though, these guidelines have to be balanced against everything else. You’re looking for an agent who loves your book and believes he/she can sell it. That’s all. If that agent works for a big agency or a small one, is young or venerable – doesn’t matter. You, the book, the agent: if those three things gel, nothing else much matters.
So get the book out there. Use our literary agent advice pages to navigate your way. Use our Agent Hunter for reference. And if your book isn’t taken on by the first 8 or 12 or 15 agents, then remember: it’s not because you’ve approached the wrong agents, it’s because you haven’t yet written a good enough book. Which isn’t something to get upset about. Writing a book is hard. Few people get there on their first attempt. And better still: we can help you with our inimitable brand of tough, realistic manuscript feedback – and we’ll be there to get you an agent when – and if – your novel or book becomes good enough.