If you want to be published by a traditional publisher, you must find a good literary agent. Without one, you’ll be gobbled alive by the publishing industry. 

  • But how do you get an agent? 
  • Where do you begin? 
  • How do you know if you’ve found the right one? 

To learn how to find a good literary agent, I interviewed Mary DeMuth, who is a literary agent herself. As the author of 46 books, she’s no stranger to working with agents. She’s also an artist, podcaster, and speaker who loves to help people heal from the past.

You’ve heard her speaking on the Novel Marketing podcast and teaching in some of our courses. Mary recently established her own literary agency. She’s been in the industry for a long time, but she’s just getting started as a literary agent and has open spots, which makes her a great choice for an author seeking an agent.

Usually, people who have been agenting for years have a roster full of clients. If they want to make room for a new author, they may have to cut one of their current clients. It’s hard to sell yourself and your book to an agent with a full plate.

What is a literary agent, and what do they do?

Mary: A literary agent functions like a real estate agent who represents a homeowner and sells their property to a buyer. A literary agent represents the author (seller) and finds a publisher (prospective buyer) to buy your book (intellectual property). Just like a realtor, a literary agent only gets paid when they sell your project to a publisher.

Your agent is a liaison between you and all the traditional publishers you’re longing to be recognized by. The only way to publish with a traditional house without having a literary agent is to publish with a very small house or pitch directly to an editor at a conference.

Probably 95% of traditionally published authors are represented by literary agents. Agents can negotiate better advances and better royalty percentages for you.

They can also advocate for you in what historically has been an adversarial relationship between author and publisher. An agent can become the bad guy on your behalf to help you with various problems in the publishing process.

Benefits of Having a Good Literary Agent

Thomas: I think of literary agents as part union representative and part lawyer.

Agents have power in the industry because they represent multiple authors. An agent decides which publishing companies to pitch.

Publishers and acquisitions editors don’t want to antagonize literary agents because a good relationship with an agent means they get first dibs on good books. If a publisher antagonizes a literary agent, they may not get the opportunity to bid on a book, which hurts their ability to acquire great books.

Publishers will treat you better if you have a literary agent.

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.

Some publishing houses have two boilerplate contracts, one for agented authors and one for unagented authors. In the agented contract, there are built-in concessions. If you’re unfamiliar with contracts, it’s nice to have an agent who understands the difference between first and second rights as well as the other technical terms and details.

If you can’t find a good literary agent and a good publisher, I think you’re better off publishing independently.

What should I watch out for in a literary agent? 

Thomas: Anyone can call themselves a literary agent, and some agents are fake.

In fact, I just got a letter from an author who has my company, Author Media, confused with a scam company with a similar name.

She has come under the influence of a scam artist who is presenting himself as a literary agent. The letter I received from her was addressed to him. I searched Google to find out if he’s legit, and he doesn’t even have a website.

This poor lady had been snookered by somebody presenting themselves as a literary agent, and she had gotten into a hybrid publishing contract with a shady company called Author Solutions.

I’m so sad for her, and I’m going to reach out and tell her to stop writing checks because she’s getting bamboozled by a con artist.

How does somebody identify a con artist and find a good, legit literary agent?

Mary: I recently had a similar experience. Someone self-published through an “imprint” of a large publishing house.

Thomas: Was it Westbow? Westbow is from the same evil company called Author Solutions. We’re going to names because I’m tired of being confused with them.

Mary: Yes, it was. I think WestBow is selling its author list to fake agents.

A writer came to me at a conference and said, “This seems kind of shady, but this agent wants to represent me because of my awesome, really great book.”

I asked where she’d been published and how many books she’d sold. She’d sold only 300 books, so I had to tell her, “No legit agent in their right mind would ever pursue an author who has only moved 300 copies. The ‘agent’ is not telling you the truth.”

Then I asked if they were making her pay.

She said, “Yes, but it’s only a couple thousand dollars.”

I told her, “It’s illegitimate. It’s not a real agent.”

A real agent only gets paid when they place a project, just like a real estate agent only gets paid when they sell a property. If an agent asks you for money for anything, run 1,000 miles away. That is a scam, scam, scam!

A Real Agent Works for the Author

Thomas: The term agent is a business term. My business law degree taught me that an agent could work on your behalf if there is not a conflict of interest. Part of what makes them work for you is that they get a cut of what you make. If they negotiate a larger advance for you, their portion is larger too. It’s motivating for both of you.

Fake agents or agents who aren’t good at their jobs can’t live on 15% of the contracts they bring in. They have to find the money elsewhere, so they invent things to sell you.

Good agents make plenty of money on the 15% of contracts they arrange.

