5 Strategies for Finding Literary Agents to Query
By Rose Atkinson-Carter
If you’re planning to publish traditionally, getting yourself a good literary agent is usually the first step. Of course, since you’re here, chances are you already know that—the real challenge is finding the right one for you, and standing out to them above the masses.
It takes a lot of time and effort to research qualified agents and their literary preferences, so I’ve put together a list of the five best strategies, tips, and tricks, to help you find your literary agent match made in heaven.
1. Make, rate, and prioritize a shortlist
The search for a perfect match goes both ways; just as you’re searching for your dream literary agent, they’ll be waiting for the ideal author to collaborate with.
Luckily, there are large directories full of literary agents seeking submissions available online. Even then, when you have lists of hundreds of freelancers to pick from, it can feel pretty overwhelming to just choose one. Don’t worry though, that’s not the name of the game—it’s usually most practical to create a list of ten to twenty agents you like the look of first. This is just to get names on paper quickly, avoiding the dreaded Analysis Paralysis. Next, you can start whittling down your list. Try asking yourself:
- Do they usually work with fiction or nonfiction authors?
- Which genres do they work with most?
- What does their portfolio look like, and do you like it?
This helps prioritize which agents to contact first, or whether you want to contact them at all. You don’t want to waste your valuable time, so it’s great to keep your query criteria precise. After the basics are done, a final (and crucial) step is to vet agents before contacting them. You can do this by reading reviews, checking threads on popular forums, or browsing chatter on social media, so you know who you’d be working with. This vetting also includes knowing how to spot a publishing scam—a telltale sign of which will always be if they ask for preemptive payment upfront. No legitimate professional will do this, so if you encounter it, run!
2. Do your research
Next, it’s important to know who it is you’re about to query, and what exactly they’ll want from you. Most professional agents have their own websites or, if you’re contracting through another platform, an ‘about’ section on their profiles. On a practical level, researching each agent and having an awareness of the nuances between them is necessary so that you don’t miss their individual submission guidelines. Keep in mind: most agents will quickly discard a query if the author hasn’t taken the time to follow their basic rules in their pitch!
And, particularly in the case of your highest priority agents to contact, researching them is key because it’ll give you an idea of what your dynamic might be like and, more than that, insight into making your query letter stand out. For example, you might look at books they previously worked on to better understand which blurbs and comp titles have caught their attention before.
3. Nail your personalized query letter
Of course, the number one tip to finding your ideal literary agent is to have a stunning query letter at the ready. You can use the research I mentioned in the previous section as your starting point here. With your agent research at the ready, it’s time to gen up on the standard conventions of your category and genre. For example, a YA science fiction query letter might look very different from one pitching a poetry collection, so you’ll want to be aware of any distinctions.
Luckily, you can find plenty of examples, tips, and checklists to help write a query letter that exceeds expectations and matches conventions. Without a basic awareness of this, your letter can come across confused at best, and be quickly discarded at worst. However, if you nail it on the head, you stand a good chance of impressing the agent and gaining their trust with a formula they know wins.
4. Go to events and webinars
Besides research and submissions, another tried-and-tested strategy to get you and your work seen is to get up and go to events. Of course, for the more introverted amongst us, this doesn’t always mean going to big in-person readings or launches; it also means attending webinars and courses online. Either way, attending literary events (especially those unique to your genre and format) is a great way to network.
Aside from potentially making direct connections with agents themselves, networking at events is beneficial for meeting other like-minded authors, sharing experiences with them, and even getting insight into publishing professionals they’ve worked with previously. After all, a direct referral from an author the agent has already worked with can do wonders—as long as you have a stellar manuscript and plan to back it up. Last but not least, webinars (or seminars) about the publishing industry have the added benefits of not just valuable information, but also getting the chance to directly connect with the professionals giving and attending the events!
5. Always follow up before making decisions
Arguably the worst part of querying agents—or any application process—is the wait between hitting ‘send’ and getting a response. Throughout that waiting time, you must always keep in mind that silence isn’t always a rejection. How many times have you mentally noted an email thinking, ‘I’ll get to that later’, only for it to get buried further in your inbox and forgotten? It happens to everyone, and literary agents (who receive new queries every day, keep in mind) are no exception.
Given that, while it might sound obvious, don’t jump at the first offer you get. You can afford to hold out a little—this manuscript is your baby! If you receive an offer you’re not entirely happy with for some reason, but you’ve not heard from your top priorities yet—follow up with them first. They may just surprise you. There’s no shame in politely replying to the initial offer to say you need time to consider before making a decision; it shows you’re committed to creating the best possible publication. Plus, when you do that, you can continue the process feeling fully confident in your unrushed decision.
Querying literary agents can feel grueling, especially after spending so much time writing your manuscript in the first place, but the payoff of seeing your book published is well worth the effort. I hope that these strategies and tips have helped you better manage the process and find your perfect match. Happy querying!