Securing a literary agent is an important step in your journey to publication at a major publishing house. This article is intended to equip you with insider knowledge so you improve your chances of attracting an agent.
The best way to find a literary agent is to write an undeniable manuscript, a synopsis, and a query letter. Use reputable online sources to find agents looking for books that match your manuscript. Follow their submission guidelines, and then wait for their response.
Sounds easy, right? They key isn’t to find an agent, it’s to find the right agent for you. The rest of this article will take you through a step-by-step process to help you find the perfect match. When you’re ready to start the research phase be sure to utilize The Definitive List of Middle Grade Literary Agents in the United States (2019).
Table of Contents
- Do You Need a Literary Agent?
- What Do Literary Agents Do?
- The Best Middle Grade Literary Agents
- How Much Does a Literary Agent Make?
- 7 Important Questions to Help You Find the Right Literary Agent
- Where to Look for a Literary Agent
- How Many Literary Agents Should You Approach?
- Finish Your Book Before You Send a Single Submission
- Determine if Your Book Is Big or if it’s Quiet
- What to (Typically) Submit to a Literary Agent
- 7 Things to Research Before Submitting a Query
- How to Ensure Your Submission is Rejected
- Why Do Literary Agents Take So Long to Respond?
Do You Need a Literary Agent?
The short answer is, yes. You absolutely need a literary agent if you want your book to end up at any of the following publishers or their imprints:
- Penguin Random House (Alfred A. Knopf, Viking Press)
- Hachette Livre (Little Brown Books for Young Readers)
- HarperCollins (Thomas Nelson)
- Macmillan Publishers
- Simon & Schuster
There are always exceptions to the rule, but if you want to play the odds you need an agent if you want to work with one of the big publishing houses.
Editors are already overwhelmed with work, they don’t have the time to listen to pitches from individual authors they aren’t currently working with. That’s why they rely on trusted agents to act as gatekeepers.
I’m not just talking about unpublished authors, either. Even if you have strong sales track record, you need an agent.
I spoke to an editor at one of the publishers in the list above and she told me that she prefers working with an agent because she never wants to deliver bad news to an author.
That means agents are a critical communication buffer for things difficult conversations like contract negotiations and heavy edit requests.
If you are interested in self-publishing your book, you won’t need an agent. However, you may want to consider working with an agent who can help you with foreign and translation rights.
What Do Literary Agents Do?
Literary agents provide a variety of services to their clients, and those services can differ from one agent to another—even inside the same agency. However, here are five things that most middle grade agents do for the authors that they represent.
1) Manuscript Critiques
I haven’t met a literary agent who doesn’t offer manuscript critiques to their clients. My recommendation would be to implement (nearly) all of their requested changes—or at the very least, have a conversation about any concerns you may have but consider their requests carefully.
More times than not, your agent will have a relationship with the editors to whom they are pitching, and that means they’ll know what those editors like. So why not make the change?
Sure, this is your story and if you feel strongly about something you should trust your gut. But my philosophy has always been that publishing books is a team effort and I don’t want my pride to get in the way of a potential sale.
2) Build Ongoing Relationships with Editors
The true value that an agent brings to an author is the trusted relationships that they’ve built up with editors.
Agenting is a sales position and it’s much harder to make a sale to someone you don’t know that it is to someone with whom you have a relationship. That’s the one reason geography can matter when it comes to picking an agent.
There are fantastic middle grade literary agents in Los Angeles. Take Michael Bourett for instance. He’s one of the best in the business.
However, Michael started out on the East Coast before heading West. And he’s in Los Angeles to build relationships with studios in order to secure television and movie development deals for the clients of Dystel, Goderich & Bourett.
He also travels to New York City to have face time with the editors he works with.
It’s a lot easier for agents who work in New York City where editors are just a short taxi ride or subway stop away.
Sure, videoconferencing and phone calls make telecommuting much easier in today’s business world, but there is something to said about live human interaction. It can drive much deeper connection than digital forms of communication.
