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Find a Literary Agent

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 12 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Find A Literary Agent

If you're serious about writing novels, it is possible to make your way on your own, but you are far more likely to enjoy success if you enlist the services of a literary agent.

A skilled agent can take care of everything from book publishing to marketing and promotion, negotiating your contracts and opening up new opportunities for you to work, taking care of business whilst you concentrate on your writing.

But every day agents are bombarded by requests from new writers anxious to secure their services while writers are frequently approached by unskilled individuals claiming to offer an agent's services. How can you track down the real thing and persuade them to take you on?

Finding an Agent

The number one way to find a bona fide literary agent is to look one up in an industry guide like MacMillan's annual Writer's Handbook. You can find these guides in libraries so you don't need to spend money on them, though it's important to make sure the one you use is up to date.

Alternatively you can find agents' adverts in writers' magazines, though it's advisable to stick to print ones as online publications are presently more likely to contain adverts from unqualified individuals. Most genuine agents work for established agencies whose track records you can easily look up.

A few freelance, but most of these have previously worked for agencies and you can likewise check out their backgrounds.

Securing an Agent

Even if you're writing to a large agency, it's important to address your correspondence to a named individual. If possible, check the agency's website to make sure your information is up to date. Approaching an agent is much like approaching a publisher.

Keep your initial letter short, polite and to the point. Don't try to make jokes or show off your writing skills with elaborate language. Provide a one page biography detailing your publishing history and any relevant qualifications (such as a degree in creative writing - don't bother mentioning your A-level results). If relevant, include a one page description and synopsis of any work you are currently trying to sell.

It's practically impossible to get the attention of an agent if you have no publishing history, no matter how good you may be at writing. However, this doesn't mean that you need to have published a book before. If you've written for high-status publications, that will help your case, as will any success in winning significant literary awards. Being in the public eye for other reasons is also a strong potential asset.

If you don't hear back from an agent after the first time you write, it is acceptable to wait a month and then try again, but don't be pushy and demand a reply. If you get no response at this stage, turn your attention elsewhere.

Different Types of Agent

Individual agents are interested in different types of writing, so it's important to know the specialities of each agent you approach. Pointless bothering of a sports-focused agent with your romance novels could earn you a bad reputation in the industry, and these people have long memories.

Finding an agent with appropriate special interests is advantageous not only because you'll be more interesting to them but also because they'll have more expertise at marketing books like yours, and will be better connected in that area of the publishing industry. Good contacts are essential to an agent's success.

Building a Relationship

Once you've found an agent, it's important to devote some time to building up a good relationship. At the centre of this there must be trust. This means that you must be able to trust your agent to pursue your best interests within the publishing industry, whilst your agent must be able to trust you to deliver good work on time.

Remember that your agent has a vested interest in helping you because they're paid on a percentage basis - normally ten to fifteen percent of your total income from writing. This means that they earn more when they get you good deals. However, they can't guarantee the same level of interest from you, so you need to work especially hard early on to demonstrate your commitment.

Building up a good relationship with an agent forms the bedrock of many a successful literary career. When writing is your business you should look on your agent as a sort of business failure. Only by working together can you achieve success.

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