Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How To Find A Literary Agent

We're going back to basics today. Way back two years ago (!!) I wrote a post on how to find an agent, only I've never really been happy with that post and had always meant to replace it with a better one. Well, two years later, here we are.

So here goes. I give you........... How to Find A Literary Agent

Welcome to publishing, the land of books, writing, and agonizingly long waits. Pour yourself a drink. You're going to need it.

Step 1. If you are trying to find an agent and you are not a) a celebrity or b) a deity, you will need to have a finished and polished manuscript if you are writing a novel or memoir, and a finished and polished proposal and sample pages if you are working on a nonfiction project. Did I mention the finished and polished part? Well, you missed a spot. Go back and polish some more.

(Also, you might check out my guide to writing a novel while you're at it: How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. On sale for just $4.99 at:

Amazon Kindle
Apple iBooks (coming soon!)
B&N Nook

Step 2. Ok, so you've finished and polished your manuscript so much it's shining like the top of the Chrysler Building. Now it's time to find an agent, right? Nuh uh. Time to learn about the publishing business.

Many aspiring authors feel that all they have to do is write a good book, sit back, and let the God of easy money and literary groupies take care of the rest. Not so! Before you embark on your quest for a literary agent, you should devote many, many hours to familiarizing yourself with the business, literary agents, editors, and anything else you can possibly do to discern how this unique industry operates. Luckily there is more information out there on the Internet than ever before.

Now, hopefully you took care of all this research as you were procrastinating while working on your manuscript. But honestly, in today's publishing clime it's just not enough to have written a good book. Treat this business seriously, because it is a business. Explore the links on the left side of this page, read blogs, talk to booksellers, attend conferences, get to know authors. If you do this BEFORE you try to find an agent your odds of success will increase dramatically, because you will ooze professionalism and knowledge, qualities that bode well for future successful writers.

Step 3. Finding that agent. There are many ways of going about this, and, believe it or not, none of them involve telling an agent they're a cutiepatootie. First off, we'll address referrals.

Referrals are a great way to find an agent, and for many of your more experienced/legendary agents they're darn near essential. And it's easy to see why -- you're coming in with an endorsement from someone the agent respects, you've got their attention, and you're more likely to get a thorough look.

How do you get a referral? It's kind of tricky. If you don't have preexisting personal connections, the best way to do this, especially if you live in a big city, is to get involved with local writers communities, fraternize with writers, and put yourself in a position where your work will be seen by other established writers. Genuinely (and not selfishly) invest in those writers and you may find that they will invest in you -- trust me, they remember what it was like to be an aspiring writer. If you don't live in a city, get your stories published in journals, become involved with writers' blogs and online writer's communities, and really invest in authors until you are virtual friends.

Now, notice that I didn't suggest the "e-mail random writers and ask for referrals out of the blue" approach, which has about a zero chance of success. These things have to evolve organically.

Step 4. No referrals? Time to write a query letter.

A query letter is a short letter that describes your work. Please consult this comprehensive post on how to write a query letter, and there are examples of good queries here and here and here. You should adapt and personalize your basic letter depending on which agent you're submitting to in order to demonstrate your aforementioned professionalism and knowledge. Which leads us to...

Step 5. Now you need to figure out who to submit to.

Here's a comprehensive post on how to research agents.

There are various resources on the Internet you can use (again, check out the links on the left side of the page and the how to write a query post) to narrow down the search. You should try to target agents who represent your genre, but avoid agents who previously represented something extremely/eerily similar to yours. Another way to target agents and get personalization fodder is to check the acknowledgments in your favorite books in your genre and see who represented those writers.

Before you submit, Google the agent and the agency to try and find their submission guidelines. If you find it, go precisely by what they ask for. If you do not find any information online, I'd just email the agent directly.

Step 6. Query widely. Don't blanket the town with your query unless you want to end up on Gawker, but agents assume you are going out there trying to find an agent. Also, you should limit your query to one agent per agency. After you've heard back, it's usually ok to re-query another agent at the agency if their submission guidelines don't suggest otherwise, but wait a couple of months.

Step 7. You wait. You want a request for a partial or full manuscript, and then you wait some more. You wait until you think you are physically going to die and/or commit a drastic crime. And then you get "the call!"

Now, chances are at this point you are going to be in a psychological state where you are ready to sign over a body part just to get an agent, and you will be predisposed to say "Yes, for crap's sake, yes!!". But take a step back, take your time, make sure you're very comfortable with the agent before you enter into one of the most important business relationships you will have in your life. You and your agent are going to have to seriously trust one another, so ask questions, don't be shy, and make sure you're ready.

