Novel #writing: On finding the Right Literary Agent #QueryTip

On How to find the right Literary AgentNovel writing isn’t for the impatient (or wise, for that matter). I’ve been writing mine since end 2011, and this year, I’ve finally found a literary agent for it, and for my writing. An insightful editor, an entertaining conversationalist and email-writer who doesn’t mince his words, and a wry tweeter of cat pictures: Ed Wilson from Johnson & Alcock is definitely the right person to represent me, though I’m a dog person, myself.

You see, those are the sort of differences with your agent you can live with. (Plus, I do like kitty pictures, if not kitties.)

I started off my agent hunt in London with a slew of workshops of all stripes, and immediately discovered an important fact: the Publishing world is People. Now, that might sound like an idiotic conclusion to draw, one that I could have reached at home. But the difference between theory and practice is that between teaching and performance.

It was wonderful to meet extremely helpful authors, writing coaches, consultants, publishers, poets, and yes, agents. You read about them, and you go, oh, stars, celebrities. Then you chat with them, and you find that the best of them are some of the most real, down-to earth people you’ve met, who either love the word, or love the word and make money out of it. (Let’s not kid ourselves, it can be fairly insular–I was the only person of colour in almost all the classrooms and salons, and that wasn’t lost on me. But that’s a different conversation.)  By and large, I met very approachable, decent folk, complete with the very British (and largely reasonable, imo) moaning about the English summer (that saw two perfect sunny days followed by a pandemic of clouds, rain, hail, even.)

Things I quickly realised about finding representation for that novel you’re writing:

  1. Agents get pitched all the time. Most writers have no clue how to pitch: that one sentence elevator pitch is really it. Agents are looking for a new voice most of the time, but they hear a Lot of gobbledygook (I did my share of that with the first agent I met). Unless you’re writing literary, you should be able to boil your novel premise down to a sentence.
  2. Pitch them in person or through someone whose opinion they trust, and they get back to you fairly quickly. It seems unfair, but agents are regular people, and regular people pay more attention to people they’ve met or know. I met eight agents, pitched to five of them and received offers from two. The other two offers and two full requests came from agents who’d heard about me from other authors or coaches. (Just one interest came from a brilliant agent I had no connect with, who wanted to see the full after I informed her I had offers. She eventually passed.)
  3. The pitch in the query letter? That’s really the best way to get a-hold of an agent. In a week filled with taking care of their current clients who earn for them, of attending events and meeting editors, and the truck of paperwork they have to go through, they barely have enough time to look at query letters. They do their best, but really, that pitch paragraph must knock them for six.
  4. Novel writing is hard work, but finding representation can be equally hard. Don’t pitch anything you can’t stand behind.
  5. I had agents to choose from, and while that sounds like an enviable situation, it didn’t feel like it at the time. I had sterling advice from agented author-friends, but in the end, it was a case of finding an agent with matching viewpoints.
  6. I found it was important to figure out what the agent’s take would be on decisions like advances and editors, on how long the relationship should last, on what they saw my book becoming, how they saw me and my writing. I finally had a choice of four very good agents, each with their set of undeniable plus points, but in the end, I had to remember that there was no Perfect Agent. Only an agent Perfect for Me.

This is not a definitive ‘how to find a literary agent’ article by any means: just one writer’s take on the process. Another writer who wants to get published will have a completely different story to tell. In the writing world as in the real one, individual stories differ. Luck and timing, more than anything else, led me to the right agent. I’m very, very aware of my privilege (including awesome friends who let me stay in their homes during my agent-hunt), and grateful for it.

As I dive into further edits, I have no clue where my novel would end up. To me though, finding an agent has been more important than finding a publisher. The publishing landscape is changing fast, tastes are subjective and transient and all bets are off– but with a strong agent on my team, I’ll take my chances. At the very least, I’ll keep novel-writing!

What about you? If you’re a writer, are you agented, seeking representation, or self-published? What are the pros and cons of each? What advice do you have for a writer starting out, a writer-newly-agented, or a self-published writer? Any advice on how to find a Literary Agent? Want to share your agent-query-quest story? If you’re a reader, does it affect your choice, especially in e-books, whether a writer is self or traditionally published?

