Reading you under the table since 2012

How to Become A Literary Agent in 2 Easy Steps

 By

Mandy Hubbard

Become a literary agent in two easy steps!

 1)      Decide you want to become a literary agent.

2)      Call yourself a literary agent.

 I should be kidding, but there’s a grain of truth there. There are no licensing or specific requirements to being a literary agent. No background checks, no lengthy courses, no tests.  It’s harder to become a real estate agent than it is to become a literary agent. Even Mcdonalds workers are supposed to take food handling courses!

That’s why writers need to research the agents they query, ensuring the agents have experience and knowledge to back up their titles.  I know of several agencies (and publishers, for that matter) who have websites and twitter presences who have no experience whatsoever. One agency avoids discussing their experience at all on their website, instead talking about their hobbies. Which are not publishing related. Another shines a great big spot light on their English degrees, making no mention of publishing experience. And then there’s a publisher who, for some reason, keeps talking about Disney, almost like a sleight of hand, as if we won’t notice there is not a word about their publishing experience.

So, technically, if you want to be an agent (or a publisher, I suppose), all you have to do is call yourself one.

But that’s not what you’re asking, is it? You want to know how to be a successful agent. You want to be respected. You want to get the best queries—so that you can sign the best writers. You want to be on panels at conferences. You want publishers to actually respect you and your authors and maybe buy some freakin books, because that’s the point of all this, right?

Because there is no licensing, testing, training, etc, there’s only one way to become an agent: be an intern or an assistant first. If you live in NYC, there are many opportunities for you to work for hours and hours every week for free, building databases, rejecting queries, and getting paper cuts. You’ll start at the ground floor, learning and proving yourself. You might start with an internship that won’t grow into anything, but maybe that internship will get you another one, one in which the agency hints that maybe someday, when cyborgs rule the earth, you’ll have the chance to be called an associate or junior agent, juggling a couple of your own clients with the office work.

It all sounds a little like snipe hunting, doesn’t it?

See, I don’t live anywhere near NYC. And, well, 97% of the country’s population doesn’t either.  I would have LOVED to have been in the office every day, soaking up the knowledge of those around me. But 3,000 miles and a stack of monthly bills kept me from that idea.

There are other ways tostart on the trail to becoming an agent, even if you can’t up and move to NYC:

 1)      Hunt around on querytracker.net and look for agencies by state. These days there are agencies all over the place—even in my hometown area of Seattle. Or Los Angeles. Or Denver. Or Atlanta. Also, consider independent publishers, which can be found in most states as well.

2)      Consider a remote internship. I have three interns who live all over the place—as far as New Zealand, in fact.

 Competition for remote internships is fierce, because the flexibility means that it appeals to many people. I received 82 applicants in just over 12 hours last week for my internship posting. Mind-boggling.

 It’s not that there’s only one way to become an agent, but it all boils down to finding ways to gain the experience that proves to an established agency you are worthy of joining their ranks. And make no bones about it—the best way to become an agent is to join an established agency and work under a senior agent who can be your mentor.

 Yes, I began my career in publishing as an author. I had five books sold before I got my internship. I replied to one of Jenny Bent’s calls for interns. I actually missed the boat, as she’d already signed on enough interns and didn’t need any more. However, she ended up emailing me months later when she was ready to add more, and I eagerly accepted. While interning, I sold two more books. .  Both BUT I LOVE HIM and PRADA & PREJUDICE received offers from publishers who I had picked. So I knew I could match make. But there’s more than that.

 That’s why, despite an internship and those seven books to my  name—and the fact that at this point in my career, my agent simply said, “tell me where you would like this book sent,” and I’d create my own list—I was never, ever going to simply hang up a shingle and start my own agency. So, after months of internship, I began emailing select agencies. I focused on agencies which were not strictly NYC based (my line of thinking was that they’d be more open to a remote agent if I wasn’t the ONLY agent not showing up at the office every day), and whose tastes/list would align with my own.

 Specifically, I knew I wanted to specialize in YA and MG. And I knew that market—the structure of the imprints, most of the editors, what was hot and what was over, etc. So I chose agencies which had no presence in MG and YA, thinking that while they took a chance on me, I felt I was bringing something to the table.

 My approach worked, and there were a few agencies who were seriously considering bringing me in. I want to stress that in my case, it was my internship combined with my experience as an author.  If I had no background in publishing and had less than a year of interning, I don’t know that I would have been as appealing as a candidate.  If you have only one internship, an agency may bring you in as an intern-to-grow-into-an-agent, or something like that, but you’re unlikely to get an outright job offer.

