How To Find The Literary Agent of Your Dreams

(image via the talented Justin Lowery)

Back in November, I shared with you the checklist I used to put together my own book proposal. It contained all the building blocks I’d become familiar with when working as an editorial assistant for an academic book publisher, plus a few other tips I’d picked up over the years from former writing professors and how-to books.

I can only assume that, by this point, you have an amazing, solid book proposal ready to go, and are already daydreaming about the book advance and lit parties in your future. Not so fast. While academic publishers — and some small presses — accept unsolicited book proposals and manuscripts, most traditional book publishers won’t look at your work unless it comes to them via a literary agent.

I can hear you grumbling already. What the what!? Another barrier to publication? But believe me. You’ll only benefit from the help an agent can provide. Not only are they the gatekeepers to big-name publishers, but they have their fingers on the pulse of the literary marketplace, can help you strengthen your proposal, have relationships with editors (and intimate knowledge of their preferences) that allow them to target the best possible publishers for your book, and can also negotiate a helluva book contract (a process during which many of us would be completely out of our element).

Yes please to all of that.

So how do you go about finding one?

Read the acknowledgments pages of your favorite books. I’ve been working on a prescriptive memoir about being a sex writer with sexual dysfunction. In order to pinpoint agents who might be interested in such a book, I thought back to all the sex-related books, prescriptive nonfiction books, and irreverent memoirs I’d read and loved. I figured anyone who’d represent those authors might possibly be into me, too. Luckily, most authors thank their agents in the acknowledgments section of their book. So when drawing up a list of possible agents to query, I flipped to the backs of My Year with Eleanor, Yoga Bitch, Project: Happily Ever After, Mating in Captivity, Introvert Power, and other such books. I also took note of which agents had landed their authors deals with Seal Press, a small publishing house I especially admired.

Flip through agent directories. In a bit of fortuitous timing, I received a review copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2012 back in November. I loved it because, in gathering information from agencies, Herman had asked for info like: hobbies and personal interests; subjects and categories they liked to agent; the most effective way for writers to grab their attention; favorite books, movies, and TV shows; the most common mistakes writers make when pitching; etc. Not only did this help me better craft my queries, but this info allowed me to see these agents not just as agents… but as people.

Several months later, I received Chuck Sambuchino’s 2012 Guide to Literary Agents as a Christmas present. This particular directory made it clear which agencies were more open to new writers and which weren’t.

I also paid attention to info on geographic location, and only targeted the agents who were based in NY or NJ. I wanted the option of meeting up with my future agent in person.

And both books also contained additional content on crafting query letters, putting together a nonfiction book proposal, how to make the most of a writer’s conference, copyright basics, and more.

Visit agency websites. After I’d flipped through acknowledgments pages and agency directories, I visited the websites of the agents on my list. This gave me even more information on whether they were accepting proposals at the time, how they preferred to receive queries, and how long it typically took them to respond (so I knew when to follow up).

Send a query letter first. Then I started sending out my first wave of query letters. You may be eager to mail out your full proposal right off the bat (especially after you spent so much time putting it together) but, for the most part, agents prefer to receive a brief query letter first. This is because they’re just inundated with queries and proposals, and don’t have the time to read through them all. If they’re intrigued by your query letter and interested in reading more, they’ll request your full proposal.

Other options. Of course, there are other ways to familiarize yourself with the agents out there. I read this mediabistro list of the Best Literary Agents on Twitter, and followed the ones who seemed the most interesting. (I even referenced a specific tweet in one of my query letters.) Other authors register for Publishers Lunch – through which they can read book industry news, receive alerts about new book transactions, and search a database to see which agents are representing which books — or subscribe to Publishers Weekly. Some authors make agent connections at conferences (and some conferences host sessions in which you can sign up to query agents in person).

In the end, it took me about three (excruciating) months to find my literary agent, using the steps above. Those three months included five rejections from agencies not interested in seeing my full proposal; three requests for a full proposal, followed by three very pleasant and constructive rejections; and two howling vortexes of silence.

Actually, I didn’t even directly query the woman who eventually offered me representation. I queried her colleague after becoming enamored of a memoir she’d represented. She loved my proposal but worried she was too much of a prude to give it the best possible chance in this tough publishing market. So she passed it along to her colleague and the stars aligned.

When my agent first emailed me, I paused to do a happy dance to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” Then, in my response email to the aforementioned agent, I admitted to doing a happy dance to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” When she responded by asking if we were separated at birth, I knew it was all going to work out.

I know there’s still no guarantee I’ll get an offer from a book publisher. But at this moment, I’m far closer to the authorial dreams I’ve been nursing since the age of 5 than I’ve ever been before.

Having an agent? It can certainly help you beat the odds.

Related: Selling Your First Book: A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials, How To Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal, Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?

Spill It: How Do You Handle Rejection as a Writer?

I learned early on that — when it came to freelance writing — it was important to bounce back quickly from rejection, keep up the momentum, and flip that pitch.