3) Pitch Your Manuscript to the Right Editor
The most effective literary agents are efficient. They know almost immediately which editors are right for a manuscript they’ve been pitched.
Why is that important? They aren’t wasting an editor’s time with a book she would never have bene interested in publishing to begin with.
If an agent consistently presents books that are a great fit for an editor, trust will grow. That means when it’s time to pitch your book, trust has been established, which will increase the likelihood of a sale for you book.
4) Contract Negotiations
I don’t know about you, but my eyes start to glaze over any time I’m given a contract to review. Yes, I need to take full responsibility for understanding the contract (and I’ve been burned because I wasn’t thorough), but literary agents know their way around publishing contracts.
They’ll understand which point a publisher will be unwilling to change, and they’ll also find areas where you’ll get some wins. Having that kind of protection in your corner feels great.
5) Career Advice
The best literary agents offer more than sales and contract negotiations—they provide career advice that is personalized to you. All of our situations are different, and as you build a relationship with your agent, she’ll be able to provide you insightful advice that you won’t get anywhere else.
You can have frank conversations about your financial goals and obligations, the types of books you’d like to write next, what happens if you don’t earn back your advance, whether or not you should switch publishers, if you should write for multiple target audiences or just stick to one, and a plethora of other important topics.
The Best Middle Grade Literary Agents
Here’s the thing. This headline should actually read, “Who Is the Best Literary Agent for You?” No two agents are the same. They’ll have different personalities, interests, philosophies on how to sell a book, and whether they’ll request or demand edits before they pitch editors.
You need to find the right agent for you, and that means you’ll need to do some research using tools like The Definitive List of Middle Grade Literary Agents in the United States (2019).
Here are a few of my favorite middle grade literary agents in alphabetical order:
Michael Bourret, Dystel Goderich & Bourett
Michael represents Lisa McMann, who is a friend of mine, so I have an insider’s look into his agenting style. From what I’ve seen, he’s one of the best in the business today.
Lisa has had a lot of success and she credits Michael with a big part of all that she’s accomplished. He is passionate, caring, and she has always told me how much she appreciates the career advice that he gives her.
Catherine Drayton, Inkwell Management
Catherine was one of the first agents who replied to my query, and the inside scoop is that Derek and I almost signed on with her for our first book.
She gave us some fantastic advice that I outlined in her agent bio, and I’ll always be in debt to her for the time she took to give us that very specific (and critical) feedback.
Donald Maass, Donald Maass Literary Agency
I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as literary agent fanboys, but if there is then I’m a bigtime fanboy of Donald Mass. Not only did he write two of the most important books on the art of writing that have ever been published (Writing the Breakout Novel and Fire in Fiction), but he’s a great guy.
I reached out to him when I was going through a dark depression about my writing career, and he took the time to respond with fantastic advice.
Charlie Olsen, Inkwell Management
Charlie is the only one on this list who I haven’t met, but here’s why I’m already a fan. He represents Jeff Lemire, and Jeff is one of my favorite comic book artists, who happens to also be a fantastic comic book writer.
That alone tells me that Charlie has impeccable taste when it comes to quality storytelling. Charlie is also a fan of comic books and graphic novels (as am I), so I’m hoping our paths cross one of these days.
Jodi Reamer, Esq., Writers House
There’s no doubt that Jodi Reamer is the preeminent literary agent in the world who represents middle grade and YA authors. I mean, her client roster includes Stephenie Meyer, John Green, Ally Condie, and Lisa Yee.
You can bet when Jodi pitches a manuscript that just about every editor in New York City is willing to listen. She also has a ton of energy and is super fun conversationalist.
Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary
Okay, so I’m not saying that I have a favorite on this list (but I kind of have a favorite on this list). Forget that Joanna represents Veronica Roth (author of the Divergent series), or that she’s a successful entrepreneur who runs her own respected literary agency.
I knew Joanna when she was an assistant for Nancy Coffey somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve years ago.
Nancy asked Joanna to review our Grey Griffins manuscripts and I was absolutely blown away by her instincts and insights. She knows storytelling unlike just about anyone I’ve ever met.
