If you've spent a chunk of time writing a novel, a collection of short stories, a series of poems, or the like, it's probably time to show your work to the world. And although there are several options to explore when trying to break into the publishing world (such as submitting work to small literary journals), a literary agent can help open doors and sell your work.

Finding the right one for your individual needs takes some careful research, patience, and determination. We'll show you how to start your search for an agent, methods for contacting them, and what types to avoid. Hopefully, the end result will be seeing your work in print.

Make sure your manuscript is totally finished before you show it to agents. In the excitement of coming to the end of a long literary endeavor, it's easy to send something out before it's ready. To prevent this, you can hire an editor to polish your work, or show it to a friend or colleague. This reader may find holes, typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors you've overlooked. Additionally, this person's feedback on the work may help you rewrite certain aspects of it, and thus fully realize its literary potential.

An agent may have hundreds and even thousands of submissions to read. You wouldn't want him or her to get turned off by a misspelling, typo, flat character, or any other fixable issue before having a chance to realize your work's quality and merits.

1. Do your research

When searching for an agent, knowledge is your most useful tool. The more you educate yourself, the more likely you'll find an agent who fits your individual needs, and the less likely you'll be taken advantage of or end up wasting your time. There are numerous ways to do this.

Literary agent associations. Besides providing lists of reputable agents, an association may offer other pertinent information. Does the agent work with a specific genre? What other authors has the agent represented? What are the agent's sales records? How do you contact the agent? Some literary associations act as watchdogs, requiring members to adhere to certain rules and regulations that protect authors' rights. Some associations won't accept an agent unless he or she has been in business for at least a year, and has sold a minimum number of books.

To find a literary agent association, contact your local library, type "literary agent association" into an Internet search engine, or ask the local branch of a writer's union, which you can often find listed in the phone book under "unions" or "editorial."

Networking. Writing conferences, workshops, classes, and lectures are good places to meet and network with other writers, editors, and agents. Some writers bring extra copies of their manuscript to these places in the hope of finding an agent to give it to.

Don't be shy about asking other writers about their agents. You can then double-check these referrals with a literary agent association. Conferences, workshops, classes, and lectures are advertised in writing and publishing magazines, in literature departments at schools, and on the Internet.

The Internet. By typing "literary agent" into a search engine, you'll find sites that list agents. If you find agents that look interesting, check to see if they're listed with an agent association. Be careful of display sites, which charge you a fee for posting a sample of your manuscript, a short bio, and sometimes an author photo. In theory, your posted manuscript could attract the attention of an agent. But the fact that you have to pay for this service should serve as a warning to seek other alternatives.

Libraries and bookstores. There are directories that list authors, books they've published, and the names of their agents. If you think your work is similar to that of a particular author, look him or her up in a directory to find the name of his or her agent.

2. Look for red flags

While doing your research and compiling a list of potential agents to contact, you can narrow down the possibilities simply by discovering what type of writing each agent works with. You can focus your search further by eliminating agents who don't belong to a literary agent association. Also, look out for red flags that may indicate the agent isn't reputable and therefore doesn't belong on your list. Some red flags include:

An up-front fee. If an agent charges an up-front fee, sometimes disguised as a reading fee, a fee to cover administrative costs, an application fee, or an evaluation fee, this isn't a reputable agent. Agents get paid when they sell your work, not before. They get a commission, usually around 15 percent on domestic sales and a little more on foreign sales. This commission is paid to the agent straight from the publishing house, not out of your pocket.

An editorial service. Be wary if an agent suggests a book doctor or other editorial service you have to pay for. It's possible that the agent is getting a kickback from these places for every referral he or she makes.

Refusal to disclose track record. Reputable agents are usually eager to publicize their successes in the publishing world, which may include a list of their clients, the books they've helped get published, the dollar amount of sales, and so on. If an agent appears secretive of this history, or says that these records are confidential, you should look for someone else.

A vanity press. Since writers have to pay a vanity press to publish their books, how can an agent make a commission? Most likely, the agent is getting a kickback of some kind.

Sloppy correspondence. Would you want someone representing you in the literary world if he or she couldn't even proofread his or her own work?

3. Send query letters

Once you've compiled a list of agents who appear suitable for your work, send each a query letter. This is a one-page letter introducing yourself, briefly explaining your work, and asking the agent if he or she would like to see your manuscript. It's not uncommon for writers to query 25 to 75 different agents and only end up with a few who agree to read the manuscript. An agent may receive 200 query letters a month from different writers, so you want yours to be professional and attention-grabbing. Check libraries or bookstores for books on query letters. Here are some recommendations to get you started:

Explain what led you to that particular agent. If you were recommended to the agent by another writer, editor, or teacher, mention that person's name. Perhaps the agent represents work within your genre, or writers similar to your style, theme, plot choice, or time period. Mention this as well.

Include any publishing history. Briefly list the names of journals, magazines, newspapers, or publishing houses that have published your work in the past. If your manuscript (or part of it) has already been published, or if you've won a writing contest, include that information. An agent is more likely to consider you if you have publishing credits; this is especially the case for short story writers and poets.

Describe the book in general but don't summarize the plot. Query letters shouldn't be longer than a page, so you won't have time to go into detail about your manuscript. In four sentences or less, you want to say just enough to provoke the agent's attention and curiosity, and make him or her want to see more. For a novel, describe the book's main source of tension, what's unique about the main characters, the story's setting and time period, and what genre the book falls under. For a short story collection, include recurrent themes, characters, or settings that appear from one story to the next. For poetry, describe what makes your poetry unique, and what forms, styles, or subject matter you've explored.

Include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). This is standard practice when contacting an agent for the first time. An SASE need only be a business size envelope with a regular stamp.

Note: Despite the fact that some agents discourage simultaneous submissions, it's not practical to send only one query letter at a time, then wait for a reply before you send another somewhere else. It can take an agent from one to six months to reply to a query. If you ignore rules against simultaneous submissions, simply include a short sentence in your query letter alerting the agent that the query has also been submitted elsewhere.

4. Send your work

Some agents may respond to your query letter by asking to see your manuscript, or a section of it. When selling a novel or long work of creative nonfiction, agents usually ask for the first three or four chapters only. If it's a collection of short stories, an agent may ask to see three or four stories.

Each agent may have his or her own specific requirements, but usually the manuscript should be typed and double spaced on 8.5-by-11 inch (21-by-28 centimeter) white paper. Your name and address should be typed in the upper, left-hand corner of the first page, and your last name and the title of the work should be in the upper left-hand corner of all following pages. Some agents will ask you to include a word count.

Instead of a manuscript, some agents first ask for a short (five page) synopsis of the work, or a detailed outline (20 pages) describing the action in the book. Ask the reference librarian at your local library for information on how to write a synopsis or outline. Or, type "story outline" or "literary synopsis" into an Internet search engine to find samples.

Now it's time to take your manuscript out of the drawer and begin the process of showing it to the world. It will take some time, patience, and determination, but it'll all be worth it the first time you enter a bookstore and see your work on a shelf alongside your literary heroes.

Note: An agent may respond to a query by asking for an exclusive. This means the agent is seriously interested in the manuscript, and wants a set period of time to read it before you show it to any other agent. However, this doesn't guarantee that the agent is accepting you as a client.

If more than one agent asks for an exclusive, you'll have to decide which one to pick without alienating the other. If the agent you gave the exclusive to decides to back away, you'll still have another one up your sleeve.