That's it! You've done it! Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Oh. Wait. Yes, it was.

Please continue adding thoughts in the comments section, and if I missed something I'll update this post as needed.

Art: Portrait of Father by Bruno Liljefors


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Buy Medicine said...

I am very happy to be here because this is a very good site that provides lots of information about the topics covered in depth.

S.DeVaughn said...

Newbie checking to see if this is legit

Chloe said...

I think I am now going to dub you my literary god. Even though this information is 5 years old, it's still amazing!! I'm at the very beginning. I haven't written a word yet, just been researching. And researching...

M. R. Otto said...

Thank you! This is possibly the best help for finding a literary agent I have found. & I have been searching for a good solid piece of meat as your blog.

Anonymous said...

Seems sad to me that all this need be so complicated. I'm one of those idealistic, naive ones who wishes that writing for the love of the craft could just be appreciated and not business-ified. Oh well, that's the world we live in.
Thanks for the advice. I have some polishing to do.

Bec said...

I will have to admit that I have not read all of the comments, so maybe you have already dealt with this. If so, I'm sorry. But I am one of the newbies to the world of publishing (and I will also admit, one of the ones that was really in the dark about this busniness). I have only been reading and learning about it in the past year. I have (over an abnormally long time) finished a novel and am now doing some final revisions. Soon I will need to start looking for an agent. Honestly the thought of that (with the knowledge I have recently gained) feels a little like stepping off a cliff. But what I have read is that if you are a new writer, it is good to look for an agent who is new to their profession. So I am wondering, what is the best way to find agents who are new to the field and still building their clint list?

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a good question - I think you can use sites like agentquery and Absolute Write to do some research on agents, and also you can probably get a sense of it from their official title. Hope that helps!

Bec said...

Thanks, Nathan. I will check that out. Your site has been the most helpful and easy to read info I have found so far. I really appreciate the quick response.

Write On said...

Awesome! I'm glad that I'm doing something right. I'm not quite ready for an agent, but I'm getting there. Well almost....

Alison P said...

Hello Nathan,

I just discovered your blog and I can not thank you enough for helping me realize what a huge project awaits. I have been writing my entire life, short stories & plays mostly. Recently, as in yesterday, I finally finished my novel after refining it for the past two years. I am both terrified and excited to look for an agent, and fingers crossed, to get published. I just know from glancing at your blog that it will become invauable in the months/years to come.
Again thank you for the help,

Anonymous said...

Thanks SO much! ! !

I BADLY wanna get an agent.

bambeenno said...

this is without doubt the best blog i have ever read about books and publishing. I've learnt so much in just a a day than i did in the past twenty years.
but i have one question, Nathan, how do some novelists get to sign record breaking contracts when publishers only get to read the first chapters of their books. and i mean first time writers? thanks

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks! Most people who get a huge offer either have written the whole thing or are already-bestselling authors. I don't know of many unpublished people getting huge deals from samples alone.

Ilsa Eruaistaniel said...

Sir, I have a finished, polished novel and I am friends with Alison Croggon, but she said that she couldn't read my book due to legal infringement and things like that. How am I to get referrals if an author can't read my work for fear of being sued?

Murasaki Hideki said...

Thank you for this post.
I like your NOT-dry way of presenting these helpful facts.
I'm going to find me a literary agent now!

Murasaki Hideki said...

In second thoughts, the above comment was made in poor taste. My apologies.
All the same, thank you, Nathan for your helpful advice and insight.

John J. (JJ) Muggivan said...

