Approaching a literary agent

  1. thumb_Unknown-1_1024Australian Literary Agents’ Association
    Finding an Agent

    I’m a writer. How do I bring my work to the attention of a literary agent?

    First, read the information and advice on this page. You may wish to print it out for future reference. It is about three printed pages long.

    Second, look up a suitable agent from our list of member agents (click on the tab marked ‘Members’, above, to see the list), and phone them to check that they wish to see your work. Phoning first saves time and expense, because some kinds of writing are not of interest to some agents. Screenplays and plays are only dealt with by agents who specialise in that area, for example, and some agents may not wish to deal with children’s writing, and so on.

    Third, if an agent wants to look at your writing, they will generally ask you to post a copy of a one-to-two-page synopsis of your book, together with copies of some pages from one or two sample chapters (up to a maximum of fifty pages total), to their office. They usually do not want to see the whole work at first.

    Please note: send copies, not the originals. Always keep the originals in a safe place. Agents cannot be responsible for loss of material.

    Here are some further points to note. Please read them all carefully — it is very difficult to recover from an inadvertent bad first impression.
    1. When you send work to an agency, you must let the agency know which other publishers or agents have seen any versions of the work. This is very important. If a publisher has already read the work and rejected it, it will be very hard to convince them to read it a second time. It is generally wiser to get an agent before you try a publisher, rather than the other way around.
    2. Your work must be printed out, not hand-written. It must be in the form of a word-processor document, not a document typed on a typewriter. The pages should have double-spaced lines of type, or one-and-a-half spaced lines, to make the pages easier to read. Most agents do not accept single-spaced work, and most publishers have these same preferences. The pages must have ample margins on all sides. ‘Ample’ means more than 2 centimetres.
    3. Keep it simple: please use a simple form of layout and a standard font. Times New Roman is a good standard font. Do not use fancy fonts, and do not use fancy or display fonts for headings or sub-headings. Do not use ALL CAPITALS for headings — it looks as though you are shouting. Do not include graphic images unless they are vital to the basic meaning of the work. Generally, making your typescript look ‘nice’ is counterproductive: the simpler the better. If and when your work is published, your publisher will employ the services of talented and highly-trained graphic designers.
    4. Pages must be numbered. It is also a good idea to print the title of the manuscript on each page, though this is not essential. Make sure that every item you send is clearly labelled with your name and address. With a manuscript, you do not need to put your name and address on every page: just on the front page.
    5. Binding: please don’t. Most agents prefer that the material should be in the form of loose sheets, unbound, in a folder, box or strong envelope.
    6. Make sure that every item you send is clearly labelled with your name and address.
    7. You should enclose a self-addressed envelope for return of the material, large enough to enclose the material, with sufficient postage. Please make a note of this point: it is easy to overlook. When an agent receives a submission without return postage, usually it will not be returned.
    8. Generally, do not send cassette tapes, CDs, or video tapes.
    9. Do not send mail that needs to be signed for, like registered mail or person-to-person mail. Busy agencies can take several weeks to respond to a submission. If you would like to know right away that an agency has safely received your submission, please include (along with your submission) a regular size stamped self-addressed envelope or postcard with ‘acknowledgment of receipt’ written on the back. The agency will post this back to you as soon as they receive your submission.
    10. Electronic mail: most agencies ask you NOT to send manuscript submissions or samples by email unless they specifically request you to do so.
    11. It is generally counter-productive to call in person with your submission: because agencies are very busy and staff are often at meetings out of the office, they find it difficult to accommodate personal visits.
    12. Copyright: there is no real need to write on your material that it is copyright by you. If and when the work is published, the publisher will provide the book with a copyright statement. You do not need to register or publish your work to enjoy the protection of copyright status. Australian law says that any literary work is protected by copyright as soon as it is created, and every agent and every publisher understands this. The presence of copyright statements or copyright symbols on a manuscript is sometimes seen as the mark of an amateur; it is best to avoid them. If you do feel you need the psychological security of a copyright statement, please type a single line at the foot of the title page, like so: Copyright (c) Mary Smith 2005.
    The agency will consider your synopsis and sample chapters and decide whether they wish to look at the full manuscript. This usually takes from four to twelve weeks. Please be patient — agencies get thousands of submissions a year, and their staff are generally busy with other matters.

    Do literary agents charge a fee to look at a manuscript?

    No. The members of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association do not charge a fee to read a manuscript.

    Do I have to pay a fee to join an agency?

    There is no fee to join agencies who are members of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association.

    What fees do they charge, then, to represent an author?

    Most literary agents charge an agency commission on their writers’ earnings. The usual commission is around fifteen per cent, though this can vary. This applies for the life of any contract which an agent negotiates, not for the life of the author!

    Does this mean that if I join an agency, then later wish to leave, I can do so?

    Of course — members of the ALAA do not contractually bind their authors. Authors are free to leave their chosen agency at any time. Keep in mind, though, that an agency commission applies for the life of any contract which an agency negotiates. This means in most cases that as long as a book is in print for which an agency has negotiated the publishing contract, that agency continues to earn their agency commission on the author’s royalties for the sales of that book.

    If I send say a hundred pages for an agent to consider, will they be likely to read them all?

    An agency may look at a few pages, or they may read the whole thing. Literary agents assess manuscripts for their own purposes, and they have to be economical with their time.

    I think I need some guidance to help me improve my work. Will a literary agency read my manuscript and provide this kind of advice?

    If a member of the ALAA decides to represent an author’s work, they may offer detailed editorial advice, depending on the author and the material. Some authors don’t want editorial advice, and some do. Some manuscripts need a lot of editorial work to bring out their best, and because of a widespread world-wide decline in the amount and quality of editorial services provided by publishers, many agents now find that they need to provide this service.

    Do you charge a fee for this editorial work?

    Agents who are members of the ALAA do not charge any fee for editorial advice of this kind: this is part of the ALAA code of practice.

    Other agents (not ALAA members) may offer editorial advice for a fee.

    Also, this site does have a list of freelance professional writers and editors whom you can ask to provide manuscript assessment services for you. Look under ‘Literary contacts’ at the top of this page. They will read your work and provide a written report on its strengths and weaknesses, with advice as to how to better shape your work and therefore improve your chances of finding a publisher. The charge, for an average novel, was about $350 in 2005. This service has no connection with the work of any member agency, and a positive report does not oblige any of our agent members to consider your work.

    There are many other small businesses that offer similar manuscript assessment services, for approximately the same fee. They can usually be contacted through your local writers’ centre. We have a list of writers’ centres on this site, again under ‘Literary contacts’.

    E-mail is easier and cheaper than postal mail.
    Should I submit my work via e-mail?

    Most agents ask you not to send manuscript submissions or samples by email, unless and until you are specifically asked to.
    Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright © Australian Literary Agents’ Association and the individual authors 2004. It is made available here for personal individual use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.

    The URL address of this page is

    Contact: Jenny Darling Associates in Melbourne: Phone 03 9827 3883


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