 In the end, it was a romance agency who led me to D4EO. I had emailed her because I LOVE romance, but I focused on YA romance, and she did not represent anything but adult romance.  She wasn’t quite ready to expand the agency, but she referred me to D4EO, and after talking with Bob, it was a slam dunk. I joined the agency in February of 2010.

 So, all of this is to say: yes, it’s possible to become an agent outside of NYC, but you’ve gotta be willing to roll up your sleeves and work for free, possibly for a while, and possibly in different capacities at different agencies until you’re able to land somewhere they can grow you into an agent.

 It’s really all about learning everything you can and making those connections. I wish I could truly give you a few easy steps, but they’d actually look like this: 

1)      Read EVERYTHING you can. Not just books in the genres you want to represent, but daily/weekly newsletters from Publisher’s Marketplace, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, etc, etc.

2)      Keep an eye on sites like bookjobs.com, publisher’s marketplace, and various agency blogs and twitters. The more tapped in you are, the more you’ll see the opportunities arise.

3)      Consider emailing agencies—either ones local to you or ones you admire—and inquiring about unpaid internships. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

4)      Land that internship and work your butt off.

5)      Work

6)      Work

7)      Work.

8)      Whether you’ve interned for one agency for 1+ years of you’ve had a variety of experiences, when you feel you’re ready, first inquire at the agency where you intern and see if there are more opportunities for you.

9)      If there isn’t, email agencies which appeal to you and ask if they are open to an internship that is meant to grow you into an agent. This is key—you’re volunteering and you let them get to know you, all the while you’re both hoping it pans out and you get promoted.

10)   Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Don’t be afraid to email people and ask about opportunities, ask the agency where you intern if there are other tasks they’d like help with (IE, “I’ll build you a spreadsheet of client info! I’ll help you edit your client’s MS!”).

And then remember, even once you’re an agent… it often takes 5 years to make a steady income. But even after all this… I still love what I do. It’s the best job in the world.

 

Mandy Hubbard is a literary agent at D4EO Literary and an author of several novels for teens, including Prada & Prejudice, But I Love Him (Written as Amanda Grace), and Dangerous Boy. She lives in Enumclaw, Washington, with her husband, daughter and cow. Learn more at www.MandyHubbard.com

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52 Comments

  1. Posted September 5, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mandy, this is a really helpful view into the industry! It’s so tough to break into the media industry because of all the unpaid internships, but it’s nice to know there are some success stories!

    • MandyHubbard
      Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Glad it was helpful, Daphne!

  2. Posted September 5, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Oh wow! This is a great post. I’ve always been interested in how to successfully move into the industry as a literary agent. And it makes me more aware of the agencies that don’t have any experience. Thank you!

    • MandyHubbard
      Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Emily!

      • Cody Baldridge
        Posted September 4, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        I am currently living in Kansas City, Missouri. I am origninally from Vancouver, Washington. I’m moving back to Washington in about two years when my teaching contract is up. Do you know any respectable agencies in Kansas City? Once I move to Washington in two years I will be looking towards Seattle. Also I am currently starting my first novel, I’m 24 years old and teach English at a private school. I would love to work in publishing or as an literary agent! Thanks!

        Cody

  3. Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I have to admit, this is a little soul crushing. I’m attempting a bit of a career shift, and while I’ve got a bit of experience in the industry through blogging and currently getting my Master’s in Publishing, I cannot – absolutely cannot – afford to work for free. This makes me think that I’m destined to never work as an agent. Which is unfortunate because I think I’d be really good at it.

    • MandyHubbard
      Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Rachel,

      Well, many internships– and almost all remote internships– are flexible time wise. My interns all have day jobs and read material for me in the evenings, weekends, etc. Once you become an agent it does take a few years to make steady/good money– those first few years are a steep learning curve, plus it takes some serious time to find and cultivate talented writers/solid mansucripts.

      It’s not something discussed but many newer agents have day jobs while they’re building their lists, either full time or part time. Agents gotta eat too.

      So, if you’re really and truly driven to be an agent, know that you’ll be working your ass off, but you CAN find ways to support yourself and pursue your dream.

      The other option is going a more traditional day job route and looking into working in sales, marketing, editorial, etc, at a publisher, but that WOULD require that you live where the publisher is, whether that is NYC or relocating if you land a job at an independent/regional pub.

