Monday, April 11, 2011

The Non-Idiot's Guide to Finding a Literary Agent

As an author, ghostwriter, and writing teacher, I’m often asked how to find a literary agent—enough times, at least, I decided I should finally write about it. There are a lot of good articles on the various aspects of getting an agent and ultimately a publisher, but not much in the way of a blunt, holistic guide, so without further ado, I present to you…

“The Non-Idiot’s Guide to Finding a Literary Agent.”

Solicited vs. Unsolicited Manuscripts

The first thing to understand as a writer hoping to get published is that you are competing with thousands of other writers with the exact same aspirations. This means agents and editors are swimming in more manuscript submissions than they can read. To make their jobs feasible, agents and editors generally split submissions into two categories: solicited and unsolicited. Solicited means a manuscript was requested by the agent or editor; these types of submissions garner much more time and consideration from the agent or editor. Furthermore, the response time from editors and agents is much quicker with solicited manuscripts; usually no longer than a month. Without any question, this is the better category to be in, but at the same time it’s the more difficult.

Unsolicited means a manuscript was not requested—these are the manuscripts that get put into the dreaded “slush pile” we all hear about. These manuscripts get decidedly less priority. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get picked out of the slush pile, though. In fact, most literary journals that publish short stories, essays, and poems get the majority of their content from the so-called slush pile.

Wendy Wagner, an assistant editor with Fantasy Magazine, says that while the previously published stories reprinted in Fantasy Magazine are solicited from established writers, the new fiction featured in each issue is selected from unsolicited submissions. “When I read slush, I am looking for stories that make me jump up and wave my arms and flail like a muppet,” Wagner says. “And while most of the stories I see are solidly constructed and NOT BAD, there aren’t very many that make me muppet-flail.” Wendy has a great article on her blog that details common problems in short fiction that keep her from getting excited and ultimately accepting a story. It’s a must read for short story writers:

While the world of literary journals is fueled by unsolicited manuscripts, not so much the world of books. Many publishing houses do accept unsolicited manuscripts, but the chances of your book getting picked out of the slush pile are infinitely small. With books, you really need to be in the solicited category.

What is a Literary Agent and do I need one? 

A literary agent is a middleman. They find publishable books, pass the books on to editors at publishing houses, and negotiate contracts for writers. This is a symbiotic relationship for everyone involved, and to understand the relationship, you must first understand the flow of money. Agents do not charge you an hourly fee like a lawyer or manager does. They only get paid if and when they sell your book to a publishing house. This means agents only represent books they are confident they can sell (and they usually know the book market pretty damn well). From the editor’s standpoint, the agent functions as a crap filter. Editors know agents aren’t going to waste their time with lousy books, so by dealing with an agent, editors know they’re only getting the best unpublished books out there.

From an author’s standpoint, an agent helps you get the best book deal you can conceivably get. Agents have direct access to editors at publishing houses—contacts that probably aren’t available to you—and they know how to negotiate the best book contract they can get for you. At the end of the day, they take 10-15% of your advance and future royalties, which might seem like a lot, but all things considered, it’s not a bad price to pay to get your book published with a major publishing house.

Sounds great, right? How do I find an agent then, you’re asking. First, you need to have a product—a book. Unlike other sorts of agents, a literary agent does not represent you on talent alone. In a sense, they represent you on a project-by-project basis. If you’re a fiction writer, this means you need to have already finished your novel. (And I mean really fucking finished it! No first drafts. We’re talking a highly polished, edited, proofread, and proofread again novel—the best product you can put together.) If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you don’t necessarily need to have the book completed. If you’ve got a killer premise and the qualifications to write the book, agents will often represent your book based solely on some sample chapters and strong book proposal. (Visit for the basic layout of a non-fiction book proposal). If the non-fiction book is already completed, all the better.

So that’s the first step, finishing your book or book proposal. The next step is being honest with yourself and deciding whether your book is highly salable and marketable. Remember, an agent only gets paid if you do, and if the potential payout isn’t lucrative, agents probably won’t risk the time and effort to peddle your book to editors. If you think your book has big sales potential in whatever genre you write, then you’re ready to make contact with an agent and convince him or her to solicit your book.

If you find that your book fits a much smaller niche in the book market, don’t fret, all hope is not lost. There is a whole publishing world outside the big publishing houses in New York City. Small and independent presses publish some of the best books out there and they are much less concerned with selling millions of copies. For my book Umbral Visions, I decided to forgo trying to find an agent altogether, and contacted small presses directly. I made this decision because the book is comprised of two separate novellas and is pretty short in overall length—two factors that would throw the unwashed masses for a loop, and therefore would scare away big publishing houses. My strategy worked, and I was able to find a wonderful home for the book with Gypsy Shadow Publishing.

