Literary agents – UK and US

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.

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49 Responses to Literary agents – UK and US

  1. George Karimi says:

    Dear Madame/Sir,

    The reason of writing this letter is to know if you are intrested in my book. I have served seven years of sentence under inhuman conditions in the Chinese detentions and prison. I was arrested on October 2003 under false accusations of economical crime. I was unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment, when the culprit of the crime had already confessed my innocents. I was the first foreigner to be transfered without my country Sweden having any treaty with China. I was transfered on the 31 of July 2010 under heavy secrecy. I’am serving the rest of my sentece in a Swedish prison, due to the economical realations. I have been writing down the horrible memories of my experiance in a Chinese prison. The memories, which no human deserves to go through.

    There have been few articles in Swedish and other media about my case and there is a documentary film beeing prepered by an American/Chinese TV-channel.

    I would appreciate to know if you are intrested in my book.
    Thanking you.
    George Karimi

  2. jemma says:

    i need an agent to represent my work yes I do have a learning disabitly

  3. Katherine Leonard says:

    I am an American writer with a topic that relates historically to England and France. Is it possible that a UK agent would be interested?

    • Harry says:

      Uh, possible, yes, but not all that likely. Although plenty of UK agents will represent overseas writers (from for example Australia, India, SA, and elsewhere), it’s less common for them to represent US based authors since it’s so much more rational for them to have a US-based agent. So on the whole, even given your topic, I’d have to suggest that you start at home.

  4. Katherine Leonard says:

    What can you tell me about the Christine Green Authors’ Agency?

  5. Susan Malter says:

    I am reading about next steps now that I have written a novel (and rewritten, and then rewritten some more). Thank you for providing helpful information.

  6. Hi

    I am looking for an literary agent to bring my screenplays into production

  7. Andile S says:

    I’ve written and completed two manuscripts in the last 6 months and am currently editing both. This issue I’m now faced with, is that I’m from South Africa and the content of both books lean more toward having an international audience. South Africa currently has a – politely termed – less than attractive pool of literary agents and due to the fact that I’m 22, I worry that my origin and age will both impede on my credibility when approaching UK or US based agents.

    • Harry says:

      Don’t worry about your age – there’s no particular need to mention it. And if your book is good enough agents won’t care where you come from. I’d probably suggest London as your first port of call as agents there are a bit more used to dealing with international authors. Best of luck!

  8. Sachin says:

    I am from India. I was wondering if it is possible for me to find an agent in the U.K or the U.S to publish my work in those markets.

    • Harry says:

      Yes – you can write to agents in either market, though these days it might be better to seek a top quality publisher in India and go global from there. Best of luck!

  9. Ann Marie says:

    I’m an American living in Germany and am writing historical non-fiction that connects a historical assassination in Germany with an American Civil War hero. The main markets would be the U.S. and Germany. Would it even be worthwhile for me to attend a writers conference in England and try pitching to U.K. agents for foreign sales in those two countries? Or should I dig deeper into my pocketbook and travel to American writers conferences?

    • Harry says:

      It doesn’t sound like a British publisher would have much interest in this and (assuming your book is written in English) then a German agent won’t have an interest until a US deal is signed. So, yes, it’s the US or nothing – but I would save yourself the cost of a trip and just use AgentQuery or something like that to evolve a list of suitable targets. If you want editorial advice on your work before sending it out, we can help with that – we have some US editors on our list, as well as our fine British contingent.

  10. Catarina says:

    Hi, I’ve writen a novel and despite living in Europe I am not sure whether to direct my manuscript to UK agents. The storyline of the book has a very strong US influence, should I approach US based agents first? The novel is writen in English so it is not easy to approach my local editors because it is not in a foreigner language. Thank you so much for any help you may give.

    • Harry says:

      European writers should almost always approach a British agent in the first instance. There are plenty of British & European books which deal with America, but you still need an agent located in your nearest English language market.