      M

    • Posted July 8, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      If you were an agent I would probably send one of my stories to you. All these other agents I had tried were so rude. My, oh my.

  4. Posted September 5, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    This is so helpful. I wrongly thought that being an agent could be my “day job,” but you’ve opened my eyes there. Thanks.

  5. Posted September 5, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this :) The step from intern to “more than intern” is so nebulous and awkward and weird, but I love seeing that you were able to make the transition without really ever being in-office.

  6. Posted September 5, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I am seriously going to print this out and put it on my wall. I’m on the right track but this is a great reminder of how much patience and work it will take to reach my goal. THANKS!

  7. Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mandy! What a great post! I’m always so impressed by how open you are about the pathways into the industry and how willing you are to help people. You rock! :) <3

  8. Posted September 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    This is quite an insightful post! Thanks for sharing Mandy :)

  9. Posted September 5, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    There’s some great advice in this post even for those who don’t necessarily want to become a lit agent :)
    I always make sure to check around a couple different places when I’m trying to decide who to query like AW’s Water Cooler, Literary Rambles, and Publishing Marketplace.

  10. Posted September 5, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU! Just THANK YOU!!

  11. attorneydavid
    Posted September 6, 2012 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    Thanks this is one of the most usefull posts I’ve run across. Living in Memphis was seeming so limiting, now a very small bit less so. Very few uses around here for someone who reads 800wpm except for lawyer and that’s no fun:(

  12. Katherine
    Posted September 6, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Great post! I would love to find an internship online.

  13. Posted September 7, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    This. THIS! Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been trying to ferret out advice regarding the steps to becoming a literary agent, and it feels like 99% of those I ask automatically assume I live in New York, which makes the rest of the advice moot. I’m saving this post, both for the information and for the encouragement when I’m feeling bleak. Thank you.

  14. Bethany
    Posted September 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you SO much for the post! I’ve always wanted to become a lit agent (or something equally booky), but I get discouraged because all the advice on becoming one involves living in New York. This post is probably the best advice I’ve ever seen.

  15. Harikleia Sirmans
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Great post. A remote intership sound like the best advice for people who cannot be where the publisher is. So how do you find one? Where do you look? Thanks.

  16. Nerissa
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    WOW! Great insight and amazing that I’d come across this page as I sent a query to you about a month ago. Thanks for the information. I’ll put it good use!

  17. Jennifer
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    What a great article. I stumbled upon it while trying to prepare myself and educate myself more on publishing though all I really need is some info on how to be my best friends agent.
    We are both published poets here and there but she is the one with the real talent and had been promised free publishing of her first poetry book.
    Well after several months it became clear she was being taken for granted, working for free and her book kept getting bumped back in favor of clients. She left, so she could focus on her degree and her family but she has this fantastic book of poetry that I have made it my mission to get it published for real. No vanity publishing, the real deal.
    I don’t expect free advice or a free tutorial on how to do this but if you find you have a moment and know of a great site that will help me, I would be very grateful.
    Thanks very much and take care!

  18. Kate
    Posted April 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    This really is awful. There is something so disheartening about the fact that there are no paid, entry-level positions in creative fields (or really any fields, anymore – I recently saw a listing for an “unpaid internship” being a receptionist at a spa). I understand that if you can get a remote internship, you can have a day job, but a remote internship is not going to get you face time in front of people who can advance your career – not like an in-person, daily internship. The end result of this gatekeeping is to keep artistic endeavor in the hands of the (largely) White and affluent – people who have support from high-earning parents or spouses. It makes me sick! Even with a degree from an elite university, I feel totally shut out from publishing and literary agencies.

    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I have seen paid internships, and there’s definitely paid receptionist/front desk/assistant jobs at agencies, they’re just mostly in NYC, and that’s often a barrier for folks.

      I think the fact is that the majority of agencies are boutique with the agents themselves earning a modest living, so it’s hard to pay for someone’s “education,” so to speak. I honestly would LOVE to get to the point I can have someone come to my office a couple times a week to help me with things and see it all first hand.

      For now I simply skype or gchat with interns and am available almost all day, any day, to chat about the industry and such.

  19. Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    finally i found someone who knows how to provide relevant information on the subject i have been searching for? thanks, at last i can study with pleasure..