“Mass market publishing houses are into formula stories,” Charlotte Holley and Denise Bartlett of Gypsy Shadow Publishing explain. “We like something ‘different’ and engaging because it is different.” In addition, Charlotte and Denise point out that small presses are usually more responsive to authors. “We treat each author individually, and we care about their opinions. As one friend, a veteran in the battle with big print publishers, says, with a traditional publisher, you have very little control over how and where your book is presented to the public, what your cover will be like, and how much push it will get in the stores. A small press is much more likely to allow the author to have input in these areas.”

If you decide to go the route of small presses, the process is exactly the same as acquiring an agent. You need to have your finished book or proposal, and then you need to contact the publisher and convince them to ask for your book. It’s all about joining the solicited manuscript club.

Making Contact with Agents/Editors

If you mail your book to an agent or editor unsolicited, chances are your book will end up in the trash unread. To avoid that outcome, you need to first get the agent or editor interested in your book and then convince them to ask you for it. There are three main ways to do this: 1) send a query letter, 2) pitch the agent in person, or 3) have the agent come to you.

The query is the most widely used method, and we’ll discuss that in detail below. Pitching an agent or editor in person, is a rarer method, though conceivably more effective. The personal pitch usually only happens at writer’s conferences and conventions. Most such conferences and conventions cost money, but they can be quite worthwhile for new writers to attend. In addition to potentially getting an agent interested in your book, there’s a lot be learned from agents, editors, and other writers at such conventions if you keep your eyes and ears open.

Melinda J. Combs, co-author of In Service to the Mouse, attended the annual Tin House writing conference, and got a chance to pitch her personal memoir to agents. “Pitching an agent in person is invaluable because it forces you to refine and really know what your book is about,” Melinda says. “The agent will more than likely give you advice and suggestions on the spot and will ask whether or not they want it mailed to them.” Melinda’s advice for pitching an agent is: “RELAX and don't sound like a commercial. I got slammed for being too canned. Approach it like a conversation instead of a pitch; you just need to know your material well and be prepared.”

The third way of garnering the interest of an agent is to have the agent come looking for you. This is by far the rarest and toughest method. Writer Eric Scot Tryon had just such an experience happen to him after a short story of his came out the prestigious literary journal Glimmer Train. “When I got accepted to Glimmer Train, I told myself, there’s a slim chance an agent will contact you, so you BETTER have a novel finished,” Eric explains. “But to be honest, I think most of me didn’t believe I’d actually hear from an agent. I mean, c’mon, what are the odds? But sure as shit, the agent contacted me and I wasn’t ready.” Eric’s advice to new writers is to always be writing and have something ready in case the opportunity arises. “If you’ve written something awesome, something you’re proud of and are looking to publish, it’s important that you don’t stop there. Always be writing.”

The Query Letter

Assuming an agent hasn’t come looking for you and that you’re not going to be pitching agents or editors in person, your task then is to write a query letter. The query letter is essentially a pitch in the form of a professional business letter. The letter needs to do three things: summarize your book, explain why there’s a market for your book, and detail any qualifications you have as the writer.

The summary, or synopsis, should be concise and intriguing. Set-up. Hook. Resolution. Introduce your characters, not by name, but by description (e.g. “A collegiate athlete who becomes paralyzed after a horrible accident…”). Set-up the premise (“…is able to forget his debilitating condition by writing stories of a vigilante superhero…”). Hook the reader (“…but when the vigilante acts start happening in real life…”). And resolve the story (“…no one is safe from his disturbed psyche.”). That’s a fair synopsis for one of the novellas in my book Umbral Visions. You can use this basic structure to write a good synopsis for any novel or narrative non-fiction book. For a topical non-fiction book, you’ll want a synopsis that is similar in form, but focuses on the problematic issues your book explores and resolves, rather than on characters.

When discussing the marketing aspects of your book, first and foremost, state who your target audience is. Identify the genre of book you’ve written. If there are highly successful books that your book is comparable to, by all means, say so. At the same time, state why your book is different and unique within your genre. The goal is to illustrate that there is a big market for the type of book you’ve written and simultaneously show that your book has something new and fresh to offer readers in that market.

The types of qualifications you want to mention in your query letter are your 3-5 best publication credits (if you’ve been published before), any writing awards you might have received, and any personal, educational, or professional experience you have that qualifies you to write this book. Particularly in the case of non-fiction, educational and professional credentials go a long way. If you’ve written a book on quantum physics, for example, you better have a PhD in quantum physics and extensive work experience in the field, otherwise, agents and editors won’t want anything to do with your book.

For a more complete look at writing query letters, and to read an example query letter, check out Lynn Flewelling’s article on the website for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

All said and done, your letter should be no longer than one page. At the end of the letter, thank the editor or agent for their time and say that you would be pleased to send your book to them if they’re interested. Sign it and send it off. Also, be sure to address your letter to the specific editor or agent you’re mailing the letter to, by name. Which brings us to our next item of business…

Finding Contact Info for Agents and Editors

There are numerous ways to find the name and address of agents/editors. The trick is to find agents/editors who represent the type of book you’ve written. It doesn’t make much sense to pitch your epic fantasy novel to an agent who only represents self-help books, for example.