Because of that early lesson, I’ve never felt too much anxiety when pressing “send” on my query letters and, upon receiving rejections, I’ve typically only felt the barest twinge of disappointment before turning to the next publication on my pitch list. After all, rejection is a reality of the freelance writing life, and not everyone is going to fall all over themselves to publish my work. In fact, despite my being a total genius (obvs), I’m pretty sure at least some of my ideas have been pretty weak.

So my mental reaction when I received my first-ever rejections from my first-ever literary agent queries sort of caught me by surprise.

I spent two hours sending out my first four query letters on the Monday before Thanksgiving. By that point, I had already imagined my book as a done deal. I’d envisioned the book party / speed networking event that would take place at my favorite local cafe. I’d mentally run through the readings that would take place at Babeland and Happy Ending and KGB Bar. I’d considered the other things I would do to promote my book. The local library I’d do a Q&A at. The excerpt I’d send along to Real Simple. The blog tour I’d singlehandedly mastermind (and which my publicist would love me for).

This is all very embarrassing to admit. But I figured that imagining my book as a done deal would help it become a reality… would in fact help it manifest, à la The Secret.

One of the agents I emailed (my first choice, actually) responded within 15 minutes. He wanted to see my full proposal. I nearly had a heart attack, but I forced myself to chill the eff out and then sent along what I had, feeling cautiously hopeful. Somehow, I managed to make it through the week (including Thanksgiving) without going completely crazy from anticipation.

The following Monday, I received his rejection and, later that day, another one.

They were lovely rejections. They included words like “talented” and “engaging.” I felt that familiar twinge of disappointment, but I still felt hopeful. Their letters had been rejections, but they had also been personal, complimentary, and constructive. I filed their critiques in the back of  my mind for use in future revisions, and set about waiting for responses from the other agents.

I spent the next three days being completely unproductive. I wasn’t sure why. It finally occurred to me that I was depressed. What the what!? But then I realized what was bothering me. Those two rejections had forced me to consider the difficult possibility that my book might not happen.


I gave up on work and retreated to the sweet, sweet comfort of my pillow-top mattress, plus five layers of blankets and cats. I tried not to think about the readings and book parties that would never happen. I slept for two hours. I allowed myself to mourn.

This morning, I found myself eating Cheetos at 8:30 a.m. and decided it was time to snap the hell out of it. I started putting together the December edition of Word Nerd News. I started writing this blog post. I looked at my agent spreadsheet and made plans for sending out my next wave of query letters. I brainstormed my next steps for drumming up new work.

Clients often ask about my success rate with query letters and LOIs. I tell them my success rate is much better than it was when I started. Which makes sense. After all, my portfolio is stronger these days, my network is larger, and my writing has only improved. But I also tell them that rejection is still a reality of the freelance writing life, and that it always will be. One can’t succeed without accepting that, and working through it.

After all, rejection is not the same as failure.

How do you react to rejection? Do you, too, have weird daydreams about your unpublished book? And have you ever sunk so low as to eat Cheetos at 8:30 a.m.? Spill it.

Related: Flip That Pitch, How To Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal

Selling Your First Book: A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials

I’ve been a woman on a mission lately. In between assigned blog posts and essays, coaching calls, and yoga classes, I’ve been slowly pulling together a book proposal with the aim of sending it out to a handful of agents by the end of November.

So why would I take time away from everything else in order to focus on another large project… one that may very well come to nothing?

1. I love adding new things to the mix.

2. After ghostwriting and collaborating on ebooks for other clients, I really want to have something of my own out there. Heck, I’ve dreamed of being an author since the age of 5.

Luckily, I’ve worked in book publishing before, where one of my responsibilities was weeding through book proposals and sending them around for review. So I know a thing or two about what goes into a proposal. I also picked up some additional tips from this nifty book I read, and from Susan Shapiro, who regularly runs book publishing panels.

But maybe you’ve never seen a book proposal before. Maybe your book is still just a germ of an idea in your head, and you’re completely clueless about where to start. For all the book publishing newbies out there, here’s the book proposal checklist I use with clients, and which I also used to put my own proposal together:

Compelling Title and Subtitle. Most publishers brainstorm new title options for every book they buy. But it’s still a good idea to name your book from the outset. If it’s compelling or clever enough, it will entice an agent or publisher into reading more. It can also help them envision your book as a finished product.

Book Description. This is exactly what it sounds like. Any book proposal should include a brief description of your book. And don’t half-ass this. Aside from your initial query letter and book title, this will be the first thing an agent/publisher sees. If you don’t grab an agent’s attention from the very beginning, they may never continue on past the first paragraph, let alone the first page.

About You. As in your typical magazine query letter, this is the part of the proposal where you drive home why you’re the best person to write this book. This paragraph may include info on your writing background, any unique experiences or connections you have, the lowdown on your very special area of expertise, links to previously published clips, details on your already-existing platform, etc.