  20. Posted June 12, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Mandy, what would the path be if your not in a position to intern? I am an agency owner that specializes in acting. But would like to open a literary side to the agency. Any advice there?

    Thanks
    KS

    • Posted June 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Uh, well, that you don’t? I highly suggest you read the whole blog post again. My point– that I tried to make in several ways– is that NO ONE should be opening an agency (or a “literary side” to an agency) without years of experience.

      Writers “hire” agents to be their guide. To understand things they don’t, to know what to negotiate, to know who likes what kinds of projects, to counsel them in their career.

      How exactly are you intending to know more than the writers themselves know, if you are not going to work for an established agency first? If you’re “Not in a position” to intern, how are you in a position to agent?

    • amy
      Posted August 17, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      Why not find an independent agent and partner with them? As an actors’ agent you have ties to the theatrical and film world. Start by taking scripts and evaluating them and getting them to producers. Work with someone in the writing field. Connections are everything with agents. A lot of agencies do both literary and theatrical work. You can start with theater and film, you could find stories to develop into scripts.

      Being an agent is a business, a talent at recognizing talent. It’s also finding the right partner and leveraging connections. Once you sell some work, you start to prove yourself.

  21. Posted June 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Back when I decided this was what I wanted to do, about seven months ago I started doing all the things you suggested. My current problem is finding internships where you don’t have to be a college grad. Plus they have to be remote because I’m a stay at home mom with two little ones.
    I almost had an internship but because I never finished college my resume, or lack there of, held me back. I am not ready to give up (Nor do I think I ever will be) but I’m not sure what to try next. I thought I could wait until my own manuscript was ready but I just don’t want to wait that long! haha
    Anyway, here’s to hoping an english certification will help.

  22. Posted July 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Hello Mandy,

    I was cruising the Internet as I often do reading about different aspects of the publishing industry and came across your post. I find it absolutely spectacular. I am a published author that is considering whether or not to get a literary agent. I hadn’t even considered representing myself – but I am not that familiar with this aspect of the industry to even consider such a move until I learn more to feel comfortable.

    I am also a journalist for ICTMN.com and a radio host. I tend to take on a lot of responsibility to myself in order to work like a dog 24 seven. It drives my poor wife crazy. I guess that’s why I am so successful :). Thank goodness she still loves me (lol.)

    I hate to ask the age-old question what should I, or should I not get an agent – or even attempt to take on such a role as an agent promoting myself – it is obviously a insane conflict of interest, but then again maybe it’s a very synonymous and harmonious merging of interests.

    Enough blabbering on my part – I am curious what your perspective is? I am the kind of writer that not only works his complete butt off, but I am also an extreme type a personality that really thinks life is about incredible and great things… having an awesome sense of enthusiasm may not get me through a door if a publisher thinks I’m some nerd that as an author in an agent combined into one…I’d love to ask for your comment if you care to offer it, I promise to take your words to heart.

    Thanks again for such an incredibly well-written and well thought out post – I wish the Internet had more brilliant information like this.

  23. Bev Campbell
    Posted July 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mandy;
    I read the headline about be an agent, and had to laugh. I mean I thought, Is this a secret society where people send e-mails letters and phone calls and NOBODY respondes? Well heck yes, why not say your an agent. It’s like , how Erin Brocovich got her job, nobody ever answered the phone, obviously nobody is responding to the authors either, somebody needs to pick up the phones or reply to an email, at least have the courtesy to call back and say, sorry, were not taking any new clients at the present time. Meanwhile, I keep writing and sending off manuscripts but to what slush pile ? Sooo aggravating. Yes, we should all become agents. I’ve been hacking away for years. I need an agent.
    Bev

  24. Posted July 26, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I have just sent out emails to publishers for an internship as I want to become a Dutch Literary Agent in The Netherlands. Your tips have been very helpful and I plan to work, work and work to get there. Finally something that seems perfect for me. I too am a published author but I find the research for my books much more rewarding than writing. It is stil a dream for me to be published in English and I am slowly translating my wonderful first book so who knows. All the best to you and thanks again for your insights.

  25. Marshall
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Hey Mandy!
    Great post! Thanks for being informative but still realistic :) I’m a recent college grad (English major), and I have no idea what I want to do. All I know is I like reading and writing, and according to my professors I excelled at both haha.

    This is a random question, but did you used to post on fictionpress a long time ago? It’s just your name and the title of one of your books, Prada and Prejudice, sound really familiar to me. But anyways, thanks for the advice!