The most commonly used source for finding the information you need is reference books like Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. These books are readily available in most book stores or online, and are worth the $30 investment. In addition to providing the names and addresses of agents and editors, these books tell you what sort of books each agent/editor is looking for, names of authors they represent, and if they have any special guidelines. Some agents/editors, for example, want you to include a full synopsis of your novel or a sample chapter along with your query letter. These books also include websites (which you should always check out before querying, since the websites usually have the most up to date info), and the agent/editor’s preferred method of querying (i.e. snail mail, email, or online form).

There are also some free online sources that are fantastic. The Preditors & Editors website lists hundred of agents and rates them. Remember, agents aren’t supposed to charge upfront fees of any sort, and Preditors & Editors lets you know which agents prey on unwary writers with reading fees and hidden costs. If you’re going the route of small presses, Duotrope’s Digest is an invaluable source for finding publishers. (Duotrope’s is also a great site to find short story markets). Both Preditors & Editors and Duotrope’s Digest are run on donations, so if you opt to utilize them instead of one the expensive reference books, try to pass on the good karma and send a little money their way via PayPal.

Utilizing one of these sources, search out as many agents/editors you can find that represent the type of book you’ve written. Prioritize them, and start sending out your query letters to your top picks. Remember to individualize each query letter to a specific agent/editor, and follow any specific guidelines they might have. If you are sending your query letter by mail, make sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with your query letter. This is so the agent/editor can send their response back to you. If you don’t include a SASE, you’ll probably never hear from the agent/editor. It’s fine to send out as many query letters at time as you like. I typically send them out in batches of five to ten queries, wait until I hear back, then send out another batch. Make sure to keep track of the queries you’ve sent out with some sort of log that lists the name of the agent/editor, the date you sent out your query, the date you hear back from them, and what their response was. Otherwise, you’ll forget who you’ve sent what to.

What to Expect

First thing: get used to waiting. The publishing world is slow moving. On occasion, you’ll hear back from an agent/editor within a few days or a week, but this is rare, particularly for bigger name agents/editors. More realistically, you won’t hear anything back for 1-3 months, if at all.

Rejection letters are the most common response and they typically come in the anonymous form variety. Don’t sweat it. Agents reject upwards of 90% of queries they receive. The key is persistence. Keep perfecting your query letter and keep sending it out. If your book has promise and your query letter is good, eventually you’ll get a request for your manuscript and join the “solicited” club. Sometimes an agent/editor who is interested will ask for the entire book, sometimes they’ll ask for the first several chapters first. Whatever it is, send it to them promptly. Most agents/editors prefer a printed copy in standard manuscript format, so make sure you have a clean print-out, box it neatly (don’t bind it in any way—this pisses agents/editors off!), and stick it in the mail. If you want the copy back when the agent/editor is done reading it, then you need to include return postage. In today’s age of computers and cheap printing, I find that it’s more economical to print out a new copy than include return postage so I can reuse the manuscript, and I kindly ask the agent/editor to recycle my manuscript when they’re done with it.

Typically, an agent/editor will want to have an exclusive look at your book. This means you can only send your book to one agent/editor at a time, which isn’t a big problem. If you somehow get requests from two or more agents at the same time and decide to send them all a copy of the book, it is a professional courtesy to let each of them know that other agents/editors are looking at the book too.

Once you’ve sent off your solicited manuscript, it’s al up to your book now. If the agent/editor likes it, you’re in business. If they see promise in the book, but think it needs work, they will suggest you rewrite it. This happened to me with my newest book, Dreamwielder. If they don’t think they can sell the book, they’ll say so and it’s back to the querying stage.

If you’ve contacted a publisher directly and they accept your manuscript, you’ll get a contract. Read it, take your time with it, talk to any published writers you know, and make sure it’s a good deal for you before signing it.

If an agent decides to represent your book, you’ll come to some sort of agreement with the agent. Sometimes he or she will ask you to sign a formal contract, sometimes your agreement will be verbal and less binding. In either case, the ball is now in the agent’s court. They will now go on to querying editors and publishing houses and try to get you a good contract. Again, get ready to wait, but if you make it this far, things are looking good for you. Stay persistent, and get writing your next book while you’re waiting!

What’s your Experience been like?

Finding a home for your book is a long, arduous process. I hope this guide illuminates the basics of the process, but keep in mind each person’s experience is going to be different, and I’m certain there are several aspects I neglected to mention. Please use the comment form below to share your experiences trying to find an agent or editor.

-Garrett Calcaterra


  1. Great post; it in fact made me muppet-flail all over the place.

  2. Nice sum up of the whole process. A great crash course.

    I particularly liked the interview/quotes from the lovely writers.

  3. Reading this has been very informative. Thank you for the no-nonsense, information-rich detail.

  4. You're welcome. Glad to be of service.

  5. For a detailed account of how I ended up getting signed with a literary agent and finding a home for my novel Dreamwielder, check out this new post: