Literary Agents: How to Succeed and What to Expect
Get expert insights on what it takes to find representation for your work and what comes next.
Agents play a key role in the path writers can follow toward traditional publishing. In this post, we’re sharing tips from agents Danielle Bukowski (Sterling Lord Literistic), Ashley Lopez (Waxman Literary Agency), and Angeline Rodiguez (William Morris Endeavor). Topics include:
- How to find the right match and get an agent’s attention.
- What to do and not do while querying.
- How to work best with an agent.
These insider insights illuminating the business of agenting come courtesy of a NYFA discussion moderated by writer Kyle Carrero Lopez.
When is the right time to look for an agent? According to Bukowski, it’s when you have a finished fiction manuscript that has been reviewed by several people you trust to give you unbiased feedback.
Rodriguez underscores the value of sharing your work with critique partners or workshopping it before seeking an agent. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be complete. It should be as perfect as you can make it on your own, because you only get one chance to make a first impression,” she advises.
For nonfiction projects, proposals are the norm. Says Bukowski: “You don’t have to write the entire book. But you should understand what the book is. If you’re coming in cold to an agent, you should really understand what you want to do.”
Lopez highlights that agents “…like having sample chapters, regardless of whether it is a memoir or something that’s a little more reported. It’s important because we need to see what your voice and the page is going to be like.”
Before diving into your outreach, Bukowski recommends doing research into where your book might belong in the market and being able to answer questions like “Where would your book fit on a shelf? What genre is it? Who are the contemporary writers that you’re most in conversation with?”
“You should know a little bit about the market and where your book would fit in before partnering with an agent and getting into the business side of it,” continues Bukowski.
Adds Rodriguez, “Always having an idea, even if that idea evolves, of where your book fits categorically and stylistically is always really valuable and will help you to find the agents that are going to resonate with it.”
Lopez advises writers to come into the process knowing who they are artistically. “Doing work on yourself as an artist before you start querying is helpful in weeding out a lot of false starts,” she says.
In addition to the above, Bukowski encourages writers to consider subscribing to Publishers Marketplace for a month or two to gather data and search for agents. You can search any agent, and will also note whether they are accepting submissions or not. “Most agency websites, I would also think, do keep that fairly updated.”
Adds Lopez: “Do the research and check the agency website to see the particulars of what’s going on before sending your email.”
For a more “old school” approach, Lopez recommends finding books that feel like they’re in line with your book and authors who you feel a connection to. Check the acknowledgements section, since authors typically thank their agents there, and build a network out of that.
She also suggests talking to writers that you’re in community with because some may have agents or may have connections with agents whose work might align with yours.
How to Approach an Agent
Here are some tips and best practices on what to do when you’re ready to start reaching out to agents. The industry term for this is called “querying.”
First, “Treat people like people,” a good rule of thumb that is underscored by Rodriguez. Another great idea is to “just be someone who seems nice to work with.” She suggests keeping the email as direct as possible, while also letting her know a little bit about you as a professional and a creative.
Says Bukowski: “I really love a very simple ‘Here’s who I am. Here’s what the book is. Here’s the sample.’”
According to Lopez, the most important thing is to pay attention to the way that agents want you to submit your work and the parameters around how much work to submit. If you follow the guidelines, this communicates a level of respect for the agent’s time and also sets a precedent for how you might work together.
Reading and responding to what agents are interested shows a level of care and attention that may help you stand out from the crowd. Says Rodriguez: “You’re more likely to get your query noticed if it seems like you know what I do, and you call that out in some respect like if they’re a fan of one of my clients or maybe they like something I said on a panel.”
For nonfiction works, Rodriguez says that “the more you have and the more developed your proposal to an agent is, the better shot you have.” This also speaks to writers who may already have work out there that is viewable online–whether through a publication, podcast, Substack, etc.
Regarding when to query, Bukowski says there isn’t necessarily a bad time to query. “I wouldn’t worry about that quite as much as just making sure the query is very good. That your manuscript is as perfect as it can be.”
Regarding how many agents to query, do not just do one at a time. Lopez suggests making a list or creating a spreadsheet and setting up a date with yourself to tackle once every two weeks or once a month, as long as you are being intentional and specific.