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  1. writingandalcohol

    Thank you for sharing this post. I am actually looking for an agent this time but don’t know where to start. I published my first e book last year The Booze Stole My Son (don’t let it steal yours) and I am currently working on my second a book. I am learning so much from you blogs. Thanks and I will be very happy to hear from you 🙂

  2. ianscyberspace

    First of all on your observation about being the only person of colour there. Just remember we are all persons of colour, some brown, black and white. So you should have felt on an equal with them there. I think you are! On the subject of an agent, I write for the fun of it and have never thought of publishing a book. Sometimes I’m tempted to but writing a book seems to be a lot of hard stressful work as one would want to present excellence in their work. I suppose a literary agent with their experience would help to obtain that excellent presentation by giving their critique to help make a presentation the public would be glad to pay for.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Thanks for the kid words, re:color. I do feel at par with anyone, but it was disconcerting to see all-white workshops, seminars and salons, when that is not reflected in the bookshops or cafes or streets.

  3. dgkaye

    Big congrats to you D. And thank you for sharing this post. It’s always interesting to read about another author’s publishing journey.
    At the moment I’m quite content with Indie publishing. I have a great working relationship with my editor, and still working on tightening up the ever important ‘elevator pitch’. 🙂

  4. ccyager

    Thanks for this informative post! I would love to have an agent. Over the years, I’ve pitched at least 100 total, possibly more. I had some nibbles, but no takers for “Perceval’s Secret.” After thinking long and hard about it, I decided to self-publish an e-book with a paperback to follow. I just needed to get the book out there. Going through hiring an editor and editing, hiring a cover designer and picking a cover, going through formatting my manuscript for e-publishing, publishing the book, then working hard to gain attention and readers (an on-going process), I actually don’t see much difference between traditional and self-publishing, since even in traditional publishing the author is expected to do a lot of work. But…it would be nice to have a bunch of people who believe in my writing and my novels supporting me and the work. You’re very fortunate, Damyanti. Thanks for sharing your experience. Cinda

    • Damyanti Biswas

      It is very true, Cinda, that authors these days are expected to write as well as market their books, whether they’re indie or trad published. That’s a fact of life.

      Thanks for your kind words.

  5. Candy

    This was so encouraging. It has reminded me that I need to keep going and not give up so easily. Good luck with the book!

  6. ascreasey

    Congratulations on finding an agent! This was a very good post. I am working on the third draft of my first novel, and this coming Monday, I plan to attend a two-hour session on how to pitch a novel–because boiling my novel down to one sentence feels like an impossible task to me! I have pitched it one time to one agent, this last fall, and It. Was. So. Hard. She was very kind to me, but, frankly, my pitch was terrible. I knew it would be–I had never done one before. I hope to learn a lot Monday night!

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Really, a good workshop can teach you much. I had a sentence done when I went for it, but the workshop made it so much better. Pitching is a matter of preparation and practice: find that one sentence and then read it so many times you can say it in your sleep. It helps if you know the core conflict of your story very well, and can present it in an intriguing way.

      • ascreasey

        That’s good advice I’ve heard before. 😊 I hope to be able to figure out exactly how to actually DO that at my workshop on Monday. (I should probably also actually finish revising and polishing my novel…) 😉

  7. pjlazos

    Many blessings, Damyaniti, on finding a like-minded soul to represent you. There’s nothing quite as good as having someone in your corner. I hope the collaboration brings you commercial success and also makes your heart sing. oxo

  8. Alana Mautone (@RamblinGarden)

    It matters to me if a work is self published or traditionally published. I’ve attempted to read many self published e-books and few are worth my time. Some, obviously, were never viewed by an editor. I am not a grammar expert, so if I see things wrong, the errors are obvious. Or, their plot is the same plot I’ve already read 50 times, rewarmed. It’s disappointing. I’m almost ready to quit and stick with traditionally published books.

