How To Decide If You Need a Literary Agent

And How to Find a Literary Agent

"You have to find an agent," said a fellow writer friend over lunch. "It's that important in today's industry!" I rolled my eyes and quickly stuffed the Reuben sandwich in my mouth. The thought of finding an agent scared me. Still, many questions arose, and so in my search to find an agent who would represent me, I discovered something else. It's not easy to find an agent! Here are some steps to help you determine if you need a literary agent and to find one if you do.

  1. Do You Really Need an Agent? Each year, market guidelines put out by book publishers change. Their needs are different. These guidelines are to help the editors find the best writers out there for them and weed out the rest. Each year, there has been a gradual change in how editors accept manuscripts. A publisher that accepted unsolicited manuscripts five years ago may now only accept material from published writers or members of SCBWI. In a year or so, this same publisher will most likely only accept submissions from agents. Why? Agents do the filtering for editors. Placing the right story and writer with the right editor is key to success in publishing, and agents are better able to do that," says Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

    When a smaller publishing house like Dutton receives 3500 queries a year, you can imagine they are struggling to keep up with the flow of incoming mail. Most queries and manuscripts never make it to an editor's desk and most will be rejected. Houghton Mifflin receives 15,000 queries yearly and still accepts unsolicited manuscripts, but keeping up with this much mail gets to be hard! You always increase your chances of having an editor read your work by mailing your material to the attention of a specific editor. Many writers do not and so the lucky mail person in the basement of the building gets to read your work! But an agent knows who the editors are and what they want. This is what a writer needs to be published!

  2. What is the Editor-Agent-Client Relationship? To reduce the number of solicitations, many book publishers will accept material only from agents. Editors often know the agents and vice versa. Usually, when an agent sends an editor a story, the editor knows it will be good - perhaps good enough for publication. The agent knows what the editor is looking for. Your manuscript gets priority. An agent handles the contracts and negotiations so the writer can focus on writing.

    Erin Murphy, founder of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, feels that the relationship between agent and client is complex. What an agent does varies from agent to agent. She feels an agent should provide continuity in writers' careers, even when the editors change houses or publishers change direction. "For me, agenting turns out to be what I envisioned editing would be; I can commit fully to an author, rather than balancing loyalty between author and the publishing house that employs me. My clients and I are partners, looking to shape their careers together."

    But many writers still do not have an agent. For some, this is by choice. Some writers feel there are still enough opportunities to sell their work on their own. They like to negotiate for themselves. And, they don't have to share their profit from selling a book. Sometimes harmful to a writer's career is a new agent in the industry who is trying to establish him or herself. New agents haven't made the contacts yet necessary to sell a writer's book and often, their chances of selling material is as good as the writer sending out his work on his own.

    However, the book publishing industry is narrowing its playing field and it is becoming harder for the writer to sell his or her work. There are pros and cons to having an agent, and each writer needs to decide what is right for him or her!

  3. How to Find an Agent Right For You. There are a lot of agents out there, but a good agent is hard to find. Some agencies know it's difficult to sell a book. They'll try to make money from the writer in other ways such as charging reading fees. Some agencies are not agencies at all. If you have to pay money to an agent, chances are, they are not legitimate nor have your best interest at heart. Some agencies will charge for postage and office supplies and this is okay, but generally stay away from "agents" in disguise.

    Just as you research the markets for appropriate publishers, you must also research the markets for good agents. If you're a member of SCBWI, this is a good place to start. Its website has a list of agents and their guidelines. SCBWI doesn't recommend them necessarily, but they have found favor enough to be accepted onto this list. There are also books available on agents and how to find an agent. Another good place to start is checking with the Association of Author's Representatives. They have scrupulous guidelines and don't accept anyone who claims to be an agent. They also have an agent list where you can find agents that represent many genres and authors.

  4. What Writers Should Look for in Agents. It's not easy finding an agent. It takes patience and persistence. The process of finding one is much like the process of submitting your work to a publisher. You are looking for agents who are respectable in the industry. Michelle Buckman, author, notes that, "Getting a bad agent is worse than no agent, but a good agent is precious to your career."

    An agent should be fair. By reading an agent's guidelines, you can get an idea of what an agent is like. What material do they represent? How long are their contracts for? What fees do they charge? But, you should take it a step further. Who do they represent? Who are their clients and what book publishers have they sold to? Do they belong to AAR? You can get this information just by asking. Send the agent an SASE with a note requesting this information.

    It's important to know ahead of time what kind of relationship you want with an agent. Do you want someone who is going to represent you one book at a time or do you want someone who is going to nurture and invest in your career? Is your agent going to be available to you when you need to talk about your work or have a question? Whatever you are looking for, make sure that the agency is right for you.

