How Do You Become an Agent?

A whole bunch of people have asked me this question recently. I can’t figure out if it’s because they are interested in becoming an agent… or because they can’t figure out how the heck I became one. I suppose it could just be curiosity, and I think it’s valid. It makes sense that, as a writer, you’d want to know that these strange creatures who call themselves the “A” word and seem to have so much influence on your writing career are actually qualified to do so.

The bad news is that there is no guarantee of that. There is no licensing board, there are no industry-wide certifications, no standard agreed-upon set of criteria that qualifies one to be a literary agent (or author’s representative, as we are more formally known). There is no test. There is no one handing out a Bachelor of Arts in the Literary Discipline of Agenting.

So yeah, anyone can call themselves an agent. This is why you hear so many warnings to do your homework before signing with an agent, making every attempt to ensure you’re getting someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

But legalities and impostors aside, let’s talk about what really qualifies one to be a literary agent. Here are my thoughts:

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.

These days I would also add: A willingness to keep up with rapidly changing technologies (which become contract points), and 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 do YOU think qualifies one to be a literary agent?
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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!


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  3. Luz on February 7, 2010 at 12:57 AM

    >Hi I saw the movie The Proposal the other day and it got me thinking that I want to be a literary agent. I read your tips but I'm 14 years and I want to know what should I do now. I've read that the best place to go to is New York, I'd like to know what classes I should take and colleges I should look at in the future.

  4. Cathy York on May 29, 2009 at 4:19 AM

    >Yes, your assistant definitely thinks it’s a cool gig!

  5. Rachelle on May 28, 2009 at 9:35 PM

    >Anita, we have an assistant in our office. I guess I’ll have to ask her if she thinks it’s a cool gig. 🙂

  6. Anita on May 28, 2009 at 9:09 PM

    >Yeah, I get the whole where the $ comes from thing (I know you’re not charging for query reading, Thank God)…I just mean working FOR an agent and reading the queries sent to them. I know not every agent has people who do that kind of work, but it would be a cool gig.

  7. Sharon A. Lavy on May 28, 2009 at 6:00 PM

    >Thank you once again Rachelle.

  8. Lenore Buth at on May 28, 2009 at 12:48 PM

    >Rachelle, you set a high standard for yourself. Obviously, your list sets out how you seek to operate. (Insert applause here.)

    This spells out what already comes through in your blog posts. Thanks for being so transparent and “real.”

  9. Anne L.B. on May 28, 2009 at 12:46 PM

    >Katy, Timothy and Richard, I am ROTFL right now. (My kids are just rolling their eyes.)

    Richard, the agent living in Colorado is definitely an advantage if it gives a client an excuse to visit the agent.

  10. Chatty Kelly on May 28, 2009 at 12:27 PM

    >Jason/Rachelle/All –
    I just read the other day about how Nicholas Sparks signed his agent. If you haven’t read it, it is a must read. She was a 27 yr old new agent who hadn’t sold a thing. It is a GREAT story on his web site.

  11. Rachelle on May 28, 2009 at 11:47 AM

    Many agents don’t belong to AAR but still follow their ethical guidelines. I blogged about that here:

    I’m not eligible for AAR yet, having not been an agent for the minimum 2 years.

  12. Rachelle on May 28, 2009 at 11:44 AM

    >Great comments here! Some of the “requirements” seem a bit difficult for any actual human to live up to, but I guess if we were listing “qualifications” for any job, it would sound the same.

    Jason, I didn’t think you were rude at all. Sally, I appreciate your thoughts also.

    For the record, while everyone knows the kind of agent I am (the partner-editor-talk-you-off-the-ledge kind), I see my most important job as twofold: (1) sell your books, and (2) help you navigate the entire publishing process. However I can best accomplish those two things is what I try to do, and each client requires something a bit different.

    Anita, reading queries and manuscripts sounds like a really cool way to make a few bucks… but the truth is, we don’t make money from reading them. Only from selling them! Bummer, huh.

    Richard, your list is lovely and well-put. But intimidating! Hope you don’t hold me to those standards. 🙂

  13. Will Entrekin on May 28, 2009 at 11:44 AM

    >”There is no licensing board, there are no industry-wide certifications, no standard agreed-upon set of criteria that qualifies one to be a literary agent (or author’s representative, as we are more formally known). There is no test. There is no one handing out a Bachelor of Arts in the Literary Discipline of Agenting.”

