What Is a Literary Agent and How to Get One: A Comprehensive Guide

The traditional publishing world can be hard to navigate sometimes, especially for new authors. With so many publishing houses offering different deals, it’s easy to feel lost. That’s why it’s helpful to have an ally—someone who will have your best interests at heart and guide you through your publishing career. And that’s where literary agents come in.

But what is a literary agent, exactly? How can they pave the way for you to get published? And what steps can you take to secure a literary agent who will be your companion throughout your writing career? Well, keep reading as we cover all these questions, and more, in this article. 

What is a literary agent?

In this article:

What Is a Literary Agent?

Literary agents can be thought of as middlemen between publishers and authors. They assist writers in getting their books published by presenting manuscripts to potential publishers. Their main job is to negotiate favorable terms that benefit your book in both the short and long run, as well as support your career as a writer.

What Does a Literary Agent Do?

It’s common knowledge that literary agents help authors get traditionally published, but they actually do more than just that. We can break down what literary agents do into two main categories:

  1. Creative: Literary agents read the manuscript and decide if it is worth pursuing a deal for or not. Some people would also say that they’re your first editors; they offer valuable insights and edits to improve your work. This way, they can ensure that it is the best it can be before pitching it to a publisher.
    Moreover, literary agents help authors put together query letters and book proposals that will be sent to publishers (as part of the pitch package). They make sure that these pitching packages are aligned with the publishers’ submitting guidelines.
  2. Business: Literary agents do all of the communication with the publishers. They find publishing opportunities for their authors and negotiate the terms of the publishing deal to ensure that they get the best possible terms.

Besides dealing with publishers, agents also look for book signing opportunities and public speaking arrangements where authors can meet their audience and increase their popularity. 

Why Do Authors Hire Literary Agents?

Most authors who want their books to get traditionally published hire literary agents to help them achieve this goal. And while landing book deals is the main job of literary agents, hiring them has other benefits, such as: 

  1. Access to publishers: Over the years of working in the publishing industry, literary agents have built connections with publishing houses. That’s why it’s easy for them to get your work in front of the right people. This is especially true for big publishers who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. It’s also true for competitive niches (such as romance fiction) where it’s very difficult to reach publishers directly and present your work to them.
  2. Negotiation powers: There are a lot of details that go into any book deal, and having a literary agent can help you get the best out of this deal. They will help you understand the terms of the contract and ensure that your rights are protected.
  3. Career guidance: Relying on their expertise, literary agents can help guide authors (especially new ones) in the publishing world and offer them valuable literary advice. Furthermore, they can help writers make informed decisions about their writing careers, identify new opportunities, and build their author brand.
  4. Focus on writing: As literary agents handle the business side of the publishing process, this allows you to focus on writing and improving your work. They also offer encouragement and emotional support to help authors get over any writing challenges.
  5. Promotion and marketing: Another thing your literary agent can help you with is spreading the word about your book. They help you create marketing plans, identify your target audience, and attract media coverage to increase your books’ exposure.
querying literary agents

Disadvantages of Hiring a Literary Agent

With all the benefits we discussed above, there might be downsides to hiring a literary agent as well. So to understand the full picture, take a look at the following disadvantages:

  1. Cost: Literary agents get paid through commission. This means that they take a percentage of any publishing deal they succeed in securing. And since the publishing house already takes part of the profit of every book sold, the author’s earnings are further reduced by the agent’s commission. This might not be ideal for some writers, especially those who are just starting out.
  2. Limited availability: The truth is, finding a good literary agent to represent you can be challenging. The demand is high; some skilled agents receive up to 10,000 queries a year but only represent a handful of authors. So your query must be extra special to catch their attention and make them interested in representing your work.
  3. No success guaranteed: Of course, hiring a literary agent can increase your chances of getting published. In fact, the majority of traditionally published authors are represented by agents. With that said, having an agent doesn’t automatically guarantee success. Your agent might work hard to get your book in front of the right people and still fail to secure you a good book deal.
  4. Lack of control: When you hire a literary agent, you may have to give up some control over your work. As they are more experienced in the literary field, they might have different ideas than yours on how to market your book or improve your manuscript. And you may have to compromise and work with them to achieve your goals.
  5. Incompatibility issues: Not all agents are similar, and the one you hire might not be the best fit for you. If you don’t feel comfortable with a literary agent, this might have a negative effect on the success of your book as well as on you as an author.

How Much Does a Literary Agent Cost?

As we mentioned earlier, literary agents earn their income through commissions. This means they do not charge an upfront fee to represent their clients or read their work. Once a book deal is secured, they get around 15% of the author’s earnings from this deal for sales made in local markets. This commission might go up to 20% for sales made overseas.

