Blueprints for getting a literary agent & publisher
Outlining my strategy for landing high-profile literary agents and publishers
You’ve written a book—congratulations!
Now that you’re checking your bank account through splayed fingers and wondering how to spin those precious pages into gold, I’ve got good news for you.
Selling a book isn’t difficult if the book is good AND if you know how to pitch the right people.
Thankfully, building relationships is easy if you have the right framework. It just takes practice.
Even though you’re imagining this type of person across the table, it’s not that bad…
I swear I’ve had nightmares of Miranda Priestly slapping me with rejection letters…
Let’s get down to business. Here is the 7-step process I’ve used to connect with some of the biggest literary agents and publishers while ignoring traditional submission methods. Your mileage may vary, but if you follow these steps you’ll have a good chance of triumphing.
Step 1: Set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and document it
The zeal of someone pursuing a grand vision is contagious, which is why a Big Hairy Audacious Goal is necessary for an ambitious plan like trying to sell a book.
Consider what motivates you in the context of publishing.
It doesn’t have to be financial, but it needs to act as a constant, compelling force.
Example 1: My goal is to get distribution with a Big 5 publisher by 2025. Instead of continuing to sell books through Amazon, I want to be available in physical bookstores and book fairs without having to self-publish.
Example 2: In the next three years, I will quit my second job waiting tables by earning $30k worth of advances and royalties from creative projects.
Example 3: By next December, I will have secured a literary agent and be able to tell my skeptical mother-in-law “I told you so” at Christmas dinner.
Overall, your goal should be your North Star guiding you in the right direction.
Make a poster of it, print it out, and hang it on your wall as a constant reminder.
Can your goals change? Absolutely. Just remember: no deal is better than a bad deal.
Step 2: Create one heck of a book proposal
Think about a book proposal like a calling card. Not everyone is ready for your brilliant manuscript off the bat, nor should they be. You’ve go to warm them up.
Here is the proposal I created for my series of children’s books, which I self-published and then sold as a 4-in-1 deal. Click to view the full PDF.
Trust me when I say it wasn’t an insignificant amount of effort to put this thing together. It took two weeks to finish the first draft, then another week of editing before a designer spent 30 hours creating the finished version. Total production costs clocked in around $1,500.
Was it worth it? Absolutely.
The result was a polished document that played a key role in my marketing strategy and business case—and, as Jan Friedman states, it’s your business case that matters.
“Your business case may matter more than the writing. People don’t like to hear this…but the artfulness of the writing doesn’t matter as much as the marketability.” (Jane Friedman)
Here are the exact sections I recommend using in your proposal:
Cover Page – Make sure it’s eye-catching and showcases your best testimonial(s). Also include key contact information.
Query Letter – Personalize your query letter to every recipient. Introduce yourself, convey high-level points, and include a call to action to discuss the opportunity.
Executive Summary – Reference the highlights from your proposal in bullet-point form.
Reviews & Testimonials – Select your best reviews and showcase them (even better if you have video reviews). Don’t have testimonials? Get some.
Market & Positioning – Do. Your. Research. Figure out what drives sales in your genre and outline your target market. Publisher’s Weekly reports are a great place to start.
Promotion & Marketing – Outline creative ideas about how to market your book. Break it into subsections: social media, website / Google, email & newsletter, book tours, etc.
Sample Content – Include sample chapters and let the work speak for itself.
Specifications – List word count and page length. Also ISBNs, product weight, dimensions, etc. if the project is already self-published.
If you’d rather not spend four weeks and $1,500 developing a proposal from scratch, you can download mine and edit it yourself.
FYI if you want to hire my designer, I’ve shared his contact details in the templates, too.
A quick word on celebrity endorsements
The first thing you probably noticed about my proposal is the testimonials section.
Believe it or not, I managed to get shoutouts from Randy Jackson (American Idol), Jon Lovitz (SNL), Kate Flannery (The Office), Gilbert Gottfried (Aladdin), and a dozen other A-listers.
