Finding an Agent
Help for writers
- An agent will represent your work and sell it to publishers.
- Many writers see being taken on by an agent as the first step in getting taken on by a publisher, because it is so difficult to get publishers to pay attention to unagented writers.
- Agents use their contacts and knowledge of the publishing business on their clients’ behalf, selling their work and then continuing to look after their authors’ interests.
How to go about finding an agent:
- Find an agency that represents the kind of work you are producing. This may seem obvious, but many agencies have special areas of expertise. Scour the UK and US agent listings on our site. Most specify kinds of work that they do not handle, such as scripts, academic books or children’s writing.
- Don’t just go for the ‘star’ agents mentioned in the press unless you feel convinced your work is really bestseller material. They won’t be interested in you unless they have some evidence that your work has major potential and you are obviously promotable.
- The list of authors already represented by the agency may be some guide to the kind of writers they are looking for, although I am inclined to feel that agencies with big lists of clients are less likely to be looking for new authors.
- There are two types of agency: purely literary and multi-media agents. Look carefully at the entries and consider whether you would prefer to be represented by a big professional agency with all-singing, all-dancing film and TV departments to back up the book agents, or whether you would be better served by a small independent agency.
- Use any contacts you may have to find a personal recommendation. This is not only the best way to track down a good agent, but also the most reliable way to make sure that the agent in question will take a good look at your work.
- It may be easier to get yourself taken on by an agency operating outside the major English language publishing centres of London, New York, Sydney and Toronto. They may be keen to build a list of local authors. There used to be relatively few agents outside these cities, but improvements in communication and the use of email have made it possible for agents to work just as well from Devon, Scotland, Spain or California. Check out our list of international agents or look carefully at agents' addresses.
- Try to find an agency which is ‘hungry’ for new clients. To keep their workload under control, an established agent might take on something like four new authors a year (this figure came from two agents I spoke to recently), but only to replace four departing clients. This may seem obvious, but whether or not an agent is actively looking to build their list of clients is probably the single most important factor affecting how closely they are looking at unsolicited submissions. Don’t forget that ‘hungry’ agents may exist inside big agencies, as junior agents build their client lists. So it is better to send material to a named agent, rather than the agency, where it will become part of the submission stockpile.
- The date when the agency was set up is a useful guide, as most long-established agents will offer to represent very few new clients – their time is already taken up with looking after their existing list of authors.
- Make sure that you present your material as professionally as possible (see Submissions and Your submission package) and that you follow the agencies’ submission procedures. Do not telephone or email unless they indicate that this is acceptable. Always provide return postage. Make your submission letter short and snappy. Don’t dwell on near misses with other agencies or publishers, as you don’t want to give the impression that your material has already been submitted widely.
- Make sure that your work is in the best possible shape before you send it to an agent. In the past an agent might have taken you on even if your manuscript needed work. These days most won’t do so because the publishing houses in their turn are unwilling to commit to the editorial time required to get the manuscript into shape. If you don't know how to get your work into shape, investigate our services. If our editors have reported favourably on your work, then we will recommend it to agents we work with.
Try not to let rejection get you down. Many unpublished writers who later become successful authors receive plenty of rejections before they find an agent. Be persistent and think through the best way of presenting your work.
© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2002-8