When to Search for a Literary Agent

Literary agents represent writers who want to submit their manuscripts to traditional publishers. Agents manage the submission process and negotiate the resulting contract. Here’s what else they might do for their clients:

  • Advise on developmental edits.
  • Manage relationships with publishers and editors.
  • Handle crisises.
  • Hunt down overdue royalty checks.
  • Submit books to reviewers and literary contests.
  • Offer career advice (marketing, new book ideas, speaking gigs, etc).
  • Submit future projects to traditional publishers.

This guest post is by Windy Lynn Harris. Harris is the author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published (Writer’s Digest Books). She’s a prolific writer, a trusted mentor, and a frequent speaker at literary events. Her long list of short stories and personal essays have been published in literary, trade, and women’s magazines across the U.S. and Canada in places like The Literary Review, The Sunlight Press, and Literary Mama, among many other journals. She teaches the craft of writing online and in person. Learn more about Windy at www.windylynnharris.com.


Literary agents are wonderful partners on the publishing path, but you don’t always need an agent to find your way to the traditional market. Here’s a guide to which projects need an agent:

  • Short Stories: No agent required.
  • Poems: No agent required.
  • Personal Essays: No agent required.
  • Nonfiction Articles: No agent required.
  • Short Story Collections, Essay Collections, and Poetry Chapbooks: Yes and No. Most collections sell to small publishers and literary presses, which do not require the aid of an agent. Many other collections are published as a result of a literary contest. The only time you need a literary agent on board is when you want to aim your collection at a large audience. In that case, a literary agent can submit your manuscript to big publishers.
  • Novels: Yes.
  • Memoirs: Yes.
  • Nonfiction Books: Yes.

If you’re sure your project requires representation, there are a few things you’ll need to have ready before you contact a literary agent:

  • For a Short Story, Essay, or Poetry Collection:
    • A query letter
    • A completed manuscript
  • For a Novel:
    • A query letter
    • A synopsis
    • A completed manuscript
  • For a Memoir:
    • A query letter
    • A synopsis
    • A book proposal with sample chapters
    • A completed manuscript
  • For a Nonfiction book:
    • A book proposal with sample chapters

Once you’ve got your submission documents together, you’re ready to find the right agent, but with hundreds of literary agents to choose from, how do you know who to query? Here’s what you’re looking for in a strong candidate:

  • Someone who has the industry contacts needed to sell your specific project.
  • Somebody open to new clients.
  • Someone with a good reputation in this business.
  • Someone you trust.
  • Someone you want to work closely with for years.

To find a good match, look at published books in your category—books that have a similar audience and vibe. Most writers will list their agent in the acknowledgements page near the front of the book. Visit their agent’s website and see if the agency is considering queries from new writers. If so, put them on your list of potential agents.

You can also find terrific information in the annual Guide to Literary Agents. In addition to a thorough listing of credible agents, this book also contains interviews and articles on the topic of agent submissions.


The biggest literary agent database anywhere
is the Guide to Literary Agents. Pick up the
most recent updated edition online at a discount.


There are plenty of great resources on the Internet; visit the following resources as you compile your list of potential agents:

Another way to find viable agents is to attend writing conferences that attract them. Many conferences have sessions where you can pitch your project directly to agents. Literary agents who show up to these conferences are actively looking for writers, making it one of the most effective ways to connect. The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference is a great place to start: http://www.writersdigestconference.com.

Take the time to research any potential agent before you make contact with them. You’re looking for a partner here. It’s worth the effort. Find out: Have they actually sold books like yours before? How long have they worked in the publishing industry? Does their agency website look professional? If you see any red flags, move on. There are plenty of terrific agents to choose from.


If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at cris.freese@fwmedia.com.

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