How to Get a Literary Agent (When You’re a Newbie)

by Guest Blogger | 26 comments

Almost everyone seeking traditional publication would love to get a well-known literary agent. Someone big, who can get you a huge advance on your book(s) and negotiate an iron-clad contract in your best interest.

However, I learned a valuable lesson from my own experience. When trying to get a literary agents, keep in mind…

How to Get a Literary Agent (When You're a Newbie)

A newer, smaller literary agent will have more time and attention for your career.

Here’s what I mean:

Bigger Literary Agents Aren't Always Better

I've had friends who had literary rock stars for literary agents. Some authors had great experiences with them, while others never heard from their literary agents because they were too busy with other high-selling authors.

A few years ago, a well-respected agent with his own boutique agency offered me representation for my novel. I emailed all the other literary agents with my full manuscript under consideration about my news (hoping to spur people to fight! over! me!).

Four days later, I received another offer of representation from an agent I’d never even heard of and never contacted.

Huh?

What happened is I’d queried her boss, Ms. Big-Time Literary Agent at Big-Deal Agency. Ms. Big Time already had a full book of business and couldn't take on anymore clients, so she passed my manuscript on to her assistant and junior literary agent. This woman stayed up half the night reading my full manuscript, fell in love with it, then emailed me to say she wanted to be my agent.

She used her newness as a selling point: “I’ve been working with AGENT at the LITERARY AGENCY family for the past six months. We work closely together on all my projects, including submission lists for editors and contract negotiations. Before that, I worked as a women fiction’s editor at New American Library/Penguin for several years. Since I’m a new agent with a small list, I am able to offer high level personal attention—and energy! to my clients.”

She did just that. The other man had so much more experience, more sales, more everything, but this woman was perfect for me. We had the same vision for my career. Plus, she was an editor and literary agent all in one.

Even though she left the biz before we got the chance to try and sell my novel, my time with her was priceless. I learned so much. My author friends said they’d never seen such helpful editorial letters from their publishers.

Her boss couldn't have done that for me. She was too busy working with the big-name clients.

Before You Get a Literary Agent, You Need a Book You're Proud Of

Now, do NOT think, “Great idea, Marcy. I don’t know what else to do with my story, so I’m just going to get me one of them there new agents to whip my plot into shape.”

No. This isn’t an excuse to be careless with your writing. Go through your entire manuscript multiple times, then give it to trusted beta readers for constructive feedback.

Keep working until your book is as good as it can get before entering the literary agent querying process.

Be Careful About Which Literary Agent You Choose

On the flip side, just because someone is a newbie literary agent, does NOT mean they’re right for you. Sadly, anyone can put out a sign that says Literary Agent.

Make sure you aren’t signing on with some ne’er-do-well, sitting in his underwear down in his parent’s basement trying to make a buck off of you.

Do your online research before querying any agents because it’s better to have no agent, than the wrong agent.

Lastly, never, ever give an agent money up front: not for a reading fee, not for administrative expenses, not as a retainer. Beware of scammers.

How To Get a Literary Agent Truly Growing His or Her List

Ready to find your agent? Here are six resources:

1. QueryTrackerThis free gem is by far my favorite and how I found my literary agent's boss, who led me to my agent. People leave comments (positive and negative) under each literary agent and agency. Join the community and participate. You can also pay $25 for more advance tools that I felt was well worth it (special reports like which agents like to read women’s fiction), but this has so much valuable information for free.

2. Literary Agency Websites. Almost every literary agent's bio says, “actively seeking new clients”, but you learn who’s new, what and who they already represent, as well as what they're seeking to see if they're a good fit for you.

3. Writer’s Digest's New Agency Alerts. WD highlights a new literary agent every week, telling all about them. I sat at my laptop one afternoon and went through 50+ brand new agents, hungry for new clients.

4. Publisher’s Weekly. Another free option that tells all the latest in the publishing world.

5. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Back in the day, this gigantic book was the best way to find an agent (updated annually for $23+). All this information ins now online and free, but felt I should mention it since it used to be the only game in town.

I think options 1–3 are the best, but see which you like.

As Far as Literary Agents Go, Bigger Is Not Always Better

If you're looking for an agent, remember;

New literary agents can still land you that big advance with the iron-clad contract because everyone has to start somewhere. The bonus here is they’ll always be grateful to you for kicking off their career and you’ll always be their favorite client (unless you're a jerk; don't be a jerk).