She’s also incredibly kind and humble. Joanna is the real deal!
How Much Does a Literary Agent Cost?
Reputable literary agents don’t cost anything up front. They make money by earning a percentage of the royalty payments authors receive.
There’s absolutely no circumstance where you would pay a literary agent to review your manuscript up front. Period. If an agent asks you for remuneration for a pitch, run!
Literary agents receive 15% of their author’s royalties from the sale of that author’s books represented by the agent. When it comes to television or movie sales, literary agents take 15% as well. That commission typically grows to 20% for foreign rights and translation.
7 Important Questions to Help You Find the Right Literary Agent
Many authors would argue that it’s more important to sign with the right agent than it is to simply have an agent. I tend to agree. Okay, so it’s easy for someone with an agent to say that.
After all, if attracting an agent is a critical step to getting your manuscript, shouldn’t you just be thankful and sign with the first agent who offers to represent your work? Maybe. But only as a last resort.
The agent/author relationship is going to be a critical part of your professional writing journey, and you have every right to go through your due diligence in order to assure that you have the right representation.
Here are seven questions you can ask to improve the odds of your perfect match:
1) Does the agent have a proven sales track record?
This isn’t going to be the answer you’re looking for. A long sales track record can certainly be a leading indicator when it comes to measuring the sales ability of an agent, but there’s another way to look at this.
An agent who hasn’t made it big yet could end up outworking established agents because she’s hungry to prove herself.
That kind of hunger can drive performance. You need to determine the importance of past sales performance, but this one can go either way.
2) Does the agent represent books targeted at the audience you’re trying to reach?
If you write a middle grade novel but the one of the agents that you’ve researched primarily represents adult romance, you may want to skip that query no matter how successful the agent is.
From the agent’s standpoint, it may come across like you didn’t take the time to do your research before you queried. From your standpoint, even if the agent offered to represent you, she might not have the connections you need to sell your book to a publisher.
3) Does the agent represent bestselling authors?
Yes, an agent who represents bestselling authors can be enticing. After all, he has a proven track record of success and it’s exciting to think that you could be next! But is his success with other authors truly indicative of your future success?
On one hand, he could get your manuscript in front of top editors at big publishing houses. But what if your manuscript is too similar to a bestselling client who’s already on his roster? There’s a good chance that his current client is going to get preferential treatment. Another consideration is time.
Are you going to get the same personal attention that his successful authors get? Maybe, but you won’t truly know unless you sign with him.
4) What types of books if your agent asking for?
Literary agents are utilizing online platforms to tell you exactly what they’re looking for.
So, if an agent says that she is in search of middle grade fantasy and teen romance with a touch of horror, don’t submit a query asking her to review your middle grade historical fiction manuscript about the life and times of Nikola Tesla in his youth.
It’s not a match, and there’s a very strong chance that you’ll end up in the rejection pile without so much as a response. Take advantage of the intel that’s available and seek out agents who want to represent stories like yours.
5) Does the agent have an assistant or work with junior agents?
A few agents have assistants, but not many. Those that do are typically extremely successful, which means if you get an offer for representation from one of them, there’s a good chance you’ll end up working with an assistant most of the time. If that bothers you, you may want to query authors who don’t have assistants.
Then again, you are still working with a powerful agent and that agent will still represent your books to editors.
6) Where is the agent located?
In real estate, location is everything. In publishing, it’s incredibly important but it shouldn’t be a deal killer. Yes, most agents live in New York City. It makes since, since that’s where the publishers are located and it means they can spend lots of face time building relationships with editors.
But there are very successful literary agents in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In fact, a literary agent in Los Angeles could be helpful when it comes to selling the rights to your manuscript as a television series or screenplay.
7) Would you want to work closely with the agent for several years?
Personality conflicts are the worst, and since the objective is to have a long-term relationship with your agent, do some research before you query. You can get a glimpse into the personality of an agent through the language choices and tone in her bio, as well as the books she represents.
