Friday, March 17, 2017

I want to be an agent

I am  interested in becoming a literary agent. Though, I do not work in publishing and do not have the ability to at this moment. I live overseas for my husband's career. I have a love for children's books and would pursue repping authors/illustrators. I have my Bachelor's degree in English and my career work in finance. Is there any position I could obtain to help gain experience in this career field, specifically virtually? Should I just go for it, or put the dream on hold until we are located back in the U.S.?
The first question I ask when people say "I want to be a literary agent" is "what do you think literary agents do?"

It will come as no surprise to you, I'm sure, that people don't know.
Some years back there was a spate of eager beaver youngsters who hung out their shingles as agents cause they'd seen agents talking on Twitter and their jobs sounded fun. Cupcakes! Reading manuscripts! Terrifying writers! (oh wait, that last one was  just me.)

The first thing you need to find out is what literary agents do.
The ONLY way to do that is intern with an agency.
It's very hard to do that remotely.
Some agencies do have remote internships, but the ONLY thing you'll be doing most likely is reading.

And reading is about 5% of my job.

My job is selling, and then helping authors stay sold.
Which means that you better know how to cold call people.
And you better know how to pitch projects.
And you'd better know how to manage an author's expectations for when things go south.
And if you're really good at your job (which I hope you want to be) you'll know what to do when your author has four published books and editors aren't interested in looking at #5.

And you better know the market. If authors have to read 100 books in their category to be current, agents should have read 1000. And that's just before you walk in the door.

What do you know about book production? Do you know how illustrators are paid? How they split advances and royalties with writers? How do you introduce an illustrator? And to whom?

Agenting is not an entry level job.
There's no way to do it well unless you have some sort of background that will make editors take you seriously.

You can have the best project in the world, but if an editor doesn't open your email or return your call cause they don't have a clue who you are, you can't sell something.

And yes, it's gotten a LOT harder to get an editor's attention in the last ten years.

The one thing you should NOT do is "just go for it."
You don't know what you don't know and any author you sign will suffer for it.
If you want to be an agent, that fact alone will dissuade you because being an agent is about putting the writer first. 


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

After a lifetime of realizing that, often, dreams make lousy avocations, forgive my over-the-word rambling. You have tweaked a sleeping nerve…

Years ago I was a stained glass artist, designing, building and pretty much changing the spaces people live and worship in. It took years to do what I did, well. It was a great job and sort of a mission. When I asked one of my customers what his 9 to 5 was, he said he manufactured and sold chain.

Other than hanging the lamps I designed and built, I never really thought about chain. I guess the world needs chain. But who the hell ends up making and selling something as innocuous as chain? And then to love it? Weird.

The path to beautiful windows in homes, to filling churches with walls of twelve foot high windows, human beings will be inspired by and praying beneath for generations, the desire and implementation to make chain, the path and purpose to become a literary agent, are all fraught with long learning curves, challenges and aspiration.

I do say, go for it, but only after you have walked the miles and miles it will take to complete your (as described by Janet) journey, while realizing that dreams are ongoing and never ending.

Theresa said...

"Agenting is not an entry level job." Yes, I'd always assumed that the most successful ones had a background in publishing--that they knew the business from the inside.

So that's the place to start. I hope it works out for OP.

Unknown said...

OP, just saw yesterday that the Jenny Bent agency is looking for an intern to work remotely. Check @jennybent on twitter. Good luck!

Colin Smith said...

Opie: I know Janet isn't one to chomp on people's dreams, so I hope you take her response as precautionary, not dissuasion. The take-away I hear from her is: INTERN FIRST, preferably on-site. That way, you'll get to see first hand the work of an agent, and can then better decide whether that's the life for you. A number of top-notch agents got their start as agency interns--some with Janet as their mentor/overlord.

Be aware: most internships are unpaid, so be sure your household doesn't depend upon your income before you take the plunge.

All the best to you, Opie!

Donnaeve said...

Oooo, Kathy Joyce just handed OP internet gold! I bet this interning remotely is reading mss! Which would be, as Diane's niece said, "OSUM."

In some ways, this is a LOT like hearing "I want to be a writer," from the folks writers talk to on any given day.

"What do you do?"

"I'm a writer."

"Oh, I want to be a writer!"

"Do you write now?"

"No, but I want to."

This is when the conversation can go a ton of different ways. There's this presumption that writing is simply sitting down and pounding out a book, and presto! It's on bookshelves everywhere and you're making boatloads of money, while all the royalties pour in.

This is the one thing I've had folks tell me over and over again - "I didn't know it was so HARD to be a writer. I didn't know it was so HARD to get published."

Likewise with agenting. I realize all my agent does for me - and I'm pretty doggone sure he's ingesting kryptonite, and has ten hands, and super human organization powers.