“Make it part of your routine as a writer whenever it is time to start submitting. It’s something you can do on a schedule, and then you don’t have to worry about it so much because if you’re getting rejections, you also know that you’ve got this longer list of people that you haven’t even approached yet,” says Lopez.
What Not to Include in Your Query Letter
A pet peeve, for Lopez, is when someone writes a query letter from the main character in their novel. “I’ve never met an agent that prefers it,” she says. Think of the query letter as an introduction to you, written in your own voice.
Agents want to hear directly from you and to get a sense of what you’d be like to work with; a more straightforward approach versus something that you may feel is more clever will likely benefit you in the long run.
Another red flag for agents is when writers will reference titles like blockbusters Harry Potter and Game of Thrones or famous authors like Faulkner or Beckett over contemporary comparables.
With both, Rodriguez says that “It doesn’t tell us that much about your book, but it also shows that you don’t have a realistic sense of where it would fit in the marketplace. There’s only so much valuable space in your query letter, and it doesn’t really do anything for you. It doesn’t really tell us anything other than you don’t have a sense of authors you might be like.”
What Interests an Agent
What makes a query stand out? While each agent has their own unique approach and needs, there are a few things that consistently resonate.
For Lopez: “Things that make me surprised. Surprising language that can be laugh out loud. I want a moment of joyful surprise in the pages, that makes me want to spend more time.”
For Rodriguez: “With how much we read, it takes having something that is surprising. Which is why I advise people to write the book only you could write. Don’t worry about imitating someone else completely.”
For Bukowski: “Anything that feels just very fresh. And obviously beautifully written is always tantamount. We read so much, so anything that feels new or different as a pitch, even if it is a small tweak on a popular trope, is something that I’m always looking for.”
Another throughline is work that captures an agent’s attention. Says Bukowski: “It should feel compelling. And also just lyrically feel special. Something that can cut through the noise and sustain attention even when there are 1,000 other things that are trying to take our attention away.”
When A Query is Successful
If your query is successful, congratulations! Here’s what happens next…
Before you sign anything, you should discuss with the agent what editorial changes they may want to make. “It could be small, it could be large, but that should be something that is discussed before signing,” advises Bukowski.
Rodriguez highlights that “The degree to which your agent is editorial or how extensive that might be definitely varies from agent to agent. There are agents who do a ton of it, or agents who do very little. I would say, these days it is more common to do more because everyone’s time is contracting and editors have fuller plates than ever. And we want to make sure that you’re noticed and putting your best foot forward.”
She also suggests asking questions about what working together would be like and setting expectations around communication like: What happens if the agent leaves their agency? Or if they leave the industry? What happens if the client wants to terminate the relationship? How the agent answers can help you navigate whether you want to enter into a business relationship with them.
Says Bukowski: “I think the biggest issue that would come up between an author and agent boils down to miscommunication or communication issues more broadly. A lot of that is really just work asking about and talking about really openly on the phone with an agent. It is kind of a personality match as well.” This underscores the importance of asking questions up front and having an open dialogue that helps to establish solid footing.
Lopez encourages writers to consider how they work best and to discuss with their agent. This way, you can build an environment that helps you work well together.
After signing, Bukowski reconvenes with the writer to set the parameters of editing and timing and then the writer will do more work on the book.
“Make sure you really understand what your agent is going to do, and also understand we are going to expect you to do some more work on the book before sending it out. I’ve never personally had a book that was so perfect I could send it out,” says Bukowski.
On Receiving Rejections
Receiving rejections is a part of the process. Do not get disheartened, but do try to understand if there were aspects of your approach that you could adjust to find success the next time.
Says Lopez: “You should probably get something back from agents, even if it is a form rejection. We would all love to write personal rejections to everything, it’s just not in the cards because of timing. It’s not something to take as a gut punch. It means it wasn’t a fit for us. We’re not going to be the best agent for you, because you really want someone that will champion your work.”
Finding an agent takes work, persistence, and a little bit of luck. We’ll leave you with encouraging words from Bukowski: “We’re all open to quite a lot of different things. So there is an agent for your work and you will find it.”
–Compiled by Amy Aronoff, Senior Communications Officer
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