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How to Find a Literary Agent

Many authors are daunted by the prospect of finding a literary agent to represent them. For some it is their main goal, others ignore the route altogether and proceed to self publish, but if you want a literary agent to represent your book, how do you go about finding one?

Publishing can be an overwhelming industry for an author on their own, and that’s where a literary agent can be a useful guide and ally. It's somebody experienced in the industry who believes in your work and to fight your corner.

Agents sometimes work for themselves and other times work as part of a team in a larger agency. Either way their role is the same, they represent the interests of writers to publishers, newspapers and other production arms such as theatrical, podcast, motion picture, television producers in making deals and all other negotiations.

So, as you can imagine the work of an agent is varied. They act for their clients, the authors, partly as a lawyer, partly as an accountant, partly as an editorial sounding board and often as a therapist when things go wrong! Indeed, their relationship varies from client to client and from time to time. Each author is different and has with particular needs which change with the passage of time, so the agent must try to match those needs and support them as appropriate.

Most authors do not have agents, however, for those who want agent representation, getting one is the first step in the long but exciting journey to getting published. As an author, it is important to choose an agent who is knowledgeable within the industry and works with the genre you write because one of the first things that an agent will do is work on your manuscript with them before sending it out to an editor.

The amount of work required can vary as to whether the author is a debut or an established author with an editor in place. In the case of a debut author, the agent may have to do a number of rounds of edits with the writer until they are happy with the book. The edits will cover not only plot, but also pacing and character as well as sentence structure or spelling errors. The agent will want the book to find the best home and the biggest part of that is ensuring that it is in the best possible state before it goes out to tender.

Agents also act as the author's connection to the rest of the industry. For those writers hoping to sign with a major publisher, for example, having an agent is a key part of the process. Most big publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions. This means they don't consider work sent to them directly by the author who has no without an agent. This is said to be because the volume of submissions received would be so high that it would be almost impossible for editors to get through them all.

However, most of the large publishing houses do now have imprints which accept unsolicited manuscripts direct from authors, so this part of the business is changing rapidly. Nevertheless, having an agent may help to streamline the process by ensuring editors receive manuscripts for genres or types of books in which they have particular expertise or interest.

Sometimes agents are seen as another layer of gatekeeper to the industry and ambition to get your book published, but they can also be an invaluable buffer preventing a book being submitted to the wrong publisher. Also the editor and author can voice all their frustrations and issues into the agent and the agent can then try to deliver what is needed. It also means that importantly the relationship between the editor and the author focused.

That is not to say that authors are excluded from the business of publishing but the daily discussions about timing of Kindle deals, Tesco promotions, package, quote placement, Amazon copy, stock issues, marketing ideas, and so on are not always what as author necessarily wants in their inbox on a daily basis.

So, if you have decided that you want an agent, how do you choose between the hundreds of literary agents in the country? Finding the right one can seem daunting but for most authors a good starting point for those looking for an agent is the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Alternatively, looking at books that you feel are like yours, to see who is mentioned in the acknowledgements section, is a good way to start thinking about exactly who might be the person to direct a submission to. Agents are often named in the acknowledgements.

Like editors, most agents have particular expertise or experience in working with certain genres or with particular authors. Working out which agents might be most appropriate and get excited about your book is an important first step. 

For example, if you send a proposal for a piece of historical non-fiction to an agent who specialises in thrillers, won't get you very far. Instead, think about which authors you might compare your work or writing style to, and try to find out who represents them.

Make sure you do some online research too because most agencies are now open to the whole world through their websites. There you will find agent biographies and a list of their clients and what they are looking for.

There are so many different routes to getting an agent - the important thing is to use whatever channels you have available to get your work noticed and choose the agent who is right for your work.

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