What Does It Take to Be a Good Literary Agent?

8:45 pm - by anitamumm

Hello, everyone! This is an article I did for our NLA June Newsletter. It’s a popular topic so I thought I’d share it here, along with some added resources. Hope you enjoy!

Earlier this week, my coworker Sara Megibow and I were chatting about a question she often gets in the slush pile, at parties, at family events, and in line for the bathroom. “Being a literary agent sounds fascinating! How can I become one?”businessmanjumping

I’m going to do my best to answer this both for people who have thought about it in passing, and for those who are ready to actively pursue this career. But it’s a BIG question, and I definitely recommend getting acquainted with a number of literary agent blogs (or Facebook pages, Twitter, or other social media). These will give you an inside look at the daily life of an agent. Here, I’ll start with a few ideas we often hear about agenting, and then I’ll get into why they might not be the best reasons for getting into the business.

Common Assumptions about Being a Literary Agent

“I love books, and reading is my favorite pastime. Being a literary agent would be the perfect job for me!”

“My writing career isn’t taking off. Maybe I should be a literary agent instead and help other people with their careers.”

“I’d like to get my novel published, and becoming an agent sounds like a great way to get my foot in the door and establish the right channels.”

“Doesn’t J.K. Rowling’s agent own an island? I want to make that kind of money, too.”

Keeping It Real

Unfortunately, all of these ideas come from the same misconception—that liking books or being an English major are the perfect qualifications for becoming an agent. (Hey, I admit to having this same idea before I joined the industry.) But let’s look at a breakdown of Sara’s typical workweek to get a more realistic picture:

  • 50% Marketing, publicity, and promotion for current client books
  • 15% Negotiating and auditing contracts
  • 15% Selling subsidiary rights (film, audio, foreign rights)
  • 10% Author career planning
  • 5% Reading client manuscripts
  • 5% Reading slush pile manuscripts (full and sample pages)

You might be starting to see why, as Sara puts it, “You’re probably better off with a degree in law than in English, and you’d better have the spirit of an entrepreneur.” She also says good communication skills are at the heart of being an agent, since a big part of the job is career counseling and acting as mediator between authors and publishers. Kristin often talks about an agent’s job being primarily about problem-solving and putting out fires—again, good communication skills are a must.

Now, in case you’re feeling deflated, let me add that a love of books is still at the heart of this. The ability to recognize a strong story with beautiful writing is indispensable to an agent. After all, if you’re fabulous at sales but don’t like to read, you’re probably better off selling cars or software, or something else you really dig. Because the other truth is that most agents don’t get a J.K. Rowling-sized deal the moment they start out, and making a living based on commissions can be a roller-coaster ride. It can take years to reach a steady and reliable income, so having a working spouse, a second job, or other source of income at the outset are a must. My point is that you’re going to need to be personally invested (in terms of passion and interest) in order to stick it out.

If you’re picturing agenting as a surefire path to wealth, or as a way to get paid to be a bookworm, it’s probably not the right career for you. It’s also not a job for novelists who want to publish; if that’s your goal it will be obvious, and it will be a turn-off to your publishing colleagues. But if you have a genuine passion for books and authors, the right skill set, and a healthy dose of perseverance, you just might find your dream job. The gals I work for sure did. : )

* * *

Here’s our bucket list of skills you should have (or work on building) if you are serious about becoming an agent:

  • law/legal
  • marketing/sales
  • communication (oral and written)
  • analytical/editing (for seeing holes in plot and determining how to make a story viable)
  • organization (for managing details about 30-40 clients, hundreds of contacts in the industry, and multiple balls in the air)
  • speed reading with excellent comprehension (for that constant flood of submissions!)


Here are some additional perspectives and practical advice from others in the biz:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkF3YzKs1OY (Agent Kristin Nelson)

http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/08/how-do-you-become-a-literary-agent (Agent Rachelle Gardner)

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2012/09/05/how-to-become-a-literary-agent-in-2-easy-steps (Agent Mandy Hubbard)