How do I find the right literary agent?

An exclusive sneak peek of the arse-kicking, query writing, agent-seeking Writers’ HQ Get Published 6-week online course, starting 20th March (see below for a special Scribblers discount code!), tutored by award-winning author Jo Gatford.

At one of our recent writing retreats I was chatting to a writer who had just begun sending out her manuscript to agents. We shared a happy dance, and then I asked who she was sending it to. Her answer was: “Anyone who’ll take it.”

Look, I totally understand that feeling. That desire to BE a writer – a REAL WRITER with an agent and a publishing deal – can be so strong and so desperate that maybe you don’t really care who you end up working with, or how you get there.


But… (and you knew there was gonna be a ‘but’, didn’t you?) this kind of blanket approach – whether consciously or unconsciously taken – is kind of disrespectful. It really is.

Now don’t clutch your pearls, hear me out:

By frisbeeing your work out into the void, you’re not giving yourself the respect to choose your own path, and to recognise that you actually have a choice in this process. You don’t have to accept the first (or only) agent who likes your work. ‘Cause d’you know what? They might not actually be right for you. It might be agonising to turn down an agent who’s interested in your book, but if you have faith in your writing and truly believe that a particular author/agent partnership just isn’t going to work, you’re doing yourself a favour by walking away.

Equally, sending out your work to anyone and everyone shows very little respect for literary agents as individual human beings and industry professionals with vastly disparate tastes, opinions and working methods. They are actual people y’know. Many of them are very nice people indeed, and, just in any cross-section of humanity, some of them may turn out to be arseholes. The one thing they have in common is that they care a great deal about literature and authors and everything bookish.

It’s really important to get along with your agent, or at the very least respect their input enough to work with them for the long-term. Go with your gut. Do you trust their decisions? Do they have experience in your genre? What’s their track record like? If you’re not sure, then maybe they’re not right for you.

Think about how you get on with colleagues at your day job – you made a decision to work with this specific group of people when you took the position, and you have to make the best of it, even if some of them never wash up and insist on showing you endless pictures of their dog. Now, if you had the choice to work with just one of them for the next five, ten, twenty years, would you simply pick a name out of a hat or spend a little time considering all the pros and cons? Would you put the future of your career into just anyone’s hands?

I know more authors who have severed a stagnant working relationship with an agent than I know authors who have found success with the first agent they’ve worked with. It’s a really personal partnership, and it’s worth taking your time over such a big decision.

Of course, there’s a big unspoken question looming over all of this:

But, but, but… What if my ideal agent doesn’t want me?

Well, yes. There is that. And it sucks. But, my sweet summer babes, we don’t always get what we want. You might get a ‘no’ from your favourite-ever-in-the-world agent. And that’ll be sucky. You might get rejected by your top ten agents. And it will really, truly suck. You might query for a whole year and not get a bite. And it will suck gigantic donkey balls. BUT, along the way, if you do things properly, it’s highly likely you’ll get some good advice along the way, maybe a few referrals, and perhaps even a couple of close calls that show you you’re heading in the right direction.

No one said this was gonna be quick and easy (sorry). But you’re in good company. Just look at this list of bestsellers that got rejected over and over. Their one commonality is that they kept on submitting. And in between, they probably went back to their manuscript and their query letter and they kept improving it, and improving it, and improving it, until some lucky agent snapped it up.

It’s also worth mentioning at this point that there’s no single route to publication. When we interviewed a bunch of authors about their publication journey, each one was different: some got an agent through their work in poetry or short fiction; some were head-hunted while they were doing a creative writing MA; some won competitions with publishing contracts before they even had an agent; some got referred by a writer friend and got lucky; some had success with self-publishing and found an agent that way; some got turned down for one book with a ‘close but no cigar’ rejection, but kept in touch with an encouraging agent and hit the target with their next novel.

The purpose of the Writers’ HQ Get Published course is to give you the tools to send out your manuscript the ‘traditional’ way, but all these skills and techniques should also serve you well for simply putting yourself out there. With a solid query, a succinct synopsis, and dynamite sample pages, you’re all set to pitch your book wherever you are. Go to literary events, get involved in readings and workshops, start chatting on Twitter with people in the industry, and talk to anyone who will listen about your story. You never know who has the connections that will get your manuscript on the desk of the perfect agent.

Try a freebie week of the Writers’ HQ Get Published online course HERE and book on to the next round, starting 20th March, £140 – oh, and get 10% off with promo code SCRIBBLERS10