Finding Your Fairy Godmother: A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent

Absolute Blank

By Seanan McGuire

ELEVATOR PITCH: “Can you sell this in the time it takes to ride the elevator?”

It’s time to talk about something that’s near and dear to every writer’s heart. Something that many of us regard as falling somewhere between “fairy godmother” and “the monster in the closet.” Something that can legitimately make the difference between success and success that takes a whole lot longer to accomplish. No, I’m not talking about talent.

I’m talking about literary agents.

QUERY: “Dear Mr. Agent, I have written…”

As a writer, if you want to become a professional, it’s your job to write something that’s good enough to sell. Not “have an idea that’s good enough to sell.” Not “have enough talent to change the literary world forever.” The first thing you need to do is write something that’s good enough to be worth an agent’s time. How will you know when you’ve done that? Well, that’s very personal, but I recommend finding someone who’s equipped to give you an honest opinion—a creative writing professor, a writer’s group, or just a really blunt friend—and asking them.

Background Image: Tom Simpson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For purposes of today’s discussion, we’re going to assume that you’ve got a finished, salable product. Awesome! At this point, the potential for a literary agent comes in. Now, a literary agent’s job is to take that something that you’ve written… and sell it. Sounds simple, right? It both is and isn’t. The literary agent will understand business protocols, the current state of the market, reasonable expectations, and what a good contract should include. A good literary agent protects the interests of his or her client, prepares them for the realities of the publishing world, and generally frees the writer’s time up for, I don’t know, writing.

I’ll be frank: many authors don’t have agents when they first start out. The agent-to-author ratio is scary, especially since you don’t need any training to stick “author” onto your name. Most agents are already representing several clients, and there’s no magic number for how many they can handle. I, for example, am relatively self-starting: point me at something, tell me it has a candy center, and I’ll see you next month. In contrast, Olga here needs daily contact or she starts freaking out, and when she’s freaking out, she’s not getting anything done. An agent who could handle four of me may be hard-pressed to handle me and Olga.

Look at it this way: being an agent is something like trying to plan a dinner party, only instead of dietary restrictions and seating plans, you have amount of hand-holding and sanity exams. I can’t tell you how to get invited to that party. You’re going to have to do that on your own. What I can do is tell you how to, hopefully, improve your chances of using the correct fork once you get there.

Also look: many authors who have written good, salable books manage to sell their first book, or even their first several, without the aid of an agent. It’s true that the number of major houses willing to consider unrepresented authors is down. It’s also true that the number of accessible small press houses willing to consider those same authors is up. It can be difficult to tell the genuine small houses from the predators, but if you want to be a professional author, you’re going to spend hours in the research trenches. Researching publishing houses is the least you’re going to be expected to do.

OUTLINE: “Make sure you cover the major points quickly and cleanly.”

I want to be clear: I am not the girl to ask if you want to know how to write the perfect cover letter, the perfect agency query, or the perfect book pitch. The idea of writing a synopsis makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I regularly beg my Siamese to write my book pitches for me (she always refuses). Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you with that. I recommend starting with the annual Guide to Literary Agents. There’s a new one every year, and it’s always packed with reference material, advice from real literary agents, samples of good queries, and more. So yes, you need to do your homework.

The homework doesn’t stop with learning the basics. You can’t query every literary agent in the world at once—in fact, that would be a really bad idea, since every agent has his or her own areas of specialization. If you query an agent who only does science fiction with your non-fiction book about the history of pandemic flu, you’re not going to make a very good impression.

First steps:

  1. Figure out what genre or genres your work fits in. All work fits somewhere, even if that somewhere is a blend of more standard genres. Your zombie western is “horror” and “western.” If you can, find an agent who does both. If you can’t, pick which genre represents your baby better, and try agents from that side of the dividing line.
  2. Make a list of agents who sound like they could be a good fit for you and your work. You can do this by going through the Guide to Literary Agents, by researching which agents represented books in your genre, and by looking for agent web sites. (A small bit of etiquette advice: if you have friends who are published authors, feel free to ask them “who represents you?,” but don’t follow that up with “will you introduce me?” This puts them in a very bad position. If they think you’d be a good fit for their agent, they’ll offer that introduction on their own.)
  3. Now that you have a short list of possible agents, it’s time to read any and all agency documentation you can find. If the agent has a web site, read the web site. If the agent has a Twitter feed, read the Twitter feed. If the agent has a blog, read the blog. Many agents have embraced the Internet age, and will make their desires in clients (and their client dos and don’ts) very clear.

Now that you’ve taken your first steps—you’ve found the agent or agents you want to query, and you’ve read enough to start to feel vaguely like a stalker—it’s time to prepare your pitch. Which brings us to our next major point. Major enough that it needs to be presented all in capital letters:


I mean it. I really, really, really mean it. Agents are people who read and sell books for a living, and that means that reading comprehension really, really matters. Agency guidelines are sort of like airport security: if you set off the metal detector after you’ve been told to empty your pockets eight times, you may miss your flight. If you ignore submission guidelines, you may find yourself in the same situation. Metaphorically speaking.

SYNOPSIS: “Twitter and Facebook are the face of the enemy.”

So you’ve found an agent who’s potentially right for you. You’ve managed to compose a letter that doesn’t make you want to put your own eyes out with a pencil, and a synopsis/outline that doesn’t make your book read like a non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. You’ve opened the lines of communication. You’re done, right?


You know how job interview advice has started to include “be careful what you post on the Internet, because your potential boss can see it?” Well, this also applies with literary agents. They expect us to be a little bit insane—we’re writers, after all—so you probably don’t need to worry about those pictures of you in full costume at last year’s San Diego Comic Convention. They even understand that many up-and-coming writers will have Secret HistoriesTM in the fanfic mines. That’s all good. So what do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid running straight to your Facebook and posting “OMG I GOT AN AGENT!” when they haven’t actually signed you. You need to avoid running straight to your blog and posting “Jane Doe of Doe-Ray-Mi Agency is SUCH A BITCH she didn’t LOVE MY BOOK.” You absolutely need to avoid Twittering during telephone conversations with potential agents (not kidding here).

As I noted before, many literary agents have learned to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer, and that includes checking on potential clients to see whether they can be professional. Seeing nasty slams at agents who didn’t sign you, or comments about ongoing negotiations, just make you look like you’re not ready to take the business of writing seriously. That’s not something that all agents are going to want to be associated with.

CONCLUSION: “Thank you for taking the time to consider…”

Literary agents are good. They make your job, as a writer, infinitely easier. They are not, however, door prizes handed out for reaching a certain level of skill. If you’re good, and you’re willing to work to find the agent that’s right for you, I have faith that you’ll be able to take that step. Do your homework, do your research, and bring something awesome to the table.

Believe me, the work is worth it.

Final Poll Results

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