How to Land a Literary Agent: Write, Research, Pitch and Go With Your Gut

I’ve always wanted the big New York agent. The agent you whisper about in the literary world where recognition flickers and heads bob because, you know, they matter.

And if they become your agent? Well, then you matter too.

Over the years, I’ve done my research, crafted well-honed query letters and made the pitching rounds. I’ve landed two agents in the past, both okay(ish), and then opted for no agent as I negotiated my own nonfiction contracts with midsize publishers for my last three books. But after writing THE LONELY GIRLS, I wanted someone L-E-G-I-T.

Here’s the rub.

In order to land a literary agent, there’s work involved. It’s a bit like dating. Except there are no successful guarantees, and they basically get 15 percent of all your earnings. It’s important to do your due diligence.

In today’s publishing world, you can:

  1. self-publish
  2. go with a smaller publisher who doesn’t require a literary agent
  3. get an agent (which is not a guarantee of publication, but will allow your book to be shopped to the BIG publishers)

 

While I’d never self-published, I’d been with both small and mid-sized publishers. I didn’t want that experience again. I wanted the BIG BOYS, aka one of the “Big Five” book publishers today.

They are:

  1. Hachette Book Group
  2. HarperCollins
  3. Macmillan Publishers (St. Martin’s is under Macmillan, which is my publisher)
  4. Penguin RandomHouse
  5. Simon and Schuster (My first book, THE CHEAT SHEET was published by Adams Media, which was bought out by S&S)

 

We can all get excited when we have a great idea or an “almost” finished novel. But if you really want the literary agent, you have to do the following:

  1. Finish the book. Like, really finish it.
  2. Polish the book. This means editing, rewriting, hiring help, getting beta readers, whatever it takes. (This does not include your mother.)
  3. Research books in your genre. Look at books similar to yours, or books you really enjoy and look on the Acknowledgments page. See who they thank. Literary agents are usually near the top. Make a note.
  4. Don’t count out newer agents.*
  5. Make a list of 10-20 ideal literary agents you’d like to work with. 
  6. Once you have your list, go to the agent’s website. See their client list, look at those books, see who those books are sold to and how they are performing.
  7. Craft your query letter. Look at well-written query letter examples (Google is your best friend) and craft several iterations for your pitches.
  8. Send out a batch of 5-10 queries only. Instead of sending out 50 query letters on your first go, wait to see what kind of feedback you get. If you get full manuscript requests from more than one agent, you’re on point. If not? You may need to tweak your letter (or your pitch) a bit more.

 

*So, here’s my story on newer agents and why I am a fan. And I should preface this by saying new doesn’t mean inexperienced. It usually means HUNGRY.

When I wrote my book and was ready to pitch, I sent it out to just a few agents. I had one rather large agent in mind, Victoria Skurnick. I also happened to pick up a Writer’s Digest magazine at the time, which featured 25 new literary hotshots to watch out for. As I perused the list, my soon-to-be agent, Rachel Burkot, caught my eye.

She loved the books I loved and wanted the genre that TLG happened to be in. So I queried her as well.

And then the waiting began.

Victoria, my dream agent, got back to me and said it was a hard decision for her as the writing was great, but she thought it was a tricky subject, so she was going to pass. So I did something I never do and responded to her, thanking her and telling her about the sequel idea for the next book. She emailed me right back and said she would love to see THAT book and to send it to her as soon as I finished it.

I then grew even bigger balls and asked if we could speak on the phone.

And she said yes.

What ensued was a surreal experience where she told me what a fantastic writer I was (say what?) and that she was really doubting herself on turning the book down. So she asked me to send it to her again, because she wanted another agent in her office to have a second read. So I did.

I got that agent’s feedback, and both women wanted me to scrap the idea of two separate books and write one bigger, more impactful book. In the meantime, Rachel had requested the full manuscript, and as I was deciding what to do, I got a letter offering representation from Rachel, the newer agent.

Big dilemma: Did I take the time to write the bigger book and go with the bigger agent who had the bigger client list?

Or did I take a chance with the newer agent who was obsessed with the book as it was and was so excited about the possibilities for what could be?

Rachel was my target audience. She was hungry.

Victoria was experienced. She was the “sure” thing in the literary world.

But my gut told me THE LONELY GIRLS needed to be read. I believed in the book. I wasn’t ready to turn it into something else.

So, I took a chance, because I’m a sucker for an underdog.

Turns out? It was the absolute right choice to go with the newer agent. We rocked through edits in a month – employing many of the suggestions Victoria herself had suggested – and sent it out. What ensued was the most magical experience I’ve ever had and one I won’t ever forget as offers came in, bidding wars ensued and important decisions were to be made.

I believe the book sold because Rachel believed in the book. She never faltered in her positivity that it would get sold.

And really, at the end of the day? That’s what it’s all about.

Remember: You are choosing the agent as much as they are choosing you.

It’s a relationship.

Make sure it fits.