So, you want to be an agent? No—I’m not talking about the Ari Gold–type that represents demanding celebrities like in Entourage. I mean a literary agent who represents writers, and luckily, with some hard work and persistence, your career dreams can become a reality.
In fact, a career as a literary agent doesn’t require any formal training, certification, degrees, exams, or background checks. But while technically anyone can become a literary agent, if you want to become a successful one, it’ll take hard work, persistence, and a knack for negotiation.
What Literary Agents Do
Many publishers won’t accept submissions from writers directly, instead requiring manuscripts to be submitted by an agent. In this way, you could say that agents work for writers, by helping them find a home for their work, but also for editors, by finding some of the best talent to submit to them.
Literary agents usually discover potential clients by reading their book proposals or query letters. They then make a decision to represent them (or not) based on the author’s marketability.
Once they’ve agreed to represent a writer, they’ll submit the client’s work to the publishers whom they think make a good match for their client, with the intent of signing a publishing deal.
The agent is also responsible for negotiating the terms of any eventual publishing deals, with their client’s best interests at the focus of those negotiations.
How to Become a Literary Agent
Below are 6 tips that will put you on the right track to becoming a successful literary agent.
1. Start With an Internship
Ideally, if you’re looking to become a literary agent, you’ll already have a few years of publishing experience under your belt. If that’s not the case, you’ll need to get some experience, and one of the most common ways of doing so is through internships.
Interning, or working as an assistant to an agent, will give you firsthand experience and an up-close look at what literary agents do every day, and you’ll learn the ins and outs of the publishing industry.
The good news is that you no longer need to live in New York City to have a shot at an internship with an agency or publisher: there are now more agencies and independent publishers scattered across the country, and these days you can even look for virtual internships that can be done from anywhere!
2. Build Connections
Building your network is important in pretty much every industry, but that old adage about “who you know, not what you know” is perhaps never truer than when it’s applied to publishing.
Now, you can’t build a network of the best names in the industry overnight—professional relationships take time (perhaps even years) to cultivate! So get started reaching out and making connections as early as possible in your career.
Your internship (or other relevant past experience) is a good place to start. Make sure everyone you’re working with knows what your goal is.
You can also start by reaching out to publishers or agencies to inquire about openings or offer up your services. This might not lead anywhere right away, but at least you’ll have your name out there! In addition, writer’s conferences are great opportunities for networking.
3. Study the Publishing Process
Since the better part of your job will be spent helping writers get published, you should definitely know the publishing industry inside-out, including how to publish a book.
As an agent, you should know exactly where to send each of your clients, which publisher will be best for them, and why.
Writers want to know that you’re leading them down a road to success, and to establish that trust, you’ll need a thorough knowledge of the industry.
4. Decide Whether You Want to Start Your Own Firm
Because there are so few technical requirements to become a literary agent, there’s not much stopping you from starting your own firm with other agents (except money, time, and smart business skills, of course!). So while starting a firm is an option, you should definitely think about whether you have the resources to do so in order to make it a smart investment.
Otherwise, if you’re looking to join an agency, there are a number of sites and resources that can help you find opportunities in the publishing field and hunt down openings in literary agencies. This include sites like Bookjobs, Publishers Marketplace, and other agency blogs.
You can also check out sites like Flexjobs, which frequently lists remote or flexible job openings in the publishing industry.
Skills and Characteristics of Successful Literary Agents
There are several key attributes that can be found in successful agents. This career might be a good match for you if you are:
A Passionate Reader
If you really want to become a successful agent, you’ll need more than just killer instincts—you’ll need a passion for literature and you’ll need to be well read across a number of genres (and not just the one you’re looking to work in). That’s because successful agents know what’s flying off the shelves now, and what will be flying next month, so they can spot trends and changes in reader demand.
You may not need superb writing skills to succeed as an agent, but you’ll definitely need to recognize good writing when you see it (and bad writing, for that matter). And for this there’s no better training than reading—a lot!
In addition to knowing everything about the publishing industry, good agents have great business skills that help them get the best deals possible for their clients.
That means being an expert at communicating, negotiating, and spotting the next bestsellers. (And it’s no coincidence that for each of those skills, you’ll need too follow all of the steps above!)
It also means that you need to love communicating as much as you love books—and those two qualities aren’t always found in the same person. If you’re a shy, introverted bookworm who would take pretty much any deal just to avoid drawn-out talks, then you should probably work on breaking out of that comfort zone, or consider a different career entirely.
We have a whole host of resources that can help you learn more about marketing a book, including:
- List of 100+ Author Tools: The Best Tools for Writing, Publishing, and Marketing Your Book
- Content Marketing Tips and Strategies: A Guide for Beginners
- 18 Online Email Marketing Courses
- How to Get Publicity for Your Book: Tips, Tools, and Successful Strategies
A Genuine Caring for Writers and Writing
Since the primary function of your job will be to help writers find the right path for publishing their work, it’s important that you have a genuine empathy for writers and interest in what’s best for them.
Agent Rachelle Gardner shared more qualities of successful agents on her blog, which also offers more insight to life as an agent.
How Much Money Does a Literary Agent Make?
Most literary agents earn commissions, which can range anywhere from 5–25%. This means the range in salaries is also pretty large.
According to Schmoop, the average salary for a literary agent is $60,000 per year, with the lowest earners bringing home about $25,000, while the biggest fish might bring in over $100,000.
Then, of course, if you’re an agent for screenwriters and one of your clients gets their screenplay picked up for a film, then you’d get a percentage (typically 10%) of whatever the screenplay was sold for. So, if Paramount buys your client’s script for $1,000,000, that would be a $100,000 payday for you! (Let’s make it clear right now though that this kind of success is very rare.)
Since earnings are based on commissions, a lot of your success will depend on the success of your clients, which is why it’s important that you establish a solid reputation and hopefully sign the best talent (and also why you need to have an eye for talent!).
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Literary Agent?
There’s no specific degree requirement needed to become a literary agent (like we said, technically there aren’t any requirements to become a literary agent), there are some degrees that are common among successful agents.
The following degrees can provide a solid foundation for a career as a literary agent:
- Business Management
- Creative Writing
More Publishing Careers
And if you really love writing and have dreams of becoming an author yourself one day, why wait? Start writing your book today!
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