UPDATE 8/24/10: This post is very very out of date! Please consult this newer post on How to Find a Literary Agent.
For novelists, the first step to finding a literary agent is writing a book. You should have a finished manuscript — even if a prospective agent loves your work, they’re still going to want you to finish the whole thing before they send your work out to publishers. If your project is nonfiction, you should have a polished book proposal with killer sample chapters ready to go.
When you’re finished, it’s very important to make sure you absolutely have the best work possible and that you have revised it to death. It’s very easy to get caught up in the rush of finishing your first draft, so definitely celebrate that accomplishment, but then get to work on making the manuscript better.
The best way to find an agent is through a referral from an existing agented writer. Mine your personal connections and degrees of separation. Go through your friends and friends of friends to see if anyone knows anyone remotely connected to the publishing industry.
If you don’t know anyone, or those friends of friends haven’t e-mailed you back, try to make your own connections. Attend a writer’s conference or join a group, something, anything to get you one step closer.
If that doesn’t work and you’ve exhausted all of your options, you can try sending agents query letters. It’s rare for the query letter route to work — I’ve seen thousands and thousands of query letters, and of those I’ve only taken on two as clients**. But hey, you have a chance, and if you gotta do it you gotta do it.
I’ll run down the dos and don’ts of query letter writing in a later post. In the meantime, best of luck on your search for the right agent!
(Please feel free to send questions about book publishing my way — I’ll do my best to answer them.)
**UPDATE 11/13/07: I originally wrote this post a loooooong time ago, and I want everyone to know that I have since taken on several more clients through the query pile. I still feel that referrals are a more advantageous path toward representation, but I don’t want to give people the impression that I never take on people from queries. I do!