      • Pamita says:

        Hi Harry,
        Thank you so much for this tip. I’ am a British Citizen who is relocating to Copenhagen-Denmark for 2 years. I’ am in the middle of my novel which is based in the US. I was a bit uncertain whom to approach upon its completed. This tip helped me ease my concern.

  11. Lisa says:

    Hi Harry, thank you for this resourceful website. From what I have read online, it seems that an ISBN registration is not manditory for an author to publish but is highly advised as most bookstores and libraries have it part of their system. My relative is planning to self-publish a short story, so I am trying to help out in understanding if an American ISBN number for a specific book edition is recognized worldwide or she would need a new ISBN to be distributed in a non-US market? Also, do you advice to re-write a book in British spelling for the UK market or will US spelling be fine. Any feedback will be much appreciated.

    • Harry says:

      ISBNs are international … but no bookstore is going to stock a single short story, so your relative is presumably thinking of e-publishing, in which case ISBNs are optional. And as for spellings, I’d say that Brits will be happy to put up with that terrible American spelling, but Americans won’t so easily put up with ours. On the other hand, no one buys or doesn’t buy a book because of the way someone spells colour/color.

  12. Claude says:

    Harry, I’m Polish and I have written a novel in my native language, but with intention to publish in UK or US first. Do you think the fact that I don’t have a local language agent/publisher limits my chances to find an agent in the UK? Digging in the Polish market would not make sense money- and time-wise, but maybe I should use some space in the query letter to explain that I’m trying in the UK not because I’ve failed at home.
    And, could you possibly elaborate a bit on your answer to Catarina – I mean, UK as the nearest English language market. Do you feel this factor still counts now, when many things can be dealt with remotely?
    Many thanks.

    • Harry says:

      British agents can’t accept Polish language manuscripts, because British publishers won’t look at unpublished Polish language scripts. The only way a Polish MS can sell to a UK publisher is when a Polish publisher is seeking to sell rights at an international rights fair, such as Frankfurt or London.

      you could, of course, translate your book into English and then seek to sell that, but in truth your best bet is almost always to access your local market first, then go from there. And don’t worry too much about the cash. When a small market creates a hit bok (Sophie’s World, say, or Stieg Larsson), the bulk of the revenues come from overseas sales. Hope this helps!

  13. claudiacv says:

    This is great information. I`ve been looking for something on this topic for some time. Thank you for posting. A question if I may:
    I write in American English and live in Mexico, but I feel that my Upper Middle Grade novel is more for the UK audience. In fact, my characters are British. Should I try for a US or UK agent?

    • Harry says:

      Probably a US agent – it would be more natural. But if your queries don’t prosper in the US, then by all means try some British agents. Best of luck!

  14. Chris Beal says:

    Thank you very much for offering this service. I am a Californian and just received an email about the upcoming York festivities. It sounds exciting and a friend has offered to lend me the money to go, which I would repay if/when I found an agent and eventually a publisher. But it sounds like you are saying that the possibility of an American landing a British agent is next to nil. Is this correct? For me, the New York literary community, being 3,000 miles away, is just as remote as the London one. And agents, it seems, should be be more interested in the quality of the writing than in the nationality of the writer. What am I missing here? Would I be wasting my friend’s money to go?

    Thanks for any advice.

    • Harry says:

      Hi Chris

      If your work is excellent, an agent anywhere should have an interest in it. I recently, for example, worked on a prize committee where a literary agent commented on an entry by a Canadian writer that he might well have an interest in taking the manuscript on. I was puzzled: I thought the book was unsaleable in the UK, and said so. He said, yes, it probably was, but that he was pretty sure he could find a Canadian buyer for it. Now that was a good agent with strong international connections and not all agents will think like that – but it was indicative.

      To answer your question more directly, I think that the barriers are somewhat higher for a Californian writer seeking a UK agent than they are for a British writer – but only somewhat. In the end, excellence is what matters. And, in addition of course, York isn’t just about getting an agent to take you on. It’s also about getting those lightbulb moments which illuminates what your book needs and how to deliver it. And York is very, very rich in such moments.

      Hope that helps! And of course it would be lovely to have you.

