Five Ways to Find Literary Agents to Query
It's a lot like sending your book on a bunch of first dates
The path to traditional publication is long and complex, but for those who are set on having a traditional publisher, the first step is typically to find an agent.
Easier said than done, especially for nonfiction, where the author’s platform is evaluated as much as the material.
When to query literary agents
While technically, an agent makes money on commission, which means they work for you, this isn’t like hiring a contractor to remodel your kitchen. An agent is a gatekeeper, and they will decide whether they’re going to work with you or not.
If you’re writing memoir, you should have the entire manuscript ready to send on request, which means fully edited.
If you’re writing practical nonfiction (how-to, self-help, business), you should have a full book proposal ready to go. That link is to the single most comprehensive book on how to write a book proposal; if you follow it to the letter, you’ll have an excellent proposal. The proposal should include at least one but no more than two sample chapters.
If you’re aiming to publish with an academic press, you’ll need to write a prospectus, which is slightly different. Where a commercial book proposal makes a business case for the the book, an academic prospectus makes a scholarly case. This is the best book I’ve found for academic prospectuses.
I’ve met more writers than I can count who pitched agents too soon. They received requests and then contacted me, saying “I don’t have anything to send!” While this is a great affirmation of your project’s value, you can’t publish a book without having written a book. (I’m not great with math, but I’m pretty sure about that one.)
Finding the right literary agents to query
Choosing which agents to query requires a fair bit of detective work, but this is the fun part: Who do you want to work with? Who has had success selling books like yours into the marketplace? Who are the authors you most respect, and which agents represent them?
A couple of caveats: It’s highly unlikely for a first-time author to sign with an agent at a major agency like WME (William Morris Endeavor), CAA (Creative Artists Agency), ICM (International Creative Management) or others. The exception might be those who had a viral article or video (more than five million shares) or those with a massive platform (followers in the millions). Or, of course, if you have a direct personal connection to one of those agents.
I encourage clients to focus on small and mid-size agencies, where you can be a medium-sized fish in a smaller pond.
1. Look in the Acknowledgements section of your comps
Your “comps” are competing or complementary books, ones that are similar (or even very similar) to yours. They might be on the same topic, use a similar storytelling technique, or a similar target audience.
All authors list their agents early on in the Acknowledgements section. Go to a library or large bookstore. Figure out which section your book would be in. Find the books that are closest to yours. Look in their Acknowledgements section and make a note of the agent’s name.
2. Use QueryTracker (Premium)
QueryTracker is one of the best resources available to writers who want to find an agent. It’s a (mostly) comprehensive database of agents, along with their contact information, genres they represent, other authors on their list, typical response time and more.
The basic version is pretty cool already, but the Premium version is well worth the $25 USD per year. Premium allows you to search at the intersection of genres (for example, spirituality and humour), as well as to track many other metrics.
3. Follow Manuscript Wish List (#MSWL)
If you’re wondering which agents or acquiring editors are looking for books in your subject area, definitely check out #MSWL. This project began on Twitter, back when Twitter was moderately functional. It branched out into a website, so those who aren’t on Twitter can find the same information.
You can see a real-time list of tweets requesting material here.
When I searched for #MSWL, this site came up, which offers another way to search for agents. However, it looks to me like this site is for-profit, and agents and editors have to sign up in order to be listed. I could be wrong and uninformed about this site, but because I haven’t vetted it, I suggest not spending money on it.
4. Attend writing conferences and pitch slams
If you live within driving distance of a major city, there’s almost certainly at least one annual writers’ conference you can attend.
There are myriad benefits to attending conferences. The top two (IMO) are 1) networking with other writers, and 2) attending pitch slams. (#3 are craft workshops, which can be super-helpful for subject-matter experts who are not expert writers.)
Pitch slams are like speed dating between authors and agents. You’ll typically have about five minutes with an agent, so you’ll need to have your elevator pitch down. I know many, many writers who have received requests for partial or full manuscripts from pitch slams; this isn’t the same as an offer of representation, but it does mean you’ve got a foot in the door.
And if it doesn’t go well, you can refine and pitch again—either the following year or at a different conference. You might get some great feedback you didn’t know about the market for your subject, upcoming comps, or other information that could influence your queries. Here’s the listing for the pitch slam at the upcoming Writers Digest conference in NYC this August. If you can afford to travel, the three national conferences I’d recommend are:
5. If you’ve got ’em, leverage personal connections
Far and away the easiest way to find an “in” with an agent is by referral from an existing client. Before you do ask every author you know to refer you, though, some cautionary notes:
Only ask for a referral if the following are true:
You are reasonably close to the author, meaning they’re a close friend or family member, or someone you know well. Don’t go tweeting at Cheryl Strayed for a referral to her agent. Also, if your freelance editor is a published author, don’t ask them to refer you to their agent. If your manuscript would be a good fit, we’ll tell you (and that’s exceedingly rare). Not all agents accept referrals, and among those who do, they might accept one type of nonfiction but not another.
Your subject matter is within the agent’s interest boundaries. Don’t ask for a referral to an agent known for pop culture humor or emerging science if your manuscript is about educational systems in the Netherlands.
A referral does not automatically guarantee an offer of representation. At the very least, though, it will get your chapters or proposal in front of an agent, and they can offer feedback to help you refine it.
How many query letters to send out
I tell clients to query at least 250 agents before they begin to think of giving up. You should get some kind of feedback during that process that will tell you if you need to adjust your query letter.
As Jane Friedman says (I’m paraphrasing here), the writers who got published never gave up. All it takes is one ‘yes’. I’ll add one of my favourite phrases here: Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle.
Knowing when to keep going or move on to the next project—like the art of the query letter and how to prepare for a call with a possible agent—are different-but-related topics that I’ll explore in future newsletters.