Whether you get a new agent, or someone with an established record, I hope you find the right representation for you. Good luck!

How about you? Do you have a literary agent? want a literary agent? What piece of advice do you have for someone querying literary agents? Let me know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Today, spend fifteen minutes writing about the big, fat advance your newbie literary agent gets for you.

Merchandise, a movie deal, a Pulitzer… whatever your heart's desire, tell me what your agent does for you.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section.

Think BIG and have fun!

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26 Comments

  1. Trish Pederson

    I couldn’t believe it when she said my story breathed for her, exhaled years of put away. There were Augusts to be remembered, ghosts of March to listen to again, the hot sting of a slap that marked hours on her flesh after she’d let her tongue get all wild all over mama. Oh she’d kept them alright, but she needed to borrow my bravery in order to go back. My manuscript did just that, she said. In many ways she felt me rumble down her core. We had struck a deal. She was so sure my memoir of being pushed and emptied out into the starting line of the seventies and running on up the eighties would draw people into a story forgotten but worth a peeking memory. The contract was mine and I smiled all full inside because this was big! This advance kept the hubs from saying what he always does, “it’s a darn good thing we don’t survive on your income!” But his sentence ran into the sweetness of two who are one believing in each other as he quietly added, “I knew you could do it, your stories even make this old grouch cry.”

    Reply
    • Christine

      I really like your story, but the first thing your literary agent is going to tell you is that your writing needs to be in paragraphs. 🙂

    • Trish Pederson

      Good to know! Thank you, Christine!

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Well done. It takes a brave and courageous soul to pen a memoir. The pain of her past made the victory of publication even sweeter. Thanks for sharing.

    • Trish Pederson

      Marcy, have only begun to put memories on saved space. Praying and writing in a sort of frenzied madness. God gently took me back and said, “see, I was there all along, what is there to be afraid of?” So hoping to swallow someone with my story in a few months…

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Wow! It’s autobiographical. I’m even more impressed. I wish you grace and space and tackle this big undertaking. Good luck to you!

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      I totally forgot about Absolute Writer, Robyn. Thanks for the addition for everyone here @ TWP!

  2. Paul McDermott

    Marcie,
    There is one Major Problem in the UK, which isn’t addressed directly in this post.
    With VERY few exceptions, every British Literary Agent seems to have a LONDON address. They (and almost every Publishing House) are CONVINCED that anyone who lives North of the Watford Gap [Motorway – you’d call it a freeway] which encircles London still wears WOAD …
    Some of them don’t speak the same LANGUAGE as “us Northerners”.
    They certainly don’t understand our sense of humour.
    Getting a ‘fair hearing’ is close to impossible …

    Help is at hand.
    A Publishing House has recently opened in Manchester which PREFERS to deal directly with Writers, and actively DISCOURAGES Agents.
    They haven’t been around long enough to make an entry in the current Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as yet, but I’ve looked at the website and they look like a responsible and reputable company.
    Anyone who wants to know more can PM me @: pmcder@gmail.com

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Goodness, Paul. What an uphill battle writers have had there in the UK. Thanks for enlightening us about the situation, and I hope the new Publishing House has great success. Interesting that they discourage agents.

  3. Susan Barker

    Hey Marcy,
    The info you posted is priceless. I’m sure finding the right agent is harder than writing the book. Thanks for letting us know not to pay an agent money up front. That’s something I was unaware of. Us newbie’s must tread softly!

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Glad to help, Susan, and good luck to you in finding the right agent for you!

  4. ebersocats8

    I’ve thought about how great it would be to get a successful
    screenplay that would get a good, hard-working, competent agent. And what would he accomplish? Well, as a more
    mature person, I can’t say that could hope this “newbie” agent would get a
    blockbuster making millions and millions and a big, big payoff for me. So what
    would this agent get? This person would simply get me a payoff. Maybe a little
    bit more, than what I could do by myself. So let me explain that.

    By myself, if I can this published in some manner to be able
    to give my daughter and grandchildren, a tangible item, accomplishment, I would
    feel I had done something worthwhile. I would hope I had shown her I could do
    something beyond my regular occupation as a teacher. Yes, I know, being a teacher
    is worthwhile by it self, but why am I spending so much time writing? I want
    some validation of why I have bought many writing tools. I am writing about
    things like Screenwriter software, Final Draft – just a side note, I’ve been
    looking for the easiest software to use – now to continue. Other writing tools have been paper, ink, a
    laser printer. I have made a financial
    investment in writing, beyond putting valuable time into a project.

