10 Tips for Landing a Literary Agent

July 3, 2024
By Maggie Marton
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We are on the cusp of major changes in the publishing industry. Publishing power is becoming more consolidated at the top. Meanwhile, smaller presses and self-publishing options are flourishing in response.

The reality, though, is that many writers, myself included, still dream of a traditional publishing deal.

Before you can get a book deal, you need to land a literary agent. A literary agent serves as your manuscript’s sales team, taking it to editors at publishing houses and striving to get you the best possible deal. I recently signed a contract with Cole Lanahan, a literary agent at The Seymour Agency. She’s taking my manuscript out on submission right now, which is exciting and nerve racking.

Before I signed with Cole, I spent months researching how to land an agent and today I want to share with you the ten tips that secured my agent. Please note this is only one person’s experience. If you read social media or writers’ forums, you’ll see experiences span the gamut. I suspect there are solid reasons some writers find success while others don’t.

Here are my 10 tips for landing a literary agent based on my experience:

1. Polish your manuscript

Query work that is as close to ready to be on a bookstore shelf as possible. That means revising, editing, soliciting beta readers, revising again. And again. And again. I spoke with several agents who said they often get rough drafts of stories and can’t offer representation on a draft. Don’t rush to query! Polish your manuscript until it gleams. Then prepare to write a query letter.

2. Research query letter best practices

Every agent asks for different elements of your work to consider; however, there are a few best practices that span all agencies. You need a query letter and an author bio. You need an email address, ideally with your name (think maggie.marton@gmail.com versus tiredmama@gmail.com). You need a social media presence and a website so agents can look you up. Put those pieces in place before you query an agent so you are easy to research and get in touch with.

3. Craft a compelling pitch

Query letters follow a basic format: a short hook, the meta details (word count, genre, and audience), a plot summary, and an author bio. And all that should be no more than 350 words. I spoke with an agent who said you should imagine your potential agent on a train commuting home from the office. She’s trying to make split-second decisions on the hundreds of queries in her inbox during her short ride. How can you capture her attention with the length of a quick email on the commuter train?

4. Solicit beta readers for your query

Hopefully, you received some feedback on your manuscript before querying. You need to do the same with your query letter. Ask friends and family to read your letter and tell you what they think your book is about.

5. Research agents

If you spend any length of time reading #WritingTwitter, you’ll see astounding query stats. Some authors write query letters for multiple manuscripts hundreds of times. I only queried manuscripts 38 times before I received my offer because I wrote only to agents who were the most familiar with my audience. To start your legwork, use Twitter (agents use the hashtag #MSWL for their Manuscript Wish List), Publisher’s Marketplace, QueryTracker.net, Writer’s Market and manuscriptacademy.com. Each agent has specific guidelines. Some want only the query letter. Others want a query letter plus the first three chapters of your book. Some agents use online forms. Others use email. Follow their guidelines to write your letter. There’s no point to knocking yourself out of contention simply because you didn’t follow the guidelines!

6. Create a tracking spreadsheet

Data might not be your strong suit. It’s not mine, that’s for sure. But, I made a basic spreadsheet with columns for the date I sent a query, the agent’s name and agency, a link to the agent’s specific query guidelines, the date to follow up, and any relevant notes.

7. Query in batches

Most agents take several weeks to consider queries. Many agents take months. They all expect you to be submitting simultaneously, meaning you query multiple agents at a time. Because the process takes so long, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you only query one agent at a time. I sent two or three letters a week because that was all I could manage with the time I had available. But each time I got a rejection, I sent an additional query out to balance the odds between the number of rejections and potential acceptances.

8. Follow up

Unless an agent’s guidelines specifically request that you do NOT follow up (and some do), send a follow-up email at the end of their consideration period. For example, if an agent’s website says she replies within eight weeks, and your spreadsheet tells you when those eight weeks have passed, send a polite follow-up letter. She might just be behind schedule and your prompt will serve to bump up your pitch in her inbox.

9. Develop a thick skin

Rejection hurts. It’s not personal, but it feels personal. I know, because this is your work! However, each agent looks for specific titles to fill their wish list of desired manuscripts, and yours might not hit the mark. Keep at it, and find ways to manage stress during the difficult querying period.

10. Be gracious!

Obviously, right? Well, agents report authors arguing with them, berating them, badmouthing them on social media, and more. Don’t be that writer. Build bridges instead of burning them–even when you’re disappointed by a rejection.

It’s a long, daunting process, but I believe in you and your work. And I believe in the power of our dogs and our dog stories. Querying is difficult but oh-so worth it. Please reach out if you’d like support on your querying journey! I’m always happy to share my experience!


I’ve included the query letter that secured my agent.

For context, and to compare with what you see on social media, here are the stats for my letter:

  • 38 sent
  • 18 no replies
  • 9 form rejections
  • 5 personal rejections; two asked to see next MS
  • 4 requests for full manuscript
  • 1 request for partial manuscript (first three chapters)
  • 1 request for proposal

Dear Ms. Lanahan,

I was thrilled to see you are looking for an exploration of the human-animal bond. I’m writing to introduce you to FOR THE LOVE OF DOG, a 60,000-word work of narrative nonfiction that combines the science of INSIDE OF A DOG with the heart of DOG MEDICINE to unravel the improbable bond between humans and pups.

Dogs and humans are buddies on an evolutionary scale. Our histories intertwine so inextricably that we can’t separate our lifelines from theirs over the past 20,000 years. But, despite those tens of thousands of years of coevolution, it turns out we still have a lot to learn from dogs. (They, however, have us pretty well figured out.)

As a shy introvert and hard-core people pleaser, I wanted to move through life unseen. Invisible. So, when I adopted three dogs you simply couldn’t ignore–Emmett, a gentle giant pit bull; Lucas, a three-legged shepherd mix; Cooper, a wiry and neurotic staffie–they blew my cover. As we tackled anxiety, cross-country moves, stray kittens, dog bites, and cancer (all of us), I learned to advocate for them. In turn, they helped me find my voice. To root our story in science, FOR THE LOVE OF DOG weaves together research on dog behavior and canine cognition with my experience with my boys. This book gets to the heart of why we first fell in love with dogs, why we still love them thousands of years later, and why they've always loved us right back. Prepare to look at your own pup in a whole new light.

I write the award-winning blog, Oh My Dog! (ohmydogblog.com), which has appeared in The New York Times, Animal Wellness, and Dog Fancy. For the past decade, I’ve covered dogs, cats, and the human-animal bond for publications like NationalGeographic.com, Pet Enthusiast Magazine, PetGuide.com, and Victoria Stilwell’s Positively.com. My work has received numerous awards from the Dog Writers Association of America, the Cat Writers’ Association, DogTime Media, Fear Free Pets, and the American Association of Feline Practitioners. I served as VP of the Dog Writers Association of America and currently help with the newsletter.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you!

Take good care,