How to Become a Literary Agent

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, literary agent career
Want to know how to become a literary agent? Get ready to work for peanuts — and you’ll probably need that coffee, too.

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

  1. Willingness to work for free
  2. Willingness to work, work, work, read, read, read, work, work, work
  3. 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.

30 Replies to “How to Become a Literary Agent”

  1. Wow. Thanks for that roadmap of your journey to becoming an agent. Interesting that many in this business have “day jobs” to help pay the bills and writing/agenting is a side-job. At the end of the day, no matter the pay, you have to love what you do. Clearly you do! Congrats to you and your client on the book deal!

  2. Thanks for giving us a peak into your life. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “agents are hungry…”

    : ) cat

  3. All I can say is I am so glad you stuck with it through all that! Way to go you!! Definitely a hard road, but it also seems so rewarding.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing such an honest view of agenting with us. I’ve always admired agents, who work so hard. And this makes me appreciate you even more — all agents must have such a great love for books to keep going.

    And congratulations on your client’s book deal!

  5. Agents are a lot like writers, it sounds like – we don’t do it for the money, but for our passion for the written word.

    And I had no idea some of newer agents’ commission goes to the agency. Interesting tidbit.

  6. Melissa Gill says:

    I always think I have it tough trying to work full time, and write full time, but then I hear about what agents and editors go through and I stop feeling sorry for myself.

    But money is not everything. I once had a high powered, high paying, high stress job and I hated it. My soul was crushed. So bravo for sticking with your plan, and also bravo for telling it like it is. People who are ONLY. interested in getting rich should probably stay out of publishing all together

  7. I am yet to see any money beyond my advance on my first book (adult), despite having cleared it in terms of sales more than a year ago. It just seems to take ages between an agreement on foreign rights sales, say, and actually having the cash in your hand. That’s with a big publishing house too. I imagine it might take longer with small publishing houses.

    Book writing really isn’t the career for people who care much for money. Magazine writing, however, pays well. I recommend it to anyone who can and wants to write. (And, just in case anyone is interested, mediabistro.com has a tonne of great articles on how to pitch to magazines. I love that website. You do have to pay for it, though.)

    PS But despite not having bulging pockets, you still wouldn’t swap your job for the world, would you, Mary?

  8. See, THIS is what makes you a great agent. Yes, you’re a clear eyed realist, but you are passionate and proactive.

    It’s a lot to juggle, but the payoff will be grand, I just know it.

    I know, I know what you’re going to say, but…hey, it’s not flattery if it’s true. 😉

  9. It sounds that despite the financial reality you have found the perfect job for you. If you can’t wait to get to work every day, that says a lot. There are people who strictly see their work as a job. They put in their time, leave at the end of the day, and collect their paycheck on Fridays. These folks are satisfied with mediocre and that’s all they’ll ever be. They are more concerned with watching the clock than doing the best work of their lives. Folks who view their work not merely as a job but as a career feel differently. Many of us would do what we do for nothing (if it weren’t for those annoying little bills that come in) because we love it that much. It’s great, Mary, that you’ve found something you love and are passionate about. I have a feeling that in time you will make a living doing just what you are doing. Good luck on this journey. Blessings, Buffy

  10. Thanks for sharing this, it is very interesting to see inside the “agent life.” Not so different from the “writer life” it would seem.

  11. Mary, just wondering… what if you could be an editor at a big publishing house instead? I think I’d rather love that. I’d also love to spend all my spare time reading slush for someone, even unpaid! I love reading and critiquing other people’s stories, even the bad ones. (Okay, not the truly dire ones, just the ones that need quite a lot of fixing, but are fixable.)

  12. Bongo, I have to disagree. I think there are dire stories and diamonds – but most are in the middle of the spectrum, just mediocre.

  13. Despite the harsh reality, this is something I would do. In fact, had planned to do, until I met my husband. He hates to even drive through NYC, forget living there. I would still jump to do an internship or assistantship if I could do the telecommute, but everybody just wants a copy-machine lackey. 🙂

  14. Mary, reading your blogs is like being part of an accelerated program for writers, especially for new ones. You share info others don’t, or won’t. It reminds me of being in a beginner kung fu class then sneaking into the advanced black belt room and seeing all the secret cool moves way before my peers do.
    Thank you.

  15. You have really good instincts for what makes a book an intriguing read. Congratulations for discovering what you’re good at and working at the job of your dreams. You’re blessed. Not a lot of people have that.

  16. Greta Marlow says:

    This post is a good example of why your blog has become my favorite one about the publishing industry.

  17. Thank you for the look inside the life of an agent. I had no idea some of the commission from a newer agent’s sales went to the agency. Most interesting.

    I might be crazy, but I agree with Franzipan and think it would be fun to read the slush for free . . . just because you never know when you might find something amazing.

    Part of my desire to read slush might come from me missing my former job. I’m a stay at home mom now, but a couple of years ago, I worked for the estate of an artist (I helped preserve and archive her documents). Part of my duties included reading and summarizing all of the correspondence between the artist and her mother . . . they wrote real life letters back then. 😉

    It was so much fun to discover “secrets” and even solve a few mysteries about certain items in the estate. I was always excited to go to work because I never knew what I’d discover that day. Sometimes I’d have days where I found nothing interesting, and other days I found amazing things. I think reading the slush must be something like that. =)

  18. I always wonder who makes the money in publishing, since it isn’t writers, agents, or editors. I guess it’s the business people who take their percentages on hundreds or thousands of books, not two or two dozen. (It’s always the business people.)

  19. Mary, thanks for sharing so openly.

    Siski and Joan, I have dreamed of reading slush too. Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  20. Mary, thanks for this. I smiled the whole way through, not because I’m glad this is such an incredibly tough career but because your dedication and passion to your work shines….the world of books for kids and teens is a good place to be. I understand your passion. Go get ’em and here is to many more sales in your future.

  21. Great post! I like the writing. It was very nice to meet you at the writer’s conference.

  22. I know I’m glad you became an agent! Your amazing notes and agent-y skills got me/us our 1st YA deal.

    Your agent qualifications are so close to my author ones! 🙂

    The qualifications of an aspiring author:

    1. Willingness to write for free (and put out $$ on conferences, etc.)
    2. Willingness to write, work, write, read, read, read, work, write, work
    3. Willingness to be poor for years (unless you also have the bandwidth for a day job, too, or a really supportive partner) and get an agent to help you sell, sell, sell

  23. I love seeing what people go through to pursue their dreams. It’s encouraging in a weird way. How awesome that you get to do what you love every day! Thanks for the industry insight.

  24. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I had no idea how hard it is to make a living as an agent. Like being an author, at the beginning it’s a labor of love. Thanks for sharing.

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