The world of traditional publishing can be a mystery.
Most of it happens behind closed doors, and the people who know how it really works hardly ever talk about it (at least not publicly).
That’s especially true when it comes to literary agents.
So, before I explain how to find a literary agent, let me be clear:
I’ve written (or overseen the development of) dozens of book proposals that sold to traditional publishers, for advances that ranged from $150k to $2 million (many of them Scribe clients).
I know how it works. I know how to get a literary agent and how to get a publisher.
But I also know that 99.99% of nonfiction Authors do not need an agent (or a traditional publishing house).
I’m very serious about that percentage—as of this writing, we’ve taken only 17 of our 1500+ clients at Scribe to the traditional publishing process. And we work with some of the most successful and accomplished people on earth.
I’m not saying traditional publishing is bad or the wrong choice. Not at all. For a very specific type of Author (who represents a very small percentage of nonfiction Authors), they’re the smart choice.
But I’m also not telling you traditional publishing is the right choice for you—because chances are, it’s not an option, and, even if it is, it might not be the best option.
So before I tell you how to get a literary agent, let’s talk about what an agent really does, and whether you need (or want) one.
What Is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent does one main thing: they find book proposals that the traditional publishing houses will want to buy, and then negotiate that purchase.
If they’re successful, and the publisher buys the book, the agent gets 15% of the advance (the money the publisher gives the Author upfront) and of the Author’s future earnings (if there are any).
Sounds steep, right? But if you want a traditional publisher, it’s the price you’ll have to pay.
Agents are (usually) the only way you’ll get in the door to traditional publishers.
Agents act as gatekeepers for the big publishing houses. Publishers don’t want to waste their time looking at thousands of book proposals that come from anyone.
So instead, they have—as a matter of industry policy—farmed this work out to book agents, who spend their own time slogging through thousands of potential books, looking for the ones that traditional publishing houses will buy.
So, what types of books are traditional publishers looking to buy? One type only: books that have a guaranteed audience lined up waiting to buy them.
And you need to prove that market up front, before you even write the book. That’s a big part of what the agent does, is make sure the Author can sell a lot of books, without any help.
Seems backwards, doesn’t it?
Maybe. But it makes sense once you understand what’s happened to the publishing industry.
Some 30 years ago, before the internet, books were only sold through bookstores.
And publishers were great at selling books to bookstores.
Back then, publishers could practically create a market for a book by pushing it into stores and getting it onto bookshelves, and, from there, people would see it and buy it.
But then the internet came along. And Amazon. And social media. And everything changed.
Amazon and ebooks totally changed the economics of the book market. Once Authors could publish books themselves and sell those books directly to readers, bookstores became a lot less important.
Publishers started to lose money, and they got even more conservative than they already were. They could no longer afford to take risks on Authors who had no audience waiting to buy their book. They had to find the guaranteed winners.
So, today, they don’t take any risks. They won’t buy a book just because they think it’s one people should read, or that it might be good.
They only publish books they know will sell based on the marketing platform of the Author.
Which is why those are the only books agents want. The agents sell to publishers, and if publishers are only buying those books—that’s what agents have to sell.
Do You Need a Literary Agent?
You need an agent if you want a traditional publisher.
But for 99.99% of nonfiction authors, self-publishing is the better (and often only) option.
If you want to write a nonfiction book and you’re in that 99.99%, then you don’t need an agent. Looking for one would be a complete waste of time. Time you could spend self-publishing your book.
But if you’re in the 0.01% of all nonfiction Authors who can prove a clear path to at least 25,000 book sales that you generate on your own, then traditional publishing might be the right choice for you.
Why do I say it might be the right choice? Because traditional publishing could still cost you more business than the advance is worth.
I know that sounds like a bold claim, but there’s a very simple reason behind it:
Traditional publishers take all the rights to your book, which makes it difficult to use your own book for anything besides book sales.
You can’t use it as a free lead generator. You can’t give it away or run promotions with it. You can’t even publish parts of it on your own website to impress clients—at least not without the publisher’s permission.
If a publisher gives you a $100k advance, but you could have used your book to generate an extra $500k in business by doing things they won’t let you do (and many of our Scribe clients have generated much more than that from their books), the math is simple:
You’d be better off self-publishing.
So, even if you think you can get a traditional publisher, I strongly recommend that you read my post on deciding whether you want one.
The fact is, most Authors either can’t get a traditional publishing deal, or in some cases (like David Goggins) should not take one even if they can get it.
See, here’s the deal: Publishers don’t take risks. They won’t publish a book unless they know it will make them a ton of money.
That’s why they accept less than 0.1% of all nonfiction book proposals.
And even if they do want your book, a traditional publisher will:
- Take all your print and digital rights
- Depend on you to do all the marketing
- Provide no help writing the book
- Limit your marketing and promotional options
- Demand complete creative control
- Take up to 1.5 to 3 years to publish the book
I’m not saying traditional publishing is always bad. For a very specific, very small percentage of nonfiction Authors, they’re the smart choice. But it’s not for everyone.