These names lend serious weight to the project and send trust signals aplenty to publishers.
Since everyone wants to know how I did it, I’ve added the step-by-step process along with examples and templates to the resources that go along with this post. Surprisingly, it’s not that difficult—it’s just extra work. Trust me when I say it’s worth it!
Bonus: Download the Guide for Getting Celebrity Shoutouts with the resources from this post. The more endorsements you get, the higher your success rate.
Step 3: Collect contact information for your ideal literary agents and publishers
Over time I’ve developed a knack for reaching out to strangers and getting them to reply.
That’s the skill you have to master, too: the art of cold outreach.
Start by making a Master Contacts Spreadsheet.
All of the editors, publishers, and literary agents you want to approach will go into this sheet.
Here’s what mine looks like…
This sheet is my Bible. It provides one place to record interactions, update contact information, and make notes. I highly recommend using one. It’s easy to do in Google Sheets or Excel.
If you want to use my sheet, it’s available—you guessed it!—with the resources from this post.
Now that you’ve made your own sheet or you’re using mine, you can start filling it up with literary agents and publishers who you think would be good fits.
Once you’re in the database, sort by literary agents in your genre.
For anyone who looks like a good fit, add them to your spreadsheet.
Example: Let’s say that Nathaniel works for a literary agency that represents authors similar to you. Add his contact information to your spreadsheet like this…
Voila! Just like that, you’ve got your first lead.
Keep doing this until you’ve gone through all the relevant literary agents. Don’t get lazy! It takes time to capture the information, but it’ll pay off later.
Finding contact info for publishers
In the case of publishers, LinkedIn is the best place to find contacts.
Once you have an account, you can find almost anyone at any company.
Instead of searching one by one, I recommend upgrading to a LinkedIn Sales Navigator account so you can do bulk searches, save “leads”, and send direct messages.
The Professional subscription of Sales Navigator is $79.99/mo. and it comes with everything you need to follow the steps below. You’ll only need it for a month and then you can cancel. Get it here. You can always continue without Sales Navigator, but trust me when I say it’s worth it.
Now that you have LinkedIn, your goal is to build a list of publishers you want to reach out to.
The secret is all in the job titles.
Do you know how publishing houses are structured? No? Here’s a list of common roles.
PUBLISHER JOB TITLES
President and Publisher
Senior Vice President and Publisher
VP & Publisher
Vice President and Publisher
Vice President & Deputy Publisher
Vice President & Associate Publisher
VP Deputy Publisher
What you want to do is log in to LinkedIn Sales Navigator and follow these steps.
Step I: Click Advanced Search in the top search bar and then click Search for leads.
Step II: Enter the job titles you want to search for into the Keywords field. I suggest copying and pasting the following, quotations and everything:
“VP Deputy Publisher” OR “Deputy Publisher” OR “Associate Publisher” OR “Publisher” OR “Commissioning Editor” OR “Executive Editor” OR “Senior Editor” OR “Editor”
Step III: Scroll down and enter the name of a company you’re looking for into the Company field. When the company pops up, click it. Now click Search in the top-right corner.
Step IV: Scroll through the results and see who matches your search criteria. If there are people who might be a good fit, copy their name, position, and company into your contacts spreadsheet. If you want to research them more, click their name and read their profile.
If you’re a nonfiction writer and you see that Justin is a Senior Editor of Nonfiction at Simon & Schuster, he’s probably a good guy to know. Add him to your spreadsheet of contacts.
Ta-da! Just like that, you’ve got your first publisher lead.
Note: Even though you only get names and companies from LinkedIn, you’ll be able to find emails later. For now, repeat steps I to IV for all the companies you’re interested in.
Step V: After a while on LinkedIn, you’ll have a spreadsheet that looks something like this…
Now it’s time to play fill-in-the-blanks with the emails.
To find people’s emails, you need a handy tool called Hunter.io.
Hunter uses someone’s name and company to make an educated guess at his or her email address—and it’s surprisingly accurate.