Donnaeve said...

And I might be the minority out here, but can I just say, I've been breathing a sigh of relief when I come here, and see the 100th FF contest is NOT happening - yet!

There's so much going on for the next couple of weeks, I either wouldn't be able to participate (unimaginable!) or my entry would sucketh to high heaven b/c I'd have no time to really think about it.

So. Phew!

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Given the past few contests, I don't think any amount of preparation will be enough for the next one. The quality of work is so high, all I can think to do is give it my best shot and enjoy reading the other entries. I did suggest running it over a longer period than just 24 hours to allow more people the opportunity to enter, which might work for you. I also suggested having multiple agents judging the contest, so I guess I should count my blessings that I'm not with you there on Carkoon, which is what usually happens when I suggest such things. :)

How are things there, btw? Is Spleen the Magnificent still agenting at Kale Leaf? Last I heard, he was trying to drum up interest in Lima Bean Porn due to the waning interest in the Dino Porn market. COME TESTA MY MICROPYLE, was one title I heard about. I can't see it happening, to be honest.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My daughter is struggling with this very question. She has moved to New York where she will be working as a bartender to pay the rent and then looking for internships to learn what really pulls her. She is uncertain about exactly what she wants - just that it must be somewhere in the arts.

It is hard to know what will fit you until you actually have the experience of it. And that is always hard earned. Perhaps, the OP could start with some beta reading and editing?

BJ Muntain said...

I see Kathy Joyce mentioned this - I saw it on Twitter, too. Here's the link to the remote intern:

Generalist & YA/MG Interns needed!

Note that it's unpaid, 10 hours per week. It looks like, as Janet noted, it's mostly slush reading, but there is a learning component:

"The agency runs a monthly educational chat for all of our interns, led by a different agent/on a different topic each time. (Past and upcoming topics include: How publishers create marketing plans, Do we need literary agents anymore?, Digital and social publishing, Literary scouts: What do they do? What are the entry-level jobs in publishing? -- we try to make them as useful as we can.)"

That said, I've been seeing a lot of agents who started out in various areas of publishing. There are no publishers where you are, OP, even overseas?

The Noise In Space said...

I'm surprised QOTKU didn't also talk about salary--I feel like it frequently comes as a shock how little people in every part of publishing make, even once you're established.

I think Donnaeve touched on something that's a huge sticking point for everyone in this industry, and certainly writers: everyone thinks they can do this, and that they can do it both easily and well. While I was still working at a magazine, I got contacted by a recent grad who wanted a job as a magazine editor. She had no training or education in writing and was coming from the sciences, but said she'd consider herself (and I quote) "a very strong candidate" because she'd written a few essays in college. The arrogance of that statement was just astounding to me. I snapped, and really let her have it. Compared with all these people that have done multiple internships, worked for their school paper, submitted to journals, and doggedly built up their published portfolio, you really want to tell me a research paper makes you "highly qualified?" I think my exact words were, "You are not highly qualified. You have NO qualifications. Period." Claiming otherwise was both laughable and insulting to everyone who actually took the career seriously.

So I guess my tip to OP would be to ask yourself this--what have you done to make people take you seriously? Just saying "I want to be an agent" isn't going to cut it. Even the unpaid internships are very competitive in this market, and with no experience or anything to show you're taking this seriously, your odds aren't great (of course there's a chance you've done more that you didn't mention, but if so, that's key information you should be including). What publishing organizations have you joined? What writer/illustrator societies are you a part of? Have you volunteered to help set up events at your local bookstore or library?

There are lots of things you can do, even while you're oversees. I don't mean to sound negative, but I remember all too well how hard it was to get even unpaid internships, especially if you're not in college--I was in the trenches only a few years ago (though, admittedly, on the writer side). I guess my main point is that, especially in a competitive or shrinking market, don't assume that applying for an internship is the first step. Most of the time, it isn't. You've still got to have enough relevant stuff on your resume to actually GET the internship, ya know? :)

Donnaeve said...

Colin, so true. I'm always impressed and have been for years about the entries. (and in shock if and when I get any mention b/c ...talent.)

Carkoon is a drain. No details necessary. BUT! Good ole Spleen has been joined by Kid Ney and I think they're gonna change that title to THE HILUM YOU SAY.

Amy Schaefer said...

Donnaeve, I'm with you in your relief. I feel like I'm living in a bad movie montage, with the days of the calendar whipping away as the seasons change outside the window. Slow down, life! At the very least, convince my youngest, newly recovered from a concussion, that imitating the athletes on Team Ninja Warrior isn't the greatest idea today. How about building a snowman? Let's go do that.

Opie, that internship sounds like an ideal start. Find a way to gather experience. Are you in an English-speaking country? Surely they have literary agencies there, too. Be determined, and give it a shot. And good luck!

