How Do You Become an Agent or Editor?

Believe it or not, I occasionally get emails from people who are interested in becoming a literary agent. (Don’t laugh, I’m not making this up.)

Why anyone would want to join the ranks of the hated and maligned poor stepchildren of the literary world, I don’t know. Maybe the same reason some people become lawyers. Or contractors.

People also write to me of their dreams of becoming an editor, either in a publishing house or a freelancer. So I’ll address them all here. (Previously I wrote in detail about the qualifications one should have to become an agent.)

The first thing you need to realize is that… (drum roll please)…

Publishing is changing.

Right. As if we haven’t heard that enough already. But what it will mean is that the availability of “traditional” publishing jobs is going to decrease, while the opportunities to work in alternative areas of publishing, (self publishing, independent niche publishing, etc.) are going to increase.

So, like everyone else who is looking for a job now or in the next decade, you had better keep your eyes and ears open to what’s happening, what’s new, and what’s the wave of the future.

But here’s the way it works if you still want a traditional publishing job: You need to get a job in publishing. Somewhere, somehow, you need to become employed at a publishing house or literary agency. You’ll probably have to start in some assistant or phone-answering capacity. Then once you’re there, spend every single day paying attention to everything happening around you. Learn the ropes, and become known as a really smart person and a great employee, and watch for your opportunities for advancement.

If you want to be in New York publishing, then you need to get a job in New York. That’s all there is to it. If not, there are smaller publishing houses all over the country where you could get your start.

You should be a college graduate, and while many editors and agents majored in English or literature, your major probably won’t be a deciding factor.

Since most of you who read my blog are writers, you may be more interested in the question:
How do I become a freelance editor?

The reputable freelance editors I know worked in publishing houses previously, and/or they’re successful published authors with copious experience working with editors and studying the craft of writing.

I don’t usually recommend people try to start freelance editing businesses without the in-house experience, and here’s why. Many people who have a good feel for language think they would make great editors. They don’t know what they don’t know. And they end up charging writers for sub-standard work.

Numerous times in the past several years, I’ve worked with authors who have paid an editor to help with their book. And numerous times, I’ve felt very bad for the authors because they wasted their money, and the proof is in the manuscript. So if you want to become a freelance editor but you don’t have the experience, I suggest you get the necessary experience first.

If you do have the right experience, then it’s simply a matter of opening your business, creating your fee structure, putting up a website, networking with writers, and getting your business off the ground one step at a time.

I hope that helps those of you who are thinking of getting a job in publishing!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Tina on March 5, 2013 at 10:10 AM

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  2. A. K. Vaughn on December 28, 2012 at 1:13 AM

    I have spent most of my adult life saving lives. I am currently completing my Master’s in English to pursue a career in publishing. I cannot imagine a house hiring someone over 50 and thought being a freelance editor might be my only option for entry into the profession. Any thoughts?

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  11. Lisa Fredersdorf on June 21, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    Hi there, thanks a lot for this post, it really helped me out!

    But I have a question to you:
    I always wished to be an agent or editor. I am still a student, currently living in Sweden. I will graduate with my international baccalaureate in three years – all education in English. I plan to move to an English-speaking country after graduation, study at an university, and then become an editor/agent in that country. Do I still have chances, even though I won’t be native in that country? I will be fluent in my English by then, that’s for sure, and I still have a lot of time to practice and improve, but I need to be sure that my dream won’t get destroyed when I get to this point in my life.

    Thank you very much! (:


    • Rachelle on June 21, 2011 at 2:54 PM

      Lisa, that is a LONG time from now and publishing is changing very quickly. You’ll just have to keep current on what is happening in publishing and see where things are when you’re ready to get a job. Nobody can predict at this point. No worries, just keep studying and heading towards your goal!

      • Lisa Fredersdorf on June 22, 2011 at 7:37 AM

        Thanks a lot for your reply (: I will keep studying, and work hard for my dream, I promise! (: Thanks again!

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  15. Lindsay on January 27, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    >Hah, interesting reading, thank you. I took an editing certificate course at one point, but lost interest in the field shortly after a guest lecturer came in and divulged the typical pay scale. 😛 As they say, money isn't everything, but you *really* need to love what you do if you're working hard for not a lot.