Sign up for a free account and you’ll get access to 50 “requests”. A request is any time you use the tool to find an email or verify an address. If you need more than 50, you can upgrade later.
Once you’re logged in, you can use the Finder tab to get the missing email addresses in your spreadsheet. Just type a person’s name and company.
You can do this one by one, or—if you’re impatient like me—you can go to the Bulks page and follow the instructions for uploading all your contacts at once.
After Hunter processes your requests, you’ll have a list of emails of varying quality. A lot will be right, some will be wrong. Before adding them to your Master Contacts sheet, I suggest running them through Hunter’s Verify tool. It’ll take more requests but it’ll weed out the garbage.
Between Hunter, Google, checking websites, and making a few educated guesses, you should have a darn good email list built out. Now comes the fun part: outreach!
Step 4: Review the submission policies of publishers and agencies, then promptly ignore these policies and proceed to step five
By now you’ve spent a few days researching literary agents and publishers. Along the way, you inevitably came across “rules” about not accepting unsolicited material.
Ignore them. As Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean would say…
Publishing is a business, remember. All that matters is whether you have sales potential.
I’ve experienced this more times than I can count.
Out of the hundreds of queries I’ve sent, no one has ever said “Denied for not following guidelines.” The worst that happens is they ignore you. And so what? It’s their loss.
💡 Protip: If you get an auto-rejection, it’s because you didn’t do a good enough job researching the recipient. Instead of email@example.com you emailed a generic address like firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t do that. Use Hunter.io to find emails of actual people.
Step 5: Create an email campaign and follow-up messages
Now that you’ve got contacts, it’s time to start reaching out.
At this point your anxiety is bubbling up. You’re probably asking yourself…
These are great questions with no right answers. Sorry. That said, I’ve experimented relentlessly and found a few things work better than others.
First off, your opening pitch matters a lot.
Here’s my best opener. This is the email that’s landed me the most responses by far:
It’s personalized by name and company and it leans heavily on my endorsements. Also, it asks for the recipient’s help (“I’d appreciate if you could point me in the right direction”) instead of demanding a response.
[Remember, if you want your own celebrity shoutouts, download my guide about how to get them. They will dramatically improve the success rate of your emails.]
Once you’ve crafted the perfect opening email, you need to create bulletproof follow-ups.
Here are a few of my effective reminder messages:
This is a small sample from my full campaign. If you want to see all of my outreach emails, I’ve included them (surprise surprise) with the resources from this post, including 25+ templates.
Whether you write your own emails or customize mine, make sure you’ve got a strong opener and follow-ups for every scenario. You want to be ready for when someone replies.
Step 6: Launch your campaign in waves and follow up aggressively
By now you have a spreadsheet of well-researched leads and a stack of compelling emails.
First thing’s first: split your contacts into smaller groups. Why? Chances are you won’t have enough time—or a high enough email limit—to reach out to everyone at once. Plus, it’s too aggressive to bombard everybody at a company at once.
Say you have 150 literary agents in your list. I would split that into three waves of 50.
Next, decide on a cadence for how often you’re going to reach out.
Here’s my cadence:
This shows that I reach out to 50 people every day of the work week. Over the course of a month, that’s 7 “touches” per person, or 7 emails that someone would receive.
If 7 sounds like overkill, think again. Studies show you need to contact someone up to 18 times to make a sale. Eighteen! When it comes to email, persistence wears down resistance.
One tip to consider when sending email: research suggests the best time to send emails is around 10amTuesdays to Thursdays. Don’t send over the weekend and avoid evenings.
So far so good? Good. You’re ready to launch!
Pour yourself a drink, cheers your list of audacious goals, and hit that glorious send button…
Important: Different countries have different email regulations. By and large, you’re ok to reach out to most people in the US. Avoid Canada and Europe, as both have laws that discourage messaging strangers. Double check the rules before hitting send. If email turns out to be a poor option, use LinkedIn to send direct messages instead.
Step 7: Track progress, reply quickly, and chase new leads
Now that your emails are out in the wild, the replies are starting to roll in.
