How to get a literary agent

There is so much mysticism in the world of publishing that it can be hard to know how anyone ever publishes a novel.

Well, one of the most common first steps in an author’s journey is to get themselves signed with a literary agent. These are the people who will help you shape your idea into something great, advocate for you and ultimately, do their best to get your book sold to a publisher.

It can seem really daunting to approach agents with samples of your writing, and people in the business agree that you should put off making those approaches until you feel your work is as good as you can make it, workshopping it in classes or with friends – to give yourself the best chance of catching their eye.

As well as working on your sample chapters, you should also research how to write a good pitch letter and plot synopsis.

We asked Lizzy Kremer, Jemima Forrester and Maddalena Cavaciuti, all literary agents at David Higham Associates, to share their top tips for getting an agent – and the best way to approach your submissions.

Here are their top tips and answers to the most common questions:

Do your research

There are lots of literary agencies and even more literary agents, so it’s important that you take the time to look through agents’ profiles and submit your work to those who you think would be most suited to work on your book.

All agents will have a reading list or submission wish-list on their website, so take a look and see whether you think your work would suit the ir taste, or appeal to an interest they mention.

The members directory of the Association of Authors Agents (the trade association for UK and Irish literary agencies) is a good place to start as it works as a springboard to many of these agencies websites.

Another popular route is to check who represents authors whose work feels similar in appeal to yours, either checking the acknowledgements in their books or looking at the social media feeds. 

Many aspiring writers spend time on Twitter and Instagram, following agents, editors and authors to get a feel for how the business works and who is open to writer queries and whose list might accommodate their work. 

Once you’ve got your list of agents to approach, double-check each of their submission guidelines as sometimes the material requested varies. Usually you are asked for the first three chapters of your book, a synopsis outlining all the key plot points and the ending, and a covering letter.

It’s always worth including a line in each cover letter which says why you are approaching that agent in particular.

What is it about their client list, or their agency, or the reading interests they indicated in their biography which made you want to work with them?

Do you have to have a finished novel before sending enquiries?

Yes. If an agent likes the first three chapters of your manuscript, the next step will be for them to ask you to send them the finished novel, so it’s important that the whole book is in the best shape it can be when you submit, not just the first three chapters.

The other thing to bear in mind is that novels evolve as you write them. By the time you get to the final acts, you will probably want to revisit and enrich the opening chapters. It’s best to give yourself that opportunity. 

How many agents should you approach?

There is no right number of agents to approach. Some authors like to select a small handful of ‘dream agents’ and submit only to them, others like to cast the net out widely and see what responses come in.

Submitting in batches can be useful as you might receive some useful feedback from an agent in your first submission, which you can then incorporate before approaching your second batch.

An agent interested in your work doesn’t need to give you a deadline to accept their offer of representation, but if you find yourself in this position and there were a few other agents on your list who haven’t yet had the chance to read or to respond to your material, there’s no reason not to take the time to send them the book, notifying them of your offer of representation, and get their response to the material too.

Signing with an agent is a big decision – hopefully a career-long one – so it’s worth taking the time you need to ensure it’s the right one.

You don’t need to mention in your submission letter how many other agents are reading your work.

You should only approach one agent within one agency at a time.

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