How Do You Become a Literary Agent?

business womanBelieve 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.

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  • http://www.sally-apokedak.com/whispers_of_dawn/ Sally Apokedak

    I’d make a terrible agent. I hate to speak to people face to face (unless I know them pretty well). So I think I’d tell someone that wanted to be an agent that they have to be able to meet and converse well with editors. Otherwise the manuscripts they send will land in a slush pile, won’t they? I’m guessing that there is an unsolicited agent slushpile that is just one step up from an unsolicited author slushpile.

  • http://www.colindsmith.com Colin Smith

    I would ask them if they know what an agent does. And once they’ve researched that, I would then ask if they believe they have the skills, experience, and temperament to do those things. The work of an agent sounds fun–especially when you have great colleagues, great clients, and you’re selling books to big publishers with large dollar amounts attached. But we all know that’s not the norm even for the best agents. And this is why I don’t think I’d make a good agent. Unlike writing, I don’t think it’s something I would love enough to do even on the worst of days, weeks, or months.

  • Chris Lunda

    Considering the slow reaction from the publishing industry to what going on, I would disqualify an agent for those prerequsites

  • http://www.robynbradley.com/ Robyn Bradley

    Simple. I would say, “Read this post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner on how to become a literary agent.” :)

  • http://www.wizardofotin.blogspot.com otin

    I would tell them that they better enjoy reading quite a bit. lol

  • http://thoughtsthatmove.blogspot.com/ Wendy

    I think it’s cool you included #5 (especially the word genuine).

    ~ Wendy

  • http://www.byannabanks.blogspot.com Anna Banks

    I would say, “Good luck. You’ve got some pretty stout competition out there, like Rachelle Gardner and Lucy Carson. Have you ever thought about going into insurance, maybe?”

  • http://www.rickbarry.blogspot.com Rick Barry

    Seems to me that individuals who have to ask you how to become an agent have just proven that isn’t the next career choice for them (unless perhaps they’re in college and are willing to become an intern somewhere). All the agents I admire most were already plugged into the publishing world well before they moved into this profession. They knew the ropes, and that background knowledge translates into current expertise.

    Questions I receive are more on the level of, “You’ve freelanced hundreds of articles, short stories, and even written books. I have a computer…how can I become a writer, too?” Wow. Where do I even begin to explain…?

    • Chris Parker

      Rick Barry:

      I’m aware of how old your post is but I think that’s a rather ignorant thing to say. Researching the inroads in ANY endeavor is a good idea instead of flying by the seat of your pants. Even similar industries can work very different from one another. The person who seeks the information they might need in the future and is willing to work their way up would seem a more motivated person, and perhaps even a better fit for the career, than someone who sold insurance for years but wanted a career change and jumped tracks.

  • http://e3write.com Elizabeth Everson

    An agent must have a willingness to connect and engage with people everywhere, all of the time. The agents I’ve met are “people” people; they listen to elevator pitches, pitches during breakfast, sometimes get chased down hallways. They attend conferences, and even if they’re not interested in someone’s work, they have an encouraging, engaging manner.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.name/ Peter DeHaan

    I’ve never considered being an agent — and now I know for sure that it would not be a good fit for me. Five of the first six items on the list of “what it takes” are definitely not me.

    And now I have even more respect for those who are agents and possess these qualities.

    Thanks for an informative post.

  • http://rmabry.com Richard Mabry

    If someone asked me how they could become an agent, I would:

    1) ask them if they’d considered something else—perhaps bull-fighting or sky-diving–instead.
    2) shake my head sadly.
    3) refer them to this excellent post (that describes Rachelle’s background and qualifications quite well, by the way).

  • http://cynthiaherron.wordpress.com Cynthia Herron

    I’d say, “Well, that’s a little easier than a root canal…”

    *Kidding*

  • http://girlseeksplace.com Brianna

    Great post. As cool as it would be to get paid to read, I am definitely better off sticking to the writing end of things. I know it’s just not reading, which is why I say that.

  • http://www.reinventing-melissa.com Melissa Alexander

    I’d ask them if they had a spouse or family members who could support them, a source of independent wealth, or a second job to pay bills. It can take years to make a living wage as a literary agent — something that especially sucks if you’re trying to maintain a residence in NYC at the same time.

  • Cassandra

    Everything Rachelle said, and also what Kristin Nelson says today on PubRants about thriving on — or at least being psychologically resilient in the face of — unrelenting conflict.