A lot of people aren’t interested (boo)…
A few agents want more information (yay)…
Some editors say they’re the wrong person to talk to (hmm)…
Other responses are auto-rejections (dang)…
A mean response makes you question if this was a good idea (f@^#&!)…
And mostly, overwhelmingly, you’re not hearing back (sigh).
Congratulations! All of this is 100% normal.
Thankfully, hard work and thick skin pay off. Here are some of the responses I’ve received:
Each reply requires a careful response, a creative segue, and/or another message that pushes your agenda while addressing the needs of your recipients.
Here are my tips for navigating the email minefield:
If someone doesn’t reply > Remember the stat about following up 18 times before getting a response? Stick to your email cadence and ignore your inner doubts.
If someone says send them more information > Yahoo! You’re in like Flynn. Summon some courage and push for a phone call or meeting sooner than later. Email is good for reaching out but nothing beats actual talking.
If someone reviewed your project and it’s not right for them > Thank them for their consideration but don’t drop the conversation. Ask them why they didn’t think it was a good fit and try to uncover any doubts that you can alleviate. “No” is an opportunity to reposition and clarify. You’ve got their attention, now keep it!
If someone says they’re not the right person to talk to > Ask who the right person would be. Ideally you get a referral; alternately, you can use their name in further outreach. I’ve had a lot of success with this. E.g., “Hi Jon – Sally pointed me in your direction…”
If you receive an auto-rejection > If you get a rejection from emailing a generic query address (e.g., email@example.com) go back and find a personal email address to message. If the rejection comes from a personal address, move on.
Keep track of your responses in your spreadsheet. I add columns for every email sent and then mark each response—e.g., No Reply, Bounce, Proposal Sent, etc.
If you want to use my spreadsheet, download it with the resources from this post
Ultimately, don’t get discouraged by the email game. As long as you reach out to relevant contacts, follow up persistently, and chase new leads, you’ll start connecting with the right people and improve your odds of succeeding dramatically.
Summary: How to Get a Literary Agent or Publisher
Congratulations—you now have the tools necessary to pursue your publishing goals!
Here’s a recap of what we’ve covered:
Arm yourself with a stellar proposal & query letter
Set up a spreadsheet of contacts to track your conversations
Use LiteraryAgencies.com to find contact info for literary agents
Leverage LinkedIn and Sales Navigator to find publisher contacts
Get a free Hunter.io account to find emails and verify contacts
Develop iron-clad email templates and follow-up messages
Design a pleasantly persistent outreach cadence
Reply to every response, even potential rejections, with suggested talk tracks
Beyond that, there’s no magic marketing move—only hustle, determination, and good writing.
The last part, by the way, is the most important. Good writing is the real variable of success.
I will say this, however. At the end of the day, most authors are too polite about querying. You HAVE to take the bull by the horns if you want to achieve your goals.
That’s all, folks! The rest is up to you. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!”
What's next? Download the #1 Tools for Landing Agents and Publishers to save serious time!
I understand articles like this are intimidating.
If you want help executing this strategy, you’re in luck. I’ve compiled a ton of battle-tested resources into a premium kit for authors. Here’s what you’ll get:
Professional book proposal templates 📘
I spent $1,500 designing and testing these proposal templates so you don’t have to. Available in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and InDesign formats.
Step-by-step guide to getting celebrity endorsements 🤩
If you follow these steps and don’t get at least 1 celeb shoutout, I’ll refund your $.
Access to all of my outreach emails 📨
Get your hands on 25+ email templates for every part of your campaign, from first outreach to reminders to rejection responses.
Spreadsheet templates for tracking your contacts 📝
Use my spreadsheet templates for tracking your contacts and save a lot of time setting them up yourself.
Complete checklist and workbook for everything in this article 📋
If you’re someone who thrives off check lists, this one’s for you.
These resources are the closest you’ll get to someone holding your hand and helping you every step of the way. By my (loose) calculations, they’ll save you 100+ hours and $2,500 designing your own proposal, emails, spreadsheets, and more.