If you’re wondering why you should give 15% to a literary agent, it’s because 85% of a watermelon is more than 100% of a grape. It’s not about the percentage. It’s about the total amount of money.

Publishers give more respect to agented authors. If a publisher pushes you around on important issues and you don’t have a way to push back, they can hurt the rest of your career.

Mary: You only have one chance to make that first sale and that first impression.

I have placed authors with smaller publishing houses so that they can step into the industry. But for that first-time author at a smaller house, there is a heavier burden to sell out the advance. If that author sells out the advance for their first book, they’ll look attractive to a bigger publisher when they’re ready to publish their next one.

Where do I find a good literary agent?

Market Guides

The Writers Market  and The Christian Writers Market Guide, both tools to help authors find a good literary agent.

Thomas: The Writers Market is basically a phone book of legitimate agents. The Christian Writer’s Market Guide, which has an online searchable version and a printed version, is a great place to find Christian editors, agents, and publishers.

You can generally trust the market guides with printed versions because you can check the reviews on Amazon and see if they have a good reputation.

Writers Digest New Agency Alerts

Mary: I write fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes agents won’t represent both.

I’m currently looking for a fiction agent, and one place I’ve looked is Writer’s Digest. They have a weekly feature of new, upcoming, or notable agents. Those agents are fresh and hungry. They want to represent authors because they don’t have anyone on their list yet.

Writers Conferences

Writers conferences are also a great place to connect with agents because the agent-author relationship is personal. As an agent, I don’t want to sign someone I dislike, so meeting in person is helpful.

I’ve been queried and have acquired clients through querying, but for the most part, I find new clients through a friend or a face-to-face meeting at a conference.

Thomas: Most agents get new clients from their existing clients. Building your personal network of author friends is key. A writers conference is great for building your network of author friends.

But don’t be a jerk to authors and suck up to all the agents. Be nice to everyone, because that author you become friends with may introduce you to her agent who wasn’t even at the conference.

Mary: I have a contingent of North Carolina writers because they’re all connected. They’re friends with each other, and they’re awesome.

When is an author ready to find a good literary agent?

Thomas: At what point should a writer start looking for an agent? How do you know you’re ready to start querying and pitching?

Fiction

Mary: For fiction, you need the following before pitching an agent:

  • A finished novel
  • Some sort of platform presence
  • A newsletter distribution list
  • A presence on most social platforms
  • Critical acclaim for your published work

Having your work critically acclaimed means you’ve had a professional, not your mom, read your work. That professional has offered you editorial feedback, and you’ve heeded it. If someone in the publishing industry has said your work is publishable, you know you’re ready.

It doesn’t hurt to have a book proposal too. It will make you stand out. Most people querying fiction will only provide the synopsis, word count, and logline. If you provide a proposal, it will put you at the top of the slush pile.

Nonfiction

For nonfiction, you need the following before pitching an agent:

  • A creative, amazing, unique idea(but not so unique that it’s obscure)
  • 50,000 followers across all platforms.
  • A nonfiction book proposal
  • Three sample chapters
  • A query letter

This is where people get mad at me. Typically, publishing houses look for at least 50,000 followers across all platforms. If you have 50,000 email subscribers, you’re in.

An email list is the best thing you can build, but if you have 20,000 followers on Instagram, 10,000 on Twitter, and 20,000 on Facebook, that will also work.

I’ve acquired clients with lower numbers, but it’s because their book stood out as so completely amazing that it had to be in the market. I have a good gut instinct about a great project, and publishers fought over those books.

Interestingly, when I was pitching some great, high-concept children’s lit to a couple of houses, the publishers said, “She only has 20,000 Instagram followers.”

I’ve asked the editors about that, and they said, “Even for fiction, we want the author to have a presence on all the platforms. If they can get some higher numbers, that would be great.”

Publishers don’t want a hermit

who has no online presence.

Mary DeMuth, Literary Agent & Author

Publishers Want Authors with Resonance

Thomas: That’s true in the secular market but particularly in the Christian market. Publishers need to know that you resonate with other Christians because publishers aren’t very good at predicting what resonates with Christians.

Most people at publishing companies aren’t Christians themselves. They don’t have a sense of what the Christian market wants. They need authors to show proof of what the Christian market wants.

In the secular market, editors acquire books they want to read and trust their own instincts a bit more.

For nonfiction, you have to build your fame. Your book won’t make you famous, and you can’t social-media your way to fame. Rarely does anyone Instagram their way into fame. Those days went away about 15 years ago.

You don’t get 50,000 Instagram followers by being good at Instagram. You get followers by being good at something else and mentioning your Instagram presence. Then people who love your work will go find you there.

If you’re on a podcast, stage, or TV show and mention your Instagram presence, people can find you and connect or message you.