  26. Posted September 5, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    This is a great article. As a senior editor (substantive editor) at a publishing house for two years now, I’m very interested in becoming a literary agent. I love helping authors see their dreams come true and being a part of the process!

    I live near Dallas, so maybe I can find some place around here to intern. I do have a busy editing schedule, but even a day a week would be amazing!!

    Thanks again!! :)

  27. Posted November 26, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    pleasant appropriate greetings, to everyone and a moo
    how honest and wonderful, and refreshing.
    however you neglected to mention, whether or not you are a vegetarian.

    live all-inclusive and prosper.
    thank you kindly

  28. James A. Ritchie
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Well, you don’t need and special training, credentials, or licensing to be a writer, either. I’ve been at this for thirty-five years, and some of the best agents I’ve known had no special education, and interned with no one. Many were just readers who though they had what it took to find good books. Other were writers, sometimes successful writers, often failed writers, or writers who were just starting out.

    Frankly, learning everything an agent needs to know takes very little time, and only reasonable intelligence. If you have any real talent as an agent, making contacts is pretty easy.

    I hope the time never comes when agents, writers, editors, or publishers must be licensed, must have credentials, must be products of college, or internships.

    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      James,
      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a writer learning to write, and improve their craft, as they go. Writing is an art. I know authors who got book deals with major publishers on the first book they’ve ever written. I actually have a client whose book I sold at auction and it was the first book she ever wrote.

      Finding amazing books and making contacts at editors actually is a very small part of my job. A bigger part is career planning, exploiting subrights, working editorially with my clients, and contract negotiation. Contracts are often 12-15+ pages long and I make requests on nearly every paragraph. One small oversight can end up with huge repercussions– like a book that will never go out of print becuase it simply needs to be available for sale, and with the existence of ebooks, the publisher can make it available with zero investment.

  29. sammi
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    This is really helpful. The main reason I am intrested in this field is because I have a friend who has a book that is awesome and I want to help her get it published. I know I may be bias and every thing because she is my friend but the thing is I already read just about every type of fiction there is (I could start my own library and or book store with the number of books I have read). Any way this chick can write(she also had a blog that is rather steller too) and I think the book would be a hit. She is rather busy and made a joke about me being her agent (mostly becaus I’ve been telling her that the book is awesome and that she needs to continue the series.) So, how do I proceed?

    • Posted January 16, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      If you want to help her, DO NOT BECOME AN AGENT JUST FOR HER. That is not a thing, and editors will see right through it. You can do serious damage to her career if you become an agent to represent her. There are things in contracts that can ROYALLY screw up your career.

      If her book is truly that great ,she’ll be able to get an agent with it– someone who has all the contacts and knows contracts, has a foreign rights team, film agents, etc, etc. If for some reason you want this to be your mission, then maybe you two should open up an email account for her and you can be her query assistant and query agents for her. (make sure you’re both on board, and when you send queries just send them as her, not as “I’m querying on behalf of.” ). Be sure she is fully involved too, and agrees with which agents.

      Just make sure she truly wants this as badly as you seem to. Publishing is a major investment. It’s a business. A career.

  30. Posted January 30, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    To Sammi: Wow! I was thinking the exact same thing, except in reverse; I’m an aspiring author and I have a really smart friend whom I want to become a literary agent and represent me. I actually emailed him about it TODAY and I’m awaiting his reply. Chances are, he’ll have other obligations and will decline my offer, but it never hurts to ask! Ideally, though, you should get into this field because you’re genuinely interested in this line of work… not because you simply wish to ‘help your friend.’ I wouldn’t expect John to do it for the sole purpose of helping me out! I’d want him to enjoy the profession, and be helping me in the process. However, you can TRY interning with that lone incentive in mind… and, who knows… you might find that you would actually like being a literary agent. Good luck, and let me know how everything goes! readsox(at)gmail(dot)com …Oh, and tell me about your friend’s book!