Literary agents are responsible for everything related to book sales, contracts, publication, production and reproduction. They are the middle person between authors and publishers—and since many publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (or at least they say they don’t) literary agents help get your projects in front of the right people and out of the slush pile.
According to Writers Victoria: “A literary agent should never charge a reading fee or a fee to represent you. Editing and manuscript assessment are also jobs for editors, not agents. Agents are not responsible for marketing your book. This is the role of the publisher and (increasingly) the author themselves.”
Historically, anyone who wanted to go the traditional route and get published by a larger publisher would need a literary agent. That said, it’s my opinion that times are changing and thanks to the rise of social media and digital marketing, it’s possible to connect with publishers (even large publishers) directly and potentially forgo a literary agent. That doesn’t mean agents don’t add a lot of value for some people, but everyone’s publishing journey is different. If marketing and sales aren’t your cups of tea, if you don’t have time to learn new skills, if you’re uncomfortable negotiating, and/or if you find the steps in this article impossible to follow, you would likely benefit from a literary agent.
Most authors have more time than money, not the other way around. If you’re driven and aren’t afraid to roll up your sleeves and use your free time to learn new marketing skills, you can follow the steps in this article and have a fighting chance of selling a book without a literary agent. Thanks to social media, I’ve connected directly with many of the biggest editors and publishers at some of the top publishing companies in the world. Gatekeepers have less and less power every day.
Good literary agents are masters of marketing, pitching, relationship building, providing candid feedback, negotiating, and all around encouragement. Bad literary agents are the opposite. If you want a literary agent instead of going it alone, make sure you find someone you mesh with who believes in your projects and will fight for you. The business of selling a book is war. Make sure you’re going into battle with someone who has your back.
Writer’s Relief says: “Generally speaking, literary agents take 15% of your total income from the first sale of your book before taxes. For example, if you receive a $10,000 advance on the first sale of the book to a major publisher, your literary agent will take a commission of $1,500. If you make any royalties beyond your advance, your agent will receive 15% of those royalties.”
Following this article to reach out to publishers directly, of course! As I’ve said at length, social media has changed the game. If you’re motivated enough to write a book, surely you can pick up a few digital marketing skills. To speed up the process, consider downloading the resources that come with this article. Now 80% off for a limited time.
Choosing a literary agent is like choosing a real estate agent, a new gym, or a boyfriend. You’ve got to look around, put yourself out there, weigh your options, and go with what feels right. There’s no right or wrong answer. Some authors prefer smaller boutique agencies because they offer closer, high-touch relationships while others prefer larger high-power agencies because they have higher perceived authority and assumedly better connections. The best literary agent is the one that’s best for you.
Publishers manage the full production process of a book, from acquiring material to editing manuscripts to designing the finished product with a team of editors, proofreaders, graphic designers, and printers. In addition to production, they are responsible for go-to-market plans and ongoing sales and marketing activities.
Since the rise of self-publishing and print on demand (POD) —not to mention platforms like Wattpad, Meetale, and Movellas—authors have more choices than ever when it comes to getting their story out there. That said, large publishers continue to dominate bookstore shelves, the top spots on reading lists, and the most prestigious literary awards. They’re a signal of quality and a “life goal” for many authors despite the days of big book advances and glitzy marketing circuits being mostly behind us. On the other hand, authors like Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking have made millions on self-publishing. (Heck, even 50 Shades of Grey and Eragon were self-published before becoming mega hits.) Success is possible with both routes. Why not explore both and decide for yourself?
Self publishing is the alternative to traditional publishing. You can self-publish through print on demand (POD) platforms like Amazon or Lulu, or you can use online publishing platforms like Wattpad to reach readers directly.
Just like choosing a literary agent, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing a publisher. Some authors prefer smaller boutique publishers because they have smaller lists and they may put more effort into your project instead of viewing it as one in a million, while others prefer the Big 5 publishers because they have higher perceived authority and assumedly better marketing muscle. The best publisher is the one that’s best for you.