In 2004 my brother, Tony Muggivan, and I wrote a book that was published by Gill & Macmillan in Dublin, Ireland. The name of the book is "A Tragedy Waiting to Happen". The book is about a 20-year old young man who killed a young mother, her 3-year old son, and a catholic priest in the space of a few days in a country village in Ireland. This story has also been told in fictional form by author Edna O'Brien and my brother and I helped make a documentary of the story for a television station in Dublin. The documentary has been shown many times and draws a large viewing audience every time it's shown. Our book became a best seller in Ireland but did not make it out of the country.
I am now attempting to help someone write her story of having spent 413 days on isolation in a mental hospital here in New Orleans. "Isolation" for her meant having to spend every day of 413 days sitting on a chair i a hallway facing a wall. She was required to be always visible to observers in the nurse's station. Her day in the isolation chair would start at 7am and end at 9pm. Her nights on the hallway would start with her rolling her bed into the hallway at 9pm where she would be required to sleep under observation until 7am next morning. This meant she was under the observation of hospital staff for every minute of 413 days. She was made to undergo this experience over period o2 22 months when she was between the ages of 14 and 17.
She approached me about 10 years after her release with a journal she had been writing. She simply wanted someone to hear her story and insisted on reading it to me. She later - on my advice - sued the psychiatrist and hospital responsible for her treatment. Her suit was not successful because of a Louisiana 3-year statute of limitation. However, the filing of the suit produced a significant benefit - it caused the production of all of her hospital chart notes. I was astonished when I reviewed this detailed record - it confirmed everything she had told me - and a lot more.
I am attempting to help this woman find an agent. I helped her produce about 100 emails documenting in detail what her experience in this hospital was like. In these emails she has addressed every aspect of her hospital experience. She is a remarkable writer and has described her experiences in detailed and colorful language.
I am presently putting her story in book form and I am hoping to help her find an agent.
I am a licensed clinical social worker and in the course of helping her write her story we both researched the the work of her psychiatrist very carefully. He has written extensively - especially about the impact of isolation on female teenagers in the concentration camps.
This woman's story occurred in the last days of the use of Freudian theory, long hospitalization, and the end of insurance company practice of paying large amounts of money for poorly documented mental health disorders.
This woman's story truly marks the end of a shocking period of mental health care. The story is well documented and is on paper.

How do we find a list of agents who might review a story like this?
John J. (JJ) Muggivan

Greg De Tisi said...

Great work. Makes me realise how much there is to do. It is easy to write 20,000 words on something we love but it's not so easy finding a business out of it for sure. Thanks again for the honest and upfront info here which I have gladly digested and will act upon.

Greg De Tisi

Andrew Paquette said...

I'd like to add a slightly different scenario: Somehow, when querying my first book, I got the best agent I could have found right away. I knew very little about what querying was, but wrote an email query and sent it to exactly eight agents. The next morning, about eight hours later, I had a phone call from New York. It was the best agent I could have wanted, and she accepted me as a client. Sounds easy, but it wasn't as good as it looked at first, and it was my fault.

The agent liked my query, the subject, and the way I said it would be written. When I sent the manuscript, she sent it back with loads of helpful comments. In my zeal to be helpful, I went through the entire ms and sent it back to her with changes a couple days later by FedEx. This happened several times and before I knew it, she'd had about five sets of revisions catapulted her way in a very short period of time. A year later, she hadn't sold it and we parted company.

That was my first experience trying to find an agent. My second attempt went better in the sense that the book was sold, but the agreement wasn't very good, and the process of finding that agent went exactly as you describe in your blog here. I am about to try this a third time, and hope that over the eight years since the first attempt, I have learned how to do this right.


Meredith Cheatwood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hans John said...

Thanks a lot of these useful informations Nathan. I try to build a Website with authors from all over the world on One would say there are plenty of authors who want to post their opinion or thoughts - but it is not that easy.
What I am looking for is a literary agent who sees the potential behind the idea "Johntext - literature with purpose to help". I managed to protect Johntext in 27 countries as a trademark but NOW I have to find an literary agent who knows authors who want to write for their country, their state, their town, the small village they are living in .... Each one with a Johntext website, each one with the purpose to change things and make the world a little better ....

Anonymous said...

too many words
no one agent name

laurie41 said...

hi, already posted sorry but wouldn't let me in... how do I find someone to help me gt published...? Ive written articles for a nursing mag but want to expound on it for regular mags and would like to put it in book form... unfortunately, is about grandparent adoption and my kids are behaviorally challenged. Soooo while I can personally speak about it and blog occasionally,, would like to have it in book form... thanks anyone?

Tony Raven said...

Just one question: Why in the world would an intelligent person put themselves through this stuff? Wouldn't it be easier to steal or run for public office?

Hope Welsh said...

Nice post...but with the advent of Self-Publishing, more and more agents are contacting authors.

So, how do you choose? What do you ask? My daughter's book just hit USA Today for the second week and she was contacted by Trident last week.

I'm relatively sure it's becoming a more common theme to be contacted by the agents and/or publishers.

K. Nowinsky said...

Thank you so much for this! I have a lot to do - time to roll up my sleeves...

Suzette said...

As an aspiring author, I enjoyed the advice in this blog. I'm in the "make friends with authors so I can get a referral" stage.
I was surprised to hear that some people compliment physical appearance as part of their query. Part of me is sad that it doesn't work. I'm good at flattery, I guess flattery doesn't get you everywhere, you cutie patootie.

