How to Find a Literary Agent: A Writer’s Guide

Old bookshelf

When did literary agents become a must-have to get through the door of traditional publishers? Many of the authors we celebrate on this site, if not most, didn’t have one. They did it the old-fashioned way, by submitting directly to editors, or getting a referral through a fellow writer. But things have changed since the days when the Brontë sisters were rejected by many of London’s top publishers, and even well into the twentieth century, when an agent just wasn’t a necessity.

But things have changed. The big publishers have consolidated and the mid-sized and smaller ones have proliferated. There’s more opportunity, but the competition is much stiffer. Everyone and their cousin wants to be an author. If you’re a writer determined to go the traditional publishing route, agents can be extremely helpful, and sometimes completely necessary, to achieve that goal. Here we’ll explore how to find a literary agent.

If you’re determined to go the traditional publishing route and aiming for a mid-size to large publisher, your best route is with an agent. While many smaller publishers do accept direct submissions from authors (and we’ll get to that ahead), many of the larger ones simply won’t look at unagented submissions.

While agents come in all stripes, having a good agent is a blessing. They do more than just submit your work, or at least, a good one should, including:

  • An agent acts as your initial editorial advisor and makes sure your manuscript or proposal is ready to be shown to editors at publishers.
  • They’re your advocate to ensure your publisher comes through with anything they’ve promised up front. An agent keeps up with what should or shouldn’t be in a contract, and negotiates it for you. They make sure that you get the best advance, royalty, subsidiary rights deals, etc., as possible.
  • A good agent will be both a savvy mentor and a kind aunt (or uncle), guiding you to make good career choices, and acting as a sounding board and providing comfort when issues arise.

Never, ever pay an agent up front!

This can’t be overstated. Agents generally take 15% of what an author makes, from the advance and potential royalties. That figure usually goes up to 20% for international sales, because they have to split the fee with a co-agents. This commission-only model makes them quite motivated to make deals, because they don’t see a penny otherwise. If an agent asks for an up-front fee (sometimes couched as a “reading fee”), keep looking.

When does a potential author not need an agent?

You don’t need an agent if you wish to submit your fiction or nonfiction to small independent or university presses (though they usually welcome agented submission as well). If you’re looking to produce a book of poetry, don’t look for an agent, since it just wouldn’t be cost-effective for the time spent; collections of short stories are a tough sell unless they’re by an already-established author, so if that’s your genre, you might want to start by approaching small and university presses on your own.

Children’s books can go either way — smaller and independent presses might look at submissions that come directly from the author (or author-illustrator), but if you’re aiming for the larger publishers, an agent is still the way to go.

How to look for an agent

Time was, the only way to look for an agent was to schlep to a large library with Literary Marketplace in the reference section. And while you can still do that if you’re a Luddite. However, the web has made it much easier to research agents.

Any really reputable agent, whether he or she is solo or part of a larger literary agency, will have a web site. And these web sites should have guidelines for submission. They’re all a bit different. Some will want a query only at first; others will ask for a query plus a chapter or two or three. The point is to look at the submissions guidelines and follow them closely. It’s a bit of a pain to do each submission a bit differently, but if you don’t follow the guidelines, it doesn’t bode well for you.

These days, agents are more specialized than ever. There are agents that deal just with certain kinds of fiction or only with Young Adult novels. Others only represent weighty nonfiction (like history and politics) or culinary subjects. There are agents that represent children’s picture books. The point is to research the agent you’re approaching carefully so that you aren’t wasting your time and theirs when you submit.

Begin - photo by danielle macinnes

Resources for further exploration


Literary Marketplace: While it’s still possible to search this tome in the reference section of libraries that have it on the shelves (that would be larger and university libraries), you can become a subscriber to research online.

Guide to Literary Agents (Writer’s Digest): This annual guide is a trusted resource that you might find in your library system, or purchase online. Here is this volume on Amazon.

Online resources

And one more interesting resource

More ways to look for an agent

Who do you know? Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is best — by networking. Do you have friends or colleagues in publishing? Ask everyone you know if they know an agent or know someone who has one. And if you’re not shy, ask for a referral. Being able put “Referred by so-and-so” in your subject line can be a great route to a faster and more personal answer.

Take a sneak peek into books in your genre: Go to a bookstore — an actual, physical bookstore — or to the New Releases section of a library. Find books in the genre in which you write. Authors often thank their agents in the acknowledgments, a section that’s usually in the back books. Take notes! The reason I mentioned bookstores first is they tend to have a greater selection of recent books. There’s no point in looking in a book that’s twenty or even ten years old. The agent may no longer be an agent, or may no longer be with us.

Writer’s conferences: Writer’s conferences are tailor-made for networking. Agents often serve on panels, since one of the reasons they attend is to scout talent. Sometimes you can sign up for one-on-one meetings with agents.

One of the very best resources to find a writer’s conference that’s just right for you is at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

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