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Resources for Writers

Finding an Agent: Really Useful Links by Ellen Brickley

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Article by Ellen Brickley ©.
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Published authors will often talk about how valuable they have found their agents. It‘s certainly possible to have a great writing career without an agent, but having an advocate, a career advisor, and an industry expert on your team sounds pretty great to me! Agents are paid by commission (usually 15-20%) and only make money on what they make for you – they have great contacts in the industry and do their best to sell multiple rights in your book – foreign rights as well as film and TV, audio etc. They only make money if you do.

Approaching an agent in the UK or Ireland, you will send a covering letter, a synopsis of your book (more to come on writing a synopsis here on Writing.ie soon, but look at this post on How to Write a Synopsis and this one that will give you lots of material to consider) With the synopsis and covering letter you will submit the FIRST three chapters of your finished and very shiny polished book. However it is ESSENTIAL that you check agents’ websites to see exactly what each agent requires in your submission as some may want a 500 word synopsis, another may want only the first five pages of your book. Check what format they want them in  (Word is often preferable to pdf) – they may take attachments or they may prefer you to paste your sample into an email – check too that they are open for submissions.  Following their guidelines shows that you are both serious about your writing and business-like, that you respect their role. If you go completely against their submission guidelines it is very likely they will delete your submission automatically.

The process is different with US based agents – you need to send them a query letter (which Paul Anthony Shortt has written about before,) in the first instance. US based, Jane Friedman gives great advice on where to start – her guidelines and information are comprehensive.

There’s plenty of great advice about writing your query and your synopsis here on Writing.ie, but what about that first step – figuring out who to send them to? Stephen King wrote in On Writing that such information is not difficult to find, but won’t appear on the evening news. Personally I think it should, just before the sport.

The UK-based Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook lists all the agents in  the UK and Ireland and has some further tips here to help you to narrow down your agent search. The good news is that they recommend checking the acknowledgements of books similar to what you’ve written, so you have an excuse to hit the bookshop! Authors will often thank their agent and editor in the acknowledgements so this is a great place to look for help, but Google the person you are contacting to ensure that they are still in the same job – publishing is a very mobile industry. The website Agent Hunter is also very useful but it relies on agents updating their own pages and preferences (which many do not have time to do) so again before submitting, check the agent’s own website and make sure they accept your genre.

Victoria Strauss, a well-known advocate for authors’ rights, has a post with her advice here – as a bonus, she shares some thoughts on assessing whether an agent is reputable or not. She directs hopefuls to this guide from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA), which is incredibly valuable for ensuring that the only names making your list are honest, legitimate and good business people. In the UK check the Association of Authors Agents to ensure that the person you are approaching is listed. Make sure again that they represent your genre and have contacts in this field – not all agents represent all genres.

For a more Irish perspective on agent-searching, check out Sarah Webb’s excellent round up of several well-regarded Irish authors and their representation. This great post also includes details of Irish publishers that accept non-agented (unsolicited) submissions – which in fact is most of them. BUT as literary scout Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin says at every publishing seminar she facilitates, NEVER sign a publishing contract until a publishing professional has explained what it means – all publishing contracts are boiler plate and intended to be negotiated, but they are very complex and your family solicitor will not be familiar with the rights outlined. It is vital you understand what you are signing. The Irish Writers Union offers a contract consultation service to members and will explain what the terms mean.

If you are submitting directly to publishers, always check them out thoroughly before you submit (Google ‘complaints’ and the name of the company!) Avoid the publishers that advertise via Google – not every publisher is quite what they seem and you may get an offer of a contract but be required to pay the publisher. This is not how publishing works! A publisher should be paying you. If you are publishing independently and are contracting a company to assist you in the process, whether that is for editing, cover design or printing, you will need to pay for their services, but that is a very different thing.

Twitter can be a great resource for finding agents. The hashtag #MSWL (which stands for Manuscript Wish List) is used by agents and editors to tweet about projects that they’re looking for. Even if no one says they’re desperate for your 1920s noir fairytale (their loss, frankly), you may find someone who wants a Jazz Age submission and you can tailor your query to suit them – with the hashtag in your subject line. Once you’ve done your research, of course.

Best of luck with your search!

(c) Ellen Brickley


Ellen Brickley is a Dublin-based, chai-latte-powered novelist, essayist, and civil servant who can't believe she gets paid to write sometimes. She holds an MA in American Literature from UCD, and has provided content for Explorer Publishing and Lionbridge Technologies. Her essays have appeared in Banshee literary magazine. She is currently hard at work on revisions for a YA novel.