I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.

The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.

So how do you find an agent?

The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.

Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.

Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?

Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?

Here’s an example of a letter:

Dear Ms. Agent X,

I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.

I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.

Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.

I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.

Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.


W. Shakespeare

Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.

If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.

And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.

Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!

TAGS: , , ,

SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

32 responses to “LitPark’s Guide to Finding a Literary Agent”

  1. I worry about all this lately. Probably because I’m in the process of querying (seriously). The rejection . . . I mean, all writers get rejected. Happens to everyone. We hear the stories all the time; twelve agents rejected Rowling before she found a rep for the first Harry Potter, etc.

    The problem is here: “Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out.”

    I’m not sure, at this point, I can disagree more. A lot of people say that it’s about business and bottom lines, and agents and editors are most concerned with what will sell. But so many agents then note they pass on hundred of manuscripts because they “just didn’t fall in love with them.” I’ve seen agents in a panel/forum setting note that writers need to divorce their feelings from the process and only a breath or so later note what I just mentioned about “loving” a manuscript.

    What do you do when you see an agent who continuously claims it’s all about writing quality and how good a book is–who often claims to be too busy to respond to queries and so does so via Twitter or a blog–mainly because he (or she) is so busy representing The Jersey Shore book.

    I have a degree in writing from USC and nearly one in business from Regis . . . what exactly makes an agent more qualified than I am to judge whether my manuscript is ready to send out? I’ve seen a lot of agents with way less in the way of credentials. So what’s the qualification?

    Finally, it’s being reported today that Apple has now sold 2 million iPads. In less than 60 days. Do we need agents and editors to judge what gets to be on it?

    I get that this is how things have always been done, and it’s very informative in that respect (nice query template/info, in fact), but maybe it’s time that this become the way things used to be done.

    • This is great advice from Henderson, and I hear you, Will.

      It’s tough because it’s a human process as well as a literary-minded business process. In the end, I believe smart agents want books that can sell. And so falling in love may be more in the Wall Street sense: falling in love with the potential profits of a work as well as its potential cultural impact (if any).

      I think this year will mark my first voyage into the sea of literary agents. I definitely need to feel more like I have GPS than a sextant.

      • Susan Henderson says:


        It’s amazing the career you’ve had without an agent. What makes you want one now? And what’s the west coast agent scene like, or does everyone still have an agent from NY?

        • I don’t have my finger on the pulse of many, but the most successful authors I personally know on the West Coast (Bonnie Hearn Hill, Hazel Dixon Cooper and Jonathan Evison) all have agents and lucrative deals.

          The YA series I’m working on will likely need an agent to connect me to the powers that be. I think if I am connected to the right people I can hustle my way into a book deal based on ideas, what I have done in the past, and the manuscripts I will have.

          But until I know the right people in the industry, that leaves me needing an agent…

          I haven’t actively looked at all yet.

        • LitPark says:

          I’m so psyched about all the buzz Jonathan Evison was getting at BEA, I can’t even tell you.

          Wow, I didn’t know you were doing a YA series, but that’s a good place to be in this market. Start zeroing in on YA authors you feel a kinship with–there’s everyone from Lisa McMann to Tony Earley (God, I love him) to Neil Gaiman (okay, him, too)–lots of really diverse work getting out there and doing well.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Aww, Will, you’re breaking my heart. The rejection and the waiting is just awful, and I know that. And from the agents’ perspective, they’re often getting 300 submissions a week, so it’s hard all around and both sides are feeling terrible.

      But can I say, first of all, I’m not worried at all about you finding an agent. And since you’re in NY, you might want to regularly attend readings at KGB and Joe’s Pub, where you might be able to meet the agents and editors face to face. You’ll totally charm them.

      And second of all, the whole business could use an overhaul. Everyone from the writer to the agent to the editor to the publisher is overworked and underpaid. Something like 80 or 90% of published books don’t sell more than 1,000 copies (who has that stat? can you post it?). Authors get just a few cents on every book sale. And everyone’s losing money. Surely, there are better ways to run this business, and I think the increased power of book bloggers and ebooks will make that shift happen faster.

