How to get an agent when you’ve never published a book before



How to Get an Agent

By Mary Kole

In magazine and website content creation, the editor-writer relationship is key. You’ve pitched, you’ve broken through—now you’re in a collaboration with the person who decides the content of the magazine or blog. Often, you bring them ideas. Sometimes, they bring ideas to you.

That’s not the case with traditional book publishing — at least not at the big five publishing houses (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster). In fact, you won’t even hear from the editor until they’ve decided whether or not to buy your project.

As a former literary agent, I know the ins and outs of the publishing industry firsthand. I’m here to plug you into the traditional book publishing model and break down the task of finding a literary agent to represent you when you’ve never written a book before.

Understand the system.

The first thing you have to know is that book publishing operates with a three-tiered system. If Penguin Random House opened up to submissions from the Average Jane, they’d be inundated. Like sucking Niagara Falls through a drinking straw. So they’ve installed middlemen—literary agents—to do the first screening for them. Agents, who work alone or for established literary agencies, often get as many as 40,000-50,0000 submissions a year, depending on their specialties. They choose .001 to 1% of these projects to represent, and only then does the writer’s manuscript or proposal have its moment in front of a publishing editor.

Before the agent goes on submission to publishing houses with your project, you will have that familiar editor-writer relationship with your rep, or literary agent, instead. You will both be working toward a singular goal: to polish the project up and make it saleable. The agent, if they’re good at what they do, will have an idea in mind of what publishers want. They will give you feedback and guide revision, and once the proposal or manuscript is as polished as possible, they will pitch it around to houses on your behalf (for an industry-standard 15% commission of any sale in the domestic market, or 20-25% for foreign and ancillary rights).

There are publishing houses that accept unagented submissions, but they tend to be smaller or work in niche markets. You can also get access to a “closed” house by networking with editors, especially if you live in NYC. But this strategy can be hit-or-miss. So if you really want a crack at the big guys in a deliberate way, you will need to find an agent.

Research Agencies.

Anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves an agent. Look for those who have sold to big publishers in your category, agents who are affiliated with a major agency, and AAR members.

The best, no-nonsense resource I recommend is the Publishers Marketplace database. This is where agents themselves go to snoop on recent book deals. It’s a paid database ($25/mo, and I have no financial stake in recommending it), but you can join for one month, do your deep research dive, and then cancel. My favorite thing to do is look up “Top Dealmakers” by category (e.g., picture book, thriller, etc.) and get the names of agents making real sales in real time in your respective category. You will also get short descriptions of the projects sold, to see if you are perhaps a nice complement to that previous success.

Get your materials together. 

To target a literary agent, you will need the following:

  • A query letter(for all projects): the pitch that summarizes your project and credentials in one single-spaced page (up to 400 words, but usually less)
  • A synopsis(for narrative nonfiction and fiction projects): a special document that summarizes the main plot and character arcs in two to four double-spaced pages
  • A book proposal(for nonfiction projects only): your pitch, your market analysis, your analysis of competitive titles, your credentials, an outline of the book, and several sample chapters (length really depends on your project)
  • A complete manuscript(for memoirs, novels, and children’s books only): a strong draft that’s at least 95% of the way to “print ready,” though you will likely revise further with your agent and then again with your publisher, but yes, a complete project is required in most cases, especially if you haven’t written a book-length manuscript before (different word count guidelines exist for different categories of book, be sure to research your target).
Target Your Pitches 

The literary agent “slush pile” is competitive. Once you create  a submission list, adhere to these best practices:

  • Add specific personalization from your research to the query—if you admire the agent’s work or clients, tell them! This catches their attention in the slush.
  • Research each agent’s agency profile on their agency’s website for up-to-date submission guidelines—the basics are usually similar, but agents prefer to receive submissions in their own way, whether via email or a submission portal. Sometimes agents close to queries for a bit and this information will be on their agency bio.
  • Adhere to the agent’s desired submission guidelines. They’ve set them up that way for a reason!
  • Only query one agent per agency. This is a hard rule.
  • No attachments! Send your materials as requested by copying and pasting what’s required (usually the query and proposal, or query, synopsis, and first ten pages, for example) into an email or submission portal. If you need to transmit image files, host them online and send download links. Make sure those links don’t expire!
  • Some agents will have response timeframes listed on their website submission guidelines, as well as expectations. Some agents do not respond unless interested. Some will respond to everyone within eight weeks. If the stated timeframe has passed and you haven’t gotten a response you were expecting, it’s okay to send one quick check-in email.
Be Patient.

I recommend submitting to 10-15 literary agent names in your first round. If you get some declines and feedback, you can step back and reassess either your project or execution. If your submission did not go as expected, you can revise your pitch and manuscript and try again. I often recommend having 10-15 “A List” agents in mind for that first submission, and then another “B List” and “C List” in your back pocket, in case you have to go out with the project again. Just in case.

Traditional book publishing is a huge market to break into. Add these new skills to your toolbox with your existing credentials and pitching acumen, and maybe I’ll see you on shelves soon.

Mary Kole is the founder of Mary Kole Editorial and Good Story Company. She provides consulting and developmental editing services to writers of all categories and genres, working on children’s book projects from picture book to young adult, and all kinds of trade market literature, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance and memoir.  Her book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, a writing reference guide for middle grade and young adult writers, is available from Writer’s Digest Books. 

Mary’s Submission Package Edit entails comprehensive feedback from her on your query, synopsis and first ten double-spaced manuscript pages. She also offers Book Proposal Edits for nonfiction writers. Say you are an ED2010 reader, and you will be given $49 off either of these services if you mention this article.



Leave a comment
  • Thanks, Mary, for a lucid, comprehensive picture of what the publishing world is all about. I’ve known some of these things for quite a long time. I facilitate a large book club in Florida and we have noticed that books published by the major houses are short on editing. Which didn’t used to be the case, like in the days of Maxwell Perkins. I wonder why that’s happening.

    In any case, I’ll share this with writers who are contemplating a memoir.

    Leita Kaldi Davis
    (Senegal 1993-96)

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