      Harry

  15. Nick says:

    Hi Harry
    I’ve got a copy of your excellent book: Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published.
    I’ve written a non-fiction book which tells the history of an American government official presence in the UK. It will, I believe, be of interest to readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
    I’m currently pitching it to both US and UK agents – still waiting for replies. Do you think I should just stick to UK agents?
    I’d be grateful for your thoughts on this.

  16. Peter Sparing says:

    Hey Harry

    I’ve been writing a fiction book in my native language, and from what i know, this country is small and it should be a bad investment to try a agent here, i guess. This said, i was planning on paying a *specialized in fiction* tradutor and then send the query and ms to some UK agents. Is this a bad idea? And how dangerous can tradutors be, could they not understand something on the book, or make mistakes/twists?
    Sorry for my english!

    Thank you

    • Harry says:

      The trouble is that nearly all books need significant editorial work before they’re fit to sell or publish – and the expense of translating work in and out of your native language for each draft is going to be lethally expensive. And, in smaller territories, you don’t need an agent anyway. You can go straight to a publisher. All the editorial work can be done in your native tongue, then your publisher can seek to sell world rights when it’s done. best of luck!

  17. I have written a book concerning war time Britain. My story takes place in a town by the name of Cinderford, situated in the Wye Valley U.K. My story is both funny as well as sad, all of it is true. I have written up to the age of fifteen years old, when I take my last trip to my beloved Forest of Dean. I love my book and I feel it would be gladly received by many.
    Elizabeth

  18. Vickie Blevins says:

    I have been writing for quite a few years about my life and I have a very good story that I would like to get published and I guess you need a Literary agent before you get a publisher. I do not have a computer at home so I would just have to communicate by phone or with pen and paper. My name is Vickie Blevins and my address is 4141 E. Lake Road Sheffield Lake Ohio 44054 and my phone number is 440-933-5706.

  19. Peter Ambrose says:

    I am writing in hopes to find an agent. I have started a book on a pretty graphic and not so savory time in my life…and before I continue id like a professional opinion on my writing and if getting an advance on my book or even getting published is something that is even a vague possibility. this idea I have… consists not only the book in witch I’m working on but a series of books relative to this one. Think of this as a genesis.
    Please respond.
    Thank you,
    P.F.A.

    • Harry says:

      Hi there. You won’t get an advance until the manuscript is completed and in good enough shape to sell. But in terms of getting a professional opinion, then yes: that’s what we’re here for. Just hop over to this page, upload the manuscript as it stands now, and we’ll get instantly back to you with a quote for professional advice on your material.

  20. Kirby Davis says:

    Hello, to whom this May concern, I am looking to find a literary agent to work with that will help get two books I have written to the best publisher as to where the era and location of the storyline takes places. I’m very scared to put y work out there but writing is a passion and I love living different life’s through my characters and their stories. Please any help would be greatly appreciated.

  21. Edet Obot says:

    Dear sir,

    Thank you for your reply to my inquiry. Please connect me with the literary agent you know handles crime fiction very well, either in the UK or in the US, as I’m in Nigeria, where we don’t have literary agents. Should I send the complete manuscript for your perusal? If yes, please send me the e-mail address to send the manuscript.

    • Harry says:

      Er – you need to make the connection yourself, mate. Email an agent with your submission pack and see what they say. You can find agents on AgentHunter.co.uk and there’s a ton of info on this site and that one about what they need and how to get it ready. Good luck.

  22. leilah says:

    Hi Harry, I’m from South Africa. I’m busy writing a book based on the hardship n suffering a had to encounter growing up, about my disabled father who suffered raising us with his disability grant, how I lost three siblings how I ended in an arranged marriage due to poverty the divorce I had to go through which lead me to almost prostitution, marijuana, gambling, losing everything I had, what I have to encounter raising my baby girl, my late sister’s daughter my two brothers all by myself without a job. This boom of mines is basically about motivation I’m sending a message to woman out there who are going through what I’m going through telling them to stop every addiction coz it wl end up destroying them completely. My life is not for the feint hearted as I’ve had so.many suicidal thoughts but the love for my siblings n my baby who is my world and the hunger to make my father happy n pick up from where he left off just made me realise and fight back… that’s why I’m taking a pen and paper mn since this is the first time I want your advice

    • Harry says:

      Good luck, Leilah! Just tell your story. Tell it from start to finish. Tell it honestly. Tell it simply. Then, probably, self-publish it on Amazon or seek an agent in the UK or the US. Very best of luck.

