Finding the right literary agent will multiply your odds of selling your book to a publisher. Fortunately getting an agent to look at your book isn’t quite as hard as getting a publisher to read it, but it’s still a lot easier if you know what to do and where to look. Here are some tips on how to find the right agent, along with some resources that will aid you in your search.

1. Start with a Strong Proposal and Query Package

Before you begin looking for agents, you should invest some time in creating a strong proposal package, including a well-worded query letter template. Many agents prefer to see a query letter before reading a full proposal. You can create a generic query letter template and then customize it for individual agents.

Your package should include a self-addressed stamped #10 business envelope (SASE) or self-addressed stamped postcard (SASP), to give the addressee the option of contacting you by mail. A customized SASP with blanks for the respondent to fill in can increase your chances of receiving a reply promptly, in some cases cutting response time down to as little as a week.

To create a customized SASP, obtain a blank reply postcard, which you can purchase or print out. On the front, put your name and address, along with the name and return address of the addressee. On the back, leave some space for you and your respondent to fill in:

  • Query title
  • Date received
  • A note thanking them, mentioning that you’re including this to save them time, and inviting them to select from a series of possible replies
  • A series of replies they can select from, such as:
    • “Yes, please send a book proposal.”
    • “Yes, please call me for details at. . .”
    • “Yes, please email me for details at. . .”
    • “No thank you. But call me for another slant/idea/topic.”
    • “We can’t use this topic because. . .”
  • Respondent’s name

Along with your SASP or SASE, you may also choose to include such items as a resume or writing samples, to expand on the credentials cited in your query letter.

2. Compile a List of Prospective Agents

Once you have a strong proposal and query package, you should start compiling a contact list of prospective agents. Your list might also include editors who screen book submissions at publishing houses.

You are looking for agents and editors who handle the type of genre your book falls into. You can find this information in directories of agents and publishers, usually available in the reference section of your local library. Some of the most useful general directories are:

  • Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents
  • Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents
  • Literary Market Place
  • Writer’s Market

There are also specialized directories dealing with specific markets and niches, such as religious book publishers.

These types of directories will help you generate an initial list of potential prospects, but you will probably find your list is relatively large. To narrow it down, you can collect information from other sources. One good source to mine is acknowledgments of competing books, where authors often thank their agents.

When identifying prospects, be sure to record the name of a specific agent or editor, not just the name of the agency or publisher. Your query has a much higher chance of being read and receiving a reply if it is addressed to the proper individual. It is a good idea to call to confirm that the person named in the directory entry still occupies the position listed.

When consulting directories of agents and publishers, be sure to note if your prospect’s entry includes any special instructions regarding submissions. You may need to modify the copy of your query letter addressed to that prospect to meet such instructions. Likewise, you may notice something about a particular prospect that warrants making a customized alteration to their copy of your query letter. For instance, if an agent or publisher has handled a specific book your book is competing with, you may wish to mention this.

After compiling your initial list, you should sort it in order of priority, with more experienced agents and editors representing bigger publishers at the top of the list. Your chances of attracting interest from the names at the top of the list are lower, but at the same time, the contract you stand to gain from successfully contacting these sources is higher. Therefore, if your main goal is to get the most profitable contract, and if you’re willing to risk rejection, it’s advisable to start with these names first and work your way down. However, if your main goal to maximize your chances of getting published, and if you’re willing to settle for a lower profit, you may decide to take the alternative approach of starting with smaller agents and publishers first. Which method to pursue is a judgment call on your part.

3. Send and Follow Up Your Query Submissions

Once you have your list sorted, you can start sending out queries and tracking your results. Sending out queries and following up on a regular schedule with persistence over time is the best way to get results.

It’s usual to mail book proposals to one prospect at a time, which is also a good rule of thumb to follow for mailing query letters. Mailing queries or proposals to multiple prospects at the same time is called making “simultaneous submissions.” Some in the publishing industry object to simultaneous submissions, while others don’t mind. If they have a strong preference, it’s usually noted in their directory entry.

If you’re very lucky, someone will express interest in your book right away, but chances are you will need to mail multiple query packages before you meet success. Realizing this from the outset and committing to persistence gives you a much stronger chance.

As you send out queries and proposals, be open to feedback you get from agents and publishers, and make adjustments accordingly. Their expert input can often give you the missing piece you need to get your book accepted.