What to Look for in a Literary Agent

There are a few qualities you need to consider when looking for a literary agent. These qualities will make communication with them much easier and help you achieve your publishing goals. Here are some of the traits you should keep in mind:

  1. Experience: You want an agent who has experience and a successful track record in your genre. Not only should they have a thorough knowledge of the publishing industry and know how to navigate it, but they should also be able to give you constructive feedback on your manuscript.
  2. Connections: Literary agents are all about their connections in the publishing world. A well-connected agent can help you get your feet in the door with editors and publishers. This, in turn, increases your chances of getting a book deal. You can know about an agent’s connection by looking them up on Google and seeing which clients or publishers they have worked with before.
  3. Communication: A key trait in literary agents is having good communication skills; they should be responsive, professional, and easy to work with. Moreover, they should keep you informed throughout the publishing process.
  4. Transparency: Good literary agents are transparent about everything from the beginning; they let you know about their commission and all terms of the deal upfront. They also clearly communicate what they can and cannot do for you, and answer any questions you might have.
  5. Passion: Last but not least, literary agents need to be enthusiastic about your writing, show genuine support, and believe in your potential. They need to be willing to do all they can to ensure your long-term success and have your best interests at heart.

Which Book Genres Require a Literary Agent?

Contrary to popular belief, not all genres need an agent to represent them. Most literary agents represent works of fiction, children’s books, and some general non-fiction. These genres are usually the most competitive, so reaching a publisher directly without an agent might not be possible. 

Other more specialized books might not need an agent. This includes academic books, poetry, cookbooks, and specialized non-fiction books (such as scientific, medical, and legal books).


How to Find a Literary Agent

Now that you understand everything you need to know about literary agents, it’s time to get down to business. Getting a literary agent to represent your work can take time and effort. However, knowing where to start and how to approach them will make it so much smoother. The following steps will help you navigate the process of finding a book agent.

1. Polish Your Manuscript

Before you start searching for a literary agent, it’s a good idea to polish your manuscript first. This is especially important if you are a new author, as the competition is tough out there and you want your work to look the best it can be when you present it to an agent.

Some writers think that the literary agent will help them finish the manuscript. While some agents might be willing to do some editorial work, it’s much better to submit your book after all the edits have been made. You can do a couple of edit rounds and then ask a friend to look at the manuscript for you to get a fresh perspective.

With that said, it’s important to keep in mind that your agent–and eventually the editor at the publishing house–might ask for further edits and you should keep an open mind about making any changes. 

Important read: The Different Types of Editing Explained 

2. Understand Where Exactly Your Work Fits in the Market

Before you reach out to any agent, you have to understand where exactly your book falls in the market; you have to know what its genre and subgenre are. This is because literary agents usually specialize in certain genres; those who work with romance novels may not have the proper expertise to represent a self-help book for example.

3. Research Literary Agents

Knowing your genre will narrow down the process of searching for a literary agent. First of all, you want an agent who has sold books similar to yours, not just in genre but also in theme and style. Let’s say you are writing a light self-help book; then you don’t want to waste your energy pitching agents who represent books that are more serious or have a darker tone. Where can you find such an agent? Well, you can look at the following sources:

  1. Online Directories and Databases: These digital platforms compile and organize information about agents and the latest market trends. They can be especially useful if you want to find out about the most successful agents in the field and the deals they have made. Here are some of the most famous (and widely used) directories and databases:
  • Publishers Marketplace: This is where you should start your search journey, as you will find on this website a list of agents as well as their publishing history. You can also search for agents by genre, category, or keyword. Keep in mind that in order to use this website, you have to pay a $25/month membership fee, but it is an investment worth making.
  • QueryTracker: If you’re looking for a free website that provides a comprehensive database of literary agents–including their preferred genres, submission guidelines, and recent sales–then this is the one for you.
  • AgentQuery: Here’s another free, searchable database of literary agents. You can refine your search by genre, location, and other criteria. In addition to that, you can find valuable tips on how to format your query and communicate with the different agents.
  • Manuscript Wishlist (MSWL): Through this platform, agents and editors can share their specific manuscript wishlists. You can find agents who are actively seeking certain genres or themes and contact them to submit your manuscript if it matches their requests.
  1. Literary Conferences and Workshops: When you are looking for a literary agent, it is highly advisable to attend writing conferences, workshops, and book fairs. Many literary agents participate in these events, offering pitch sessions or panels.
  2. Writer Associations and Organizations: Professional groups or societies that cater to the needs of writers, authors, and other literary professionals can be an excellent resource for finding literary agents. These organizations offer networking opportunities, educational programs, and support for individuals involved in the writing and publishing industry.
    Some of the most famous associations that have a directory of literary agents are the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and Romance Writers of America (RWA).
  3. Social Media and Agent Websites: The internet can be a wonderful resource for finding literary agents when you know how and where to look. You can start by following literary agents on social media platforms, such as Twitter, where many agents share insights, submission tips, and updates on their manuscript wishlists. Moreover, you can visit individual agent websites where you can find detailed information about their preferences, submission guidelines, and client lists.
writing a book