A quick google search will result in interviews—both written and in video format—for many of the editors listed in The Definitive List of Middle Grade Literary Agents in the United States (2019).
Of course, you’ll want to save your final judgement until you’ve had some personal interaction, but you can get a pretty good gauge about someone from their digital footprint—literary agents included.
Where to Look for a Literary Agent
There are a number of fantastic resources on the internet that give you access to critical information that you need to determine which agents you’ll want to query. Start with The Definitive Guide to Middle Grade Literary Agents (2020), which we update regularly.
You’ll find middle grade literary agent bios, information about the types of manuscripts they’re looking for, and how to query them.
- The Definitive Guide to Middle Grade Literary Agents (2019)
- Publishers Marketplace
- Manuscript Wish List (Official)
- MS Wish List
- Agent Query
- Query Tracker
- Writer’s Digest Publishing Insights
- Association of Author Representatives
- Writing Conferences
How Many Literary Agents Should You Approach?
Most recommend that you to limit your query to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12 agents at a time. It’s certainly an approach that could work, but that’s not how Derek and I did it.
I was a marketing executive when we first started pitching agents, and we wanted to employ a different strategy. We did our research and created a database of 300 agents who we pitched at the same time.
Agents preferred physical query letters back then, so I created a professional logo with letterhead and envelopes. I knew that if we could stand out for an extra moment as they sifted through their mail, that we’d have an advantage.
Besides, I didn’t see the logic in pitching a few agents and then waiting for three months to get rejected (and demoralized) before I sent a few more queries out.
I knew there was power in leverage, and if your pitch is compelling and you include the fact that you’re querying multiple agents at the same time, you’ll create urgency that improves your chances of securing representation.
It’s important to note that I didn’t follow my own advice. We didn’t care if the agents we were pitching represented middle grade fiction or not. Harry Potter was driving record sales and my theory was that agents would follow the money.
If they thought our series could be a good option for booksellers to pitch to kids who had finished reading all the Harry Potter books, then they’d want to work with us.
Our response rate was 10X the norm, but that doesn’t mean you have to use our approach. If you want to be more targeted in your approach, it’s a great strategy, too.
Finish Your Book Before You Send a Single Submission
If you’re a first-time author, this one is non-negotiable. Agents and editors understand that ideas are cheap. I mean, think about it. Lots of people can come up with a great story idea.
Most of them can probably even turn that idea into a few engaging chapters. But how many people have the commitment and craft to turn that idea into a 90,000-word manuscript that keeps readers engaged from the first page to the last?
Here’s the deal, though. Don’t just finish your manuscript before you start submitting to agents. Perfect it. Make sure it’s flawless in every way, because once you send it out there you won’t get any second chances.
In fact, most rejections come in the form of being ghosted. But if you get an agent or two who are interested in reading your manuscript, it needs to be ready to send right away.
Determine if Your Book Is Big or if it’s Quiet
You need to be honest about this question: Does your book have blockbuster potential or is more of an art house film? There’s no right answer, but the answer will definitely affect the agents and editors who will be attracted to your manuscript.
If your book is “big” that means it’ll likely appeal to the masses (and big publishers). But if it has more of that art house vibe, you need to adjust your expectations.
Don’t worry, there are lots of mid-level and indie publishers who specialize in those books, but like it or not, earning potential is part of the algorithm agents use to decide whether or not to represent your book. Make sure you take that into account when you do your research.
What to (Typically) Submit to a Literary Agent
The following is a fairly standard list of requirements you’ll need in order to query a literary agent. Make sure you do your research, though.
Not only do most agencies vary in their requirements, but there’s a good chance that each agent inside the agency will have different requirements as well.
- Query Letter (one page)
- Synopsis of your manuscript (one page
- For series pitches, a synopsis for each book (one page each)
- 5-10 pages of your manuscript (some will ask for your entire manuscript)
7 Things to Research Before Submitting a Query
1) What book categories is the agent is asking for?