Warning: Don’t Buy Followers

Mary: Please don’t buy followers. Publishers have been burned, so they’re looking more at your engagement numbers.

If you bought 100,000 Instagram followers and your engagement rate is 0.08%, they’ll know you bought a bunch of robots and will not be impressed. It actually makes you look bad.

You have to grow your presence organically. Everyone gets mad when I say that because it’s hard, it takes time, and people don’t know how to do it.

Organically growing your audience means knowing your audience’s needs and wants like the back of your hand and blessing the heck out of those people.

The more I love, help, enable, empower, and wow my audience on Instagram, the more my platform grows. It’s slow, but it’s real. I’ve got great engagement.

How big does an author’s platform have to be?

Thomas: You still look at social media numbers before signing an author because you’re pitching to publishers who take social media numbers into account.

I thought publishers were looking for email list numbers closer to 10,000 or 15,000.

Mary: Yes. When I say 50,000 across all platforms, that includes your email list. Most writers have an email list of 1,000 subscribers, but it’s really helpful if you can get 10,000 email subscribers.

Thomas: Your number of email subscribers is the most impressive and important. If you can’t convince thousands of your social media followers to sign up for your email list, you won’t be able to convince them to buy your book. Savvy publishers know that.

The other number a publisher may consider valuable is your number of podcast subscriptions. A podcast subscription is like an email subscription in that episodes go automatically and directly to the listener.

But social networks put an algorithm between the creators and the content consumers. You can’t guarantee that your post will get through the algorithm. You might get great engagement when you post encouraging Bible verses, but when you say, “Hey, buy my book,” your followers may not even see your post.

Why do agents represent only certain genres?

Thomas: Most agents focus on specific genres, like science fiction or romance. Why is that important?

Is it better to go with a specialist or a generalist?

Mary: It helps to go with a specialist, especially in fiction.

For example, I know 0% about science fiction. I would be a terrible agent for sci-fi because I don’t read the genre. It helps to have an agent who gets you and understands your genre.

For nonfiction, I have a wide variety of writers, from a magician to someone writing about grief.

If you’re writing nonfiction, your agent needs to feel so deeply connected to your project that they jump up and down. When I placed a project this week, I literally jumped up and down. I was so excited about the book and could not wait to call my client.

Look for passion and excitement from an agent.

Mary DeMuth, Literary Agent & Author

Thomas: You can’t sell a product you don’t believe in. An agent must believe in your book if they want to sell it to a publisher. Their belief and enthusiasm are contagious, and if a publisher trusts your agent, they’ll become enthusiastic enough to publish your book.

If your agent just sold the publisher the last biggest hit, the publisher will be very interested in the next project the agent proposes.

Keep in mind there is a trade-off between beginning and seasoned agents. New agents are easier to get, but they have little to no track record with publishers. Established agents have a track record, but they’re harder to get because they already have clients.

How do I contact a literary agent?

Mary: Every agency usually has a portal where you can submit your query. At Mary DeMuth Literary, we have a submission field on our home page that goes to query@MaryDeMuthLiterary.com. Those go into the query slush pile where my assistant receives them.

You need to write a great, compelling, informational query letter.

My specialty is nonfiction, so I want to know your platform numbers upfront. My assistant and I don’t want to dig through your proposal to figure it out.

In your query letter, be honest and tell us your platform numbers, and then give a couple of compelling sentences about your book.

I just sent a proposal to 16 publishers that included quotes from people my client knew who said, “I wish there was a book like this. I would buy five for my friends and 20 for my family.”

Her topic is unique, and not much has been written on it. I’ve already received positive feedback from publishers about it. In your query letter, include any social proof that shows the market’s need for a super helpful book.

Why and how do agents reject a book?

Thomas: Everybody wants evidence that your book is good, so offering social proof is critical.

On my first day as an agent, I received two pitches, and I replied with two custom rejection letters. But within a week, I was getting 30 pitches per day. I didn’t have time to write a custom rejection letter for each person, so I created a boilerplate rejection letter for three types of rejections: Nice No, Regular No, and Heck No.

I mainly rejected pitches because the author was a bad fit for me. They didn’t bother to read what kind of proposal I was looking for.

Every agent’s website lists what they’re looking for. You can save yourself a lot of time by finding out what they represent. If they don’t represent memoir, don’t ask. They won’t make an exception for you, and you’re wasting your time and theirs.

The market guides may have information on what agents are looking for, but the agent’s website often has more information.

In addition, every agency has a submission process. Some agencies like paper submissions and others don’t. Many agencies have a form on their websites or an email address where you can send your query.