    Well, no, but what about the AAR? It’s not really accreditation or certification, but it is an agreed-upon set of guidelines that members of AAR adhere to, no? I’m not saying no AAR is a deal-breaker for querying, of course, not in this day and age, especially, but I would certainly consider it in choosing whom to query.

  14. Peter P on May 28, 2009 at 11:40 AM

    >Great post Rachelle!

    So, in your own opinion, how do you measure up?

    Do you fit the criteria?

    I’m guessing you do!


  15. sally apokedak on May 28, 2009 at 9:53 AM

    >@Jason. I don’t think you’re rude at all.

    I’m just jawing here.

    I think some agents won’t coach you up. And for me money is not the main consideration in finding an agent.

    Some agents will partner with you more than others, I think. I’d like to think, anyway. I’d like to think it’s possible to find an agent who will be a partner and friend more than a manager of contracts and money.

    I’m just guessing, Jason. I have no agent. I’ve only queried six agents in ten years. I wasn’t ready any of those times. So I am fairly sure I don’t have all the answers. 🙂

    Wishing you peace and prosperity and an agent who will sell your books like crazy.

  16. Jason Crawford on May 28, 2009 at 9:29 AM

    >Sally, I respectfully disagree. I never said the art of writing was all about money, but face it, that’s the main thing with agenting.

    You can get a writing group or a coach or take a MFA course to make your writing better. And sure agents can and do make the work better, but they do it for the purpose of selling it.

    Honestly that’s the only reason I’ll be looking for an agent when I’m ready to submit. I would fully expect them to coach me up etc… but the goal is to sell books.

    Certainly my point is not that touchy-feelie, but I do believe that it’s the truth. And I hope that doesn’t sound rude…I really don’t intend to be…just an honest difference in opinion.

  17. Jason Crawford on May 28, 2009 at 9:21 AM

    >Sorry Rachelle…hope I didn’t come off as rude. I think I’m slowly becoming an extrovert, which means most of my thinking takes place outside my head. And that’s just not good for anyone. 🙂

    But from the POV I originally took, I eventually realized you’re right anyway. I would imagine most of the book sales that take place are agented by folks with the background you mentioned.

  18. Teri D. Smith on May 28, 2009 at 9:07 AM

    >You list sounds unbelievably great to me.

  19. Kim Kasch on May 28, 2009 at 9:00 AM

    >Sounds like a dream job to me – some might see it as a nightmare though


  20. Philangelus on May 28, 2009 at 8:59 AM

    >I would want an agent to have a suit of asbestos permanently welded to his or her skin. The ability to walk into a room full of editors and do some hard negotiating and demand their full attention and demand they treat her client with professionalism and respect. The ability to pick up the phone and say, “What’s going on here?” and get some answers *when necessary.*

    The agent should have the backbone of a bulldog and know when is the time to growl versus when is the time to fall back to a safe position.

    Kind of like being a parent in some respects. But if the agent is going to be the writer’s advocate and voice, then the agent should be willing to go to bat for his or her writer and be the writer’s voice.

  21. Fawn Neun on May 28, 2009 at 8:51 AM

    >Yeah, kind of a shame I’m so old, I think I’d love agenting, and would be more passionate about it than I am about writing (which is a love/hate thing for me, really). I guess I’ll have to be happy with editing my little ‘zine. 🙂

  22. Anita on May 28, 2009 at 8:39 AM

    >Being an agent (with all the contracts, negotiations, etc.) doesn’t interest me, but being the person who sifts through the queries and partials sounds like heaven to me…I loooove reading, even queries and manuscripts. That sounds like a really cool way to earn a few bucks.

  23. Richard Mabry on May 28, 2009 at 8:38 AM

    >Ideally, a Christian agent should:

    Have the patience of Job.

    Be wise as Solomon

    Endure tough times like Jonah

    Be prepared to battle editors like David (and furnish his own sling and stones)

    Be compassionate and forgiving as Stephen

    Know how to write from experience like John

    Furnish correction like the author of Proverbs

    Be as supportive as the author of Psalms (no, David didn’t write all of them)

    Love to facilitate the spread of the Good News like Paul

    Live in Colorado—no, wait. That’s not mandatory.