Manuscript Details. Don’t make an agent or publisher work too hard to imagine your book as a finished product. Give a projected word count. Mention which publishing categories it might fall under in your local bookstore. Give an idea of how long it will take you to complete a first draft of the manuscript.

Target Audience. More than anything else, a publisher needs to know if they’ll be able to sell your book. Because of this, they’ll want to know if there’s a large enough audience out there for the book you’re proposing. Write about the people who will be dying to purchase your book, and perhaps include a secondary audience as well. Let the agent/publisher know what benefits the reader will derive from your book. This is the type of information they’ll later be able to use within their marketing copy. And while the publisher will want to see proof of an audience for your book, make sure you’re not attempting to sell to everyone. When you try to make everyone happy with your work, you end up writing for no one.

Competitive Analysis. You’ll really need to do your homework here. This is the section of your proposal where you mention the existence of other, similar books on the market… and then explain what sets your book apart from them. This does two things: It shows the publisher that there is an existing market for the type of book your proposing… and then it presents your book’s unique selling proposition (or why a reader would still want to buy your book even after they’ve already read competing books). While you should make an effort in pulling together this section, don’t go overboard. If you list too many books, an agent/publisher will then worry that the market is over-saturated. I aim for five.

Annotated TOC. This is where you lay out the contents of your book. It’s a chapter outline that includes a one-paragraph description of each chapter.

Marketing/Publicity Ideas. We live in an age where the book publisher can’t afford to do it all. Because of this, you have to show agents/publishers that you have a strong platform, and that you can leverage your platform to promote your book both before and after it’s published. In addition to mentioning your blog/vlog/podcast/social media presence, this section should include suggestions for media outlets (newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV, radio) that may want to review your book or conduct an interview with you, reading series you could conceivably participate in, other outlets where you could do readings or other types of events, details of the blog tour you will be more than willing to organize yourself, articles you’re willing to write, alternative sales channels, etc.

Optional Extras. If you’re up to going the extra mile in order to gran an agent/publisher’s attention, consider including a list of potential endorsers for your book, a mock cover design, a mock press release, or anything else that will help others see your book as something with sales potential.

Book Excerpt. Wait! You’re not out of the woods yet. In addition to all of this information you so painstakingly pulled together, an agent/publisher will want to see some proof that you can actually execute what you’ve promised. Fiction writers typically have to submit a full manuscript along with their book proposal, why nonfiction writers can get away with an intro and first chapter.

Brief Cover Letter. But before you even send any of this out, most agents prefer to receive a brief query letter first, inviting them to check out / request your proposal. Agent preferences vary, so be sure to do due diligence before sending things out.

Anyone here working on their own book project?

Related: How To Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal, How To Get Your Book Published Before the Age of 25

How To Increase Your Chances of Landing That Book Deal

While it may seem that my life revolves around short-form magazine pieces about vibrators and low libido, what some of you may not know is that — once upon a time — I worked full-time for a book publisher, weeding through book proposals, drawing up author contracts, and developing marketing/publicity plans.

And so, while I’ve not yet courted traditional authorship myself, I do sometimes help clients with book proposal preparation and lit agent research.

In fact, as I’ve learned from working on several ebooks for Good in Bed, it’s a pretty short leap from being a short-form freelance writer to putting together an entire book. Which is why I thought some of you might be interested in 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected {and how to be sure it won’t happen again!}.

Because perhaps you have a book in you, too?

ANYway. After receiving a review copy of 77 Reasons and tweeting it up, a friend of mine (a published author who probably bristled at the admittedly provocative title) commented that I should give the book — and anyone who rejected me — “the Middle Finger, and then start looking for other smarter publishers/agents.”

I understood where he was coming from. After all, stories like the one surrounding The Help show that sheer determination, and an unwillingness to give up, can lead to authorial success.

But aspiring authors should be aware that some level of effort is still required on their part to increase their chances of getting a lit agent and/or a book publisher to sign on the dotted line. While writing an entire book is a daunting prospect to most of us, and we admire and envy those of you who can pull it off, that accomplishment does not, unfortunately, grant you a golden ticket to traditional publication.

Enter 77 Reasons.

Its author, literary agent and former acquisitions editor Mike Nappa, doesn’t leave much to chance. Throughout the book, he provides readers with the many reasons an editorial board, marketing department, or sales team might pass on your book, and then gives tips on how to avoid each of these pitfalls. He also gives aspiring authors an inside look at the book proposal consideration process, which may make readers amazed that any book has ever made it to publication.

Some of the pitfalls and pointers may seem common sense, but I feel confident that anyone in the midst of pulling together a book proposal will find value in this book. In fact, I suggest keeping it around on your reference shelf and using it as a checklist once you’ve pulled your proposal together.

It can only strengthen subsequent drafts.

Related: Breakneck Book Report: Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, How To Get Your Book Published Before the Age of 25, Breakneck Book Report: How To Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead