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I’m asked from time to time how I went about finding a literary agent and the whole “pleasepleaseplease publish my book” process. So I thought I’d say it in a brief blog post so I can refer to it when asked.

The process isn’t complicated, but it’s time consuming.

What helped me most was contacting people who were already doing what I wanted to do and finding out how they did it. Each contact is another contact to find an agent who is a match for you and can help you say what you want to say to as many people as possible.

That process takes time–in my case about a year of nothing, then about a year of catching my breath and wondering whether I should give up, and then another year of saying “to heck with it, I’m doing this no matter what those inner voices say.”

Along with networking, the most practical advice I got was to read three books. These helped give me structure and direction, and they gave me a crash course on what I didn’t know, which was a lot.

1. Richard Curtis, How To Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I knew I didn’t want to become my own agent, but to find an agent I had to familiarize myself with their habitat–how they feed, where they nest–i.e., to learn how agents think and what they look for. I had no idea whatsoever, and many of my assumptions were naive.

2. W. Terry Whalin, Book Proposals That Sell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success. This book was invaluable to me. Agents don’t want general ideas, and they are not easily charmed. They want a solid book proposal–a concrete project. I’d never written a real proposal before–one that includes things like a market analysis, who your audience is, and what makes your book different than any other book out there and why you and only you are the person to write it. They also want 2 sample chapters (not the introduction) that reflect your best prose (not a “draft” you’re kicking around).

Bottom line, assume agents have better things to do and it’s up to you to startle them so they stop doing those other things and pay attention to you. No matter how much they might like you, they have to be convinced that your project is worth their while to sell to a publisher. And writing a proposal like that takes a lot of time.

3. William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Zinsser sets a vision for what nonfiction writing can look like. I think everyone serious about writing should own this book.

I’d be happy for others to chime in and share their own experiences!


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.