Choosing a literary agent


choosing a literary agent - police line up graphicActually, unless a writer is well established, he or she rarely picks a literary agent. What usually happens is that a literary agent agrees to represent a manuscriptan opportunity that the writer, having been rejected X number of times, generally jumps at.

But at some point in the manuscript submission process a selection of agents needs to be made.

Not all agents will handle whatever it is you're submitting, which means that you're best advised to make a very careful selection, usually through the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook or through the internet or other trade reference books.

You can usually get the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook at your public library, but it's often in hot demand and/or out of date by a year or so. Even when it is in date it's often out of date. The reason for this is that much of the publishing trade appears to live in a revolving door. Agents form partnerships that seem to vanish overnight. Sometimes agents radically cut or change their lists. Publishers merge, or (occasionally) divide. The entire industry is in a permanent state of flux.

To maintain any kind of grip on it, you need to actively trawl the net and/or read the literary columns of the newspapers, and/or attend book trade fairs.

Look at who's representing who and what and then research your literary agent as best you can. Find out something about them, however trivial. It can make a lot of difference to your Query Letter approach if you demonstrate that you're targeting an agent intelligently and have taken the trouble to find out their likes and dislikes.

Next, remember that agents pick books for a variety of reasons and, like the publishing world in general, they follow trends rather than set them.


Mr or Ms Literary Agent?

You might want to keep in mind that most literary agents are women. Some say this has ruined the market (for men at least). Others feel that female literary agents have simply expanded the market and have introduced ideas and genres that didn't exist 10 years or so ago.

Either way, whether you're a male or female writer, you'll want to know as much as possible about who is likely to want to represent you, and why.

I'd suggest that you be very methodical about who you approach. Keep a list of some sort. Keep a note of any telephone calls you makealong with brief details. Cross-reference agents with other agencies they've moved from, or to. And keep an up to date record, where possible, of their clients.

Don't assume that only male literary agents want thrillers whilst female literary agents want chicklit. It doesn't work like that. And even though there probably are certain divisions and demarcations, you're best advised to treat all agents as equal, even though clearly that isn't the case, not in terms of professionalism or energy or connections.

And don't assume that just because an agency represents a writer with a similar style to your own, they'll want you on board too. It may well be that they want something different now. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage if you find evidence of agencies in competition, or agencies that have recently split.

Think about it.



Want to read more?

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Mr Edit YouTube videos


Meanwhile, here are some of my You Tube videos that might be of interest to you. Hope you enjoy them.

You Tube video for writers and authors


Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue




You Tube literary agent video help


Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary agent.




You Tube video - how to write fiction


Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.




You Tube video for authors and novelists


Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.





Links for writers


Preditors & Editors. Here's where you can check out the credentials of literary agents and publishers. A must for any writer.


Creative Helps. Helpful resource for the creative community. Articles, links and tips.


Nick Daws' Writing Blog. Lots of useful posts on all aspects of writing, both for print and online, plus a guest post for anyone who wants to make a contribution. Check it out.






Creative writing





Special features


Darley Anderson, literary agent

Darley Anderson, top UK literary agent, on books,
publishing and success

Zoë Sharp, thriller writer

Zoë Sharp, creator of the

action-packed Charlie Fox series of books

Jeff Kleinman, literary agent

Jeff Kleinman, New York literary agent, talks shop

Creme de la Crime logo

Crème de la Crime:

An interview with

Lynne Patrick,

publisher and managing editor of a smallerbut


publishing house.

Submissions tips


Tip 1

Make sure you spell check whatever you send. Every error will put a black mark on your card, and if you get more than a handful of those, you'll be handed a red card. Above all else, check the spelling of the agent's name.


Tip 2

If there's doubt about the sex of the agent, do some careful research. I know of one or two agents, and publishers, whose sex isn't obvious from their names
(I can't think of any reason why they don't make it clear. But that's how it is).