Colin Smith said...

Opie: It sounds like Noise in Space has some good suggestions for building your resume overseas: get involved in literary activities that would look good to an agency considering your application for an internship. If returning to the US is something that's likely to happen in the future, perhaps plan to apply for an internship when you're back in the US, and in the meantime work on the kinds of things Noise mentioned.

Donna: Wow--Kid Ney's still around? Of course, you might be referring to his twin. Never could tell them apart. :)

BJ Muntain said...

Noise's (I hope you don't mind the nickname, The Noise In Space) suggestions twigged something, and I did a quick bit of research.

OP, have you considered joining SCBWI? They seem to have chapters all over the world, and they seem to also be a very open organization. You may be able to find some experience, some educational opportunities, and some network opportunities (not to mention friends) through that organization. Do some volunteer work with them, to get noticed by more people. Volunteer work is great for that.

SCBWI website

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Donna it also perplexes me when people say "I want to be a writer!" without having written...and without seeming to intend to begin the process. Like, I wanted to be a ballerina too, until I got kicked of ballet when I was 5.

I run a weekly writing workshop at my library, on Saturdays. A patron was asking me about it, and seemed shocked, shocked that I said "there no spectators. If you come to the meeting and we are writing, you must write, or try to. You don't need to share, but if you come to write club, it's time to write." I don't know what they thought a writing workshop would be, if they wanted neither to write nor to share.

Craig F said...

Long have I been a daydream believer. I am such because no one will believe in you if you don't believe in yourself.

That said, there are many things in this world that you just cannot do without building yourself up for it. I am not even sure of what kind of literary work is available outside of the US of A. I thought the literary agent thing was uniquely American, that is why so many from elsewhen want an American Agent.

O.P.: go for it but be prepared to have to pay a lot of dues to get there.

Got to run, I have to find my homecoming queen.

Colin Smith said...

Craig: I know there are agencies in other countries, but I think the attraction with a US agent is the market. With a US agent you have instant access to US publishing and all those millions of readers, whereas overseas agents have to sell into the US market from abroad. That's my understanding. Others please correct me if I'm wrong.

Donnaeve said...

OT: Deep South Magazine just revealed my new cover for THE ROAD TO BITTERSWEET. (make that !!!)

Check it out here!

John Davis Frain said...


Two words; Woooooooo and Hoooooooo!

Elissa M said...

Opie, I think you should, indeed, "go for it", but that doesn't mean you should hang out a shingle and call yourself an agent. You should start, right now, making contacts and working on your literary resume. Educate yourself on the publishing process. Find out what genres most interest you, what organizations and awards are associated with them, and which authors and books have won these awards.

Most importantly, read. Read good books and bad. Bestsellers and obscure. Analyze what you're reading until you can see why one thing works and another doesn't. Study the publishing houses to see which types of books appeal to which house. Pay attention to who the editors are and their career trajectories (no editor stays with the same publisher forever).

If you "put the dream on hold" for one reason, it'll be too easy to put it "on hold" for another. Being overseas is not a reason to not pursue something. I know. I was born to a military family (overseas) grew up (both overseas and in the US) and married a Soldier, whom I joined overseas six months later.

Every career is work. There will always be "reasons" why you can't get down to that work "just yet". If you really want to make your dream a reality, the time to start is right now. (Gee, this applies to writing, too, doesn't it? Time for me to get to work...)

RosannaM said...

Donna, That looks perfectly perfect. Is this the secret you were hinting at last week?

RosannaM said...

OP Others above have covered this pretty well, but here's my two cents worth.

Any time we have a goal it is important to do the work necessary to make it happen. And to understand all the reality of what is in our control and what is not.

In addition to all the helpful suggestions above about how to build your resume, I think adding in some experience with sales wouldn't hurt, especially where you have to cold call and be persuasive.

So go for it! Just don't advertise yourself as a new agent looking for clients just yet. Too many of our tiny, woodland creature hearts might just be quashed beyond repair getting an agent unqualified to actually rep our work.

RosannaM said...


I took Kathy Joyce's challenge yesterday--toward end of comment thread.

Donnaeve said...

RosannaM It's ONE of the secrets. :) I agree with your assessment - perfectly perfect!

John My sentiments toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna I love the new cover. Can't wait to read it.

Donnaeve said...

Amy My brother had a concussion when he was about 8 yrs old - I was 6. I remember being scared of him b/c he didn't know me - and we were best friends! That said, I hope your little one is a-okay!

Jen Exactly! Oh...a writer is supposed to...write?

Unknown said...

Hi OP!

