It might be a great honor to represent authors and help them make the most of their careers, but even a cursory glance at the industry reveals that being a literary agent isn’t for the faint of heart. Often, you’ll have to work another part-time (or even full-time) job to pay the bills while you wait for your commissions, and that’s after you’ve taken years to learn the craft by doing internships and rising through the ranks.
Many aspiring literary agents burn out and change course before they even make it to agent — so before you begin climbing that ladder, you should ask yourself if you truly have what it takes to become a successful literary agent.
Literary agents are widely read and authentically passionate about literature and writing. They’re deeply familiar with almost anything that’s ever been published in the genre they’re interested in working in, as well as up-to-date on current trends, both of which will help them recognize winning manuscripts. They’re likely to have been a literature major or have a degree in a related field, and literary agents may have started as editors. Some are aspiring authors themselves. A burning and undying love of books is an obvious job requirement, but these aren’t the only skills you’ll need to make it as a literary agent.
Literary agents also need to be incredibly strong communicators — and we’re not talking about putting pen to paper, but about being able to get your foot in the door with the right editors, and making it through tough negotiations with publishing houses. That’s why the best literary agents are often extroverts who are naturally gifted at networking. As literary agents have an extremely close partnership with the authors they represent, they’ll also be true team players who are able to offer constructive criticism in a tactful but clear manner.
If you have what it takes to become a literary agent and stay in it for the long haul, you will have a high tolerance for technical and complex legal documents and a lot of patience, as well as a genuine entrepreneurial spirit. You’ll need that business sense to help your clients get their dream book deals, of course, but also to be able to cope with the risks you take on. As a literary agent, you will, after all, only get paid when your clients land a deal with a publisher and get their advance.
On that note, while some literary agents do get salaries, that’s far from the norm in the industry. Not everyone is willing, whether on a financial or emotional level, to put up with the uncertainty that is inherent in this business. A dream of becoming a literary agent may be worth pursuing if you have a solid Plan B — a side gig you can rely on, permanently or while your career takes off — or if you’re the sort of person who thrives on risk, because it motivates you to work that much harder. If the idea of, for instance, simultaneously building your reputation as a literary agent and also being a freelance editor or an English teacher, doesn’t put you off, and working brutally long hours to achieve your dream thrills you, you may have the perfect personality to be a literary agent.
Are you still at university, or are you a serious autodidact? Courses that will help you develop the skill set all the best literary agents have stretch far beyond the realm of literature. Exploring psychology and negotiating skills, taking a business class, and even studying to be a paralegal (because of the contracts you handle as a literary agent) will all steer you in the right direction.
Many literary agents have degrees in literature, communications, business, English, or creative writing — but even with a degree in your pocket, you should be fully prepared to start with a (frequently unpaid) internship at a literary agency and then to work your way up very gradually as you learn the ropes from your mentors. This is where aspiring literary agents begin their long road of becoming intimately familiar with the book publishing industry and building the connections they will need to get their future clients the book deals they’re dreaming of.
Do you have what it takes to be a midwife to the authors of tomorrow?