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How to find a Literary Agent: A step-by-step guide

Finding a literary agent who’s respected in the industry is the best thing you can do for your writing career. A top literary agent will refine your manuscript to make it saleable, pitch it to the very best editors in top publishing houses, get you a deal quickly, and continue to support you after you are published. For perspective, Mollie Glick, my wonderful agent at Foundry got me an international deal for THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT with Penguin Random House worldwide (Riverhead Imprint) within weeks of signing me up. A few tips on how to find a literary agent who’s excellent–also please read the companion piece on 10 Top US literary agents who will actually read your query and manuscript:

1. Write a book which means something
The best literary agents get more than 500 queries a month and pick just one or two manuscripts to represent, if that. Make it worth their while to read your book. Express an inexpressible thought, share an idea that changes the world, shed new light on the messy, glorious human condition—all in an interesting, page-turning way of course. If you can strike the perfect balance of entertainment and meaning, you are bound to get noticed.

2. Draft a killer query letter
Getting a top agent in the US is tough yet it’s also the most democratic process I’ve seen. Being Indian, I didn’t know a soul in US publishing yet my standard 1-page email query below reproduced exactly as is had a 50-60% success rate (request for a full manuscript), including from such luminaries as Jodie Reamer, Suzanne Gluck, Bill Clegg, Nicholas Ellison etc.

Email Subject: Query from #1 Bestselling Indian Novelist: THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT

Dearest X,

I was a #1 bestselling novelist in India in 2008 (Keep off the Grass, HarperCollins India) and 2010 (Johnny Gone down, HarperCollins India) with 150,000+ copies of my novels in print. Both novels have been optioned into films, currently in different stages of development. I seek representation for my 3rd novel, THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT (70,000 words, mainstream fiction), my first novel targeted for a US audience.

About the novel: A violent encounter forces Maximus Pzoras, a Harvard economist and Wall Street banker, to confront questions about suffering and mortality that have dogged him since his mother’s death. His search for a mentor takes him from Manhattan to the dark underbelly of India to a near-fatal hike up the Himalayas and finally, a small drought stricken village in South India where strange things begin to happen to him: he remembers past lives, he can levitate and walk on water, do impossible Yoga poses and glimpse future events.  Max struggles to overcome his rational skepticism and the love of his family pulling him back home. In a final bid for answers, he embarks on dangerous solitary meditation in a freezing Himalayan cave. Will Max, Wall Street banker turned Himalayan sage, penetrate the truth of human suffering? Is enlightenment just a new age illusion or an accessible truth?

The YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT is a pulsating, contemporary take on the classic human quest for transcendence, a Siddhartha for our generation. I could think of no better agent to represent my US debut given your stated passion for culture-defining books that make a difference in the world-exactly what I strove for in my story, which is both a page-turning journey through India and a journey of tremendous inner transformation. I would be deeply obliged if you could consider my query.

Thank you,

The basic anatomy of every query letter is the same:

  • Email Subject: Clearly state the novel’s title and that it’s a “query”.
  • 1st Paragraph: Indicate the name/genre/word-count of your novel and why you chose the particular agent to query. The more specific the better so read a little about the agent you are querying.
  • 2nd Paragraph: A short, gripping pitch of your novel.
  • 3rd Paragraph: About you/your writing credits.

However you can play around with the format. For instance, I flipped the 1st and 3rd paragraph since I wanted to lead with my Indian writing success. And of course, the X-Factor here is the blood and passion you put in your words.

Bonus: Click here to get your exclusive list of Top 60 literary agent contacts and my exact query follow-up letters that got a 80% response rate.

3. Send the query to the best literary agents in batches of twenty.
I highly recommend getting a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace ($25/month). There, you can search for literary agents in your genre or by books that are similar to your books, or just a general ranking by deals made. Create a list of target literary agents. Remember, the sky is the limit here. If you feel you deserve the best, don’t hesitate to query anyone from Jodi Reamer (Stephanie Myer’s agent) to Heidi Lange (Dan Brown’s agent). If your query is good, they’ll respond.

4. Be detached from rejection
You will be rejected—a lot. Sometimes the rejection will come at a query stage, sometimes after a partial manuscript request, sometimes after a full request. Don’t be fazed. A Yogi operates with vairagya, dispassion and lives by the principle of nishkama karma, or work without attachment to the fruits of the work.

5. However, course correct as you go along.
Querying only twenty agents at a time is a good strategy because it helps you identify what’s not working and course correct accordingly. As a general rule of thumb devised by my own experimentation:

  • Query success rate of 20%+ (4 or more requests for full manuscripts for every 20 queries you send) means your query is solid. Less than that, I would re-work the query to make your pitch more compelling and passionate.
  • Full success rate of 10%-20% means you have written a good book. If you don’t get at-least one offer of representation after ten agents have requested a full manuscript, re-work the manuscript. Can the beginning be tighter? Can you get the main conflict started less than a quarter of the way into the manuscript? I got only one representation offer after 10 full requests and it wasn’t with an A-list agent so I took a few months to re-work my manuscript, then began the whole query process again. The next time, I received multiple offers of representation.
  • Timing: Although the Internet is full of well-meaning advice to wait three weeks to three months for an agent to respond to a query, I’d venture to say that a solid query will get quick responses, typically in less than a week. If you aren’t getting any responses in two weeks, I would fine-tune the query.

6. Have infinite confidence in what you’ve written
The reality is that the publishing industry is very conservative. If you aren’t writing about vampires and dystopian futures, it will take some to find the right agent who both loves your bold, visionary story and believes he or she can sell it. Sooner or later, you will find one though. Until then, just believe in the power of karma. You set out to do the right thing. The universe will definitely do right by you.

Bonus: Click here to get your exclusive list of Top 60 literary agent contacts and my exact query follow-up letters that got a 80% response rate.