How to find the right literary agent for your book and you

by Teika

Having worn a number of hats throughout lockdown – homeschool teacher, freelance editor, publisher, writer and writing mentor – this blog has taken a bit of a backseat. However, I’ve not been taking my eye off the publishing world, and indeed, conversations with my lovely and talented mentees have given me much food for thought. No matter what stage a writer is at – halfway through a first draft of a novel, a handful of short stories or poems, completed draft of a manuscript or an outline for a non-fiction book – there is nearly always the same question hovering around a writer’s mind: will anyone want to publish my book?

 

Now, that’s a good question to ask yourself, since the answer – when deeply considered – can be very insightful. But it’s also a potentially fraught question, and one that can possibly derail a project before it is finished. If a friend, fellow writer, or maybe even a literary professional, tells you that no one will want to publish your book on the basis of reading a few pages (or hearing your pitch), it can cause you to abandon the project prematurely. There could be lots of possible criticisms: the writing’s weak, it’s too quirky, too like novel X which was a bestseller two years ago, it doesn’t fit any genre, or you, as a writer, have zero following hence zero chance to be published.

 

To begin with, ignore all those comments (especially that last one about following). Indeed, it can be a lot healthier to not ask the “Will anyone want to publish this?” question until the manuscript is finished (though a pre-consideration of the potential readership can be of use). However, if you have the money and are able to pay for a professional to give you feedback on the first draft of your novel, this can be an incredibly useful thing to do. They may have a lot of encouraging and eye-opening things to say, like: the writing needs to be polished, but the plot is fantastic, the characters well-drawn and the genre a popular one; the chances of it finding a publisher are good. Those kinds of comments can give you a huge boost and help you get across the final editing finishing line. But, if you deconstruct a project too early on you may find yourself losing heart and enthusiasm for what may have been a fantastic book, so much so that the manuscript goes on a permanent hiatus.

 

Where many a potentially good book goes on holiday…

 

However, let’s assume you’ve finished a first draft of your manuscript, your beta readers (or a professional) are positive about it and think there’s a market for it, and, most importantly, you still like and believe in your book. Now it’s time for that all-important editorial “deep cleaning”/polishing, and a thorough consideration of who you’re going to send it to.

 

If your book is in any way commercial or perhaps even “on trend”, I would recommend sending it to literary agents; they will tell you in no uncertain terms whether anyone may want to publish your book. Sorry poets (and short story writers), but unless you’ve won prizes for your writing (or are famous in some other way) and have a brilliant novel waiting in the wings, that doesn’t really mean you. But, if your book is commercial and can be easily slotted into the following genres: crime/thriller, romance, SFF, children’s or YA novels, general non-fiction, historical fiction or literary fiction, then your path should instantly be a lot less twisty-turny. Now for the fun part – drawing up a list of potential agents to submit to. It goes a little like this:

 

1. Make a list of other contemporary books that are like yours. Professional writers know to do their research and to read within the genre they write. So… if you haven’t already been doing this, then start doing this. Once you can identify books that are somewhat like yours, you instantly have a list of authors whose agents may be interested in you. It’s straightforward enough to either visit the author’s website or check them out on Twitter, where they will most likely mention their agent. Or, you can find this information at the back of their books. (Most authors include their agent, publisher and/or other writing supporters in the acknowledgements.)

 

2. Consider your longlist of agents. Now that you have (hopefully) a longish list of agents of authors that write books like yours, you can delve deeper. Visit the agent’s profile on the agency page and find out what they’re currently looking for in a submission, and whether or not they’re currently open to submissions. If they’re keen on books by debut novelists that are set in the past and that feature (for example) strong female protagonists and your book ticks all those boxes, then great! Put a great big smiley face next to that agent. For the time being, cross off any agents that aren’t currently accepting submissions or who make no mention whatsoever of the genre you’re writing in (though if you’ve already done your research on authors who write books like yours, you shouldn’t be doing a lot of crossing off).

 

3. Check them out on Twitter. Many literary agents are very forthcoming on Twitter and you can get a good sense of their personality by following them. If they happen to support the same football team as you, love dogs (just like you!), and have similar views about politics, you may well feel that ‘click’ you get when you think you’ve met a kindred spirit. Add another smiley face to the list! Equally, you may hate football (and dogs) and have completely different ideas about how the country should be governed… However, don’t instantly cross them off your list. It’s still worth submitting to them if you think they’d like your book. Personally, I’d like to think that if both parties act professionally it shouldn’t matter whether you’re a cat or a dog person… (Though the topic of politics may need to be avoided!)

 

4. Put together a shortlist. By now your longish list should have a good few smiley faces on it and a few crossings-outs. Maybe even the odd heart next to the name of an agent you really, really want because they’re on the lookout for a manuscript like yours, they’re good at making significant publishing deals PLUS they own a pug and are a fan of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ (just like you!). So, that’s it! That shortlist of agents is going to be your go-to list for the next few weeks/months of submitting.

 

The perfect combo (or should that be Compo?) of pug and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.

 

That was the fun part.* Now for the submission package… (more on that maybe-not-so-fun part another time). In the meanwhile the below links may be of use. Good luck!

The Perfect Cover Letter

The Dreaded Synopsis

The Literary Consultancy

Jericho Writers

Writers&Artists

* I do recognise that for some people this might feel more daunting than fun. In that case, get someone in the know (like myself) to help you out or consider joining Jericho Writers who have a handy searchable agent database. Or invest in a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and make it your new bedtime reading. (The latter is more time-consuming but cheaper than the other options.)

n.b. unbeknownst to me, agent extraordinaire, Juliet Mushens, just yesterday published a post on this very same topic. Do go check it out!

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4 Comments

  1. This looks like a logical and not TOO daunting approach. I’ll be coming back to this article once I have something finished!

  2. Difficult to get a literary agent and a publisher for a novel , specially for first timers.
    I have written two novels but not getting proper hand.
    Ashok Ratna
    Singapore

    • I agree that getting a literary agent and publisher can be a challenging task. Feedback from professional editors (or knowledgeable beta readers) can often be incredibly useful. I’d suggest checking out any of the organizations I mention in the blog post (e.g. The Literary Consultancy, Jericho Writers) as places to seek out useful and professional feedback. All the best with it – persistence and professionalism pays off!

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