Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

So You Wanna Be a Literary Agent?

So you like books, you have an eye for good writing and that English degree isn't getting any more marketable. Or maybe you've received a bunch of rejections to your query letter and thought, "Oh yeah? Well what qualifies YOU to reject me? Is there literary agency school? Do you even have a law degree?" Nope. Here's what it takes.

First, I'm assuming you live or are moving to New York, (or, more specifically, Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, because you won't be able to afford Manhattan!). Yes, I live in San Francisco, but I'm already taking up one of the five or so spots in San Francisco. Sorry about that.

Becoming a literary agent is sort of like becoming a blacksmith. In the olden days you didn't go to blacksmith school, you worked as an apprentice to an established smith for a very long time, learning the trade, getting up early to start the kiln, and fetching the blacksmith's hard tack. Usually the apprentice was only given room and board. And then, one day, when he had learned all the blacksmth could teach, the apprentice could go forth and open his own shop. This is basically how it works with literary agents.

In order to become a literary agent you have to first become an assistant to a literary agent. And actually, in order to become an assistant you often have to first work as a receptionist, as an intern or in the mail room. Believe it or not, there are about 700 applicants for every assistant job. Assistants answer the phones, keep track of contracts and payments, read queries, and fetch their bosses' hard tack I mean coffee. In the process the assistant is actually learning a great deal about the business -- who the important editors are, the terms of publishing contracts, what books work and what don't, how to spot a good project, etc. etc.

After two or three or four or five years as a lowly assistant, if you have proven yourself able, and you haven't bungled too many follow ups, you may be allowed to take on a client. Or two. But no more. And then, a couple of years later, if you have done well with those one or two clients you might be allowed to take on a few more. And so on.

And then you're on your way to fame and glory, right? Well, not so fast. Keep in mind that a young agent is up against a crop of very experienced agents with deep contacts and a polished resume. Being a young agent is a long, hard slog. You have to find diamonds in the rough and read millions of manuscripts and, honestly, have a good deal of luck. But eventually, I'm told, you get there and then all of a sudden you wake up and half of your clients are on the New York Times bestseller list. Or you wake up one day and decide a job at the bakery isn't looking so bad. You know. Either way.

Does this mean that all agents are manifestly incompetent because they did not go to agenting school? Actually, no. As old fashioned as it may be, it's actually a pretty good system. Assuming you work for a reputable literary agency, by the time you are given the go-ahead to take on clients you know a great deal about the business, you have experienced colleagues to draw upon and you've networked relentlessly with your fellow publishing assistants. You really have to prove yourself. If you manage to work your way up to be an agent it shows a certain level of dedication (or insanity).

So if you still wanna be a literary agent, good luck to you! But don't quit your night job.


Simon Haynes said...

Good summary - so many people seem to think you hang out a sign, set up a website and start pocketing 15%
Knowing how fickle publishers can be, and how prickly authors can be, I have buckets of respect for anyone who chooses to sit in between them.

Kalynne Pudner said...

Don't take this wrong, Nathan, but I'm glad Gawker ran your current profile pic instead of this one. Because I might have been tempted to vote for that Matt guy otherwise.

Endless Secrets said...

You mentioned that each assistant job has about 700 applicants, and that is a very big and very scary number *bites nails*.
So What I am wondering is if there is something that could give you a better chance? As in if an applicant has some experience in law, perhaps some relavent schooling, would they be more likely?
And if so what sort of experience would help, besides having experience as a receptionist?

Ruthie's Ratings said...

Do you have any information on how to become an independent literary agent (as in, not working at a firm)?

Jillian said...

Nathan, thanks.

This is exactly in information I wanted, at exactly the time I needed it. But I have no desire to live in New York.....does this mean NYC is the only place you can begin your publishing path?

Nicole said...

I think I'll second someone else's comment. What if a person *does* have a J.D. already? I do. Yes, I love to read. I'm not a creative writer, so writing a novel is out. Are there other options other than starting as receptionist, etc for someone with my educational level? An internship or something along that line, perhaps? I obviously have knowledge of contracts. It would be learning who the big editors are for the genre I want to work in (I know some just based on my contact with NYT Bestselling authors...yes, I have a few contacts on that end, too). Are agents willing to even talk to people like me at conferences (since some occasionally hear pitches from writers)? Don't know if you'll see this or respond, but any information is helpful. Thanks :).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan,

Good information. It told me what I needed to know. What if you want to stay in the great state of Texas?
Enjoy San Fran, its lovely anytime of the year.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I get the feeling from searching "becoming a literary agent" that there is a movement among established agents to spin the futility of becoming their competition...:-)
Simply put, this market sector is like any other. Come in with a better product (say, treating writers with respect and courtesy) and you'll get a place at the table. it is not up to other literary agents to decide who gets to compete with them, so I say, give it a try and do something different like a banner that says "We reject incomplete manuscripts, not just complete manuscripts".

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