Everything you need to know about literary agents. We're here to help
Do I need a literary agent or a publisher?
If you are writing a novel, children's fiction, or mainstream non-fiction (the kind of thing you might find at the front of a bookstore), you will need a literary agent as the relevant publishers seldom take work direct from writers. If you are writing niche/specialist non-fiction, you can go direct to publishers. More info here.
What do agents actually do?
The core job of a literary agent is to sell your manuscript to a publisher. Agents are not primarily there to offer editorial advice, to promote your self-published work, or to give you feedback on your ideas. You will only secure a literary agent when you have a manuscript that is either strong enough to sell or is very close to being saleable. More info here, via the Writers' Workshop.
How do agents get paid?
Agents do not take any money upfront (and the practice of taking any kind of reading fee is strongly discouraged.) Instead, they make commission on any sales made on your behalf. Most professional authors who have the services of an agent strongly believe that they get excellent value for money. Get more info, via the Writers' Workshop.
How many literary agents should I approach?
We recommend that you target about 8-12 agents. Bear in mind that, for most manuscripts, there are realistically only about 8-12 probable publishers, and that publishers are even pickier about manuscripts than agents. That means if your manuscript isn't impressing at least one agent in 10 (or thereabouts), it probably needs some more work. If you want help improving your manuscript, the Writers' Workshop offer friendly, constructive and highly expert advice. More info here, via the Writers' Workshop.
Can I submit work to multiple agents at the same time?
Yes, but we strongly recommend against a blanket approach. Sending your work to a maximum of 12 agents in two waves about 6-8 weeks apart sounds about right to us.
Do I need an agent who specialises in my genre/subject area?
Almost certainly not. The vast majority of agents are generalists, typically representing both fiction and non-fiction, commercial and literary work. So if you have written (let's say) a crime novel, you should certainly think about approaching agents whose client lists indicates a much broader range of interests than simply crime/thriller.
Do I need an agent who lives close to me?
No. You need an agent who has excellent contacts with publishers - which is why most agents are based in and around London.
How do I write a covering letter?
Keep it short, businesslike and well-written. For more advice on covering letters, see:
How to write a perfect covering letter (from the Writers' Workshop site)
A sample covering letter (from the Writers' Workshop site)
The Writers' Workshop also offers a free covering letter review service. Contact them here.
How do I write a novel synopsis?
A synopsis should run to no more than 500 words or so. It is a simple summary of the plot of your novel. It should not be written like a cover blurb, or be too 'salesy'. More information via the Writers' Workshop here.
Do I need to complete my novel before I seek an agent?
Yes. Don't waste an agent's time by asking them for feedback on your idea, or help with developing your book - or even simply approaching them when your book is half-written. You need to complete your novel first. Polish & perfect it. Then seek agents. If you are writing non-fiction, then a book proposal (see below) may be sufficient.
What is a non-fiction book proposal?
A book proposal typically amounts to (i) an introduction, (ii) 2-3 sample chapters, and (iii) an outline of everything else. Book proposals are common in subject-led non-fiction. Where a non-fiction manuscript relies strongly on narrative (eg: it's a misery memoir), you will probably find that agents want to review the whole thing before they offer representation. More info via the Writers' Workshop here.
Is it possible to meet agents?
Yes. Many agents attend writers' conferences, in order to meet new writers and find new manuscripts. There are a number of such conferences, but Agent Hunter recommends the Festival of Writing, run by our sister company, the Writers' Workshop. You should also check with local writing groups and creative writing schools, as many of those will host the occasional talk/workshop with agents.
Where can I get help on my manuscript?
If your manuscript is strong enough to sell, and if you approach a dozen or so agents in a professional and intelligent way, you WILL secure representation.
If you find that you have approached the right number of agents in the right way, and have still not secured representation, it's virtually certain that your manuscript is not yet strong enough to sell. In which case, fix it! Our colleagues at the Writers' Workshop offer tough, constructive and expert editorial advice - and they've got a blistering record at getting their clients into the hands of agents. More info about how to get feedback on your work here.
Need more help?
We strongly recommend you get hold of Harry Bingham's Guide to Getting Published. It tells you everything you need to know and gets fabulous feedback from readers. You might also be interested in How To Write by the same author.