Finding an Agent

One of the most challenging aspects of getting traditionally published is finding an agent. There are realities that are difficult to face when it comes to agents. For example:

  • They are very picky.
  • They may reject you with a snap decision that has nothing to do with the quality of your work.
  • They’re not in it to help you. They’re in it to help themselves, and you get to come along for the ride.
  • There are bad agents, dishonest agents, and lazy agents.
  • Many agents have a boss to whom they report, and they don’t always make the decisions themselves.
  • There are many, many, many authors besides you knocking on the agent’s door.
  • Quite often, the search for an agent can take a year, two… or more years. You have to be patient.

It is very easy to get discouraged. The benefits of having an agent are plentiful, once you acquire a good one.

This topic is so huge, so let’s start with the basics of what you need to know to find an agent.

Wilies, if you see anything here you think I got wrong, please do correct me in the comments. I gave up on finding an agent after a year of trying (no more patience). However, I did do a load of research. Having said that, I’m human. Correct me, please.

  1. Before you contact any agent, your book needs to be completely done and edited. If they ask for your book, it has to be ready to send immediately or you miss your window of opportunity.
  2. Agents won’t help with your marketing. That’s not their job, and so they’d be no good at it. Their job is to sell your book to domestic and foreign publishing houses or a film company and to make sure the ensuing contract protects you and gets you the best deal. The publishing house pays the agent directly, then they take their cut of the profits and pass the rest on to you.
  3. If an agent asks for a deposit or money from you, something is wrong. Look closer with suspicious eyes. Most agents won’t do this.
  4. Many of the big publishing houses won’t deal directly with authors, which is why agents are still necessary. The agent is the filter for quality between the publishing house and the dirty masses. 🙂
  5. The publishing house is the one that helps with the marketing, but they will only market your book if they’re publishing it. Also, you will have very little control over how your book is marketed once the house buys it.
  6. The publishing house will make the cover for you if they’re publishing the book. This is pretty non-negotiable. They may or may not give you a chance to suggest changes to the one they come up with. When you go traditional, you are giving up a lot of your control over what happens to the book once you’ve contracted it to a publishing house.

Here’s the basic step-by-step process:

  1. Write and rewrite your query letter. Share it with writer friends and get feedback. It wouldn’t hurt to have your editor look over your letter as well because you will be judged by it.
  2. Find agents you fit with (start with 6). There are links below to sites where you can search.
  3. Put the info for the ones you think are good for you in a spreadsheet. Make a list. You can download the following:
  4. You can take a look at the agencies and agents listed on my spreadsheet to see if they take the kind of books you’re writing. They will say what they’re seeking. This is a good place to start familiarizing yourself with agency websites and how they work.
  5. On my spreadsheet, I rated the agents, giving them a point each for:
    • whether they specifically called out my genre in their profile
    • whether I felt they fit with me personally (for me, this meant they mentioned gaming or some other nerdy pursuit)
    • whether they were with a respected agency
    • whether they were new or had experience in the publishing industry
    • whether they had an author they were representing who wrote books like mine
  6. Sort the list and start with everyone who is a 5 or above. Send out at least 6 query letters in the first round—as many as you can wrangle.
  7. Keep researching and adding people to the list while waiting.
  8. When an agent rejects your book, send a query letter out to the next person on the list. And so on and so forth. This is the process.

Researching Agents

Look up every agent online and try to find their agency website. Check there to make sure the information you have is up-to-date. They may not be accepting submissions, and the agency website will have the most accurate information.

While you’re at that website, look for the agent’s submission guidelines. They all have different ones. Some want you to email. Some want you to use their online form. Etc. Remember to add this link to your spreadsheet so it’s easy to find when you get ready to send a query to this agent.

Also while you’re at their agency’s website, look at the other agents employed there to see if any of them will fit well with you.

Waiting for replies can be challenging and nerve-wracking. Your self-confidence may take a hit, but don’t let it! Every agent is different. Some reply immediately. Some take 6-12 months to reply (not a typo). Some never reply. It will say in their guidelines how quickly you can expect a reply. This is also good information to input into your spreadsheet for future convenience.