Agents are eager to share the types of books they’re interested in representing. In fact, the information is readily available online at places like The Definitive Guide to Middle Grade Literary Agents (2019), Manuscript Wish List (Official), and Publishers Marketplace. Want to increase your odds of success? Pitch to agents who are looking to represent books like yours.
2) Categories of books and authors an agent currently represents
Does the agent you’re researching represent books that are similar to the manuscript you’re pitching? Sure, that can work in your favor but it can actually work against you.
Don’t assume that an agent is the right match because your book looks like it fits their list. If you can, rely on what they’re asking to represent next instead of relying on past sales.
3) Numbers of authors an agent currently represents
This one could go either way. Successful agents often have deep client rosters because they deliver. The problem is that more clients they have, the less time can invest in each.
So, if you’re looking for career advice and more than an occasional email from your agent, it might be better for you to pursue an up-and-coming agent who’s still building her list.
4) Experience level of the agent
You can assume a certain level of success if an agent has been around for a few years. After all, the bulk of literary agents live in and around New York City, and it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to cost of living.
You aren’t going to make it long without a steady stream of sales.
However, there’s something to be said for someone who is early in her career and is hungry to prove herself. You might get lucky and rise through the publishing ranks together.
5) What format are they looking for?
Be sure to submit your query exactly as the agent is requesting. Does he want email or hard copies? Attachments or all information embedded in an email?
Does he want 5 pages or your manuscript, the entire manuscript, or nothing at all? Precision matters. Ignoring instructions virtually guarantees that you’ll be rejected.
6) How long will an agent take to review your submission?
This varies by agent, so you’re going to have to decide if you can wait up to 12 weeks to hear back about your query or not.
The good news is that if you get an offer, you’re free to let the rest of the agents know that you’re about to sign a contract and it will accelerate their response time.
7) Geographical location
Do the agents that you’re researching live in New York City (where most of the editors live and work) or do they live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Nashville?
You need to decide if geography is important or not. Relationships are important for any job, but when it comes to sales relationships are crucial.
That’s why I prefer agents who work in New York City. They have more face time with the editors, and that’s important. But as long as your agent travels to New York City on a fairly frequent basis, you should be okay.
Besides, if you have hopes of seeing your book as the next great Netflix series, have a literary agent in Los Angeles could be a big advantage.
How to Ensure Your Submission is Rejected
The quickest way to get rejected is to send your query to more than one agent at any agency. There’s really no exception to that rule. The last thing you want to do is create divisions with agents at the same house.
Besides, if two agents are reviewing your manuscript at the same time and they both end up wanting to represent you, you’ve wasted the time of at least one of them.
Why Do Literary Agents Take So Long to Respond?
Literary agents take a long time to respond because they’re inundated with thousands of unsolicited queries every year.
Somehow, they’re still supposed to find time to work with their current client list, not to mention attending internal team meetings, travelling to editor meetings, responding to texts and emails, and then going to all those regional and national writing conferences.
Let’s do the math. If the average agent gets five thousand unsolicited queries each year (a low estimate) and she takes just two weeks of vacation, that breaks down to 100 queries each week or twenty queries each day.
If half of those are automatically disqualified because they’re poorly written, we’ll call that an hour (only six uninterrupted minutes for each query). That leaves ten more queries.
If six of those ten are decent and the agent takes 10 minutes each to review them, she’s burned another hour—and she still has four more queries to go through.
Two of those are above average, but not good enough to seriously consider. There goes another 30 minutes.
That leaves two more that require some thoughtful consideration. Call it another hour.
That’s just about half her day—every day. And anyone who’s ever worked in a professional setting knows that odds of anyone have nearly four uninterrupted hours are right around zero percent.
So, that’s why queries back up. Agents get behind, even if they have an assistant or intern to help her out.
How much does it cost to get a literary agent? Reputable literary agents earn money through a percentage of the royalties paid to the authors they represent. Literary agents do not charge money for query submissions.
How hard is it to get a literary agent? Most literary agents receive thousands of queries by hopeful authors every year. Some even receive thousands of queries each month. They can only represent a fraction of those authors, making it extremely difficult for an author to get a literary agent.