  16. Bethany from Confessions of an Organized Homeschool Mom on January 27, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    >Interesting insights. As a freelance editor, I just have to weight in. I'm a college graduate, but I don't have a degree in anything related to English. A few years ago, I took an online class called "The Keys to Effective Editing" through Ed2Go. It was affordable and extremely accessible. I learned a lot of the publishing lingo and a few tricks of the trade to add to my already great grammar skills. Then I started sending out resumes to publishing houses. And sending out resumes. And sending out resumes. I finally started getting a fairly steady stream of work from a particular publisher. After doing straight copyedits for a while, I started doing manuscript reviews and critiques. I've now worked my way up to developmental/substantive editing. Since one publisher was willing to give a novice a chance, I've since been able to get a little bit of work from other publishing houses.

    In addition, I joined an online editors' email loop, which provides support and information.

    So, that's one freelancer's story. Hope it helps someone!

  17. Rick Barry on January 27, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    >My first five years out of college I worked as a textbook editor and then project manager. Later, I decided to put my knowledge to use and to offer freelance editing services for a fee. The drawback? The wide spectrum of quality in the manuscripts received. Some authors needed just a little sprucing up, some tidying to the grammar, and they were good to go. Other authors wrote like 7th graders who didn't realize that grammar is still an active part of the English language. I edited their stuff, but it was long and tedious labor, and each new page provided ample evidence that the manuscript would never sell to any sane publisher. I mean, I fixed grammar, but I wouldn't rewrite content or perform triage on a person's writing style.

    I quit freelance editing to work on my own freelance writing (and because I hated taking money from people who really believed my help would boost them to authordom). I wouldn't mind freelance editing again for a house that sent me manuscripts of merit, but I wouldn't hang out a shingle for the general public again.

  18. Anna Bowles on January 27, 2010 at 8:33 AM

    >If you do have the right experience, then it's simply a matter of opening your business, creating your fee structure, putting up a website, networking with writers, and getting your business off the ground one step at a time.

    I’m currently trying to do just this, in the UK, and it’s opening my eyes to just how little publishing is understood, even by some people who are serious about writing. The concept of agents and publishers is pretty well established, but there seems to be endless confusion about the availability and reliability of what you might call the pre-publication help – freelance editors, literary consultants, book doctors etc.

    When writers I’ve encountered before find out that I’m now available to do critiques for hire, their reaction is often ‘hurrah, someone we can trust!’ suggesting that there is a market for good one-to-one editing – but also a deep distrust of most of the people who offer it. To me it seems obvious that in-house experience and a track record of successful projects marks out a credible freelancer from a shyster, but I think some writers are so suspicious of publishing collectively – that anonymous bloc that does nothing but swallow manuscripts and belch up the occasional rejection – that the field remains murky.

    Perhaps it’s something to do with the enduring mystique of the overnight literary success who makes millions from their first book because of innate talent. That mirage makes solid publishing experience look unglamorous, if not second rate. But if it’s a myth for writers, it’s doubly so for editors. Experience tells.

  19. Liquid Rubber on January 27, 2010 at 3:49 AM

    >I still could not understand that what is this idea? What does it mean by the literally agent? Can some one bit explain it?

  20. Ruth on January 27, 2010 at 3:45 AM

    >Thanks for this post, Rachelle. I would *love* to work in a publishing house one day (hopefully as editor one day), and am currently trying to figure out what experience I should get to do so, so this post is really helpful to me!

    I've recently got a job in a nationwide newspaper doing sub-editing/copy-editing. Do you know if this background would make it any easier for me to get a job, in a few years' time, as a copy-editor at a publishing house? I realise this is probably outside your level of expertise, but if you have any idea I'd appreciate it. 🙂

    (The idea of being an agent also appeals, but I don't know if I'd be able to deal with quite that level of stress…. 🙂

  21. Steve on January 27, 2010 at 1:09 AM

    >I'd like to respond to Cheryl Lewis.

    Cheryl, my first impulse is to say that I think you were wrong and your clients were right. But my second thought is to frame the issue in different terms. I think you and your clients may have had different goals.

    Let me give my own perspective. I'm an aspiring novelist, and I came to that highly unlikely role because I conceived of a story that I thought needed to be told. It was the story that drove me to write – not the desire to write that led me to seek a story. My goals in this story are to construct it so that it will (hopefully) touch the lives of its readers. This is not necessarily compatible with a maximum degree of salability. The audience to whom I want to speak is unknown in numbers, but I expect it to be a relatively small niche audience. It is quite possible that the work as I have conceived it will not be viable as a commercial product.

    Should I then allow it to be edited for salability? I'm completely okay with editing that will help the work be more effective at what I intend it to accomplish. I would not be okay with editing it into a different work, even were that edited work to become a best-seller. (I would even be okay with editing for salability as long as the character of the story remained intact. More audience is good.)

    I think what I'm addressing here may be that elusive quality caled "voice". It sounds, from what you recount, like you were editing your clients' work for a more salable voice. I suspect the problem they had was that the resulting voice was no longer theirs.

    People who approach writing from a commercial or "business" perspective may overlook the reality that there are other reasons for writing. I think the proper role of an editor is to assist the client in realizing their goals for the work. Those goals may not necessarily include a spot on the best-seller list. If the goals of the writer and the professional standards of the editor are incompatible, I think it's best to get that out in the open up front. Not every writer and editor are a good partnership any more than are every writer and agent.

    I hope you don't see this as a hostile response. I'm reacting in part to the substantial amount of story constructing advice I've seen on various sites which, if I tried to follow it, would change my novel into something I would no longer consider worth writing.

    Best wishes for your work,


  22. Greg Sky on January 27, 2010 at 12:04 AM

    >Publishing has changed! As long as a writer has an audience (web audience) that wants to buy your books, why try the traditional publishing path? Don't have an agent or a publisher but sell enough books to provide a very good living!Publishing needs to rethink its purpose!

  23. Dana on January 26, 2010 at 6:57 PM

    >Beth is right. I hired, what I thought an American typing service to finish typing my manuscript. Low and behold. Must stuff is in India! My best friend is so funny. She is like freaking out. "Get it back, Dana, right now." As if they are going to do something to it.
    Come to find out, the other services were sending them off to India too.

  24. Anonymous on January 26, 2010 at 6:30 PM

    >Degree in English from a big UC; city editor of college paper. I got my job because I lived around the corner from an agent I met at a writer's conference and we walked our dogs together.

    I tell young people to also take computer and accounting classes. Publishing is more than reading (I have 50 years of that) and writing (30ish); you need to be able to work the computers and understand the business end as well.

  25. Beth on January 26, 2010 at 6:27 PM

    >No kidding that it's changing. I worked for a publisher before going freelance when I had twins. I was in the art department, so I was putting documents together and doing Photoshop and that type of thing. When I went freelance I started to specialize in typesetting books (rather than design, although I've done that too). After cutting way back for a few years, I realized in coming back in that a lot of what I do has trotted off to India!

    A word of warning. It isn't only changing. It's moving.

  26. Mira on January 26, 2010 at 5:57 PM

    >Wow Rachelle. I didn't realize you had already posted on the para-professional nature of agents in a previous post – and are here with editors.

    Thank you. You have my respect.

  27. GalaktioNova on January 26, 2010 at 5:29 PM

    >Oh, thank you so much!

    (I would DIE to get any job in publishing, making tea is fine with me for a start, just to get my foot through the door. But living in rural France as I do, no chance in hell!

    One of those things that are never meant to happen…)

    Thank you very much!

  28. Julie Gillies on January 26, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    >This was an interesting post, Rachelle.

    I got invited by P31 Woman Magazine to serve on their editorial team. Given the choice of receiving the raw articles or the final copy from the graphic designer, I went with the latter…and discovered that my perfectionist tendencies serve me well as an editor. The best part? I absolutely LOVE it!

    I don't know where it will lead, but it's interesting work and I feel like I'm making a difference.

  29. Sophie Playle on January 26, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    >Interesting post.

    My degree helped me get my job as an editorial assistant. I'm climbing the ladder. But I'm also doing other things, such as joining the Society of Young Publishers, and working through a training course from The Publishing Training Centre.

    My dream is to one day be able to support myself as a freelance editor, but I know I've got a lot of learning to do still.

  30. Jordan on January 26, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    >Great post. Nothing beats keeping your head above water and remembering the goal, despite the means of getting there. Before becoming an Acquisitions Editor, I…

    1. Graduated w/ English degree (small D3 school)
    2. Worked at Barnes and Noble
    3. Worked for Dad
    4. Unemployed / Kept writing
    5. Freelance work for regional hometown magazine
    6. Unemployed / Kept writing
    7. Tended Bar
    8. Worked in a foreclosure office
    9. Kept writing

    Landed my dream job and got into grad school in the same week. It happens, people!!

