How Do You Become a Literary Agent?
Believe it or not, I get emails regularly from people who want to become literary agents, and they want advice on how to do it. Typically, the people who send these emails are either right out of college or they’re looking for a career change, and they have no experience in the actual workings of publishing.
It’s hard to answer these letters without sounding completely discouraging, but here’s the truth:
If you haven’t already spent years working in the publishing industry… if you don’t already have a solid understanding of where this industry has been and where it’s going… now may not be the best time to try and break in, especially as a literary agent.
At this moment in time, agents have no long-term job security. (Of course, people in many industries can say the same thing in this economy.) People are still reading and buying books, but publishing is changing and with it, the role of agents is going to change. Nobody knows what the agents of today will be doing ten years from now. Some will still be agents, I think. Many will have other roles in “publishing” if you define it as helping to connect authors with readers. Other agents will have retired or found different careers altogether.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive to be part of the publishing world. But if you set a goal of being a literary agent and you’ve never set foot in a publishing house, be aware it will take minimum of five years working in publishing to develop the skills and experience to actually be an agent, and by then, there might be far fewer agents than there are today.
Most literary agents came to it after working for 5, 10, even 20 years in another area of publishing. Some started off in literary agencies as interns or assistants and working their way up through the ranks to become a full agent. The most important thing to know if you’re wanting to get into publishing or agenting is that you need to actually work at a publishing house or literary agency for a significant amount of time to learn enough to do it on your own.
To become a literary agent, start by getting a job in publishing.
People often say, “But I can’t move, and there are no publishers or agencies where I live.” I’m sorry. There’s no good answer to that. Either get a job in publishing (relocating if necessary, or working at a publisher outside of New York) or find another goal.
So what does it take to be a literary agent?
1. Several years experience in publishing, and a good working knowledge of how books are created, marketed and sold. An understanding of the publishing marketplace in general.
2. Good contacts throughout publishing, preferably with editors who acquire books for publishing houses.
3. Familiarity with publishing contracts and high level of comfort working with them.
4. Understanding of how to negotiate in publishing.
5. A genuine caring about authors and writing; a love of books, literature and reading.
6. A good business sense and a strong understanding of how to be a sales person.
7. An ability to balance the business and relational aspects of author representation.
8. An entrepreneurial spirit and a go-getter attitude. Even if you’re working in a big agency, this is a job you really create yourself. Good agents are usually the kind of people who are proactive and like to make things happen.
9. A willingness to keep up with rapidly changing technologies that are determining the future of publishing.
10. A commitment to ethical business practices.
These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Feel free to add your own ideas.
What would YOU say to someone who wants to become a literary agent?
Update: Agent Kristin Nelson has a great post today (coincidentally) about what it takes to be a literary agent.