      But back to your point where we disagree. I do think that “love” is the main ingredient that gets an agent to take on a particular manuscript. And when I refer to the idea that “they know when a manuscript is ready to send out,” I’m referring to the manuscripts that they’ve acquired. Say an agent falls in love with your narrator and the general premise of your story and the way you string sentences together. That doesn’t mean it’s ready to send out. And how do they know better than we do with all of our degrees, the 300 books we read a year, and our life experience? Because they actually know the editors and publishers, their tastes and their quirks. They know what’s been selling and what’s not been selling. Agents see more rejection letters than anyone else. They are the gateway for rejection for every one of their clients. And that’s how they develop an instinct about what will sell and what could use some tinkering before it will sell.

      Back to you, though. I’m not worried. And if you haven’t been scooped up by the fall, I’ll take you to a reading and introduce you around.

      • Sounds like I need to go to NY and hang out with Susan for a couple of days…

      • Thanks, Susan. Didn’t mean to break your heart. Truthfully, it doesn’t exactly bother me all that much. I think it’s more that, with my education and background, these are questions I’m asking more, you know what I mean? When I said I wasn’t sure I could disagree more, I wasn’t categorically stating disagreement; rather, I don’t know how much I disagree with the statement. And I know I probably stated all that more stridently than I could have, but I think it’s important to continuously question things. Especially considering the shake-ups in publishing, and how quickly it’s changing.

        I mean, I’m not saying agents aren’t useful, nor stating I believe a writer without one is in as fortunate a situation as a writer with one. I’m querying right now because I’d love to work with an agent, but I’m also trying to be very selective about whom I query, and why. I haven’t used the shotgun approach I’ve heard a lot of people try; I’m not saying I’ve gone one at a time, but I’ve been careful. Because I do hope for one, and not just because getting an agent is what writers are supposed to do.

        Regardless of getting scooped up, I’m looking forward to seeing you and your husband again. I had a great time at the TNB bash, and your hubby’s band is rad. Maybe we can catch a cool reading before the fall.

        • Susan Henderson says:

          It was a blast seeing so many writers out on the dance floor, and Greg’s an amazing MC. We’ll definitely have to catch a reading again.

          I think questioning is great. I was mostly trying to steer people towards an easier way of finding good matches than using those thick agent guide books, which is a lot of work and feels a little bit like trying to pick someone out of the yellow pages. That said, if you can meet these folks in person (and good for you for being selective), you’ll find those traits that matter the most.

          I happened to meet my agent at a party. He mostly represents thrillers, so I wouldn’t have picked him out of a book in a million years. He’s my agent because he makes me laugh so hard I can’t breathe. That’s terribly important to me. And because I need to feel an utter sense of trust and protection. The thriller thing turned out to be a gift in disguise because his edits pushed me to take a hard look at the plot and the pacing of my book when I am almost ridiculously focused on rhythm and the poetry of individual sentences.

    • dwoz says:

      I think you have to approach it as if you have just seen the most beautiful (to you) woman you have ever seen in your entire life, you are instantly in love, and you are walking up to her to speak to her.

      You cannot possibly stand a brush off or rejection, but you have no other choice but to ask her.

      In other words….


      the pain is worth it.

  2. Brin Friesen says:

    This was pretty fun to read along with your interview. Thanks, Susan.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Thanks, Brin. And I’m glad you checked out the interview.

      • Brin Friesen says:

        It was very interesting. I just got back from NYC from a lunch with an agent. 2 hours without taking 2 bites from my sandwich from all the questions thrown at me about my manuscript. Why didn’t you include anything about *that*? The cruelty of these folks.

        • Susan Henderson says:

          Ha, they’re all cruel, the bastards! But sounds like this person was very interested in you. Two hours and lots of questions are a good sign. A 20-minute lunch, not so much.

  3. Greg says:

    I’m not exactly sure how much I like my current query pitch, but it has resulted in a few agents asking to see the first few chapters, the first 50 pages and twice the whole manuscript. I wonder if I could post it here and get a critique? I feel like it might be long-winded…

    Susan, what do you think about submitting chapters from the middle of your book when an agent asks to see some pages? I really like my opening chapters, but at the same time I feel chapters 5-7 are some of the best of the book. I’ve also been submitting to small presses, and once or twice I sent these middle chapters without much of an intro aside from the manuscript synopsis. Good or bad idea? (I’ve tried sending these middle chapters to agents before but they’ve come back at me asking for the opening chapters instead.)

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Greg, it sounds like your pitch is working great. If you want to post it just so others can see it, though, do it.