    This leads me to explain what I mean by a payoff as an
    accomplishment beyond the accomplishment. This is what the newbie agent would
    deliver. He or she would get some remuneration. Like everyone else, I have debts. Debts caused
    by layoffs and a car accident that have me praying for a miracle.

    Perhaps, I will get a decent settlement from the party at
    fault for the car accident, but that won’t compensate for the losses from
    unemployment. And though, I am now employed and receiving Social Security, it
    doesn’t cover the accumulated obligation to pay.

    So that is what I would want from a “newbie” agent. This
    differs from what I wanted and thought my writing would get when I had a
    toddler and no grandchildren. It would
    be nice to get financial reward now, but I don’t expect the same wards as I did
    thirty-five years ago. I would want a payoff.
    This payoff would be much, much smaller that what I dreamt of years ago.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Isn’t it interesting how our perspective changes over the years? Money is important to pay the bills, etc., but satisfaction is priceless. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • ebersocats8

      Thank you, Marcy.
      Deborah

  5. Lujain Alkhateeb

    Hey Marcy!
    Thank you for this!!!
    I know my book is still lightyears away from this stage.
    But you’ve opened my eyes and assuaged my fears of the hunt for Literary agents.
    You’re awesome.
    Lots of love,
    Lujain.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      Everyone has to start somewhere, Lujian, so it’s fine to be light years away from the querying process, but it’s good that you’re educating yourself now. I also found it was a good way to stay motivated. I would meet an amazing agent at a conference and I would come home energized to finish my book to send to them. Good luck!

  6. Coach Brown

    Thank you for your insight on this important aspect for those of us seeking to publish our works. It is a competitive market and after all the hard work to write and edit and proof, getting the right agent to open the right doors to get our work published is so important. Find an agent that you can trust and be comfortable entrusting your heart, soul and mind to fight for you.

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      You’re so right, Coach. You’re not just looking for AN agent, you’re searching for THE ONE. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Alyssa Flowers

    Great advice. It feels like dating, you never know who is going to turn out to be the perfect match!

    Reply
    • Marcy Mason McKay

      That’s EXACTLY what it’s like and I almost made the analogy to it in my post, but I couldn’t get it to flow right. It truly is about finding THE ONE!

  8. Acquah Vicki

    How do you get the front of the book done when self publishing – should I download the front of the book last? and then how do I get the table of contents to list ? will the pdf print out the order of my pages and the titles ?

    Reply
    • Gary G Little

      What are you using? Word? Scrivener? Something like iBooks Author for Mac will do that for you. So will Scrivener. Word is more business oriented but can do a lot of it.

    • Marcy Mason McKay

      There are many book cover designers out there. Just google them. However, here are a few that I know of: Damonza (https://damonza.com/), Fiverr (https://www.fiverr.com/), 99 Designs (www.99designs.com).

      As far as uploading that, you need to google that, too. There’s also a great book out there by Pamela Fagan Hutchins, What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes (& How Can I Be One, too)? http://www.amazon.com/What-Kin

      Good luck!

  9. Marcy Mason McKay

    There are many book cover designers out there. Just google them. However, here are a few that I know of: Damonza (https://damonza.com/), Fiverr (https://www.fiverr.com/), 99 Designs (www.99designs.com).

    As far as uploading that, you need to google that, too. There’s also a great book out there by Pamela Fagan Hutchins, What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes (& How Can I Be One, too)? http://www.amazon.com/What-Kind-Loser-Indie-Publishes/dp/1939889081/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1441634934&sr=8-1&keywords=What+kind+of+loser&pebp=1441634931482&perid=1Y4DVW0XKEC8ZVWKX2P7

    Good luck!

    Reply
  10. Manisha Malhotra

    Hey Marcy!
    My book was completed a year ago and it is in fact my second. The problem is that I am writing after a huge gap and I was 13 when my first book was published. I am completely confused about finding literary agents as unfortunately,in my country, people don’t seem to appreciate spiritual fiction much. Can you help? I have only received two positive responses from new publishing houses and am completely unsure about the rest of the process!

    Reply

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