Never send your manuscript unless they ask for it. And always send it in exactly the format they ask for. Do not snail mail (US Post Office) anything to anyone unless they’ve specifically requested it. You’ll be wasting postage and your time.

An agent may request to see a partial (a certain number of pages) or full copy of your manuscript. Don’t do anything fancy, just follow their instructions to the letter. They are looking for any excuse to get you off their desk and out of the way of the other 3000 manus waiting for their attention. Don’t let the fact that you used the wrong font annoy them into dropping you in the reject pile.

If they want to represent you, they’ll let you know. After that will come a round of revisions from their editor and a contract that you’ll want to have a good lawyer explain to you.

While you’re doing all this, keep working on your next book. Finding an agent is a long process and could take a year or more.

If you post your manuscript in a public forum or on your website, it’s considered “published.” Many agents won’t want to represent a previously published work (reprint).

Some Tips

  • Things you can do to improve your chances:
    • Do not wait until you have an agent to get serious about your writing. That’s not how this works.
    • Write a really kickass query letter.
    • Nail down your brand. Figure out what it is and how you want to present yourself. It is not your agent’s job to come up with that for you, though many will help. If you have it already honed (but remain open to their suggestions), then you’ll seem more professional.
    • Get good author photos taken. Professional ones, not the one where your ex’s arm is visible around your shoulders. Use this pro author photo on your website and social media platforms.
    • Keep writing. If you can tell an agent that you have other books planned, in progress, or (best) done, then they may be more interested. Do NOT stop writing while you wait to find an agent for the first book!
    • Publish other material, such as short stories, novelettes, novellas, and even self-published novels if you have them, etc. This will show that agent you’re not a one-hit-wonder and that you’re serious.
    • Set up your author platform. This means:
      • website
      • mailing list
      • professional Facebook page (and maybe groups)
      • Goodreads Author Page
      • Twitter account
      • Whatever social media you want to employ to promote yourself
    • An agent will be far more attracted to a writer who is professional and serious about a career as a writer than one who is dabbling or unsure. If you’re either of those latter things, then consider going straight to self-publishing instead. An agent is investing in you and your career, and they want to know you’re not going to disappear after the first publication.
    • You never know which agents talk to each other behind closed doors, so don’t burn any bridges with juvenile behavior.
    • I’ll repeat, if the agent wants to charge you any kind of reading fee or deposit, walk away. Honest agents get ~15-20% of the money when you sell the book, and nothing before that. You never have to pay an agent upfront. If they want that, they’re scammers.
    • Once you find an agent you want to query, you can follow them on Twitter and watch their activity there to see if you feel they’re a good fit. You may be working closely with this person for many years, so be sure you trust and like them.
    • Consider joining a professional organization relative to your genre (you’ll find information specific to your genre there, and you can start mingling with other writers in your genre):
    • Go to conventions where they’re offering pitches or Speed-Pitching events. These are a great opportunity to meet your agent-soulmate. (Practice your elevator pitch in advance so you know it by heart.)
    • Do be discriminating. If an agent makes you uncomfortable, listen to your instincts. It’s a pain in the ass to fire an agent. Make sure the one you commit to is the right one for you.
    • This is a good blog to read: Also follow them on Twitter:
    • It used to be that you wanted an agent located in New York, but this is no longer necessary. Feel free to consider agents located anywhere.
    • If you personally know any authors who have agents, contact them and see if they’d be willing to introduce you, then do everything in your power not to embarrass them. Since I decided to go indie, I don’t have an agent, so I can’t help you with that.

    Other Research

    Here are some links that will help you understand the process:

    In Conclusion

    You will get rejections. Possibly lots of them. Many of them cold-ass form letters. And it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. You are looking for that spark of magic that means your timing was perfect, the agent was in the right mood to connect with your story, and they managed to get it approved by their bosses.

    It’s not unlike dating.

    Finding an agent is complex, and most of the process you won’t even see as they’re considering your book. There are tons of reasons they might reject it. So, no matter what, do not give up too soon. Keep going. And if you decide you want to give indie publishing a go instead, let us know here at Wily Writers. We’re glad to help with that too.

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