5 Tips on Finding a Literary Agent For the Book You've Written

You'll be doing the email equivalent of this a lot.
You'll be doing the email equivalent of this a lot. Photo by photosteve101/Flickr
When I teach my Intro to Fiction Writing class at Closing Credits, I always start by telling students what to expect in the world of publishing. There’s not much point in writing a book if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it. Inevitably, we end up talking about agents, the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Here are some tips I hand out.

Figure Out If You Really Need an Agent

I don’t mean “ go straight to the publishers.” They will throw your work in the trash. I mean, is your work better suited for self-release?

The example I always use is Chuck Tingle. There was always a market for weirdly-worded dinosaur erotica with badly-photoshopped covers and overt political commentary, but no agent was ever going to be able to sell that. The industry is focused on a handful of surefire moneymakers. It turns on a $100 bill, not a dime.

If your work is particularly weird or off the beaten path, you may be better off investing in yourself. Agents are for market-ready works.

Research the Market

Publishers are always looking for more of what they already have that sells well. This doesn’t mean you can’t innovate, but if you can bill yourself as the next Where the Crawdads Sing then you’re going to have much more receptive agents. These are the books that make commissions.

Whatever your genre, see what is selling well. I’m a horror writer, and what’s big now are short books on existential dread that might make a good Netflix film, novellas with non-white protagonists, and gothic tales in non-European settings. Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a deal with a story about a clown in a cornfield, but the odds are better if you’re following the trend.

Then Research the Agent

Hunting for an agent is not unlike creeping on someone you might want to date. Sending a boilerplate query letter to every agent in the book is a waste of time that will not get you anywhere. You have to stand out.

Ideally, agents should be queried in small groups once a month. Three or five is the max. Follow them on Twitter and check out their manuscript wishlists (#mswl). See what other books they’ve sold or read Ask an Agent interviews. If they hate military sci-fi, they will hate your military sci-fi even if it’s good.

The downside of this is that you end up emotionally investing in a lot of people at a distance. Which is why you need to…

Not Take Rejection Personally

While it’s possible your book is awful, it probably isn’t. In reality, agents just have a very limited amount of time and resources, and they have bills to pay like all of us. They choose their authors based on what they think they can sell.

The vast majority of rejections will be because they can’t think of anyone in the publishing industry who will spend thousands of dollars editing and preparing your book for publication. Remember, the publishing industry is incredibly conservative when it comes to what they take a chance on. You might be absolute magic, but if you aren’t guaranteed sales it doesn’t matter to the higher-ups.

Follow Directions to the Letter

If you do approach an agent, make sure you follow their submission guidelines to the absolute letter. This includes formatting the book, subject line protocols, spelling their name right, and respecting dates when the submission window closes.

The second most valuable thing an author can be after marketable is able to handle instructions. Writers who breeze past directions or who have no respect for boundaries are almost never worth the trouble. If an agent takes you on, they need to know you’ll be a partner and not a pain in the ass. Don’t believe the hype about an asshole genius everyone has to put up with. In 99 percent of cases, there is someone just as good as you who colors inside the lines. Check your ego. This is a business deal.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner