How to Find the Agent for You

Targeting your agent search is vital to finding the right agent for you.

During the time the Editor and copy editor were busy editing your novel you will, hopefully, have been doing several other key things to prepare your submission: including researching suitable agents to approach. 

There are a myriad amount of ways to do this:

  1. Remember those 10 best-selling novels/authors in your sub-genre I suggested you read a few blogs back? Who are those writers agents? If you are in the States, find the US based agent, ditto UK and elsewhere. Approach the one in your backyard first. Then, if you get no traction, you can write directly to their US or UK reps. 
  2. All those writers groups you are following on social media. Ask for recommendations for agents in your sub-genre who might be new and upcoming or have posted they are taking on new clients.
  3. Go to events with local authors and/or visiting authors at your local library/bookshop. Get chatting with those authors (and the booksellers). In the after-talk signing queue is not usually the right time as it’s too rushed, but they are often milling around before the show, rather than after when they are dashing for their uber home. Chatting to authors at these events is a good way not just to get recommendations but to get information about which authors/publishers to avoid like the plague.
  4. Google the top 10 author agencies in your country. Go on to their websites and find out which of their literary agents represent novels like yours. 
  5. Attend writers conferences, events, local and national in person and, indeed, online. Get talking to as many agents and publishers at these events as your personality can take. Team up with another writer and, if there’s multiple events at one time, you commit to chatting to one agent if they speak with another.  That way you can swap notes. You are not going to be pressganging the agent into reading your novel. Instead, you are attempting to make human contact, to forge some kind of connection. I know this is a tricky prospect when most of us authors spend way too much time alone. But, you can do it. Introduce yourself, say you’re working on your debut. Tell them you enjoyed their talk/panel and reference one of their authors who you may like (even if it’s just an interesting interview you saw them give on YouTube). Ask what they’re hoping to find on their slush pile. If it matches yours, great. If it doesn’t pitch what you have. Ask if you can send it when it’s done. Even if they say yes and you can see they don’t mean it, send it anyhow. It’s good to keep in contact with people you’ve connected with in some way. This book might not be for them, but it gives them the opportunity to have at least attempted to read it. If they like your writing they will be more amenable to reading your next novel or that treatment for your next novel. Don’t be afraid to approach agents or publishers at events. Generally, if an agent or publisher behaves rudely when approached politely by a potential client then you don’t want them to represent you or publish you. They’re at a professional event, if they don’t expect to be politely approached by authors they didn’t read the memo! Be sensible, don’t charge at them waving your manuscript when they are emerging from the toilet cubicle. 
Hone that list.

So, now you might have a list of 10 agents or, even, 50. Put them in order of preference and put a note as to why next to them. That way, you will remember when approaching them as you don’t want to get details like that wrong. ‘Because you represent Lee Child’ when they’re not his agent, that’s the next agent on the list. That kind of error will mean they won’t be reading past that line in your email unless they are in an exceptionally forgiving mood. Now you are going to start emailing them batches of five at a time, several days apart. If you have heard any nonsense about contacting one of them at a time just ignore it. This is your debut novel, you need to move as swiftly as possible now that you have prepared it as professionally as can be it’s ready to go out into the outside world. If you delay, the other person with the idea similar to yours will get theirs in before yours. You don’t want that to happen not after all these years of hard work.

The most important and universal thing to say here is: STOP and read the submission guidelines on the agency’s website.

If they say they want three chapters or the first 5000 words, that’s what they want. They don’t want five chapters or 2000 words or the whole darn thing. Don’t be tempted to conflate twenty chapters into three. They mean whatever is shorter, three chapters or 5000 words. It does not need a jazzy animated cover, just the title of your novel and, very importantly, your name. It doesn’t need a copyright symbol on that page or any other. You can’t copyright an idea and, as every agent and author will tell you 99.9% of ideas and execution of ideas aren’t original, just a bit different somehow so there are many floating around that are very near identical to one another. I know, it’s happened to me several times. 

Thanks to email we can keep a clear record of who we’ve sent our manuscript to and on what date. So, if emailing your paper baby to strangers makes you nervous about its ultimate fate, don’t let it. That’s a reliable record of which agency/agents it’s been read at should you ever need to contact a lawyer.

Next step: write a wonderfully engaging and concise email about yourself and your manuscript. State its genre, say why you’re contacting them e.g. we met at that writers’ talk at such and such bookshop; or, you rep my favourite author or a writer whose work is similar to mine. Maybe, your experience is unique, maybe you were a doctor in a war zone and you have a medical thriller set in a war zone told from the POV of a doctor. If your experience pertains to the novel, write that. Or, if you have an interesting life-story that might be useful in marketing the novel, write that e.g. if you are an ice trucker who writes on their driving breaks. Perhaps you have been short-listed in a writing competition. If so, write that. It will show the agent you are committed to a career.

Along with your manuscript submission and your wooing covering email you will include the following: a short (one letter page) synopsis of the manuscript you are submitting (many agencies will ask for this. If they don’t, then don’t send it). If the agent likes your submission they will often read or re-read this synopsis before requesting the full manuscript. 

Don’t chase the agent to read your manuscript. If they like it or love it they will chase you to send them the rest of it. If you are in the lucky position of having your manuscript requested, it’s possible the agent has already indicated when they’ll revert to you. If they have, then wait a little longer than that, say a week or two, and then send them a gentle nudge. They will probably not just have to find the time to read it, but also to discuss it with other agent colleagues at their agency. If they have responded well to the material they will want to be assured their peers feel the same way about the potential and, also, that they haven’t missed anything similar recently in the marketplace that might mean yours isn’t going to be so easy to sell. 

You will have already figured out that being an author demands a lot of patience. Publishing often moves slower than the average glacier. But, look on the bright side, at least you have time to work on the next novel with one hand while constantly pressing refresh on your emails with the other.

How Other Authors Got Their Agents

Laura Shepherd-Robinson author of best-selling debut Blood & Sugar: I honed in on my agent because he represented CJ Sansom. I emailed him a query letter, offering to send him a full or a partial. I didn’t submit wider as he was really the top of my list. He came back to me after a week (it was the week of London Book Fair, so I hadn’t been expecting him to) and I signed!

Cass Green, best-selling author of Don’t You Cry: I used to write YA but when I switched to writing adult crime I wanted a second agent who specialised in this, so I sent out submissions and was signed in less than a week. But I had four YA books and few awards under my belt by then, whereas with the YA I’d been rejected 37 times by agents!

Cally Taylor, Sunday Times best-selling author of Sleep : I bought the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and selected the six agents that represented the bestsellers in my genre. I had four rejections, one that never responded and a request for the full from Darley Anderson. He requested exclusivity while he read it which I agreed to. He then rang me around six weeks later to tell me that he enjoyed it, but it needed more work before it was publishable. He told me to go away and study the bestsellers in my genre and pointed out areas in my manuscript that needed work. I did as he said then resubmitted the manuscript. Some time later I received a phone call from Madeleine Milburn who was then his Head of Foreign Rights. Darley had given her my manuscript to read and she loved it so much she asked him if she could represent me. He said yes and I became her first author. When she left to start up her own agency some time later I went with her.

Author Marnie Riches, ‘the Martina Cole of the North’ who has sold over quarter of a million novels: When the agent who repped me for kids books retired I asked an editor friend who she recommended as being a reputable, safe pair of hands. The kids-lit agent from Abner Stein was one of two names she gave me. I sent her both manuscripts and she loved my writing but was about to go on maternity leave. Rather than lose me, she passed me onto the agency’s director. I made it clear to him I had interest from other avenues and he read The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die in about a week, loved it and asked to meet me. I met with him on the same day as another agent, but opted to go with him because we clicked and I felt he had encyclopaedic knowledge of the industry and a proper vision of how to grow my career. The slush-pile never got me anywhere. It was always through direct, personal approaches or recommendations.

Crime author S J Holliday’s latest novel is the psych thriller Violet: I met my agent socially at Harrogate Crime Festival. A few years later, my prologue got shortlisted in a competition and I tweeted it – he contacted me and asked to read my MS. It was still a work-in-progress, but he signed me up the next day. So – people say networking doesn’t matter, but it does – and personal recommendation, because a friend Luca Veste was already with him and he also vouched for me.

Crime author Roz Watkins’s debut was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger: I had a one-to-one with crime writer and tutor Claire McGowan at the Festival of Writing in York, and she kindly passed on my submission to her fab agent who took me on. I had interest from other agents from that festival too, so have always recommended it to people as a great place for writers to network.