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Should I Query with a Literary Agent?

Updated: Jun 12

'Ready to get published' is typed on blue paper in a typewriter.

Have you typed your final full stop? Or can you see ‘The End’ is near? Then the chances are you’re considering querying with an agent.

It can seem scary initially, but with a little guidance, research and a focused approach, you can narrow down the pool to find the right agent(s) for you and your manuscript.


What is a literary agent and what do they do?

An effective literary agent will have the gift of the gab so they can speak easily and confidently to negotiate deals on your behalf and persuade commissioning editors to accept your manuscript. But most importantly, they need to have a good understanding of what publishers and readers want.

Most of an agent’s day is taken up with managing authors they already represent, performing tasks varying from negotiating contracts, arranging publicity and scheduling events to commissioning further work for an author.

It’s only after they’ve checked off their daily tasks that they can turn their attention to the ‘slush pile’ (a publishing term for query letters and manuscripts posted or emailed directly to a publisher or agent).

Many read manuscripts ‘out-of-hours’ because there isn’t enough time during a working day. Therefore, when you do query with an agent, allow 4-6 weeks before politely chasing them up.


How do I find and query with an agent?

Resources such as the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the Writers and Artists website contain a wealth of information for writers, no matter where you are in the publishing process.

This includes listings for literary agents in the UK, Ireland and overseas (though you'll need a valid subscription to view the registry).

You’ll want to look for agents who represent your book's genre, so check out their websites and social media profiles to see if they seem like a good fit for you.

I know at this point you’ll be desperate to reach out to anyone and everyone, but your submission email will need to be perfect if you want an agent to seriously consider your manuscript.

This is your one and only chance to impress them, so make it count. You want them to notice you for the right reasons, so it’s worth investing in a 10,000-word agent teaser before reaching out to an agent.


What happens once I’ve secured an agent?

Any agent worth their salt should know what’s flying off the shelves and what’s gathering dust, and they’ll have connections in the industry they can approach with your manuscript.

But it’s not easy.

They need to pitch to a commissioning editor at a publishing house and persuade them to read your full manuscript. However, the commissioning editor is only one cog in a team of many and your manuscript might not meet all the criteria.

Your agent might experience multiple rejections before it’s acquired.


What happens when my manuscript gets acquired?

Once a manuscript is accepted by a publisher, the agent will then work on your behalf to negotiate royalties, advance payments, schedules and rights before a contract can be drawn up.

If two or more publishers want your manuscript, it’s their turn to seduce you, the author.

Often, you’ll get to meet all interested parties, and they’ll come fully prepared with a sales and marketing plan to help entice you to join their roster.


Why should I have an agent?

Navigating the publishing industry can be daunting for new authors. Having an agent by your side can help make the process run more smoothly when you're venturing into an unknown territory.

An agent will:

  • Act as your first editor

As you’ll see from my post, ‘Are Proofreading and Editing the Same Thing?’, there are many types of editors.

Some agents act as developmental editors and offer advice on the overall plot, arc and structure of your story. They might also pick up on lacklustre characters, too much (or too little) dialogue and chapter length.

It’s not uncommon for you to initially feel disheartened when your manuscript is returned with many areas highlighted for improvement, especially when you thought you’d perfected it. But you’ll need to learn to accept critical feedback from the start if you want your writing to succeed.


  • Look for ways to keep the money coming in

Agents take a commission, around 15%, of the net income an author earns. Therefore, if they don't look after you and keep the sales coming in, they aren’t going to reap the benefits for themselves either.

To effectively ensure an author gets a stream of income, an agent needs to know the market on a global scale and might suggest getting your novel translated for reach in other countries or help you pitch new ideas to new publishers if it’s in your best interests.


  • Be your counsel

From the moment you sign with an agent, they become your professional guide and mentor, helping you make informed decisions when opportunities arise.

Therefore, it’s important to find someone you can trust to champion you and your work.

An agent will also act on your behalf if you disagree with a publisher’s decision, helping you keep your relationship with your editor on good terms.


  • Remain loyal and encourage your success

Although not guaranteed, agents tend to remain loyal, as their main focus is your long-term success.

They’ll want to forge a strong relationship with you built primarily on trust, so you feel comfortable leaving them to manage your author career.


Do I have to have an agent?

Not all authors need an agent, and for those of you struggling to get representation, there is always the self-publishing route (more on that in another post).

However, there are some instances where an agent isn’t necessary.

  • Your book’s subject is extremely niche

If this is the case, only specialist publishers may be interested in your manuscript and applying directly to them might be more advisable.

It’s likely you’ll need to fit a strict criteria, so make sure you check the publisher’s website for submission details.

  • Your book is academic or educational

If you're an expert in your field and you've written a book that falls into the academic, reference or educational category, going directly to the publisher is often the route you’ll need to take to get your book commissioned.

  • You're a poet

Not many agents represent poets, so submitting a collection of poems directly to publishers once you have a large portfolio behind you is an option.

  • The publisher doesn’t work with agents

Some new and small publishers don’t work with agents and actively look for new authors to sign.



Post takeaways

Although it's not necessary to have an agent, there are many reasons why you may benefit from having an agent guide and support you as you prepare to publish and promote your novel.

If you're considering querying with an agent, make sure your query letter and sample are in tip-top shape, so you stand out to a prospective agent for all the right reasons.

Inspiration and information for this post were garnered from Reedsy.




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