How to find a literary agent for historical fiction

Finding a literary agent who can sell your work, win you commissions, and look after your author journey is like finding the Holy Grail for a writer. A good agent cannot solve all your problems: you still need to come up with a brilliant idea and a brilliant book.

But if you have those two things, and all goes well, a literary agent can ensure that you make money from it. They can ensure that the contracts you sign benefit you as much as your publisher. And, with luck, they can make the whole business of writing a bit easier, a bit less exposed, a bit more fun.

So how do you find the Holy Grail? The short answer is, not easily.

Here are 5 achievable steps that the Historical Novel Society thinks you should take that should improve your chances.

Step One – the book

It all starts with the book, or perhaps with the idea for the book. The structure of the book has to be appropriate to the genre you are writing. It is historical, but it must also be a romance, or a thriller, or a saga, or an adventure, or a military novel, or a biographical novel, or a literary novel. Also, to attract an agent, it needs to be a commercial idea. It needs to intrigue and excite a part of the market that you can isolate and describe. Honing this idea, and learning to write it, should happen before you are seriously hoping to engage an agent.

Of course you can pitch before you are done. Pitch to writing friends, society members, and send work out to freelance editors if you can afford to pay them. By all means pitch to an agent at an event if you have the opportunity. The Historical Novel Society can help with all these stages. But you will have the best chance when pitching to an agent if your novel is already in its very best, finished shape.

Step Two – which agent?

Which agent? This is a whole new research subject all of its own. Agents are not all equal. Some sell better than others. Some sell historical fiction better than others. Most will have specific interests within historical fiction – they will enjoy one kind of novel, but not another. Some agents are actively looking for new clients. Others are open to new clients but not searching. Others do not want to increase their client list. So how do you find out which agent is which?

The short answer is by research. You can find out about literary agents online from a host of different writing sites, and from industry sites such as Publishers Market Place. The Historical Novel Society can help at this stage too. You can download our introductory list, ’24 Agents Who Sell Historical Fiction’ by signing up to our Agent Newsletter – and we can then let you know whenever we interview an agent, book an agent for a talk, or hear of a debut deal. At conferences (and some chapter events) you will have the chance to meet agents specifically interested in historical fiction.

Step Three – the pitch

Work on your pitch. It is the worst kind of chicken and egg situation, but in order to get an agent to pitch your book to a publishing house, you first have to pitch your book to the agent. The agent is the expert at the pitch. But before you can access that skill, you have to make your own best attempt. Again, there is a lot of research you can do online for how to pitch. Essentially you need to introduce the subject of your novel. Tell the agent why you think she or he (individually) will be interested in it. Explain what the book sets out to do, why it is exciting, and who you think might read it. Then say who you are – and try to make the whole letter no longer than 350 words.

It is a tricky thing to achieve, and it repays you to try many drafts. Try sharing what you have with fellow Historical Novel Society members that you trust – people who are working in the same field as you. Once you get it right, and if your book is as you describe it, you should expect a response from most agents, even if they do not wish to read further.

Step Four – research, research, research

Choose five or six agents from the list that you have researched, and get to know them better. Read any online interviews. Follow them on twitter. See if they do Q & As or take pitch sessions at conferences. Find out about the authors they represent: go to the authors’ websites, buy their books and read them. From all this research try to find a single sentence that will enable you to connect to the agent in some way that makes you human to them. Do this for each of the agents. Double (triple!) check how their agency likes submissions to be made. Then send your first batch of submissions simultaneously. If you hear nothing back in a month or so, begin to think of chasing a response – but very gently!

Step Five – repeat or revise?

Depends on the responses you have received. If there have been no responses, it might be a good idea to try to rework your pitch. You should be getting some kind of response, even if it is peremptory. Be certain that you are sending to the agents who are suited to your work, and that you are professional in addressing them. Happy with the pitch? Then it may be the moment to go back to the novel itself and ask for (or pay for) an informed opinion. Ditto if the responses you have had are tepid, negative and/or dismissive. Time to get another opinion on your submission.

If, however, the responses have been broadly positive, even if there are no requests to read further, it is probably worth sending your submission to the next half dozen on your list. If you are getting requests to read the manuscript you are in the home straight. Your novel and proposal may still need a lot more work. But the feedback you receive at this point is likely to be very market driven. It may even have a specific editor or editors in mind. Again, it may mean sending to many more agents on your list before you receive an offer of representation. But if agents are asking to read, and are getting back to you about the manuscript, you have to believe in yourself and keep going.

After that?

This is where our Holy Grail analogy becomes silly, but you may – perhaps even should – find that you are in a position to choose your agent. When your proposal is at the level to interest a number of agents, it is possible that you will get more than one offer of representation. Then your research really matters, but so does your personality. You need to choose someone you trust, can work with and, ideally, like.

And then let the Historical Novel Society know, so we can share your excitement, and so your story can encourage others.

Lastly, please read my favourite debut-author-finds-an-agent story, beautifully told by Jessie Burton, who was seeking representation for The Miniaturist.

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