  24. sally apokedak on May 28, 2009 at 8:29 AM


    To me an agent is so much more than, “What have you sold?”

    The answer to that question won’t tell you if the agent likes the same kind of books you like, if she gets your voice, or if she even will read your manuscripts (as opposed to giving them to an assistant). Does she want to shape your career? Will she brainstorm on titles or does she have no time for that?

    I don’t want an agent who will sell my books. I want an agent who will love my books and want to partner with me to make them better.

    At SCBWI in LA last year a popular (and selling) agent told about a client she signed and how she had him revise his debut novel four times over a course of eight months. He was a little cranky (and possibly ready to bolt–she said she had to talk him down) at the end of the eight months when she finally sent his book out. It sold at auction for a quarter of a million dollars.

    A lesser agent would have sold it earlier for twenty-five thousand dollars, I bet. But his agent saw his good book and wanted to make it great.

    That’s the kind of agent I want. Not one who will sell my stuff, but one who wants to make it great. It’s not the money–it’s the love of the art that I care about.

  25. Rachelle on May 28, 2009 at 8:05 AM

    To clarify, my points were addressing what might qualify a person to become an agent in the first place, not what qualifies someone to be YOUR agent. If a person is just becoming an agent, obviously they haven’t sold anything yet.

  26. Jason Crawford on May 28, 2009 at 7:49 AM

    >Hopefully I won’t sound more pragmatic than I really am, but to me selling books is all it’s about. If I get an offer, that’s likely to be the first question out of my mouth. “What have you sold?” In a polite way, of course.

    Like most careers, background only matters at the beginning. After that it’s all about results. The qualifications only serve as a predictor of success when there’s nothing else to go on.

    But having said that, I suppose in reality the agent who sells a lot of books will have the qualifications you mentioned 99 times out of a hundred.

    On the flip side, someone can have all those traits and still not be a good agent, I suppose….but I’m just rambling at this point… 🙂

  27. Eric on May 28, 2009 at 7:38 AM

    >Great post. As I was reading through this, I was wondering how you could possibly certify someone to be a good agent anyway? Since a great deal of their success is based upon experience, caring about reading/writing, and contacts within the industry, how do you gauge that objectively? It’s not really possible, so like you said, it really boils down to our obligation as a writer to do our homework.

  28. Katy McKenna on May 28, 2009 at 7:10 AM

    >Anne L.B.–Last night I actually dreamed that I—an as-yet unpubbed client who’s remarkably stable, all things considered—had to talk my agent down from the ledge! 🙂

  29. Krista Phillips on May 28, 2009 at 7:08 AM

    >Very good points! I think #6 is really important too. Heck, they all are, but the ability to “sell” isn’t something everyone has. My mom, for example, works in sales and pretty much rocks it, but me? Yeah, I have a hard time taking my daughter to sell girl scout cookies. And when we do, it’s usually just to people we know and I have her use the big ole’ lip approach. Not sure publishers would appreciate an agent pouting, “But pllleeeaasseeee buy this book!”

  30. Timothy Fish on May 28, 2009 at 6:32 AM

    >A literary agent should be, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…

    O, wait, that’s the other guy.

  31. writer jim on May 28, 2009 at 2:28 AM

    >In Christian publishing…humility, love of God, fear of God,and pure motives: to truly serve God in their occupation. Thereby one could expect to actually be led by God to help those whom God may have also actually led to write something for which God has a purpose. writer jim

  32. writer jim on May 28, 2009 at 2:28 AM

    >In Christian publishing…humility, love of God, fear of God,and pure motives: to truly serve God in their occupation. Thereby one could expect to actually be led by God to help those whom God may have also actually led to write something for which God has a purpose. writer jim

  33. Anne L.B. on May 28, 2009 at 1:54 AM

    >Might I add: The ability to talk clients off ledges? (#5 didn’t seem to quite cover this.)

  34. Hilabeans on May 28, 2009 at 1:28 AM

    >In response to your question, a successful track record of being an “influencer” is an important qualification. I guess it relates to #8.

    I love that you mentioned a “commitment to ethical business practices.” I’ve noticed similar sentiments in older posts as well. There are a lot of predator agents out there – your clients are very lucky to have you. I wish you represented urban fantasy – I’d query you in a heartbeat. Please forgive the cliché. 😉

    Great post!