      About the middle of the book thing, I’d say, no. I’d say make the first pages rise to the level chapters 5-7. Here’s a story I’ve always remembered from Quincy Jones, who’s a music producer. He says whenever he finishes making an album, he listens to it beginning to end and tosses out the two weakest songs. He doesn’t even tinker with them, just tosses them. And in their place he sets out to write the two biggest hits. When he produced Thriller, the two replacement songs were Thriller and Beat It. Remembering that story kind of reminds you of the guts it takes to always think bigger and better, to risk it all with your revisions. So if anything about chapter 1 makes you feel nervous, makes you feel like someone isn’t seeing your best work, then go back and make it so.

      • dwoz says:

        I have met Quincy, and I can tell you definitively, that like every other music producer, he has no idea whatsoever what will work.

        He does, however, know what will NOT work.

        I suspect it’s much the same with a writers’ agent.

        • Susan Henderson says:

          Really good point! It’s not so much that you know what will be great as you have your ears trained to spot anything wobbly or mediocre or tepid or slow-paced… and you have the courage to get rid of it.

        • dwoz says:

          oh, dear God, being ruthless with your precious work is not easy. Courage…give me a tumbler full.

          I have a technique that makes it easier. I am writing in a word processing program, and on review I don’t delete at first pass, I make the paragraph red.

          That means, “you REALLY have to prove your worth, next pass.”

        • Susan Henderson says:

          I’m notoriously ruthless with my editing–have dumped booklength manuscripts in the trash twice and not looked back–so I appreciate your much kinder and more moderate approach. 🙂

  4. Emily says:

    Hi Susan,

    Thanks for this interesting write-up on the topic, and your interview with Dan. I enjoyed reading them.

    Also, I’m sorry we didn’t end up running into each other at BEA! I know you had mentioned you were going to be there, and I made a mental note of it. But there was just so much going on that I plain forgot to see where some people were going to be. I hope you had a fantastic time, though! I had a blast, first unexpectedly running into my friend Esther Friesner, and then finally getting to see my friend Ellen Datlow in person for the first time in something like 3 years! (Circumstances conspired against us last time I was in NY). 🙂


    • Susan Henderson says:

      So glad you had a good time at BEA. I had no idea when I told people I’d look for them there what kind of mob scene it was going to be. And everyone was looking up at the signs near the ceiling or down at nametags so it was easy to walk right by friends and colleagues and never know it.

      But glad you’re here now and thanks for reading the interview with my agent. I think it explains so much to hear it from his side.

  5. Billy Bones says:

    The man who types up my stories went about finding his agent in much the same manner, except he used that fancy tool called Google. Title + Agent kicked out the agency. Then, because he was new to writing, he picked out an up and coming agent to contact. It all worked out splendidly. Of course, Mr. Lincoln is kind of a lucky duck.


  6. Billy Bones says:

    And YOU are a lucky duck to be represented by the fine people at Writers House!

  7. Greg says:

    I wasn’t going to post my query here since Susan was right that I have been getting requests to read passages, but after getting another rejection today from an agent I thought was a very good fit, I think I will because I’m bumming pretty hard… But first, here is what the agent sent this morning:


    I read the pages, sorry for the delay! And, unfortunately, I’m going to pass. You have a great platform, and I read the whole amount of pages you sent, feeling that you put lines together well, scenes fascinating, ideas original. I just didn’t get into it, though. Simple matter of not connecting, despite the writing.

    I am sorry we didn’t connect, and I really do thank you for your patience and willingness to share!”

    And although it was nice rejection, it stung a little more for some reason. Rrrr. Doesn’t help that I got a form rejection last night in the mail from a major press who takes 50 unsolicited pages. So, if anyone has any thoughts on the below query letter, I would love to hear your edits or critiques. Am I not telling enough? Telling the wrong things?


    Query for my novel “Dr. Blix’s Fix.”