  23. Yensunande says:

    Hello,

    I have written a children’s book (approximately for ages 4-10), based on a fictitious character my Cameroonian father invented and made up stories about for me as a child. I have polished (at times rather painfully!) my work over the last two years and feel ready for submission now. I have had positive feedback from several adults and children — friends and acquaintances — but I’d like and feel need for some professional feedback. Sadly, I am not an artist, so I cannot submit work with pictures. Will reviewers (like yourselves) even look at my will-be picture book without pictures? I know publishers will most often use their own illustrators on work they take on.

    Is it worth the investment for me to join places such as SCBWI? Should I invest in a literary agent? I imagine they’re pretty expensive up front and absorb most of your profit after the illustrator’s and publisher’s cuts.

    I am based in the UK, by the way.

    Thank you for your time and I hope this makes sense.

    • Harry says:

      Hi there – yes, we can definitely help with your work. Just contact us to submit your work. You don’t need pictures – those will be supplied by a publisher in due course. And agents aren’t expensive at all: they charge nothing upfront and just take a (well-deserved) percentage on sales. In short: it sounds like you’re ready & we’re happy to help.

  24. Jonathan says:

    Hi,

    I am a British Canadian citizen who has lived the last 18 years in Estonia. I have recently finished writing a spiritually orientated sci-fi fantasy novel for young adults and I am in the process of preparing to approach agents … and the topic of your post speaks to a dilemma that I face. Should I approach agents in the UK or US, or it doesn’t matter?

    Thanks for your time and dedication

  25. Leslie says:

    I’m a Canadian author writing my debut novel. It’s a YA novel set in London, England with all british characters. Given there are very few canadian literary agents, should I be approaching UK agents given the subject matter of my novel? I don’t imagine it would appeal very strongly to a US market since the language includes British slang and words that US readers might not immediately understand.

    I am concerned UK agents might turn me away and suggest I use a Canadian agent since I live in Canada. Do UK agents often get approached by Canadian authors? If I managed to succeed in getting a UK agent, would I be expected to travel or relocate?

    • Harry says:

      It’s really fine to approach a UK agent, yes – but there could also be a US market for the book. Yes, your book will feel a little exotic, but exotic is good! Oh, and you will probably want to physically meet your agent/publisher at some point. But relocate? Nah.

  26. Sandy says:

    So concerning those 80 percent of Canadian authors who deal with the publishers directly–what about international sales? Would one first find a publisher in Canada and then later seek out a literary agent for sales abroad? Could dealing with a publisher directly handicap one’s potential for international sales? What would you recommend?

    Thanks!

    • Harry says:

      Probably either get a NY or Canadian agent to do the whole thing, or deal direct with a publisher and sell world rights to them – so they’re incentivised to make those foreign sales on your behalf. The truth is there’s no GOOD solution here, because Canada just is a somewhat secondary market in international publishing terms. I mean you’re better off as a Canadian than a Norwegian, say, but life is certainly more straightforward for authors from the US and UK. These questions just don’t arise. And of course as soon as you start to make decent sales, then you’re laughing, no matter where you are.

  27. jussi harmamen says:

    Hi! I am in a fix. I am an Indian national residing in Sweden for a few years now and have written a adventure, thriller novel in English as it is the only language I know best. The novel is well suited for both European and US market. English is not the official language or the preferred literary language here. So, I need to find a remote agent. I seek your kind guidance on which country’s literary agency should I opt ?

    Thank you for the excellent post.

    Sincerely,
    JH

    • Harry says:

      Britain, no question. If your book is strong enough, no one will care either about your nationality or your residence. Good luck!

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