Aspiring Screenwriters: Pick The Right Literary Agent

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

It’s fair to say that the screenwriting industry isn’t exactly struggling at the moment. The rise of paid streaming services — led by Netflix, but soon followed by Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and even YouTube premium — has caused incredible demand for original programming, with huge sums of money being spent in the hunt for new hit IPs.

And then there’s the enduring draw of the cinema, with blockbusters continuing to rake in huge sums of money and smaller films getting more exposure through the internet (giving them better odds of becoming enduring cult hits).

And then, of course, there’s the combination of fast internet access and cheap recording equipment (a smartphone might well be sufficient) that makes it possible for an aspiring screenwriter to get their story told and distributed through YouTube or Vimeo.

In short, it’s a solid time to enter the industry — but you’re still going to want a literary agent. Why? Because it’s an incredibly competitive field, and it’s ultimately swayed by opinions. You want someone on your side to help you improve and get your work in the right hands. So how do you choose a great literary agent? Here are some tips:

Find agents known for your niche

There may be literary agents that have connections in every last corner of the screenwriting world, but if there are, you can’t afford them — plus they’re too busy working for clients that might be household names if writers got the publicity they deserve. Instead, each agent will have a unique selection of contacts, and a unique set of preferences for style and genre.

As a screenwriter, you’ll also have your preferences. Do you write short-form episodes? Prefer anthology-style collections of thematically-linked scripts? Maybe you most enjoy the modern streaming format of 10-episode seasons. Perhaps you’re all about telling horror stories or creating rich detective tales or crafting madcap comedies.

Think closely about the work you envision yourself doing as a screenwriter, and search for agents whose purviews match your own. Shortlist them based on relevant factors: how far away they are, how much they charge, how keenly they target your particular niche. You can then use that shortlist to do the necessary investigation.

Do your research before meeting with anyone

You might be tempted to skip directly to meeting prospective agents. After all, that interpersonal connection is going to be extremely important, and we all tend to think that we’re good judges of character — but hold off on that. Before meeting anyone, you should research them online, seeking to learn more about their professional credentials.

How long have they been working as a literary agent? Where have they worked? Which notable clients have they represented? What do their clients tend to say about them? That last question is particularly important because it won’t be a very good sign if you can find a plethora of disgruntled ex-clients.

This is essentially a matter of screening out the predators — the agents who come across very well in person but don’t deliver results, whether due to incompetence or indifference. Don’t let yourself get sweet-talked into an arrangement that won’t benefit you.

Look for someone who can help you grow

As an aspiring screenwriter, you’re far from ready for the big leagues. Not only do you have relatively limited writing experience, but you also aren’t prepared for everything that goes into being a successful screenwriter — all the challenges and frustrations that must be endured. You need to grow.

When you meet with your vetted literary agent candidates, ask them frankly how they’ll help you improve as a screenwriter and as a professional. How do they intend to expand your horizons and sharpen your technique? Will they tutor you personally? Will they forward your details to a screenwriting coach they know? Will they find you a screenwriting partner?

After all, screenwriting may be a creative process, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fundamentally rigorous and suitable for appraisal. When you submit a screenplay for consideration, your literary agent should help you with it: they might recommend anything from completely scrapping it to getting a comprehensive screenplay report and rewriting it, but the important thing is that they demonstrate engagement and activity.

Consider that you might need to write five scripts before getting some traction, or fifty scripts, or five-hundred scripts (with your “hit” needing twenty rewrites before being accepted). It might not be what you want to hear, but there’s a lot of fortune involved — all you can do is consistently improve to steadily tip the odds in your favor.

Choose an agent with realistic expectations

A large part of your literary agent’s job is talking you up to anyone relevant who’ll listen, and they’re going to be much more convincing if they genuinely believe you have something special to offer. They don’t need to believe you’re a future Oscar-winner or anything that extreme, but if they don’t think you’re worth hiring, why bother hiring them?

Of course, there’s a difference between telling you that you can get somewhere and assuring you that you will reach the top, and they’ll definitely get you there. The annals of history are littered with talented screenwriters who never achieved their goals — they never quite found their audiences or caught the right breaks, or they just weren’t tenacious enough.

So once you’ve reduced your list to a few candidates, hire whichever one gives the most realistic account of what they can (and can’t) help you achieve. And in the unlikely event that everyone says you’re destined for great things, then perhaps you’re just that talented (but hunt down some more candidates just in case).

Choosing a great agent is a vital part of your journey through the screenwriting world, so don’t take it lightly. Take your time, follow these steps, and find someone great who can take you as far as your talent can go.

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