4. Draft and Personalize Your Query Letters

Once you have a shortlist of suitable agents, you can start writing and personalizing your query letters. Keep in mind that you won’t be contacting just one agent at a time; in fact, some authors send query letters in batches of 50! It’s better, however, to keep your batches up to 15 emails, and then wait a couple of weeks before sending the next batch.

We have written a detailed article on how to write a query letter, but to give you a brief idea, here are the most important points you need to consider when writing these letters:

  • The query letter is usually one page long (or anywhere from 200 to 450 words) explaining who you are as a writer, what your book is about, and who your target audience is.
  • Some agents might have certain submission guidelines; make sure to read and follow them for a better chance of getting noticed.
  • Agents receive a countless number of letters that they have to go through. For yours to stand out, you need to personalize your query letter and start with a hook that keeps them interested in what you have to say.

5. Do Not Give Up

Once you send these letters, you can expect one of 3 things to happen: never hear back from the agents you send these letters to; receive a rejection letter; or an agent might request your manuscript. But to be completely frank, more often than not, it will be one of the first two options. Here’s how to deal with each of these cases:

  1. No Reply: If you don’t receive a reply, some people advise sending a follow-up mail within 4 to 6 weeks of sending your query letter. Some agents state in their guidelines when to send a follow-up, so make sure to check first. It’s important to keep this email short and polite. Spamming the agent with long, annoying emails is a recipe for rejection.
  2. Rejection Letters: When you receive a rejection email, it can either be a standard one (which is sent to all rejected writers alike), or a more personalized one. If it’s the first case, then remember that these letters are sent to all writers alike and don’t necessarily reflect the quality of your work or your potential as a writer. Receiving a personalized rejection letter, on the other hand, can actually be a good thing; this means the agent took the time out of their busy schedule to reply to you. So celebrate the small wins, even if they aren’t exactly what you’ve wished for.
  3. Manuscript Submission: Getting a reply from an agent asking you to submit your manuscript (or a sample chapter) is indeed a great sign. However, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’ll represent you. Unfortunately, agents can still reject the manuscript after reviewing it.

If an agent, on the other hand, likes your manuscript and offers to represent you, then that’s amazing news! But don’t jump at the first offer if it doesn’t feel right for you. Remember to research these agents well, look at their track record, and make sure they have a similar vision for your book as yours.

What to Do If You Don’t Want to Hire a Literary Agent

The process of finding a suitable literary agent can be hectic and sometimes takes years! But if you’re in a hurry to publish your book, then there is a much shorter route to take, and that’s finding the right self-publishing platform to get your books to the public. This can help you build an audience, improve your visibility in the literary scene, and maybe even attract agents’ attention. In fact, some well-known authors (such as Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Mark Twain) self-published their early works before getting traditionally published.

Important read: Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: Which Route Should You Choose?

Where to Publish Your Book (For Free!)

If you decide to go the self-publishing route, you will be faced with so many decisions to make, with the most important one being where to publish your book. There are many free digital publishing platforms out there, but if you would like to reach thousands of readers and keep 100% of the royalties, then we recommend you check out Kotobee Books.

Here are some of the benefits you’ll get when you publish on Kotobee Books:

  1. Full Creative Control: Unlike traditional publishing, self-publishing on Kotobee Books allows you to retain complete creative rights to your ebook. 
  2. Instant Publishing: In a matter of minutes, you can get your book published and in the hands of your target readers.
  3. No Fees Required: Publishing on Kotobee Books is free; you don’t have to pay any fees.
  4. Global Reach: Self-publishing on Kotobee Books allows you to reach thousands of readers around the world and showcase your talent to a global audience.
  5. High-Profit Margin: Kotobee Books offers the highest royalties in the industry as it allows you to keep 100% of the earnings of every book sale.
Download Kotobee Author

Wrapping Up

Finding a literary agent can be your key to getting traditionally published, but it can be a long journey to get there. The information we shared throughout this article can make the process much easier for you. So Keep writing, keep querying, and soon, you’ll find the perfect match for your literary journey!


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