  31. Phyllis
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The plan, itself, MIGHT work… however, since Sammi asked, ‘So, how do I proceed?’ after reading the article detailing how to proceed, I doubt she’d be the one to carry it out. Another thing you have to keep in mind is that favoritism involving ‘friends helping friends’, nepotism, social connections, etc. is nothing new and is ALREADY seeped in the literary world. In other words, the established literary agents are/have been operating like this all along, which accounts for the reason many great manuscripts never get published. Success is more about WHO YOU KNOW (being in a clique) than producing an upper echelon product. But that’s not limited to the literary world; it exists in many spheres within society. It’s just the sad truth! By the way, the OFFICIAL accounts of how famous authors manage to get published are usually concoctions designed to hide the ‘insider reality’ I outlined above. It’s good for the literary industry, as well as for the authors, to make it appear as if there’s a level playing field. If you have no preexisting connections, then self-publishing is probably your only option!

    • Posted February 5, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Uh, Phyllis, you are absolutely incorrect. I have 20 clients, only 2 of whom I knew/were published before I signed them (and I only knew them in that we were both authors and I’d talked to them online). I’ve actually never met most of them in person and have no connections to them.

      Agents aren’t going to waste time coming through queries FROM STRANGERS if they don’t want to find something surprising/amazing. I’ve lost count of how many things I’ve offered on from some random person in Kansas, only to have 6 other agents also offer.

      it’s ALL about the writing. and all the connections in the world do nothing if the book doesn’t stand on it’s own merit.

  32. Phyllis
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for replying. I don’t want to keep going back and forth on this topic, so this is the last thing I’ll type. If you elect not to post it on the blog, no problem – I just want YOU to read it, anyway.

    Were the 18 you didn’t know referred to you? Or did they just query you ‘out of the blue’? I’m not saying that you’d necessarily have to know them personally – just that there usually has to be some “thread” of a connection in order for a writer to get his ‘foot in the door.’ It’s in the agents’ own words; here’s what one states in ’2011 Writer’s Market’: “Considers fiction by referral only. Does not want to receive unsolicited material.” I’ve come across A LOT of variations of that theme in the book. The primary one is: “Obtains most new clients through recommendations from others.” Another one said, “Obtains most new clients through recommendations from others, occasional solicitation among established authors/journalists.” Additionally, I read a former lit agent honestly state that they consider those querying them ‘nuisances.’

    Another thing: You’re referring to when you were JUST STARTING OUT in the business. Now that you have 20 clients, it would be EVEN HARDER for someone to obtain you as their literary agent, and impossible if you’re not seeking new clients. (Most agents aren’t.) And even IF [one or some] of those 18 WERE [totally] random, they acquired representation because they lucked up in contacting a brand new literary agent that was trying to build up a client base. (Not saying that any of their writings wasn’t ‘up to par.’)

    The first sentence of your second paragraph is correct, however, it suggests a false premise. Namely, that the literary agents are carefully reading and considering loads of submissions. They don’t, they often officially state they don’t, and they CAN’T because they receive so many of them. This isn’t a criticism of them – they just don’t have the time for it. (“Two-hundred proposals per week” some claim.) That’s why referrals are necessary.

    Lastly, there’s a fragment of reality in a book ‘standing on its own merit,’ but success/sales is determined mostly by publicity/marketing. For example, you write a standard romance novel and give it enough backing and it will generate a sufficient amount of sales. The average reader might know if a work totally sucked, however, they aren’t ‘all that’ discerning and nearly always just buy something based on what they heard about it. So, no, it’s not ‘ALL’ about the writing. The writers’ appearance and speaking ability (public appeal) are also taken into consideration. So, too, if the book relates to a news item the public is interested in. Money is the bottom line, not the art. However, no doubt, the agents DO want good books. I’m just saying that there’s a lot more to it than THAT!

    I wasn’t slamming your profession; it’s just that I believe that ‘that’s the way it is.’

    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Hey Phyllis,

      Sorry for the delay in replying. The 18 I referred to, of 21 overall clients, had no connection to me at all. I have 3 clients who were published prior to querying me who I knew– 2 I debuted with and knew online only, and 1 was a published author who was a friend of a friend. The others were all cold queries in which I read their pitch and was intrigued enough to ask to read the manuscript.

      Now, there are plenty of agents who close to queries or accept referrals only. That is simply a result of time. The more established an agent becomes, the larger a client list that person has, and the less time they have for sifting through queries. We’re all human and time is finite. At some point you’re barely keeping up with your client’s needs, and the slush pile is one of the few things we can close down in order to stay sane.

      The vast majority of agented writers got there by a plain old query. That’s just the plain truth of it. MOST agents ARE open to queries, not closed, and you can find HUNDREDS of them on querytracker.net.