  31. Rosslyn Elliott on January 26, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    >Helpful post, Rachelle, thanks!

    Gwen, I laughed when I read your post about your daughter.

    I worked at a very low level in New York publishing when I first graduated from college.

    If you want to work on the editorial side of New York publishing and start from the bottom, you'd best have a trust fund! (I did not.) Back in the mid-1990s, editorial assistants made $17,000 a year. Even fifteen years ago, that was not even close to a living wage in New York. Most of the editorial assistants were Ivy League grads whose parents were still supporting them financially.

    I worked on the administrative side of a very large publishing house, because in admin you could get higher pay than you could in editorial (I was the assistant of one of the top officers of the company, which is the only type of admin position for which you can get decent pay in publishing.) I made $35,000 a year, which was BARELY a living wage. (Our apartment in Brooklyn rented for $1500 a month which was cheap by NY standards.)

    So Gwen, in addition to the long hours of work, aspiring editorial assistants can look forward to many years of eating Ramen and watching their toes poke through the ends of their shoes. 🙂 That's glamour for ya.

  32. Reesha on January 26, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    >Thank you! This helps a lot. I'll admit I have dreams of sitting in an office for hours on end reading stories written by fresh voices. I love that kind of stuff. So I was always curious about how one becomes an agent.

    I probably will never become one. But I'm happy that my curiosity about that part of the publishing business is satisfied.

  33. Matilda McCloud on January 26, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    >I was an English major and didn't know what to do with myself so I took one of those publishing courses at NYU. I think it took one summer and it wasn't cheap. But I learned the lingo and so on, and at least it was something I could put on my resume. My first publishing job was with a literary agency (low low level job), but I learned a lot. I eventually got an M.S. in library science and worked in libraries for a while. I think that helped me get the children's book publishing job (not sure if that would be so important now, but at the time, it made me stand out because I knew a lot about children's books etc.) An internship is also one way to get a foot in the door.

  34. Marla Taviano on January 26, 2010 at 11:05 AM

    >I've done some freelance editing and really enjoy it. Not as much as I love writing, but it's up there.

    If I didn't have so much to write myself, I'd love to branch out into helping others make their writing shine. Maybe in 10 years…

  35. Anonymous on January 26, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    >You're so right about working your way up in traditional publishing. I started during grad school with an hourly sales job, knowing our publishing house often hires internally. I moved into corporate with a research job, then moved up to editing, all within three years. Now I've been editing for three years. If I ever want to go into freelance, I feel I have a great background for it now.

  36. Anonymous on January 26, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    >I worked as a magazine editor for years at city magazines and it helped to have a degree in JOURNALISM, and a minor in English. That's how you learn to edit. I've had editing tests at every place I've worked, even before I could get my degree (to weed out the serious students). Yes, it sounds "glamorous" but it's tedious, anal, back-breaking work as I soon found out, especially when you're on deadline at 2 a.m.

  37. Mary @ Giving Up On Perfect on January 26, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    >Thank you, Rachelle. I've worked in public relations for several years and would love to move into editing. I've actually been told to go after freelance work BEFORE in-house publishing, so I appreciate your different point of view and explanation. As always, you are so generous with your knowledge, and I am so thankful!

  38. Cheryl Lewis on January 26, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    >P.S. I say that I failed as an editor, even though one of my clients hit #1 on the NYT Best Seller list for two weeks and was in the top 10 for seven. He was willing to accept change. There are few things more disheartening than helping someone craft a story well and then watching them dismantle it before it ever reached a publisher's eyes. (I suppose my authors felt the same after I finished suggesting revisions! ha)

  39. Cheryl Lewis on January 26, 2010 at 9:48 AM


    I'm a skilled freelance writer and have helped edit self-published authors for years, from manuscript development to marketing, but have been confronted by the same issue many, many times: In the end, despite my editing, many want to return nearer their own version of the manuscript. There is something fiercely personal about telling your story and, never mind the lousy grammar, redundancies and style problems, a story told in "one's own words" feels best to the one paying the tab. (And, let's face it, most who can afford to foot the bill are accustomed to getting their own way!) So, in the end, those who chose to submit to a formal publishing house offered work that would appall (despite their having paid $$ to have it edited) and it was no longer work that, once self published, I could proudly display on my own shelf as an example of my editorial finesse. (The Catch-22 is that several of my clients chose self publishing over traditional publishing in order to maintain control of their product – but, in the same breath, they controlled it to the point that excellence was rejected!)

