Literary Agents

Literary agents, those elusive, magical creatures that will help you and your book rocket to the NY Times Best Seller List. Because without them, you have virtually no chance in getting a NY Big Boy Publisher, which is your best (but certainly not your only) chance in becoming a best-selling author on a grand scale.

Before you ever contact even ONE Literary Agent, there are three things you absolutely must do.

  1. Finish & polish your book. This means have more people than just your family members read it, like beta reading groups, writing groups, online critique, writing critique groups, etc. (Sometimes for non-fiction, an agent will only require a book proposal, but this post focuses mostly on fiction writers.) Get it professionally edited.
  2. Research. And I mean extensive research that will likely take three to six months of your time before you ever send your first query. More on this below.
  3. Write and revise and revise and revise and revise and revise your query letter based on the information you found in the aforementioned research. Then get it critiqued and revise it again.

I’m not kidding.

Literary agents get between 75 and 500 queries letters every. single. day. Most of them are crap queries from writers who didn’t do the above three things. These are easily deleted by literary agents, but it also puts them in a deletey mood. I can’t begin to imagine how exhausting it is…day after day after mind-numbingly boring day.

Query after query, several of which brag about how wonderful their novel is and how it’s going to make said agent rich.

While preparing to search for an agent, I participated in Nathan Bransford’s Agent for a Day exercise in 2009, and I got slapped with the reality of what a literary agent goes through daily.

On a very, very light day.

I suggest you read this entire exercise from beginning to end. This will put you in your prospective agent’s position. From this perspective you will write a better query letter.

Then I suggest you read his entire blog in full as part of your research.

If you really, really want that NY Big Boy, you will do all these things first.

There are really no shortcuts.

Don’t send a query they can easily delete. Don’t give them a reason to delete it. They don’t need a reason to delete it. They need a reason not to delete it. DO THE RESEARCH.

Before you ever submit a query to an agent, you have to get to know them. Each and every one of them.
Don’t submit a YA story to an agent who says they do not represent children’s books, unless they specify that YA is okay. YA is a fuzzy area–some consider them children’s, some don’t. Know what they accept and what they don’t.

Learn about who they are. Their choice in client leans heavily on those who make a personal connection with the agent in question. It has to do with what they like. What they need. What they choose to represent.

Agents don’t care that “everybody” likes your book. Whether that “everybody” is friends and family or whether you’ve actually tested the market.

Agents don’t want to hear how you are going to make them a lot of money, because they hear that countless times a day. Read the Query Shark blog in full. In Full. And you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Reality Check: New York Publishing is changing so fast at the moment that many agents are finding other jobs. Nathan Bransford, who I mentioned earlier, is not longer an agent. He is now an author. Colleen Lindsay, of the #queryfail fame, left the FinePrint Literary Agency to take a job in business development at Penguin. And as for agents’ slush piles…Rachelle Gardner, of the WordServe Literary agency blogged about her slush pile for 2010. She received over 10,000 queries. How many clients did she find through those cold queries? ZERO. That’s right. Not one query resulted in representation with this agent. She found new clients through conferences, referrals, and even blogging.

My agent? The fabulous Louise Fury found me on Twitter.


The system is in flux. Do your research.


Do you have an agent? How did you find one? Query, Conference, or another way?

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Maria Padian says:

    How absolutely right on … finding a literary agent is an uphill battle and in my experience it was much, much harder than writing or publishing the book! Here’s a tip: get hold of books in your genre which you feel are similar to yours in terms of marketablity/writing/tone. Take a look at the acknowledgements page: most authors thank their agents. THAT’S someone who might also be able to place your book! And always remember: chin up! The meanest rejections I ever got were from literary agents … ironically, I met up with one of those “meanies” at a launch party for my debut novel, which I sold to Random House, thanks to another agent. Always remember that they need us writers in order to make a living.

    1. Christine says:

      Thanks for sharing your story & advice, Maria; and congratulations on your success. Random House! Wow!

  2. Dave says:

    Christine, I’ve read a number of articles on what hoops writers are supposed to jump through to compete for an agent. I sure would like to see one on exactly what they do vs what they charge. Thank you.

    1. christinerose says:

      They shouldn’t be charging anything! Don’t ever pay an agent money up front. They get a percentage of the sale they set up. That’s what they do, place your MS with a publisher, negotiate a contract, and they get 15% of the advance against royalties for that work. Don’t *ever* pay an agent money or even a reading fee. Those are not real agents but rather con artists.

  3. I found my agent’s name through a fellow author. I actually got a rejection from an agent after I’d sold the book and accepted representation from another agent. I can’t lie. That felt good.

    1. christinerose says:

      TeeHee! I bet it did!

  4. Michele Shaw says:

    Hi, Christine! I was at DFWcon last year with your agent Louise, and very impressed, though I never got the chance to speak with her directly, darn! Congrats on finding a wonderful agent. I met several agents at conferences and received partial/full requests through the cons, my query, and even got to send my full through a contest win. In the end, I signed with my agent after sending a cold query to her slush, followed by a full request, followed by the exchange of a few emails, and finally, “the call.” It was and still is exciting. I think writers have to try different avenues to catch someone’s eye and not rely on one method. And, they can’t give up, even though I know there are times when it’s very tempting..

    1. christinerose says:

      Oh yes. There is no one way to find an agent. That’s for sure. And Louise is absolutely fabulous!

  5. I have been looking for an agent since 2000. So I finally gave up the search and self published. I did not write another book for ten years until I finally decided that these words in my brain must have an audience. In the beginning of my journey to publishing, I did all the things you suggested. I got replies back like, “your book is too ethnic for a commercial audience.” That came from a agent that represents one of the most successful “ethnic” eriters in the business. I do believe that one day I will be picked up by a literary agent who believes that my work will sell. Until then, I do what I can to promote my books online and by word of mouth. It will not make me rich, but I feel happy when someone who has read my books asks me questions and praises my work.

    1. christinerose says:

      Good for you! You sound like you feel successful in your choices, and that greatly pleases me. So many authors think they’re “unsuccessful” unless they’re published by NY or make loads of money. If your work touches people, you are successful. Thank you for your comment!

  6. First of all, congratulations on landing an agent on Twitter. That’s pretty amazing. I liked this post because you don’t mince your words, and that’s what the uninitiated need.

  7. Loved the post, every last bit of it is true, but I have to say you make an awfully strong argument against querying at all with your last few lines (landing an agent via Twitter, Rachelle Gardener’s slush pile stats from 2010). The reality is that the chances of landing an agent via a cold query are virtually zero. The exceptions are few. I spent a year querying, It was awful. I came super close several times. In the end, I went the small press route (not a vanity press, not self-pub) and have since contracted three books without an agent. Publishing is like the Wild West right now. Following rules will make you very good at following rules. Spend your time working on your book, working on a new book, meeting other writers, making connections via social media, finding a back door somewhere. In my opinion, it’s a better use of your time and if there’s one thing writers don’t have enough of, it’s time.

    1. christinerose says:

      Yes…everything you said, plus building an author platform.

  8. jennysound says:

    the hardest part is to think it will never happen. slog, slog, slog. okay, so i keep slogging. it’ll happen. i like the writing part better.

    1. christinerose says:

      So much better…

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