If you have a decent writer’s platform and marketable book idea, it’s not hard to get a literary agent. I’m a published author whose first traditionally published book (Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back) was represented by a literary management agency in California. That wasn’t my first source of representation, though. I initially signed with a literary agent at the Irene Goodman Agency in New York City.
My experience with the agent at Irene Goodman was 12 years ago; I found him by submitting query letters to multiple literary agents in the United Staes and Canada. He wasn’t successful at selling my nonfiction book idea (See Jane Soar). I met my second agent at a writer’s conference a few years ago, and actually had multiple offers of representation for that book idea. That was sweet! Here’s the query letter and proposal I submitted to literary agents: The Nonfiction Book Proposal That Won Me a Publishing Contract.
First, here’s valuable writing advice from the founder of successful, popular literary agency in New York City:
“Writing is your job, just like your postman has a job,” says Irene Goodman, founder of the Irene Goodman Agency. “He delivers the mail every day, rain or shine. Successful authors sit down and face that blank screen every day. You don’t actually have to do it every day, but you do have to do it on a firm schedule…If you write only when the muse strikes or when you feel like it, you will have a very hard time finishing a book.”
These are unverified words – I found them on the internet – but boy do I love them! At a writer’s conference recently, bestselling author Bob Mayer said something similar. He can’t afford writer’s block; he has bills to pay and a family to feed! Successful writers can’t sit around waiting for the muse or inspiration to strike.
How to Approach a Literary Agent at Irene Goodman (or any agency)
I’m (currently) a nonfiction writer, but the following tips are also applicable to novelists, poets, children’s writers, etc. The major difference is that, unless fiction writers are as successful as Stephen King, they must write the book first. In contrast, nonfiction writers can find an agent with a strong platform, a well-written book proposal, and three sample chapters.
These are the steps I took to find my first agent. If they worked for me, they’ll work for you!
1. Polish your book idea and marketing plan. Agents are looking for writers with a great hook, a well-thought-out book idea, and strong writing skills. I know that writers rush in where fools fear to go (no offense, fellow scribes! I’m one of the quickest writers out of the starting gate – and that often backfires). It’s also crucial to build a writer’s platform.
If you don’t blog, read How to Start a Blog That Inspires and Encourages.
2. Prepare an excellent book proposal. My favorite resource is Elizabeth Lyon’s Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write: How to Get a Contract and Advance Before Writing Your Book. I also referred to How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published by Jody Rein and Michael Larsen. There are lots of book on the market about book proposals; read as many as you can, then trust your gut when you’re actually writing your book proposal.
3. Edit and revise your query letter and proposal. The first literary agent I talked to (not the one at Irene Goodman) said he can’t believe how unprepared and unprofessional writers can be. Don’t just edit your book proposal or novel until you think it’s finished. Polish and revise it until there’s absolutely no way you can make it better. To sign with an agent and get your book published, you have to go beyond “good enough.”
4. Research literary agents until you find a match. I recommend a couple of books below, but Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide To Literary Agents is also good. You could also explore Predators & Editors and search the internet for “literary agents accepting submissions.” I also asked a fellow writer for her literary agent’s name. She emailed him, he emailed me, we spoke later that day, and he sent me a contract for representation a couple days later. I didn’t sign on with him and I’ll tell you why soon.
5. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. The literary agency websites I visited had clear, specific submission guidelines. If there are multiple agents in one agency – such as at Irene Goodman Literary Agency – follow each agent’s specific guidelines. But don’t submit to more than one agent in the same agency. If you follow their guidelines, you increase the chances of standing out in the slush pile as a potential author that an agent would want to sign.
6. Send multiple query letters to literary agents (at different agencies). I don’t know if all literary agents and writers are on the same page here, but Query Shark literary agent Janet Reid recommends sending your query to as many agents as possible. I e-mailed 14 of the “highly recommended” ones on Predators & Editors.
For more tips from Reid, read Is It Hard to Get an Agent? 15 Tips From the Query Shark.
7. Don’t sit and wait for agents to respond. Get busy writing! Move on to something else while you’re waiting – pitch a few magazine article ideas, play around with a new book idea, catch up on your blog. It took my literary agent at Irene Goodman less than a week to contact me – but it can take longer. Sometimes years.
8. Respond if an agent calls. The agent I signed with emailed a request for a phone conversation less than a week after I sent my book proposal. I emailed him back a few minutes later. We talked within half an hour – I think we both wanted to strike while the iron was hot!
9. Make sure the literary agent is on the same page. It can be tempting to sign on with the first agent you talk to, but hold up a second. The first one I spoke with (my colleague’s agent) suggested a fairly significant change to my book. That didn’t light my fire, but I’m open to thinking about stuff. He sent the contract and left the ball in my court…and I decided not to play with him. The agent at Irene Goodman, however, was thrilled with my book proposal! “Even if you don’t sign with me,” he said, “don’t change anything about your book. It’s great the way it is.” Finer words were never spoken. 🙂
10. Read the agent’s contract carefully. Maybe it’s necessary to have a lawyer review an agent’s contract before you sign it…and maybe not. I signed on with Irene Goodman without a lawyer’s rubber stamp (but I did compare it to my other contract, which was five pages long. Goodman’s was one page).
11. Do a “background check” on the agency. I did this step twice: first when I researched literary agents, and then again when I was offered a contract. It was easy with Irene Goodman. They’ve been around for 30 years, are highly recommended on Predators & Editors, and are spoken highly of on the Absolute Write forums. But, do make sure you research your literary agent’s individual name as well as the whole agency’s name. You may not be able to look under every rock, but it’s worth a shuffle through the forest.
12. Sign your book publishing contract, and celebrate! As I said, who know what the future holds – but signing with an agent at the Irene Goodman Agency is definitely a milestone to celebrate. But don’t party too hard tonight, fellow scribes, because tomorrow morning you gotta get back to work and write your little heart out.
Do you have a book in progress? Before you submit a query letter or book proposal to literary agents or publishers, read 17 Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected by Book Publishers and Editors.
Help Finding a Literary Agent and Getting Published
In Guide to Literary Agents 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published, you’ll learn how to submit your best work to agencies and find the right literary agent to represent you.
Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published is a great resource for writers who are ready to look for an agent and need to know what to expect. Query letters, synopses, social media, beta readers – everything is covered – whatever genre your book is in.
The Writer’s Market also includes a comprehensive list of agents and a list of writers’ conferences. The authors and editors share up-to-date hints and strategies on how to get a literary agent – such as the most current ways to use social media platforms to build relationships with people in the publishing industry – as well as advice for fiction and non-fiction proposals, query-writing, synopsis-tweaking, and even how to build a good relationship with your literary agent, editor, and publisher.
If you doubt your ability to get published (much less find a literary agent), read How Do You Stop Doubting Yourself as a Writer?
If you have any tips or stories about finding a literary agent, feel free to write ’em down for us!