I am a lit agency intern even though I don't want to be an agent. I don't even like calling people I know and like so no thanks to cold calling editors. I'd much rather be a writer, which is what I am. Even though I have an agent for my writing, I am also a remote intern for a different agent. I highly recommend interning as a way to learn about the publishing industry. You will learn what to look for in queries and get an idea of what's selling and what isn't selling these days. You will also learn how to analyze a manuscript and figure out what isn't working and why. Interns don't write editorial letters, but I've had the opportunity to see a letter and that would be invaluable to you as a perspective agent. I've also seen pitch letters and learned how auctions work. Agent is always willing to answer questions about the industry and I'm sure you must have lots.

Joseph S. said...

Jenny Chou’s first line brought back memories. Unrelated to publishing as it may be.

In my final year of law school I applied for a federal clerkship. I applied even though I knew I had no interest in being a trial lawyer. I wanted to be (and became) a corporate and tax lawyer.

I was lucky, privileged and honored to clerk for a federal appellate judge recognized as one of the best judges of the twentieth century. So many good things flowed from that experience. Not the least of which was being able to associate with the judge and his wonderfully pleasant wife for decades afterward. It also played a major part in my landing a law professor position that, if my novelist career doesn’t pan out, will be the apex of my professional life, and the clerkship added a ton of credibility when dealing with students, lawyers and other professors.

I foresaw none of that when I applied.

Dena Pawling said...

Joseph Snoe - your story brought my own memory. In my last year of law school I clerked at the Public Defenders office (I had a friend who worked there). I had no interest in being a trial lawyer so I decided I should learn a little about what a trial lawyer does, since I'd never have the chance once I was graduated. I met lots of attorneys and judges. And I was thoroughly surprised to discover I loved being in court. I'm a civil attorney now, not criminal, but I'm in court at least three days per week, sometimes five, and I love it. No one is more surprised than I am.

My #1 son, before the navy, worked at an amusement park and a department store. He learned he loved being outside and hated inside. So he enlisted as a Seabee so he'd be outside most of the time and not on a ship.

So OP, definitely try to intern or do something in the industry, if for nothing else so you can learn what it's like and whether it's something you really want to do.

Lennon Faris said...

This all sounds good. If it's your dream I bet you'll be willing to work hard for it.

I once thought to myself, I wish I had a job that was less stressful and didn't affect other people's lives so much. I was looking out of the window of an airplane at the time and then realized that almost all jobs do that. If my pilot didn't do his job just right, he would take down hundreds of peoples' lives in one fell swoop.

My point is, life is terrifying. You might as well make it about something that holds your passion.

Timothy Lowe said...

Jenny Chou - no wonder so many authors are agents...or is it the other way around? Those are all very important points. Writing isn't just constructing a great piece, it's understanding the industry. Another very convenient reminder - I feel like reading these blog comments is like taking a master class.

Timothy Lowe said...

Oh, and Donna...LOVE "practical and sturdy as her name" - sounds like another gut-wrenching (in a good way) read!

Lennon Faris said...

BTW, Donna that cover is incredible. It won't let me comment there right now but it seems perfect - so like Dixie's and yet has its own flavor.

Amy Johnson said...

Donna, what a great cover! So happy for you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reinforcing my decision that I would not make the best agent. I love reading and think I have a good eye, but abhor negotiating and especially abhor cold-calling people. I will continue down the marketing day job + writing in the side path I'm on. Thanks!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

DONNA, regarding the cover, as my wee-wittle granddaughter would say. "I wuv, wuv, wuv it."

Ardenwolfe said...

And this is why you need an agent who knows what he or she is doing. It'll make a world of difference toward your career. Thank you, Janet, for answering this question. Very insightful.

AJ Blythe said...

It would seem all has been said on the topic, so I will just wish OP all the best with their future career.

Donna, your new cover is fabulous. I love how the branding for Dixie continues with Bittersweet =)

AJ Blythe said...

Ooops, got distracted by The Barbarians and hit post too soon. Meant to add...

2Ns, what a talented lady you are!

Donnaeve said...

Awww, thank you all so very much! And AJ, you hit the nail on the head...the branding is there in the font style, the little plaque thingie that holds the title - plus, it's my niche, those coming of age Southern stories...

Timothy Phew - I sure hope so! Very different stories...but thank you for that! I loved how they found the right words to describe her, b/c practical and sturdy is exactly right. She's a survivor.

Catherine Vignolini said...

Donna, what a nice mention in the magazine. Congratulations on the cover. Perfect.

Dena Pawling said...

Donna - congrats on your cover! But I'm curious why your cover girls are always headless =)

Have you read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance? I think you'd really like it. It's a memoir by an attorney about growing up in Appalachia [Kentucky and Ohio]. I don't usually read memoirs but I very much enjoyed this one.

Dena Pawling said...

PS - the audio book is read by the author!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I know exactly what agents do. That's why I want one so bad.

Julie said...

Thank you so much for this; I've wondered about every single thing you've said over the past couple of years.