  5. What are Some Questions to Ask? Michelle Buckman has an agent she adores, and has offered some insightful questions for those writers looking for an agent. It's good to ask questions because agents want to have a strong partnership with their clients. The client wants an agent who will represent him or her well.
    • 1) Will you represent one book, or all my work?
    • 2) May I get a second agent to represent the categories you don't represent?
    • 3) May I continue to make contacts and market on my own if I keep you informed of my activities? This is vital, because you never want to stop networking. You never know when a contact may pay off.
    • 3) How and how often will you inform me of submissions and responses?
    • 4) Do you offer career guidance/manuscript critique?
    • 5) Do you prefer email correspondence or phone, and can I expect a reasonable response time? If an agent balks at being contacted, it may not be a good sign.
    • 6) How many clients do you represent and where do you see my work falling in that lineup? In reality, you want an agent who regards you and your work as top-notch, the best there is. If an agent doesn't feel this way, his or her attitude, either negative or positive, will be conveyed to the editor.
  6. What Are Agent's Looking for in Writers? Trends in publishing are constantly changing. The picture book boom of the 90's has diminished. Historical fictions that were once popular a few years ago are not selling well now. It's important to keep this in mind. Like the stock market, where prices go up and down, the trends in publishing do the same, too. Picture books and historical fictions will make a return in popularity in time. But, it doesn't mean that these types of books don't still sell today. Erin Murphy agrees. "Picture books have become harder to sell. They really bottomed out, and although publishers have recommitted to picture books in many instances, their needs are very particular."

    Agents in general seem to feel that novels are selling very well right now. But many are looking for something different. Fantasy novels are popular with the Harry Potter series but agents are not necessarily interested in the traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Neither are publishers, says Erin. "I only sign those I just can't bear letting go."

    Try not to lump all agents into one category either. Just as editors are different in their tastes and personalities, so are agents. Some agents do look at the whole package while others are looking for the one best seller. Dianne Ochiltree, a well-published picture book author, is one of many writers facing the ever-increasing challenge of attracting the interest of a literary agent these days.

    "Because of changes in the marketplace, I believe agents no longer have the luxury of looking at you in terms of talent to be developed over the course of a writing career. Instead, your work must be evaluated in the context of projects that can be successfully pitched to not only publishers, but eventually to other media---film, television, toys, videogames, etc. Just as many of today's most successful book characters can be described as media-spanning ‘franchises;' your work must be seen by literary agents as broad-based and marketable in today's highly competitive climate in order to get serious consideration as a potential client."

    Of course, not all agents will be a perfect match. That is why knowing what you want out of agent, and studying agencies is always a good idea. You want to find the agent that best fits your needs and will represent you, the way you want.

  7. What is the Reality of Agents? Most agencies ask a writer to send in just one story idea for them to review. This is frustrating to writers who want an agent to see more of their work and get a better idea of the bigger picture! "Seeing one piece tells you whether the person can write....and hard as it is to hear as a writer, that weeds out the vast majority," says Erin Murphy.

    The reality is that many the writers haven't a clue about writing and publishing or finding an agent. Agents receive submissions that clearly indicate the writer is an amateur. Some send in illustrations with their story and they aren't professional artists; some don't know how to write a cover letter or what a synopsis is. Sometimes the story structure is off....

    Erin Murphy, as with most other agents, will return unsolicited stories and query letters with a form letter. Agents find writers in several ways. Referrals from another writer who is already working with an agent are often the best according to Erin Murphy. "If they've been referred, another professional thinks they might be a match for me, personality-and style-wise, and thinks they're ready for representation."

    Meeting an agent at a conference and having some one-on-one time is also a good idea. Many agents who attend writer's conferences will have set times where they can sit down and chat about your writing. If they're interested, they'll let you know, but this is a great way to get face time with an agent! The worst way to contact an agent, according to Erin Murphy is cold contacting. She wants to know the person before she reads his or her work. "I'm a partner with my clients...Personalities are key here. You want to make sure you can work together."

  8. Do You Need Writing Credits? There are some writers out there who have never sold a piece of literature and wonder, can I still find an agent? It is possible to land a partnership with an agent if you have written a great story. It does happen - that great publishing deal with a first-time writer. However, agencies prefer to work with writers who are involved and know about the publishing industry. Erin Murphy is drawn to people by their personality, intelligence and spark. But she admits she is also more interested in partnering with writers who have been working in the field for some time, improving their craft and becoming a part of the community.

    The business of agents is growing and changing. It's exciting to think about all the publishing opportunities out there for writers. Writing is a business and choosing the right agent can be one of the most important decisions a writer will make

  9. Places to Start Finding an Agent:


Erin Murphy Literary Agency is closed to submissions except by referral and from writers she meets at conferences.

References: Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary Agency
Dianne Olchiltree, author
Michelle Buckman, author


Share this article!

Follow us!

Find more helpful articles:



Another informative article. I understood so much and I enjoyed reading it, too.

By Mary Norton