How to Become a Literary Agent
Becoming a literary agent isn’t like becoming a teacher — there’s no test or college course you can take that will spit you out as a full fledged literary agent. Experience is king in the world of literary agencies — you simply won’t get work as a literary agent without tons of experience in the field of publishing. Most literary agents take an alternative path to the job anyway, with very few literary agents having earned a Master’s degree in Literature, say, or a series of internships with literary professionals. People working as literary agents have worked their way up the ranks in another field before jumping into the publishing business. Literary agencies like to hire people with non literary backgrounds because of the unique skills and knowledge they bring to the world of publishing.
How much does a literary agent get paid?
This is always the first question on people’s lips — don’t literary agents make a ton of money? People forget that literary agents work for a cut of their client’s earnings. There is no such thing as a salaried literary agent. The money you earn is all tied up with your abilities as an agent, the size of your client base, and the popularity of your clients’ work.
Literary agents make between 10 and 15 percent of their client’s earnings. While some new books get insanely high advances (some high profile authors have earned advances near $10 million) most authors would be ecstatic to accept advances in the low thousands — a good get for a literary agent would be $750 off a client’s advance. Do the math on that one — if a literary agent made $750 off 40 authors, they’d make a decent starting wage. Forty new authors a year is a lot of work, so literary agents work hard to put together a client base that can consistently earn them money.
A hard working literary agent could easily make a six figure salary, but most literary agents just don’t have the high caliber client base to earn that kind of money. Especially when you’re just starting out as an agent, you may have long periods of time with no income at all.
1. Get the right education
To be hired at a literary agency, you’ll need a minimum of two years of college level education. That’s a minimum — these are competitive jobs and for the most part just two years of college won’t cut it. Most literary agents have at least a 4 year college degree, and many have postgraduate degrees. A job as a literary agent may seem like a natural fit for an English or Journalism major, and while those are traditional ways to work in publishing, a degree in Business or any high level program teaches you a certain set of skills that can be useful as a talent agent.
2. Move to a large market
If you want to make any money as a literary agent, you’ll need to live in one of two cities. New York City and Chicago are the traditional home for literary agencies, and most agents live and work in one of those two areas. The good news is, some agents find success in secondary markets — big cities that may not seem like hot spots for publishing. Dallas and San Francisco are growing literary markets, as are Miami and Los Angeles. But to get the kind of high profile clients you need to make big bucks, stick to Chicago or New York.
3. Get an Internship
Got your two year degree? Moved to Chicago? It’s time to get work as an intern with someone in the publishing industry. No matter if it is a local newspaper, an Internet start up, a literary journal, or a magazine, time spent as an intern in the field will pretty much guarantee you some job interviews with literary agencies and publishing houses.
4. Work your way up
So you completed your internship and got a low level job at a publishing company. Great — you’re on the right track. You may be earning barely above minimum wage today, but with a little pluck you could move up the ladder while learning the business from the inside. Working a low level position is a great way to get introduced to the bigwigs of the company, and gives you opportunities to prove your value. If you majored in something like English, you may get work as a low level editor or proofreader, whereas if your concentration was in business or some other major, you may get a position in the company’s finance office. Either way, you get to learn the business of publishing.
5. Join an established literary agency
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While working your way up the ladder at your internship and first job, and making contacts in the publishing world, you also need to try to do things to impress your future employer. Attend parties and other corporate events, glad hand with people who look important, and keep your ear to the ground to find out about positions opening. Once you’ve joined an established literary agency, you’re likely to be working as an assistant to a talented and successful literary agent. Think of this as an apprenticeship.
6. Go out on your own
By now, you’ve got plenty of experience and contacts in the industry to form your own literary agency. Forming your own business gives you the freedom to represent who you want on your own terms. Hopefully you’ve built enough contacts with publishers and literary types to earn enough on your commissions to make it as an independent literary agent.
Literary agents play a big part in the publishing world. Authors are not known for their business acumen, and big impersonal publishing houses aren’t great at finding talent. The literary agent is the perfect middle man in a competitive creative field like publishing. People who are passionate about writing, love books, have a good feel for business, and don’t mind working their butts off for years for little financial gain are perfectly suited for a career as a literary agent.