This is the first of a two-part series, because dang I could write about this all day. I will spare you though, readers, and just stick it to two parts. On to Part 1: The Way In.
I have Bachelor of Science degree from Binghamton University. I attended C.W. Post for grad classes. Then I started the Publishing Certificate Program at NYU. But you know what’s really funny?
It took me a minute to remember all of that. Because I don’t often think of my schooling; it just doesn’t really come up. To be an agent, your education background is not nearly as important as your experience. And I didn’t know that until I fell into this part of the industry.
There is no one path to becoming an agent until you’re applying for an internship. Many agents have a background in law. Some have English degrees. And there is a good handful who have switched over from the publishing house side, to start agenting. Those are the obvious ones. But I also know agents who were chefs, personal shoppers, stuntmen, teachers. Ones who came from finance, from science, from retail, and I even know one who spent time in Africa with the Peace Corps. But what all of the agents I listed have in common is that they all started in the agenting field with an internship (that includes the ones with law backgrounds!).
This wasn’t always the case, mind you. Just a generation or two before us, I don’t think any agents went through an internship process at all. When I’ve spoken to my mentors about how they came into the business, there are some similarities (they come from all walks of life and professions), but the Internship Program mentality wasn’t really a Thing in the 80s and 90s (there were some, but not much–and they were in the very biggest agencies only). And prior to the 80s, there weren’t nearly as many literary agents as there are now. However, from what I’ve understood through stories and anecdotes, it also sounds like their generations had to be assistants/entry level much longer (on the average) than it seems that my generation does. So perhaps they did get that extra year or two of training–they just got paid for it, the lucky ducks.
But I digress.
Agenting is very similar to an apprentice-master education. You learn by observing and assisting and observing some more. There is no one way to do the job, and no two days are the same. Ever. Because we are in the business of People, and no two people are the same. We are working with a product, yes, but our number one priority is the person behind the product. And that product they are creating is a very, very personal thing. Nothing is more personal than a story, right?
I am going to give my opinion on this, but please don’t take this as law: the very best agents (IMHO) are the ones who know how to put people at ease. The ones who know how to say “I’ve got this. Don’t worry. Focus on your writing.” in a way that actually works.
Note: For that to work, the agent can not be paying the author lip-service. Not only do they have to mean it, but they have it show it by doing it.
Contract negotiation, editing skills, an eye for design–all of these things are important, but are not what makes or breaks an agent. You may not realize this, but most of us work with either a contracts consultant or with a contracts department within the agency. While we have to make notes on our contracts and we need to understand them well, we’re not typically the only ones looking them over (there are exceptions to this, of course–see above about the agents who have a law background). Some of the best agents I know are not fantastic editors (though every agent I know has some type of editorial skill), and some prefer not to edit at all. And that’s OK. Because that is not all that determines how good they are at their job.
And to have that way with People, to be able to put them at ease, is not something you learn overnight. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it’s something agents are constantly relearning by observing and doing.
So. I still haven’t really broken down just How to Become an Agent. But I’m hoping you’ve figured out by now that there is no single way. However, I can map out a general path for you, as I see it:
Become a Reader. I hope you’re already able to check this off. If you’re not able to, why do you want to be a literary agent anyway??
Go To College. You don’t need a grad degree, and you may not even need a completed bachelor’s degree (though it will be tougher to get into the industry without it). But you absolutely need some higher education to work in the business of books. New Leaf Literary & Media interns need at least two years of college to apply.
Intern. You may have to intern for a number of different literary professionals before you find your first job. And you may have to intern even if you’re switching over from a different part of the industry. This is OK. After seeing many of our interns snag jobs, I can tell you: the best interns are the ones who are willing to work at this for as long as it takes. For them, it never seems to take that long. I, myself, quit my paid position to intern. Best decision I ever made.
Observe. You should constantly be reading industry newsletters and blogs, monitoring the market, attending industry events when appropriate, and always observing your mentors. And if you need a paid position while you’re interning, I highly recommend working in a bookstore, even if it’s just minimum wage. You learn So. Much. about how readers shop, why they pick up what they do, how/why books have certain placement in the store, etc. Plus, it’s really damn fun to hand-sell a book you loved.
Assist. You will be an assistant for a while, even if your title says otherwise. This is OK, and frankly–I would still jump in to assist a colleague if needed. More opportunity to learn.
Tighten Your Belt. Agents work on commission, so when you’re ready to make the jump from assistant to agent, or for assistant/junior agent to full-time agent…be ready. Just like with everything in publishing, payments also eek in slowly and you have to follow up on them sometimes to make sure they’re on time.
There is no one path to becoming an agent. Every agent has their own. But I will say, I’ve had some amazing mentors. And when I am with my peers, I continue to observe and learn. I don’t think that will ever go away.
I actually really hope it doesn’t.
Joanna Volpe is a literary agent who represents all brands of fiction, from picture books to adult. When she’s not reading, she’s either cooking, playing video games, or hanging out with her husband and chihuahua.