  • http://www.claricejames.com Clarice James

    1. Examine your motives. Remember, money, fame and power are red flags.
    2. Take an honest inventory of your personality traits and skills.
    3. Ask those who know you well what they think of the idea.
    4. Research the background of other agents and see if it looks anything like yours.
    5. Ask yourself: “Would I want ME to represent ME before publishers and editors?”
    5. If you’re a follower of Jesus, and He tells you clearly, “Go thou and become a literary agent” then go where He leads.

    Personally, I’m fine being me; and I’m thankful for those who can do a job I can’t.

  • http://www.TheWriteEdit.com Valerie Brooks

    Okay, I’ll chime in: If you are young and/or right out of college, read an agent’s slush pile and learn how to write truly helpful reader reports. Then offer to to absolutely anything the agent needs in addition to that. If you need to make money, do this part time while making money at a different on the side.

  • http://www.thecourage2create.com Ollin Morales

    Well, from the author’s perspective I would say that what I look for, or will look for in a literary agent is someone who is passionate.

    Passionate about the work I do and passionate about writing, reading and the genre I write in.

    Also, someone who understands social media and what’s new with publishing, not someone who stubbornly clings to the way things used to work.

    Yet, someone who also values that which has never been negotiable for me: quality over quantity.

  • http://www.abingdonpress.com/fiction Ramona Richards

    Once upon a time, I took a job as a booker for a CCM artist. That lasted about a month. I was lousy at it. Being a go-between is my recipe for acid reflux. I also like to eat. I remember these two things if I even consider becoming a literary agent.

    If someone asked me about becoming one, I’d recommend (as someone said above) volunteering to read a agent’s slush pile, or likewise interning with an established agent in order to learn the business. A supporting (and supportive) spouse helps, as do Christmas stockings full of McDonald’s gift cards….

  • http://www.examiner.com/childrens-literature-in-chicago/elizabeth-mackinney Beth MacKinney

    Thanks for the post, Rachelle. (As for an agent wanna-be, I can’t say what I’d tell him, other than that he’s crazy unless he has the experience you listed above.)

    Here’s a question for you: When you encounter a publishing website that looks like it’s very new and it’s not a publisher you’ve ever heard of, (and we’re assuming that they aren’t a vanity house, but might possibly be a house that someone just started up recently) what are questions a writer can ask to make sure that this house knows what it’s doing and that it will be able to go the distance in the publishing arena?

  • http://crowproductions.com joan Cimyotte

    I’m a writer not a salesperson. I can paint the set but I don’t want to act on it. I’m not the dancer but I like to watch. I just know my limitations.

  • http://www.ginnymartyn.com Ginny Martyn

    1) thick skin

    2) a silver tongue

    3) heart o’ gold

    4) memory like a steel trap

    5) eyes in the back of your head

    6) a nose for news

    7) and a rear to steer clear of everything else

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  • http://www.howtolose-weight-info.com Pedrinho

    What would I say to someone who wants to be an agent?

    Good luck & have fun :)

  • http://www.tomevans.co Tom Evans

    I’ve been resisting it for years but yesterday I signed my first deal with an author and publisher. It was a match made in heaven & I think I’ve got the bug now – deets here http://www.gerryohara.com/2011/08/signing-contracts/

  • http://www.digitalbathroomscalereviews.com Varburg Rendell

    Interesting question demands interesting answer.And my answer would be:
    “Sleep over my friend ,people can be a lot smarter in the morning”.

  • http://lauraplusthevoices.blogspot.com Laura W.

    Flexibility and the ability to juggle multiple commitments? That’s probably a skill needed in many careers, but it seems to particularly fit an agent.

  • http://ignacioodonn716.livejournal.com/936.html Leah

    I like this post, enjoyed this one appreciate it for posting .

  • joseph morris

    I don’t want to be agent really. at least not to earn a living. I just want the knowledge to represent my work as my own agent.

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  • Ace

    Hi! I’ve always wanted to be a teenage literary agent…I’m just not exactly sure how to do that since I can’t exactly move too New York (I live in Florida) and I don’t know any literary agents. Period.
    How would I approach this certain field? Thanks!

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    I’m now not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I must spend a while studying much more or understanding more. Thanks for great information I was looking for this information for my mission.

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  • Christopher Greer

    I enjoyed reading this post. I’ve been working in the publishing industry for a short time and ran my own magazine/newsletter for a number of years. Most of what I tell people is much the same only with more emphasis on “go get it”. If people want it badly enough they can make it happen. I think it’s harder to find an agent than to become one. Can you write a post on how to get an agent? I would find that very informative.

  • Christina Forster

    My brother has depression and social anxiety, so I’ve decided that when he’s ready to get his first book out there, I want to be the one who does all the foot work. Turning it in to publishers, getting it marketed, helping through the process. I thought that would mean I would be acting as an agent, but I guess I’d just be a liaison?

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