Elizabeth Polson said...

Hey Nathan,
I am a new writer, almost done with my first manuscript and I just wanted to say I have read many of your posts and just want to say thank you because not only have you helped me keep going but you have helped me understand a little bit more of the publishing industry that was at first so confusing. I hope one you will keep helping people like me everyday.

Dennis Michael Tiffany said...

While much of this information is valid and useful, what bothers me is the total lack of reverence and respect for the craft of writing, and the cavalier attitude this "writer" appears to have about the work of writing and being published. Anyone who writes a blog or any other kind of editorial about how to find a literary agent, how to be published, or how to write anything other than a shopping list while at the same time using the word "cutiepatootie" in an effort to convey the opinion that he is an established writer to the point that such levity is appropriate is clearly someone you should not be listening to.

Being published doesn't make someone a writer. There are plenty of absolutely atrocious fiction and non-fiction publications that should not have seen the light of day, and yet there they are, little more than filler for every jailhouse library and bathroom in the country. The fact that Mr. Bransford has some publications to his credit in no way qualifies him as any kind of authority on writing, how to find an agent, or hot to get published. His flippant handling of the subject at hand only proves that he is little more than a sing-song hack whose resume resume is hardly first rate. Is he any kind of a serious writer? Does he devote hours upon hours agonizing over a work, second-guessing himself, looking for the elusive perfect sentence, weighing his words carefully, feeling out the textures of his words to find the impression that illustrates what he feels, sees, and understands? Hardly. He is to serious writing what Britney Spears is to serious music. No passion whatever. He tosses words into the air, and sees what comes down. And you can see this simply by reading this single blog. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the Internet calling themselves writers and pretending to posses this elusive knowledge of how to get published. Frankly, you could do a lot better.

While technically what he has said here in his blog may be accurate, the final interpretation doesn't touch anywhere near to the heart of the matter. The fact is that to be a published writer is secondary to being a writer. More thought should be given to what sort of writer you would like to be, or rather, what kind of writer you are, since writing isn't really something you become, but rather it is a burden lain upon you by the powers that be and you cannot be anything else but a writer. A writer is born to write, and anything else comes secondary to that one very personal and intimate objective. The market is too congested as it is with people who think that just because they can string a couple words together, they should write for a living. Writing is an art form, and in just the same way a child's drawing, for whatever reason, will never be mistaken for a Picasso, the likes of Mr. Bransford will never be mistaken for serious, genuine writers.

There is no mystery to how to become a writer, or how to become published. You write. That's it. The idea that you can publish a book that someone somewhere will be reading in the bathroom for lack of something better to read is not a novel theory. If all you want to do is put something out there into the literary universe to leave some indication that you were once here on this depressing planet, you don't need Mr. Bransford giving you instructions as to how this gets done.

A writer finds a way.

Nathan Bransford said...

Ha, wow. Hope that made you feel better, Dennis. Wishing you all the best. Now stop procrastinating by writing comments like that and do all that writing you care so much about!! ;-)

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Claudia H Gruy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Claudia H Gruy said...

The problem is not finding an agent - it's to get accepted by one. And to dig through hundreds of wants and expects and get them in a good mood and don't get stuck in the slush pile and form your words exactly around their level of imagination on that day. I always wonder if I should stuff a coffee and muffin in the dvd-drive first to send along so they'll get drugged first. But then - the assistant will snatch it. Darn.

Anonymous said...

Nathan--I'm 69; I'm published in a few respectable venues and I've written a memoir (with some "facts" impossible to veil). I've been told by a few that I could open myself to lawsuits when I tell my truths. On another front, I've pursued the try-to-get-an-agent route (for I thought he/she would have access to legal advice concerning this), but it's so long between query to response, I forget to whom I sent...What's the worst that can happen if I blanket the agent world with simultaneous queries? I'm not getting any younger...

MOB said...

Hi Nathan. Yes, we are all very thankful for your advice. Those of us who are about to enter the "Dark Between the Stars" concerning the long trek to find that agent are glad to have an inkling of what to expect. I have prepared a whole multi-pocket folder just for those rejection slips. Bring it on... Into the Dark!

P.S. And yes, you will probably be receiving a query from me very soon.

Darren komatz said...

Although you may decide to retain a literary attorney to guide you on the legal aspects of your writing career, it’s important to educate yourself on the publishing industry’s business and legal facets. Do your research and familiarize yourself with its ins and outs so you’re not caught off-guard with any proceedings.

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