But if you’ve considered every angle, you are confident you can get a deal because you have a big platform, and you want to use traditional publishing, then you’ll need a literary agent.
This is how to get one.
How to Get a Literary Agent
Step 1: Write a Book Proposal
If you want to publish a nonfiction book with a traditional publishing house, you’ll have to sell the book before you write it.
It goes back to what the publishing world wants: books with a guaranteed market.
Once you understand that, the whole process makes sense.
Publishers don’t care whether you’re writing a “how-to” book or a “tell-all” memoir. They only care how many of those books you can sell.
So the entire process of getting an agent is built around proving to the agent that you can sell books on your own.
Remember, the agent is the publisher’s gatekeeper. Before you can convince a publisher that you can sell your book, you have to convince an agent that you will sell your book.
You do that by creating a complex, highly specialized business plan for your book, known as a book proposal.
Writing a great book proposal isn’t easy. If you don’t know what you’re doing, agents will reject it before they get through the first page. Sometimes before they get through the first line.
That might sound harsh, but a big part of their job is weeding out people who don’t know how to play “the game.”
Your book proposal has to prove that you’re savvy enough (or connected enough) to figure out what publishers want. That’s why most successful Authors pay $10k to $15k to professional freelancers who specialize in writing book proposals.
If you really want to try to write one yourself, I’ve written a post about that too. It even includes a book proposal template that you’re welcome to use.
But I don’t recommend it. You’re far better off using a professional (we have these people at Scribe—they are worth every penny).
These documents are usually 30-50 pages long and include tons of information:
- An overview of the book’s main idea and why people will buy it
- Information about you and why you’re the perfect person to write it
- A marketing plan that lays out exactly how you’re going to sell the book to readers
- An outline of the full book with brief chapter descriptions
- A sample chapter
- And (optionally) media links, comparable titles, advance praise, and influencer quotes
Let’s look at that last one for a second. Influencer quotes? For a book you haven’t even written?
I know what you’re thinking: Where’s the logic in that?
It’s a twisted kind of logic, but it does make sense if you know how publishers think.
If you’re so connected that famous influencers will go to bat for you over a book they’ve never even read, publishers know they have a sure thing.
Which is all they care about.
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “But I thought the agent was supposed to sell my book for me!
This sounds like I’m doing all the work for them!”
It does seem that way, but it’s a common misconception.
The agent’s job is not really about selling the book. It’s about using their connections to get your book in front of a publisher.
It’s your job to sell the book.
To the agent, to the publisher, and to your readers.
Step 2: Write a Query Letter
Once you have a finished book proposal, the next step is to write a one-page query letter.
The query letter is a sales pitch for agents that summarizes the book proposal. It should present the most important highlights of your proposal in a way that’s easy to scan and digest quickly.
Unlike fiction query letters, there’s no definitive formula for nonfiction. That’s because every book proposal is unique, based on the book’s specific business plan.
But all nonfiction query letters do have a common purpose: to convince agents to read your proposal.
It can be hard to accept that agents don’t actually read most of the proposals they get. But it’s the truth.
They just don’t have enough time to read every proposal thoroughly. Especially since they don’t get paid to read proposals. They only get paid to make book deals.
Every proposal an agent reads that doesn’t lead to a sale is a complete waste of their time.
So they learn early on to spot the bestsellers quickly and throw out the ones that aren’t worth reading.
I’ve written a whole post dedicated exclusively to writing a good query letter. They’re that important.
But at a high level, every query letter needs to prove that your book has:
- A strong hook
- Engaging content
- A defined and eager audience
- The right Author
- An effective marketing plan
Remember, agents read a lot of query letters and book proposals. So even though it’s a sales pitch, it’s not a used-car-lot kind of pitch. You’re not going to fast-talk a literary agency into representing a bad book.
Don’t lie. Don’t embellish. Just hit the important highlights, and punch the best parts right up front.
Finally, be willing to change your query letter based on each individual agent. You’re not just looking for any agent. You’re looking for the right agent.
Your query letter should show them why you chose them, and why you’re asking for their time.
Step 3: Research Literary Agents
As competitive as the market is, literary agents want to find books they can sell.
Thanks to this simple fact, finding agents to query is one of the easiest parts of the process.
Agents post their “manuscript wishlists” on a whole host of different venues where authors can discover them.
1. Publishers Marketplace
Publishers Marketplace is the quickest and easiest way to find agents who are currently making deals in your genre. You can even see how good those deals are.
- Go to the search page
- Use the dropdown box to select Deals
- Type “deal” into the search bar (including the quotes)
- Hit Search
- In the new box that pops up on the right, use the Category dropdown to choose your nonfiction category
- Next to Date, use the right-hand box to choose the current year
- Use the radio buttons to choose US/UK/Canada; International; or all deals
- Hit Search again
You have to be a member to see the actual results, but membership is only $25 per month.
If you’re serious about finding a traditional publisher, you’re hunting a 6-figure advance, minimum. Use the service while you’re looking; then cancel it when you don’t need it anymore.
