Poets and Writers Magazine (Source)
If you have a book-length work of fiction or creative nonfiction that you’d like to sell to a commercial publisher, an agent is crucial. Literary representation will increase your chances with editors, who rely on agents to present manuscripts that are polished and marketable, and that match their interests. Visit our Literary Agents database to find the best agents who represent fiction and creative nonfiction.
Literary agents take a standard commission of 15 percent from the sale of your book. Note that agents typically do not represent poets.
What a Literary Agent Can Do for You
As your representative in the literary market, your agent may perform a range of tasks, including offering editorial guidance, establishing contacts for you with editors and publishers, explaining the language of contracts and negotiating contract terms, selling the rights to your work, and helping you find new opportunities for publishing.
Finding the Right Literary Agent
The first step in finding a literary agent who is right for you and your work is to put together a list of recent books that you admire or that you think are similar to your work. Then, find out who represents the authors of those books. Many authors list their agents on the acknowledgments page in the front or back of their books, or on their website. If you can’t find the agents this way, search online for the authors and their publishers; often you will find some mention of the agents involved.
Once you have a list of agents you are familiar with, send a query letter to each one. A good practice is to send out five letters at a time, with each letter tailored to the specific agent you are querying.
An interested agent will ask to see a few chapters or your full manuscript. Before you send it, find the agency’s submission guidelines, and follow them closely. Aside from our Literary Agents database and our long-running series Agent Advice, in which agents answer writers’ questions, another useful resource for finding detailed information on how to find and obtain an agent is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents (New World Library, 2017).
As you send out your letters, consider noting each one in our Submissions Tracker to keep track of all your correspondence with publishing professionals.
The Query Letter
A query letter to an agent should be extremely well written and very brief—three paragraphs that take up less than one page.
In the first paragraph of the letter, explain why you are contacting the agent and why him or her specifically. In the second paragraph, give a three-to-four-sentence synopsis of your book. Avoid going into detail about the twists and turns of the plot. In the third paragraph, include a short bio, offering information about yourself that pertains to your work or your writing skills.
Close the letter with a direct statement of your ultimate purpose, expressing that you’d like to send the agent your manuscript.
What You Should Know Before Signing a Contract
Once you have found an agent, and before you sign a contract, find out who else the agent represents, what books the agent has sold and to which publishers, what the agent’s percentage (or “cut”) is, and what additional charges will be billed back to you.
Also, be sure to find out about the contractual obligation between author and agent: Are you required to sign a contract?
Finally, ask questions about the agent’s general game plan. Where will the agent send the book? To how many publishers? Are there any plans for selling secondary rights such as film, foreign, audio, or electronic rights?
Literary Agents and Poets
Agents rarely represent poets, as the selling of poetry books doesn’t usually generate enough income. Most poets, after building up several publishing credits in respected literary journals, send out manuscript submissions to small presses on their own.
If you are submitting individual poems to literary magazines, an agent is unnecessary. For a collection of poetry, be sure to follow the submission guidelines of the individual publishers you want to send your collection to. Also, check deadlines for chapbook contests and first poetry book awards in the Grants & Awards section of Poets & Writers Magazine.
Legitimate literary agents do not charge writers for the opportunity to represent them. If an agent asks for a reading fee up front or a fee to edit your work, you should seek representation elsewhere. Check the Association of Authors’ Representatives website for a database of literary agents who do not charge fees. None of the agents in our Literary Agents database charge fees.
Each literary agent has individual tastes and interests, so be sure to research appropriate agencies before submitting your query. Our Literary Agents database includes areas of focus, tips for submitting, client lists, and contact information for literary agents who represent literary writing. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents (New World Library, 2017) or Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books, 2017) can help you narrow down your choices.
With the January/February 2008 issue, Poets & Writers Magazine launched Agents & Editors, a series of in-depth interviews with dozens of publishing professionals, including agents Lynn Nesbit, Nat Sobel, Molly Friedrich, Eric Simonoff, and Georges Borchardt, and many others. These interviews provide timely, insider advice on what agents look for in books and clients and how authors can best navigate publishing. In addition, Poets & Writers Magazine’s annual Literary Agents issue, which includes a special section on what to expect from the evolving relationship between author and agent, is published each summer.
You may also take a look at The Poets & Writers Guide to Literary Agents, which is edited by the staff of Poets & Writers Magazine and contains a collection of articles with straightforward advice from professionals in the literary field and additional resources with insider tips.
Online sources that offer guidance include the Association of Authors’ Representatives website. Other useful websites are Agent Query, Publishers Marketplace, and, of course, the websites of individual literary agencies.