Sunday, August 01, 2010

How to be an Agent, or, You Want a Piece of This?

Being an agent isn't all about reading books and knocking back bon-bon martinis, despite how Twitter might make it look.  I keep getting asked for career advice from would-be agents.

Oh, I have some advice:
  1. Finish school. Doesn't matter in what, but try something useful, like an advanced degree in business, medicine, engineering or law.
  2. Get a job that pays well so your mom can brag about you rather than having to loan you money.

Well, internal critic, I prefer to think of it as being realistic. But fine.

In all seriousness, these are some of the qualifications to get in the door, in no particular order:

* Must be extremely confident and outgoing (or at least able to present as such)
* Must be good at negotiation and arguing
* Must have a head for business
* Must be detail-oriented, tough, practical, no-nonsense, and ambitious.
* Must be able to deliver, and take, a crushing amount of rejection.
* Must be a book expert, have tons of market-savvy
* Must know A LOT about the ins-and-outs of publishing
* Must be able to read and understand a contract
* Must have good connections
* Must be willing to work for free

These are nearly all qualities that are easiest to get by having a career in another branch of publishing first. This is why many agents are editors, publisher rights managers, booksellers or buyers before joining agencies.

This is an apprentice business. There are no classes, there is no certification. The best way to learn to do it is by doing it, and pretty much the only way you are going to get to do that is by interning/working for an existing agency. Generally for free. Then it helps enormously if you continue being mentored by those agents when you are ready to start taking your own clients.

Should you start your OWN agency?  Probably not. If you don't have a name that will open doors yourself, you'd best work for an agency whose name and reputation will help you get those valuable connections. If you are not an expert in the areas of contract law, subrights and similar, you had better be part of an agency that has experts on the roster. Sure, anyone can theoretically just call themselves an agent, but you'll be in for a big, nasty surprise if you think you can bluff your way through with nothing to back you up.

Best case scenario, even if you join an awesome agency, build up an amazing list of clients and start selling right away, it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to earn enough consistent money to live properly until your books are published, earn out and start earning royalties - in other words, for about 5 years. The less experience you have in the publishing world to start out with, the longer you will have to intern, and the more difficult you will find the beginning of your career.

So if you're serious, start here.


  1. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Informative piece thanks for letting us know about it and sharing.

    Mike Griffiths

  2. Thanks! This is exactly what I've been wondering about this summer because I really think I want to go into agent-ing (agentry?).I've applied for publishing internships in the past, but no luck so far. Hopefully some experience on my college newspaper will help my resume next year.

  3. There's likely not _quite_ as many people who dream of becoming an agent as those who dream of becoming a writer, but I'm sure the supply exceeds the demand by a large factor.

    Thanks for the advice!

  4. You forgot a somewhat crucial piece of advice:

    1. Perseverance up the wazoo and

    (2. A little luck. Or...maybe a lot of it.)


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