  9. miladyronel

    Congrats, Damyanti! I’m really happy for you. The Writers in the Storm blog is full of advice for newly-agented writers… and, of course, writers in all stages of their careers 😉 Thanks for sharing your journey 🙂

    • Damyanti Biswas

      It is all variable and subjective, but I did find that a minimal personal context was helpful.

  10. Patricia Stoltey

    I still have high hopes of getting an agent one of these days, but in 2005, I was fortunate to connect at a conference with the editor for a mid-size publisher that accepts unagented submissions. They’ve done three of my novels so far and will be doing the fourth. After that, however, I need to find a new home for my contemporary mysteries and thrillers as the mystery line is being dropped by my current publisher. I’ll be pitching to an agent at a conference in September, so wish me luck.

  11. G.B. Miller

    It really all depends on how you want to get published. If you don’t mind waiting a year or so for your novel to be published, then by all means get an agent. If you have a novel that is considered to be a “safe” genre, thus easy to land somewhere, then get an agent. If you want to get published in under a year, but still want to be traditionally published, look at doing small-to-mid-sized publishers that don’t require an agent for submission. It really is up to you on how you want to go on with your career.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      I’ve always wanted an agent to be by my side while on my journey: for me an agent was way more important than a publisher. I was never in any hurry to be published, my only aim is to write, write better, and hopefully find an audience. I’m just lucky that an agent found what I’m writing saleable enough to sign me up.

  12. hilarymb

    Hi Damyanti – fascinating read .. but yes we need to relate, and understand each other, and comprehend their positive take on your life and your work … thanks for sharing these thoughts with us – here’s to your future … cheers Hilary

  13. BellyBytes

    Congratulations and good luck to you. Your advice is really sound and will make everyone think twice before jumping into the great unknown. I have had a cookery book published but the publisher is doing little or nothing to promote it. If I had known your publishing advice earlier, I would have gone about it a different way. Perhaps I might still re-hash it and re-pitch it the right way and get a best seller!

  14. John Davis Frain

    Great stuff, DB. I really liked how you phrased not needing a perfect agent, since one doesn’t exist. Instead, you want one who is perfect for you. Well struck.

    Also, great luck to you! Enjoy the journey.

  15. Birgit

    Congrats on your new novel and your new agent. I have no advice to give except to say…never give up and find what works for you whether it is an agent or you can do it yourself. You have to be comfortable with whichever way you decide to go.

  16. Kristina Steiner

    Congratulations! I hope you find success with your novel. I’m a self-published author trying to make it. But I agree. Writing a novel is just half of the work. The other half, publishing it and spreading the word, is the other one and far more challenging at that.

  17. vishalbheeroo

    That’s great news and congrats. I am sure the partnership will make you scale greater heights:) Btw got an interview of author Shuchi Singh Kalra and if you find time, find it worthwhile…do read and comment

  18. Southpaw, HR Sinclair

    Congratulations! You’re in the ‘happy dance group’ this mid-year. 🙂 Thanks for sharing. It comes at a perfect time. I’m just about to begin the query process and I’m a nervous wreck.

  19. Julie Flanders

    I really appreciated this advice (and will be sure to bookmark the post), as I’m planning to query agents for my next book. That is assuming I actually finish it LOL. But I think it’s awesome that you obviously found just the right agent for you – congratulations!! And anyone who shares fun kitty pictures has to be top notch. 🙂

  20. D. Wallace Peach

    Excellent advice, and yes, to have a few agents interested is enviable! I think what was hardest for me in approaching agents was knowing who to approach in the first place. The top agencies are long shots and the rest are hard to sort through with all the cautionary tales out there. Perhaps I’ll try again someday 🙂

  21. Jacqui Murray

    Hearty congrats on finding an agent. A few years ago, I’d be green with envy. Today, though, I’ve come to terms with the path I’ve chosen. I look forward to more about your novel.

  22. cleemckenzie

    First, congratulations on your agent success. It’s hard to sign on with one, and once you do, you pray you’re a match. I’m a hybrid author, and the reason I have my feet in both camps is my agent doesn’t handle middle grade. I love to write in that category, and so I Indie publish those. I enjoyed reading your post. It will be very helpful for those seeking representation.