    Did I fail as an editor? I suppose that, all things considered, the answer is yes. Perhaps time working in a publishing house would have shown me how to be more effective.

    Thanks for new food for thought.

  40. CKHB on January 26, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    >I'm sticking my tongue out at you for the lawyer comment.

  41. Andrew Mackay on January 26, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    >Sharon A. Lavy said…
    So how do we know where to go for editing help? That is the question.

    I think there are two ways to determine who you should work with:

    first, check credentials. If they don't have a background working on books that you like (or at least recognize), I'd hesitate to sign up. With the freelance world we live in, you can now go out on the internet and work directly with editors who have worked with big publishers.

    If you are considering working with someone who is relatively new to editing or if you're nervous about how your content will be handled, ask potential editors to do a chapter or two using track changes (or if you're really old school, get them to break out a red pen). It's an exercise you can learn a lot from.

  42. Johnnie Donley on January 26, 2010 at 8:45 AM

    >Katy, sorry it didn't work out for you, but what a fun story!

  43. Katy McKenna on January 26, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    >I got a lowest-level job in the circulation department of a magazine publishing company here in KC when my kids were young. Looked sharp every day, paid attention to the whole process of putting out the various titles we pubbed, then finally got the bright idea of volunteering to write for the company newsletter. (My hope was to eventually write for one of the mags, once my brilliance was manifest.) NOBODY wanted the job I volunteered for, but when a manager found out an underling had filled the unpaid slot, she stormed through the office yelling, "WHY wasn't I CONSULTED?"

    I do believe Rachelle's advice is spot-on, but starting at the bottom didn't work out for me. It didn't work out for my bottom, either. It made me so nervous I gained a ton of weight. Did I mention I worked for Pork Magazine?

  44. Sharon A. Lavy on January 26, 2010 at 8:08 AM

    >So how do we know where to go for editing help? That is the question.

  45. Sharon Mayhew on January 26, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    >Wonderful post, Rachelle. There has to be a thrill in it for you…the chance of discovering the next Beatrice Potter or Katherine Patterson would be my guess as to why agents are agents.

  46. Krista Phillips on January 26, 2010 at 7:15 AM

    >Great posts. Not sure I can say I want to do any of these things, but one never knows what God might have in store for the future, so it's good information to have tucked away.

  47. KatieDahl on January 26, 2010 at 6:32 AM

    >Great post! I still really want to do it, and I'm definitely going to try. Thanks for the advice!

  48. Gwen Stewart on January 26, 2010 at 6:19 AM

    >My 10 year old daughter told me that she wants to be an editor in NY city when she grows up. She thinks it will be glamourous. 🙂 I didn't tell her about the reading: on the subway, late at night, at your desk, in the park, walking the dog, eating, breathing, sleeping, reading, reading, reading. She'd a girl who loves to read American Girl magazine and the WebKinz website, so I think the notion of reading five books a week might put her off a little. I'll feed the whole reading thing to her small doses. 🙂

  49. Aleksandr Voinov on January 26, 2010 at 5:04 AM

    >I'd still want to do it – but it might be that so many agents are such cool, insightful people online. 🙂

  50. Christine H on January 26, 2010 at 3:18 AM

    >I would not want your job for the world. You are welcome to it!

    But then, I teach math and statistics, so I'm guessing the feeling might be mutual. *wink*

    Praise God for giving us all different gifts!

  51. Ronda Laveen on January 26, 2010 at 3:12 AM

    >Dentists seem to fall into the catagory of the hated and maligned too.

  52. Andrew on January 26, 2010 at 2:52 AM

    >Thanks for a very insightful post.

    Sometimes when one gets enough rejection letters and emails, not to mention the no-response response to queries, one is tempted to wonder, 'who ARE these people?????'

    Now we know.

    (I'm kidding, Rachelle. I think we all can appreciate how hard you work, and that there is a lot of pressure on you to make good choices every day.)

    And I have a question – I haven't seen a post on this – of the authors you represent, do you have meaningful statistical data on how many were successful, versus those who didn't quite get there? We know that 'query stats' – but are there stats for those who made it through that hoop? (And if this information's privileged – please forget I asked!)