On the whole, it’s simple. British authors write books. They send them to UK literary agents – almost always based in or close to London. A British agent finds a British publisher. Then, once that first crucial deal is in the bag, the process of international sales begins.
For US authors, it’s the same thing. You find a literary agent in New York. They find a US publisher. You sign your US book deal, and off you go to see what you can rustle up overseas.
But there are countless complications. What if you’re Irish? Or Australian? Or South African? Or Canadian? Or what if you’re of dual citizenship? Or resident in one place but citizen of another?
There’s no easy way through such complexities. It all depends on your particular situation and the book you’re trying to sell.
The easiest case is where your book is strictly of local interest. The History of Kilarney Castle won’t sell much outside Ireland. Best Snowmobile Routes in Canada is likewise probably for a local audience. In such cases, either use a local agent – or just go direct to publishers yourself. Only around 20% of authors in Canada, for example, have a literary agent. That’s fine. They’re not making a mistake, they’re taking responsibility for their own careers.
Where your book does have real international sales potential, you need to be more tactical. If I were, let’s say, a Canadian Stephenie Meyer and I felt in my gut that I had a really special book to sell, I’d certainly want an excellent literary agent to sell it. I wouldn’t care too much if that agent were based in New York or (less likely) in Canada. The only thing I’d really care about is that the agent was really well connected – that is, that they’d made big sales in the US market. If I were an Irish Stephenie Meyer, I’d similarly want a literary agent, and most likely one based in the UK.
For more distant locales – South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere else come to that – you need to play it a little bit by ear. UK literary agents tend to be more naturally international and UK publishers have closer connections with the Commonwealth (which – in publisher land – includes Ireland but not Canada). On the whole, therefore, writers from the Commonwealth will naturally knock on a London door first, but there are exceptions. If I were an Aussie sci-fi writer, for example, I might well be attracted to the US market, because of its greater depth.
If I were an American living in the UK, I’d probably try for a British agent first, unless my book was obviously crying out for a US launch first and foremost. Same thing the other way round.
There’s one curious issue to which there’s no good answer. Bestselling thriller writer (and a Festival of Writing speaker) RJ Ellory writes very good US-set thrillers. But he’s a Brit. UK literary agents were reluctant to take him on because his books sounded like they’d been written by an American. US agents were reluctant to take him on because he was a Brit without representation in London or a UK book deal. In the end, he was just so good that he was taken on (in Britain, first of all) and his career took off. But he certainly made the start harder for himself than it needed to be.
Finally, you don’t need to worry too much about finding an agent that is local to you. If you’re Scottish, you should certainly try the small handful of good Scottish literary agents – but all the big publishers are based in London and you want your literary agent to be rubbing shoulders with them. Meeting you for tea is (sorry) much less important.
And if in doubt – ask. You can ask us, of course. Or you can just call a UK or US literary agency and ask what makes sense to them. Nine times out of ten you’ll get a prompt, clear, and helpful answer.