      Nothing about the ones I signed “lucked up” because I was new…. I’d still sign them today. I’ve signed 3 new clients in the last 6 months, none of which had any connection to me or anything published.

      I certainly agree that it’s possible in some manners to “create” a bestseller by marketing and sales folks dumping money and attention on a book. But all that said, they still choose which books get that attention by READING them. And they’re going to pick the ones they think are the most amazing, that will spread by word of mouth once they’ve gotten the book launched.

      I understand that you believe that agents almost never sign new people, that the majority are closed to submissions, that you’ve got to at least know someone who knows someone, but I can assure you that if youre book is really amazing, you absolutely have a real shot at connecting with an agent and getting a book deal.

      Mandy, the agent who has offered on many books by uknown writers, and sometimes loses them becuuase they get 6 other offers, all from established, amazing agents.

  33. Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I got here looking for some information to help me get an idea, and I find myself a little disheartened by the response to the comments by this author. Not only are the responses poorly written, they also come off as petty and immature, and it concerns me for anyone that is seeking advice from her.

    Personally, I started a small business in 2008 in proofing and editing. Did I intern? No.

    I have a degree in literature and passion. I decided that I wanted to do something I loved, even if it meant pocket change while working a 9-5.
    I think one of the best things to remind people, which seems to have gotten lost here, is that the #1 thing you need to be successful in publishing is a passion for the craft. If you go into things thinking you only want to make at least x amount of dollars, you’ll fail, because no one is going to pay you a living wage out of the gate. You have to find a way to sustain yourself first, and be non-reliant on client funds for living expenses.
    Recycle as much as you can/need back into your efforts. That is, if you make a 15% commission, don’t go on a shopping spree. Use the money to improve your website, invest in literature, and eventually even travel to meet clients. Use it for long distance phone calls and to make sure that the computer stays in working condition, the internet on, and the phone active.

    An agent negotiates and navigates for the author. Sure, an internship is a very good way to get the knowledge, but you can definitely self-educate as well. We are not doing something the author CANNOT do, but rather what they are potentially UNABLE to do. Many authors choose to represent themselves these days, until they get too busy and involved in the creation of work to spend the time chasing leads, making copies, and negotiating.
    Things will grow gradually and stack on top of each other. I started with copyediting marketing websites and short essays. After a while, I was established as reliable enough as an editor that I was approached for academic papers and short stories intended for publication. Then, I landed my first book, and since then, the word has been spreading like crazy.

    One of these authors has asked me to act as their agent. Am I interning? Nope. I just have really good self-education and have established connections through intent and diligent work with people in the publishing industry. I have always worked a 9-5, but I have never worked in publishing for free either. Now I’m on the brink of leaving my 9-5 to live the life of an author and publishing professional, and I couldn’t be more excited.

    Moral? Passion and diligence can create a great publishing professional. You just can’t go out there trumpeting yourself as the best and most connected agent without doing the gruntwork, whether that’s at an internship, or through years of “street experience.” The biggest issue I have here is the implication that a talented person can’t find a way to make a dream come true without an internship.

    • Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Lynn,

      I’m sorry that you found my comments to be petty or immature. I stand by my opinions.

      You said: To me, a key point you’re making here: An agent negotiates and navigates for the author.

      Yes, that’s exactly my point. To negotiate and navigate, though, you have to know what you’re doing from the very first client, or risk ruining some careers along the way. If you’re saying an agent can “self-educate,” that means they’re figuring it out as they go along, and no, I’m not okay with someone saying, “Put your career in my hands, I’m going to figure this out as I go.”

      It would be great if one could get a degree in agenting so they had an actual education in it. No one hires a lawyer who has no law degree. But that doesn’t exist, and the alternative is mentorship, or internship or joining an established agency who will guide you.

      I don’t know what “street experience” is, to be frank, unless you mean calling yourself an agent, and taking on books, and figuring it out then.

      Because I can promise you, there are a thousand things you don’t even know that you don’t know. And if you haven’t joined an established agency with a senior agent committed to working along side you until you’re ready to run, then you’re going to learn all the things you don’t know when someone’s already trusting you with their book and career.

      If I’m a writer, I want an agent with a solid understanding of the ins and outs of publishing. I want her to know exactly how narrow she can get an option clause. I want to know she’s negotiating the best out of print clause and addressing the existence of ebooks in that clause. She needs to know the standard royalty rates for each format. I want her to retain as many subrights as possible, and have co-agents who will then exploit those rights. I want her to catch every little line in the contract which tries to force the book deal back into basket accounting when we clearly want seperate accounting.

