Literary Agents

Gone are the days when a fiction writer could send a manuscript to a mainstream publisher uninvited and expect it to be read, if only by some junior flunky whose job it was to screen submissions. In today’s market, such “over-the-transom” submissions are relegated to the trash can without even being opened. Furthermore, most editors refuse to consider any proposal that does not come recommended by an agent — or by an established author whose work and judgment are known and respected. Since few novice writers rub shoulders with such an author, they are left with the arduous task of attracting an agent who will represent their work.

So how do you go about it? The first step is to identify which agents consider your particular genre of fiction. The current year’s copy of the Guide to Literary Agents published by Writer’s Digest Books is a valuable resource. Not only does it include helpful articles about marketing basics, but its section on literary agents has listings for several hundred agents. Each listing is coded according to the agency’s willingness to take on new writers. It also gives contact details as well as information about member agents, any professional organizations to which they belong, whether they represent fiction or nonfiction and the percent of each, which genres of fiction they consider, and how they wish to be contacted.

There are also various web sites that offer agent listings. Agent Query ( is one of the best. You can search by book genre or by specific agency name. Each listing provides a thumbnail sketch of the agent as well as a link to a full profile. You can also link to the agency’s website for further research.

Once you have identified a working list of agents who might be right for you, I highly recommend that you do some further vetting for each. You have already determined that they represent your particular genre of fiction. Next stop should be the agencies’ web sites. You want to know whether they belong to any professional organizations such as the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.) The AAR requires strict ethical standards of its members, and your agency’s membership gives you a high level of confidence in their professional integrity. You want to read their submissions page to make sure you have the most up-to-date information about how they wish to be contacted. You also want to know how many writers they represent and what their rate of success is. There are pros and cons to being represented by a large agency vs. a smaller one. You’ll have plenty of time to consider that issue when and if you receive an actual offer of representation.

It is also a good idea to go to the Preditors and Editors web site ( and click on the link for Agents & Attorneys. You can look up your potential agent alphabetically. The listings are short, but they will tell you whether the agent has made verified sales and will warn if he or she is not recommended by the site. They will also verify any professional organizations of which the agent is a member.

Many smaller agencies do not belong to any of the representatives’ organizations. This is not to say they are not legitimate businesses who will do their best for you. It is wise, however, to do an extra layer of investigation in these cases. One of the simplest ways is to “google” the agent’s name and see what comes up. If writers have had a bad experience with the agent, you will probably find their testimony somewhere on the web.

A word of caution. Never pay an agent to read your work. This practice is verboten within the profession’s ethical standards. An agent might also read your proposal, or even your entire manuscript if they have asked for it, and tell you it needs editing, a service they will provide for a fee. Do not fall for this! The chances of such an agent ever selling your work are next to nothing. If you want your manuscript professionally edited, find someone whose only interest is in helping you improve the manuscript and your skills. Do your rewrite and then go looking for a reputable agent.

Once you have decided which agents might be a good fit for your manuscript, you can begin contacting them. We’ll talk about the written submission in a separate article. Another option is to attend a writers’ conference where your agent will be appearing. You can find this information in the Guide to Literary Agents or by simply going to the agent’s web site. Many conferences offer the opportunity for conferees to sign up for a private consultation with an agent wherein you can present a sample of your work. Conferences also offer classes and workshops on various aspects of writing and allow you to form relationships with other aspiring writers. If it is within your budget, conferencing can be a valuable experience. It does require patience, however. Particular conferences happen only once a year and will give you access to only one or two of your target agents. That said, I encourage you to consider attending one or more in conjunction with the more traditional method of querying agents through correspondence.

Return to Sell Fiction