    [Personal intro]

    Directed at readers who enjoy a combination of satire and action, the book focuses on Dr. Samuel Blix: bored, wealthy and retired. At his therapist’s suggestion, he signs up as one of thousands of nude volunteers for a Spencer Tunick photo shoot in a Minneapolis park only to have his clothes stolen. Left naked in a sea of people, Dr. Blix loses his last bit of sanity. Coupled with a history of loneliness and depression, he vows to spend his millions on revenge. His plan: Build a ridiculously high-tech compound in northern Minnesota and construct dozens of enormous metal statues to mock and ruin tourist attractions of America’s small towns by taking away their claims to fame, such as “The World’s Largest Buffalo” and “The World’s Largest Teddy Roosevelt on a Horse.” And to top it off, he won’t let anyone but the media see them. His spiteful quest goes viral and he soon becomes the man everyone on the Internet loves to hate. To add to his woes, unflattering naked pictures of himself surface on the internet. Instead of basking in his record-breaking glory, Dr. Blix finds himself fighting public opinion on the web and then racing towns across North America to build the “The World’s Largest Naked Dr. Blix” metal statue. A cultural satire on the prevalence of viral Internet fame, “Dr. Blix’s Fix” is approximately 83,000 words.

    I am a regular writer for The Huffington Post, the co-editor of BlackBook Magazine’s guide to Chicago, and the Nonfiction Editor for TheNervousBreakdown.com. My writing has appeared in The Believer, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Reader, and on Chicago Public Radio, NFL.com, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cracked.com, and a number of other humor websites. I won the 2008 Readers’ Choice Award and the Editor’s Choice Award for satire in Farmhouse Magazine.

    [Personal message at the end]

    • Susan Henderson says:

      Oh, those notes hurt no matter how many compliments they toss into them. They really do. And if you look back at the rest of this series, you’ll see how kicked and bruised I felt through the process. One open door changes everything, but until then it’s a pretty demoralizing process.

      Greg, I think it’s a really good letter. A full but brief description that shows off the book’s originality and shows pretty clearly what pocket you’re writing in–you’re definitely sharing readers with McSweeney’s books, Melville books, Soft Skull Press, and HarperPerennial off the top of my head. Who reps Ben Greenman, Tao Lin, Blake Butler? I’d scout around The Believer and Onion websites. Maybe Hannah Tinti’s One Story. Maybe talk to Amanda Stern. You’re in that pocket, and my brain’s not functioning full-speed today or I’d probably think of more names. But see what other writers and publications are linked to the ones I’ve named and see if a path emerges.

      But to address the not-connecting thing. One possibility is that the fault lies in the manuscript. Read it through as if you’re not you, as if you have to be brought into that world, as if you are not currently connected to that narrator and must be brought to love him. See if there’s any gaps where you could make the reader more fully a part of your book. When I did my final edits on my book, I imagined my reader had had a busy and stressful day and was looking for any reason at all to put my book down. Okay, so one possibility is to pop back into that manuscript wearing a different hat, looking for different things.

      But here’s the other possibility. Go to Amazon and type in the name of your favorite book ever. For me, that would be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Or maybe Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Or maybe William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. And if the book was reviewed a lot, you’ll see some people gave that same book that you love one or two stars. That’s the weird reality about art. Something that leaves me trembling all over–the pure power of the individual sentences, the gloriously faulted narrator, the perfect description of someone who can’t express an emotion–left some other person bored or filled with hate. And the only thing to do about that kind of disconnect is to shrug it off and continue trying to find the person, and eventually the larger community, that’s hungry for your story.

      • Greg says:

        Well, I’m glad to hear that you think the query holds up. I’ve already submitted material to McSweeney’s, Melville and Soft Skull, among eight others I haven’t heard from, but I have yet to seek out the agents for current writers I enjoy or compare my sense of humor to. I’ll have to do some major scouting this week.

        And yeah, I have to come to the conclusion that perhaps it’s not the plot or the originality that’s holding this thing back, but possibly the writing itself. It’s hard to be so blind, though, when you know every word practically by heart. I truly believe the first chapter is fun, surprising and original. And I’ve had the mindset that altering major parts of the book without an editor or agent or promise that it will be molded correctly could be a waste of time. And with a baby and full-time job, I hardly have any time right now.

        Your Amazon review hypothesis is spot on. For every book loved, there is someone who can’t believe it was published.

        I wrote the book in eight months and I told myself I would try to sell it for at least eight months.

        Thanks for all your suggestions, Susan. They are helping quite a bit.

  8. LitPark says:

    I’m going to link Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog here: http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/Agent+Jon+Sternfeld+On+4+Ways+To+Make+Your+Query+As+Professional+As+Possible.aspx

    Good stuff and lots of really helpful interviews and links.

Leave a Reply to Susan Henderson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *