Publishing Tip: How to Find a Literary Agent

Many people have been asking me recently about the process of finding an agent and whether it's really important. Thus, this post.

If you are a fiction writer in America today, your chances of being picked up by a reputable publishing company--and of landing a good contract--will be greatly increased if you have an agent who is known and respected in the industry. I believe that, increasingly, this is occurring in other countries as well. Getting an agent is tricky but worth all the effort you put into it, because if things go well, this is probably going to be the longest professional relationship in your writing life. I've been with the same agent, Sandra Dijkstra, ever since my first book of stories, Arranged Marriage, and she has been a great boon to me.

A good agent will have many contacts, including personal relationships with editors, and will know where to place you and how much money to ask for. Agents will also know how to get you the best contract, and which clauses to watch out for. Come publication time, agents can push for more publicity, a better marketing budget, etc.

Below I'll list a few steps that I've found useful, and that have worked for many of the writers I know. 

The first is to create a manuscript that you're proud of, and that you've revised until you don't think you can make it any better. Being in a classroom/workshop situation helps because it gets you valuable feedback. At the very least, try to be in a writing group with people who know what they're doing. Not only will the community support help your writing, it'll help you through the (sometimes long and disheartening) publication process.

Next, try to get short pieces published in good places, because this will get your name out there and will spark interest in agents.  There are many excellent venues for short fiction and nonfiction. Do some careful market research. Choose magazines/journals that publish your kind of story, or stories by writers you admire. Don't start with the very top magazines unless you have rhinoceros skin. Many of them will not look at unsolicited manuscripts, anyway. The university journals are a great home for writers of literary fiction. You'll find a good list at the Newpages site,, but there are many others. For every genre, there are many magazines out there, including reputable e-magazines, so just keep searching. Literary Marketplace  is another comprehensive site, with a great section on agents.

For readers from India, here's a link to a general writers site which also lists Indian literary agents:

Once you've established somewhat of a publishing history, you can approach an agent. Referrals work well-- if you know a writer you might approach, do it. Creative Writing programs are an excellent help in this regard--your professor might refer you to an agent if he or she likes your work. Also, attending writer's conferences is a good strategy. You can sign up for agent consultations at many of these, plus you get to know many people in your field. In general, it is an excellent idea to participate in writers communities and add value where you can. It keeps you motivate and abreast of what's happening, and the goodwill you earn will help in the long run.

If you can't get a referral, you can still approach an agent on your own. Do careful research; find an agent who works with writers in your genre, writers whose work you like. Acknowledgement pages of books are a quick way to find your favorite writers' agents. Research the agent's website thoroughly to find out their preferred means of being approached (email, snail mail, etc). Most agents want a query letter and a synopsis; some also want about 30-50 pages of your manuscript. Most prefer electronic submissions. But, as I said, check the website. It's usually fine to approach several different agents (though not from the same agency) simultaneously.  Here's Sandra Dijksta's site, which should give you a good idea of the process of approaching an agent.

Next, write a great query letter and send off everything. Here is an excellent article on writing a strong query by Nathan Bransford:

Then it's time to sit back, and be patient and resilient. This may take several attempts. Don't get disheartened. Remember, most of us writers had to go through the same process.

When agents shows interest, before you sign a contract, make sure to ask questions about their approach and what they believe they can do for their authors. Make sure you're in sync, because this is an important relationship, and you have to be able to trust your agent's judgment as well as his/her abilities, understanding of your work,  and commitment to you.  And remember: legitimate agents will take a percentage of your royalties and on-signing payment, but they never ask the author to pay a fee up front.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of scammers out there. Read about how to avoid them at this great website, Writer Beware:

That's it, friends. The process is fairly simple, though painstaking and time-consuming. Good luck with it!

Let me know if you find this helpful, or if you have questions I didn't address.If you know of other useful links, please share them here.