Publishers Marketplace uses a code to indicate the size of the advance offered in each deal they report:
- “nice deal” = $1 – $49k
- “very nice deal” = $50k – $99k
- “good deal” = $100k – $250k
- “significant deal” = $251k – $499k
- “major deal” = $500k and up
AgentQuery claims to be the internet’s largest free database of literary agents.
To see a full list of agents in a given nonfiction genre:
- Use the nonfiction dropdown box below the search field to choose your genre
- Leave the keyword field blank
- Hit Quick Search
Choose an agent’s profile to see their current interests, but remember that an agent might not keep this up-to-date.
To be sure you’re seeing their current wishlist, visit their page on their agency website.
3. Manuscript Wish List
The Manuscript Wish List website is a searchable database of agents (and editors) who have taken the time to post exactly what they’re looking for and how to query them.
Use their advanced search page to look up agents by name, or to browse through a full list of agents in each of their 15 nonfiction categories.
Don’t add every name to your list just because they represent your genre. Take the time to read their specific requests, and be selective.
If they’re looking for juicy tell-all humor, they won’t want your insightful investment guide.
Focus on the agents who look like a good fit for the book you want to write.
Yes, Twitter. In today’s social media world, literary agents tweet their wishlists using #MSWL, short for Manuscript (MS) Wishlist (WL).
They also tweet their pet peeves, which is a great way to avoid annoying them.
Twitter even has an advanced search option for searching hashtags with particular content:
- Enter #MSWL in the field labeled “These hashtags”
- Use the other fields to narrow the search (for example, enter “parenting” into the field labeled “All of these words”)
- Hit Search
- Use the tabs above the results to choose Top for the most popular results, or Latest to see all results in chronological order, starting with the most recent
Whether or not the search is fruitful, Twitter is a great resource for learning more about the agents who are already on your list and getting a feel for who they are.
Step 4: Narrow the List
Once you have a list of agents you might want to query, research them more fully to find the best fits.
- Visit their page on their agency website for their most recent wishlist and submission guidelines
- Look up their recent deals in Publisher’s Marketplace
- Look them up on LinkedIn to see if you have mutual connections
- Google them to see any recent news or interviews
Choose your top 10-15 favorites for your A-List, and make a separate B-List of agents you’d also be happy with.
Step 5: Query Methodically
Finding literary representation is hard work. Like everything else about the process, querying is tedious and time-consuming.
Don’t blow it by trying to rush through it.
Send your first round of queries to a mix of agents from your A-List and B-List. Don’t send your first queries to your entire dream list all at once.
Remember to read their submission guidelines and follow those guidelines exactly for each individual agent.
Most of your query letter won’t change, but personalize it where you can. Agents want to know that you didn’t choose them randomly.
If you don’t get any interest the first time out, take a hard look at your book proposal and query letter before you send the next round.
Market test them with professionals you trust. But remember that selling a book to an agent is highly specialized and different from any other kind of sales job.
Unless those professionals are inside the book industry and know how deals get made, there’s only so much feedback they can give you.
The best way to sell your book is to hire a professional to write your book proposal and query letter.
And even that is no guarantee of success.
Step 6: Recognize Reality
If you’ve done everything right, but you’ve still exhausted your agent list without getting an offer of representation, it’s time to face reality.
Traditional publishing probably isn’t the path for you.
But that isn’t all bad.
On top of the negatives I listed at the start, big publishers take such broad publishing rights that they leave you unable to use your book in any other way besides selling it.
What other ways are there to use your book?
- Publishing sections of it on your website to prove your expertise
- Using it as a lead generator for your consulting business
- Offering it as an incentive for people who attend your speaking engagements
- Providing your first book for free with a sales pitch at the end for your next book
- Giving it to potential clients when you’re bidding on a project so you’ll stand out from the crowd
New Authors have a hard time breaking into New York’s book publishing elite. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t publish.
There are plenty of self-published Authors making 7-figure salaries.
Sometimes that’s through book sales, and sometimes that’s through new business that their book generated.
Even if you don’t know anything about book publishing, Scribe Media’s Book School is 100% free and teaches everything you need to know, from writing your book to publishing it and marketing it.
Who Do Literary Agents Actually Work For?
If you’ve read this far, I’m going to give you a little bonus, and tell you two things about agents that are counterintuitive and controversial, but very true in my experience:
- Agents don’t really represent Authors. This is because there are tons of people who want to traditionally publish, but very few traditional publishing houses. Their most important relationships are with these houses—because those are the people who pay them.
- Agents aren’t really interested in how good your book idea is. They really only care whether a publishing company will want to buy your book—because that’s the only way they get paid.
I’m being a little harsh and using some hyperbole—there are plenty of agents who genuinely care about book quality, and many who care about and fight for their Authors. I’m friends with many agents who are great people.
But the fact is, agents are driven by the incentives of the publishing industry, and they get paid by traditional publishers, not Authors—so that is who they serve.
And right now, traditional publishers only buy books from Authors who have a built-in platform.