How To Become A Literary Agent

by | Dec 13, 2022

If you want know how to become a literary agent, you have a great goal. Agents are the link between the writer and the publisher, and largely responsible for making a book go from the writer’s hands into the hands of the public. 

Without literary agents, traditionally published authors would have an extremely difficult time getting published. If you are passionate about books, writing, interacting with others, and pitching projects you are passionate about, becoming a literary agent could be the perfect step for you.

There is a process you can follow to help you reach your goals, salary expectations, and of course, a training pathway. In this article, we discuss all three:

  • Process
  • Salary Expectations
  • Training Pathway 

Ready to dive in and get familiar with how to pursue your dream? Let’s go! 

Process

When choosing to become a literary agent, it’s important to follow three core steps. You could dive in and work to figure it out as you go, but to succeed long term, it’s crucial to set yourself up for success. 

#1 – Familiarize yourself with the process.

There are quite a few steps between the conception of a book idea and its final publication. As an agent, it’s your job to understand these steps, be able to articulate them to your client, and help them through the process. Below is a brief but not all-inclusive overview: 

  • Writer writes the book and proposal 
  • Agent shops the manuscript to acquisition editors 
  • The acquisition editor (if they like the book) research the writer’s platform and comparative titles
  • Acquisitions editor sets up a meeting with the publication board (pub board) and presents their findings
  • Often, an acquisition editor may contact the agent at this time and bring them up to speed on their progress 
  • Pub board votes on the project (either unanimous or majority vote)
  • If the vote goes through, the agent is notified and calls their client 

Next, network with others in the industry. 

#2 – Network.

The more industry professionals you know, the higher your chances of engaging with the right writers, acquisitions editors, and publishers. If you want to become an agent but lack contacts, networking is a great way to start.

Attend writing conferences, join live webinars, create a Twitter account and join the #WritingCommunity, or reach out to writing groups. The more people you know, the better your chances of becoming an agent and securing the right book deals with the right publishing houses.

#3 – Intern with a professional agent.

Even if you are post high school or college, an internship can be a great way to get your foot in the door and learn the process. Just as when you start a new job, you are trained, when learning how to become an agent, it’s helpful to have an agent train you.

Working with a senior agent allows you to see the behind-the-scenes of the process, take notes on how agents and writers work together, and see details of the job you may otherwise miss. An internship, paid or unpaid, is an invaluable way to get hands-on experience in your desired job role.

Salary Expectations

Most agents require about a 15% commission rate on the published works of their clients. This commission is all-inclusive, meaning it encompasses anything from film rights to audiobook rights. 

Note that the commission rate will likely be higher for you if the work includes a language translation or foreign rights sales.

This commission fee is one reason why it is crucial to take on a client list you believe in and are passionate about helping. It is also crucial to vet writers before taking them on. Ask yourself the following questions before taking on a writer:

  • Are they hard workers? 
  • Is writing more of a side hobby or is it a career goal they’re willing to work for?
  • Are they actively learning how to write better, networking, and building their platform?

An agent and writer contractual relationship may last for at least two years, so make sure you work with writers you truly do want to work with.

Training Pathway 

The pathway to becoming an agent varies person to person, but there are a few key steps you can start taking today to journey closer to your goal. Many of these steps are simply self-educating on the multifaceted industry that is publishing: 

#1 – Learn what good writing is.

If you want to make that 15% commission selling your client’s work, it’s important they are a great writer. Learn the difference between bad writing, good writing, and what makes writing truly great. 

Learn to pick up the difference between passive and active writing. Identify first and third person stories and why each one used a different tense. 

#2 – Learn about proposals.

Your client’s book proposal can make or break the possibility of a great book deal. Learn what goes into developing a strong marketing plan, why endorsers matter, and the various checklists a writer needs to follow when including competitive titles. 

#3 – Learn about acquisitions.

As an agent, it will be your job to submit your client’s book proposal to an acquisitions editor. Knowing what they enjoy, what they are looking for, and the genres a particular house accepts is vital to you and your client’s success.

Additionally, knowing when to pitch is an important element of successful pitching. Does December seem like a great month to pitch?* Make sure you know these answers. 

*(December is typically not the best time to pitch because most publishers wind down their acquisitions between Thanksgiving and New Years.) 

#4 – Get familiar with pitching (don’t apologize).

There is a difference between pitching an idea, apologizing for adding to an editor’s inbox, and ending with “I completely understand if you do not want this title.” 

Instead, learn how to pitch boldly, know the worth of your client’s idea, and pitch it well. Understand how to tread the line between being professional and personal, and learn the art of saying as much as possible with as few words as necessary.

Take Your First Step Today

If this article seemed a little overwhelming, don’t let it stop you from pursuing your dream. Yes, there was a lot of content, but you don’t need to pursue it all at once! In fact, it’s likely better to take it one step at a time.

Rather than try to master each of the above steps, focus on one to educate yourself on today. Buy a book on how to write a great proposal or browse the web for free articles on the topic. Learn what goes into a proposal, and maybe try writing one yourself. 

This will allow you to empathize with future clients while giving you concrete experience. The better you know how to complete the steps on your own, the more you can encourage your clients in the right direction.

Becoming an agent is an exciting endeavor. You get to bridge the gap between their dream and its reality. This is not something to take lightly, but neither is it something to let overwhelm you. Enjoy the process of learning how to become an agent, signing on your first client, and don’t forget to celebrate when you both earn that first book contract!  

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