      I absolutely agree with you that a good agent must be passionate and diligent, must know that they aren’t going to get rich (and thus don’t get into the job with that as your primary focus). I just 100% disagree that it’s ever a good idea to “self-educate” because having 10 books sold as an author, and thirty as an agent, I STILL know there’s a lot to learn, and the vast majority IS NOT information I’m going to find by guessing or googling.

      Mandy

      • Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Obviously you misunderstand the meaning of “self-educate.”

        It doesn’t mean just putting yourself into a business and learning as you go. My point was that an internship is not necessary. Having a mentor is not the same as having an internship.

        Nowhere in my statements did I indicate that I’m not well-aware of what you’re talking about in your response.
        I do find it ironic, though, that you wrote a post to basically give information to potential agents about how to get things started, yet you say that being an agent shouldn’t be left to a Google search for information. That’s likely how a lot of people got here. I’m not here for you to educate me about the basics of being an agent. I came across this particular article when researching something in specific.

        Having a blog, or “selling” books, does not make you the ultimate expert on how to go about things. My point was that there are different ways to go about developing the knowledge you need to get into this business. Me, I may be an author, but my connections are through editing. Diligent and dedicated work has brought me to a personal connection with an established publishing house owner and agent for a NY Times Bestseller (who, by the by, I work for myself now). However, I’m not interning for her, and definitely not an unpaid employee. I’m an independent agent for myself and the authors I work with, who, through the course of the many years I’ve dedicated to the inner workings of the publishing industry, has been progressively growing her portfolio, and there is nothing wrong about that.

        There are a lot of applicable degrees and modes of education that lend themselves to being an agent. No, you may not find a degree specifically in “agenting” as you… eloquently… put it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t perfectly viable educational options out there to help you hone your skills in a variety of aspects. One I would highly recommend to most people I come across is “Business and Professional Communications.” Of course, there are many more.

        It’s a pet peeve of mine when people who have decided to consider themselves successful choose to then put down and belittle other people who are just trying to get their feet wet, so to speak. Everyone started somewhere.

        • Posted February 25, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          Hi Lynn,

          Perhaps I did umisnderstand– I’m reading comments through the lens of my experience, and I honestly have met SO MANY people who opened their own agency that had no business doing so. If you have a background in publishing in some manner and have an established professional as a mentor you may be equipped for success.

          But that is simply not the case I’m seeing over and over and over again. I’m seeing people who once were critique partners saying they’ve worked as “Freelance editors,” and they put up websites talking about how they toted their bleoved books around as soon as they could walk, and they have so much passion, and here’s how you query them. They literally have no experience or background in publishing.

          These people really ARE figuring it out as they go along, and I could rattle off the names of several agencies who have done just that. They’re often the ones who sell to start-up epubs first, while they’re figuring things out.

          (And, literally, scroll up, there are other comments from folks who seem to think that there’s little to learn to become an agent.)

          So, I don’t mean to say anything specific about whether YOU can pull off becoming an agent. I don’t know you or your specific set of circumstances.

  34. Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    This is a very helpful article. Thanks so much! Looking to shift my career, and this gives me hope!

  35. Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    SO, HOW DO YOU FIND A GOOD AGENT? I NEED ONE….

  36. Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    SO, HOW DO YOU FIND A GOOD AGENT……………..

  37. Josey
    Posted September 18, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for all the helpful information Mandy! I’m an intern at an established West Coast literary agency, and I can’t imagine trying to learn the business on my own. I work with the primary agent / owner who has been in the industry for decades and there are so many things I am learning that I had no idea existed. Some of the ignorance in these posts is truly worrying, given that some of the posters are intending to represent authors without any kind of relevant experience. I worked at a publishing house for months as an intern, had five years experience as an independent editor & ghostwriter before I joined the agency, and was familiar with Chicago Manual of Style, etc, and even with those experiences, I found that there was so much I didn’t know (and still don’t know). I don’t know what “street experience” is either, and I imagine that would be a surefire way to waste editors’ time and end up with a bad reputation. Anyhow, I just wanted to say thank you, because you’ve raised some points that I will ask my mentor about (how narrow can an agent get an option clause & negotiating the best out of a print clause & separate accounting). I appreciate you taking the time to talk about becoming an agent! I hope to progress to becoming an agent within the agency I currently work for.

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