How to Find a Literary Agent: Referrals vs. Cold Querying

Here’s a question from a reader about how to find a literary agent:

I shared my manuscript with two published authors who write in the same genre as me (upper MG). One of them loved it and offered to refer me to her New York agent, who has placed books with all the major houses. The woman who read my book seems happy with this agent; however, they would not have been on my “top ten” list.

This seems like a great opportunity and I don’t want to screw it up. My question: Do I send her the polished manuscript to refer to her agent at the same time I send agent query letters to my top picks? Do I still query my top picks or wait to hear back on the referral? Or do I strategically time my queries between the referral and the “cold calls”? Does it even matter or am I overthinking this?

find a literary agent, agent query
Don’t overthink it. If you have a lead with any agent, take it, but don’t let it be your only lead. Send out other agent query letters, too.

How to Find a Literary Agent: Take Any Leads

First of all, “am I overthinking this?” is my favorite question ever because it’s almost always self-answering. Yes. You are overthinking this. But I do understand that it’s not a no-brainer and that most writers who have an opportunity to find a literary agent are fanatically afraid of screwing things up.

Luckily, there’s a very simple answer to this question. If you have a lead with any agent, take it, but don’t let it be your only lead. In other words, do take the referral, but don’t waste any time. Send out your planned slate of agent query letters. You don’t need to mention anything to anyone except the usual, “This is a multiple submission.”

Submit to Other Agents at the Same Time

Why? Well, sure, the referral is great. Agents always take referrals from clients more seriously than straight slush. At the same time, though, while we’ll linger on the submission longer than we usually would and while we’ll probably look at it more quickly since it has a client’s name attached, we still have to evaluate the writing and the story and whether it’s a fit for us, as if it was any other submission. And it might not be a fit, even if a client vouches for it.

So, submit to other agents at the same time in your search to find a literary agent. You can always entertain interest from more than one agent at once. And be sure to thank your friend for the referral, even if the agent might reject you or if they’re not really on your radar. At the end of the day, you never know what might happen. (For more info about matching with agents, check out my post on how to select a literary agent.)

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

7 Replies to “How to Find a Literary Agent: Referrals vs. Cold Querying”

  1. Thanks for the advice, Mary! It seems the more agents you can find who will be good fits, the better.

  2. Great post. It seems that many writers forget that agents are people too. We allow ourselves to get so worked up over this query process, we tie ourselves in knots. Thanks for your down-to-earth advice.

  3. Yeah, overthinking seems to be common among authors. 😉

    Having options is a good thing.

  4. tracysoda says:

    I agree with Mary, submit to all. If you happen to receive an offer for representation from an agent you’ve been referred to, I believe it’s polite to let all other agents you’re on submission with know, it might even peek interest from other said agents!

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