Tip 3

Email queries were once a non-starter. But today, agents are more obliging.
If you are emailing, I suggest you send a simple, clear, polite email with a brief synopsis introducing your project. But don't send an attachment until it's been specifically requested. It can't hurt, however, to add a sample of your writing in the body of the email. Not more than a chapter, and preferably less. It might be your only chance to impress, so seize that chance.


Tip 4

Don't submit to more than one agent at a given agency. It undermines your project by building in mistrust, and will almost certainly get you a rejection if spotted.


Tip 5

Think carefully before revising a manuscript on a literary agent's suggestion unless there's a clear intent by that agent to represent you (albeit a conditional one). You can spend a lot of time rewriting to suit individual whims and never really advance your project. By all means listen to advice and suggestions, but follow your own instincts.


Tip 6

If you've had a manuscript rejected, in theory you can't resubmit it. But if it's been substantially revised, you can ask an agent to take a second look. Some writers, note, routinely re-send their rejected and re-titled manuscripts on the principle that agents have short memories, or that a different agent at the same agency may discover it. Beyond that, you may have written an horrendous query letter, or committed some other faux pas and need, or just want, a second chance. Or you may have since realised that you should have started at chapter four or something similar. Or you may have found a new way to 'spin' a previously submitted story giving it fresh impetus. Agents, perhaps through no fault of their own, commonly misunderstand projects. That “second chance” submission may help address this. But make it a genuinely significant improvement or revision.


Tip 7

Don't staple your manuscript pages. Don't clip them in a folder. Don't hole-punch them. Don't dress them in any way. Just send them loose in a small, easily opened, easily closed box with the title on each page and page numbers (folios). Leave some margin around the copy. Make it as presentable as possible. Use a straightforward typeface (font) such as Times, Garamond, or a similar serif face (if you're not sure what a serif is, you know what to do). Avoid fonts such as Courier or Helvetica or anything fancy. Be plain. Be straightforward.


Tip 8

Should you double space? In the old days this was vital. I'd argue that it's less so now. Double spacing was intended to give editors and proofreaders room to make corrections and notes. With modern word processors, this is less important. That said, don't make the copy too tight. It can make your manuscript look like too much of a chore to read. So ease up (see Samples for examples of how a manuscript might look).


Tip 9

Always include return postage if you want your manuscript back - but it may be better to reprint each time you send it out. It's bad for the environment, etc. But a creased and crumpled manuscript landing on an agent’s desk won't do you any favours. In view of the high cost of postage, it may, in any case, also save money in the long term.


Tip 10

If you're dealing with an overseas agent, ask if
you can forward the manuscript by email. Or offer to pay for running off a copy on their printer if you want. Just make sure it doesn't sound like a bribe.


Tip 11

Spell check rigorously.


Tip 12

Be patient. You can follow up your submission with a polite email or telephone call. But give it 12 weeks at least.


Tip 13

Try not to cosy up to a literary agent, no matter how desperate you are. Just state your submissions offer clearly and, importantly, concisely. Hooking a literary agent is like picking up a girl/guy at a party; if you come across as desperate, people will instinctively recoil. It's success that breeds success, so try and sound successful - but without going overboard.


Tip 14

Remember to state who your target reader is. Don't be vague about it. Don't simply say "women" or "men". Tell the agent that you're aiming at, say, readers of modern crime fiction, or young adults between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, or male and female readers of gothic horror, or whatever fits the bill.

No, it may not be entirely clear who the target reader is, especially with fiction projects. Writing, like other arts, isn't always demographically focussed. Ideally, you're writing for yourself. For the love of literature, etc.

But in the publishing world, agents and editors want to see direction and focus. They want to put every pigeon in a well defined pigeon hole. So try and narrow your intended reading audience to a genre and age group, but don't make it too narrow. If you say that you're aiming at young adult readers of 19th century gothic nursing romances, you could be reducing your potential market (on paper at least) to an unfeasibly small number.

And keep this in mind too; you may aim at a particular target readership, only to have an agent tell you that you're shooting at the wrong bullseye and that you’re probably better suited to a younger or older market.

If that happens, listen carefully to what the agent advises. They've been known to be right before.


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