Become a literary agent in two easy steps!
- Decide you want to become a literary agent.
- 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 McDonald’s 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 to start on the trail to becoming an agent, even if you can’t up and move to NYC:
- 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.
- 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 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:
- 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.
- Keep an eye on sites like bookjobs.com, Publishers Marketplace, and various agency blogs and twitters. The more tapped in you are, the more you’ll see the opportunities arise.
- Consider emailing agencies—either ones local to you or ones you admire—and inquiring about unpaid internships. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Land that internship and work your butt off.
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.
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.
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.