The “how to become a literary agent” question is one I get a lot, from both hopeful college kids and from people who see what I do, think it looks like great fun and want to make a career change. Well, dear readers, you’re about to get an honest (and somewhat depressing) answer about choosing the literary agent career path. Most agents start out by reading slush (slush pile meaning here) or acting as an agent’s assistant (which I have done). However, publishing is an old industry so there are a lot of apprentice-type relationships at the very beginning, where people learn and work for free. Nathan Bransford has a great take on this subject, so you should read his post, too. You can also check out what does a literary agent do across the way on this blog.
How to Become a Literary Agent: Yes, It Really Is This Hard
Want to know how to become a literary agent? Get a day job. No, really. Most newer agents have a day job. For a period of time, before I saved up enough living expenses to see me through the next year or so, I worked full-time as the world’s worst (I’ll admit, since I was always reading manuscripts at the office) product manager at a lucrative dot com. Yes, while agenting, getting my MFA, going to conferences, making NYC trips, selling books, reading submissions, reading ARCs and keeping up with each new publishing season, blogging, the whole nine. No, I didn’t sleep much. Yes, this is about the amount of time and energy it takes to get started for some people, and the number of hats people usually end up wearing.
Aspiring agents can avoid the day job route if they work for a large NYC or LA agency where there is an office space and they can be paid salary to do office admin/assistant type duties in addition to their agenting. Another way to avoid this issue, obviously, is having someone who’s willing to support you and put up with your lean years while your literary agent career takes off.
The Financial Reality of a Literary Agent Career
But most agencies, even those with offices, pay no salary and are commission only. And you don’t earn the full 15% as an up-and-coming agent. Sure, the agency commission is always 15%, as far as the author knows. But new agents pocket between 5% and 10% of the total sale, not the full 15%, and the rest goes to the agency as profit and to pay overhead. Overall, the money situation is pretty bleak at the beginning.
It Takes Five Years
Andrea says it takes at least five years to start earning a decent living as an agent. I’ve heard another very successful agent say that his goal, when starting out, was: start making money two years in, start making a living five years in. Those numbers are very accurate and that’s because publishing takes so long. For example, I negotiated a book deal this week. This book will come out in 2012. The first payout is on contract signing. We probably won’t get the contract until July, the money for signing until August or (since publishing is on vacation, and therefore even slower, in August) September. Also, part of the payout for that book is, unfortunately, on publication. (More and more houses are breaking up the advance to be paid on contract signing, on delivery of final manuscript (or art, in the case of an illustrator), and on publication…traditionally, the advance is paid half on signing, have on d&a (delivery and acceptance).)
So this particular advance is split into thirds and will be stretched for two years, until the book hits shelves in 2012. Then, the book will try to earn out its advance, which usually takes one or two years, depending on a number of factors. Only then will the author (and therefore the agent) start making royalties twice a year on the project, provided it keeps selling. So, a year to two years for the project to come out, another two years to start getting some kind of additional money for it.
In five years, the logic goes, I will have sold enough books, enough of them will have come out and some of them will have started earning royalties to give me a somewhat steady paycheck.
How to Become a Literary Agent: The Qualifications
- Willingness to work for free
- Willingness to work, work, work, read, read, read, work, work, work
- Willingness to be poor for years (unless you also have the bandwidth for a day job, too, or a really supportive partner) and sell, sell, sell
Here’s how my book publishing agent career developed. I read slush for an adult agency for a while, but my heart was always in children’s books. I asked one of my now-colleagues to let me read for ABLit. She didn’t put me on slush, though. She gave me full requests and client manuscripts to read. I quickly started giving notes and honing my editorial eye. Then all of the other agents started giving me their really tough projects — client manuscripts that, for whatever reason, hadn’t been selling. I started giving notes on those and, after a revision or two, some of those manuscripts found homes. When I did this for a manuscript of Andrea’s, she extended a hand and said, “Welcome aboard!” That process took, overall, about a year.
It’s Hard, But If You Love the Work…
Lots of readers tell me that what I do sounds really glamorous and amazing, and that’s why they want to know how to become a literary agent. It is! I love books. I love writers. I love writing. I love publishing. I get to hang out and have drinks with some of the biggest creators in children’s books. I get to visit publishers and listen to editors talk about books they’re excited to be bringing into the world. I get to meet Bernadette Peters (this has nothing to do with anything, but boy, it’s cool!). I sit next to Newbery Medal winners at dinner. I love this life very, very much!
But the financial realities behind it are not so glamorous or fascinating at the end of the day. Still, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.
While I’m no longer a literary agent, I have ten years of experience in the publishing industry under my belt. I’d love to use my experience to help you with the novel editing process.