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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

How to find a literary agent

Every so often someone who’s just finished their first novel contacts me to ask for tips on finding a literary agent. I suppose I can only really tell you how it worked for me, but I hope this will be helpful.

1.  Yes, you DO need an agent.

Sometimes I hear people (writers just starting out, who don’t have an agent yet) grumble about the 15% commission. Don’t even think about querying editors directly. You’ll end up in the slushpile, and contrary to popular legend, editorial assistants virtually never rescue great novels out of that leaning stack of paper. Believe me, your agent earns every penny.

2. Think your novel is ready? I may not have read it, but I can tell you it ain’t. Revise, and revise, and revise some more.

I “finished” my first novel when I was twenty-two, and was impatient to see it off into the world. It’s totally understandable–of course you’re eager to prove yourself–but that impatience may end up costing you more time in the long run when prospective agents are only willing to tell you your work has potential. Spend another three or six months revising so that your novel is as polished and as fully realized as it can be.

3.  Is it fiiiiiiiinally ready? Good. Now check the acknowledgments pages of books similar to your own.

Not to say you shouldn’t do this while you’re still revising, but if I were you I’d hold off on actually sending out the queries.

4.  If the agents you’re interested in are well established (i.e., possibly too busy to take you on), check the agency website for up-and-comers.

This is how I found my agent, who is awesome and with whom I have been very happily working for six and a half years. I was working as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins, and my (also totally awesome) boss mentioned that she wanted to work with Brian DeFiore. I checked out Brian’s website, saw that Kate was looking for character-driven literary fiction, sent her an email, and was signed within two weeks.

Junior agents are eager to build their own list, hungry for new talent, and as such are ready and willing to give you more time and attention than their bosses can–and yet they can draw on their older colleagues’ experience. Best of both.

5. Don’t dwell on rejections.

I know this sounds really obvious and totally pat, but when you get a rejection letter from your “dream agent” it can feel weirdly personal, like you’ve been dumped by the guy you thought you were gonna marry. The relationship analogy is apt because ideally you and your agent are going to be in it together for the long haul, and of course you’re not going to be able to forge that kind of connection with just anybody–he or she MUST be head over heels in love with your work. And as with marriage, you only need the one offer, so long as that offer comes from the right one.

6.  If you’ve been sending out queries for a year or more and haven’t gotten an offer, consider the possibility that this book might be your Practice Novel.

It sucks, I know. But I promise you you’re in very good company. I have a Practice Novel too, and I’ll tell you more about it soon.

So this is the most important piece of advice I have to give:

Persistence is everything.

Keep writing, and if you have even a modest degree of talent you WILL be successful. Best of luck!

7 Comments to How to find a literary agent

  1. Ailbhe Slevin's Gravatar Ailbhe Slevin
    January 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Great advice – I approached fifty agents before I finally signed with Jane. My ear became so attuned to rejection that I could detect the sound of a returned manuscript hitting the door mat as I lay in bed…
    I have to include a quote from my favourite rejection; his name was Juri Gabriel. Despite the fact that he didn’t want to sign me, I was totally in love with him after getting his PFO:
    ‘That there is a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion.
    If you have genuine ability, persist; the real odds are less fearsome than
    they might at first appear.’

  2. dee's Gravatar dee
    January 3, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    need to get me one of those….

  3. January 3, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    LOVE that quote, Ailbhe. Dead on.

  4. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    January 4, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I may not be a writer, but #4 is still applicable to me, especially at this time in my life 😉

  5. January 5, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your experience/advice with us! I’m determined to make 2011 the year!

  6. January 11, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    More on needing to fall in love—a recent tweet from agent Laurie Abkemeier:
    ‘Reading a proposal that keeps me fully engaged at 1:00 am reminds me that I shouldn’t settle for anything less.’

  7. January 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Camille for your note, and of course, you are right on with all of this.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.