With a little effort, you can adapt your proposal to the agency’s guidelines and use their format. That’s often all it takes to get past the screener.

Mary: My assistant rejects at least half and probably more like 65% of the queries we receive.

How do I know if a literary agent is a good fit for me?

Thomas: Somebody may be a good, honest agent who has sold many books, but they might not be the right agent for your book.

How do you know if you’ve found a literary agent who is a good fit?

Mary: As an agent, I avoid high-maintenance authors who always need their hands held.

I’m looking for self-starters. For example, I pitched a client’s book to multiple houses, and one editor replied, “I don’t feel like this is the book that author wants to write.”

I said, “I think you’re right.”

He asked if the author could write it differently, and in one week, my client wrote a new proposal with three new sample chapters.

We sent it to the publisher, and it sold.

I’m looking for that kind of self-starting author. I’m not going to write your proposal for you. I will absolutely hold your hand if you’re sad because you got rejected, but I won’t write your book for you.

Find out How the Agent Communicates

Consider your expectations and preferences when you’re looking for an agent. As an agent, I always respond to all my emails. If you need an agent who responds quickly, have that conversation with your agent right away.

I’ve had agents who respond right away and agents who don’t respond at all.

Find Out if the Agent Understands Your Project

You also need to consider whether the agent gets you. I had to move away from an agent who didn’t understand my heart or what I was doing. That agent didn’t understand my work ethic. As a working writer, I needed to write two or three books a year to make a living, and I always felt like I was forcing my agent to pitch books. It was exhausting.

Find Out if Your Motivations Match

Remember that a literary agent makes money when they place a project. They don’t have time to nurture new authors who aren’t productive. If you require 25 hours of my time and you still haven’t created a proposal, then I’m making zero money, and I can’t continue representing you.

An author needs to be publishable and prepared to be published.

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.

Thomas: Listening to podcasts like Novel Marketing, completing writing and courses, and reading books make you more attractive to agents.

It’s a bit like a marriage which is why it’s helpful to meet in person at a conference. You don’t get a feel for a person by reading a website.

You and your agent are going to have a long-term relationship. That means, when an agent sells your book, they represent that book forever.

The author may fire the agent, but 75 years after the author dies, the heirs of the author and agent will still be splitting the money for that one book. Most books aren’t commercially viable that long, but they could be.

Choose an agent whose financial heirs would get along with your financial heirs.

What mistakes do writers make when pitching an agent?

Mary: A few things will cause your query to be tossed immediately.

Careless Errors

Writing the wrong name, asking me to represent a genre I don’t read, and misspellings or grammatical errors in a query letter will automatically mean we throw the letter out. Those kinds of errors show you’re not doing your homework.

Veiled Platform Numbers

Please don’t try to pad your platform numbers. Just share them honestly.

Unfamiliarity with the Publishing Industry

I love to receive a query letter from someone who knows the industry. In fact, last week I signed a client last week who knew the industry like the back of her hand. She detailed her understanding of how the industry works and explained why her email list had 25,000 subscribers and what she’d done to build it. People like that are golden.

If you can prove you know what you’re talking about, and you don’t need me to educate you on the publishing industry, it’s a huge win for me.

Speak the Publishing Language

Thomas: As you read publishing books and blogs and listen to podcasts, you become fluent in the industry’s language. Your fluency makes you much easier to work with.

Simply knowing the vocabulary, will help you avoid pitfalls. Knowing the language of publishing allows your agent to have an efficient conversation with you. If your agent must explain publishing terms, they’ll have less time to present your proposal.

If one client requires an hour of proposal feedback and another requires ten hours of coaching to get their proposal in shape, the agent is much more likely to sign the author who requires less time.

However, getting a literary agent doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a book contract. Agents only sell a percentage of the books they acquire, and that percentage varies by agent and how choosey they are.

No agent can guarantee you’ll get a contract, and anyone who does is probably selling you to a hybrid publisher who will make you pay money. Legitimate agents don’t charge you or tell you to sign with a publisher who will charge you money.

If you have an agent, the money should only flow towards you, never away from you. If it’s ever flowing away from you, be very concerned. Sometimes fake agents are on the take for shady publishing companies.

Supernatural or Unsubstantiated Claims

Mary: Please don’t tell an agent that your book is God’s gift to humanity and is guaranteed to be a New York Times bestseller. Those queries automatically go to the bottom of the slush pile.

Connect with Mary DeMuth at MaryDeMuthLiterary.com.

Mary DeMuth recently hosted a “pitch practice” for the Novel Marketing Patreon community. Patrons pitched their books and received feedback on their pitches. It was fun, and the patrons loved it, so we’re planning to do it again with another agent or industry professional. 

Don’t miss the next pitch practice. You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.

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