Literary agent is a funny profession. There is no college major for it. Yet, most people who do it need a college degree anyway to get in the door. To do the job, you have to know (or learn) about a few different things: literature, publishing, business, and contract law. To get into an agency, as far as I know, you usually become an agent in two ways: You work for a looong time at a publishing company as a book editor, or you work for several years as an assistant at a literary agency – sometimes as an intern first. Eventually, you are allowed to develop your own clients and be a full agent.
Even if you are straight out of a master’s program in creative writing, you might have to start as an intern or assistant, which basically means that you could be starting at a lower salary even than journalists.
If you become an agent, you also won’t have a lot of money at first, because you are basically playing the stock market with books. If you agree to represent my book, you are doing so because you predict that it will sell, and you will make money from getting 15 percent of the advance and royalties. If the book advance is $10,000, you get $1,500, even if it took a year to sell the book and work with the author to get it into good shape. That’s $1,500 spread over a year. Of course, royalties can kick in after it comes out. And obviously, if you end up selling a best-seller, you can get wealthy off it, just like picking the right stock. And if the book becomes a movie or TV show or anything else, the profits can be huge. It's a gift that keeps on giving.
So picture the literary establishment in New York: Half the people you meet want to write a book, or they’ve written one and want to sell it. They all want agents. It’s true that you can send your manuscript straight to a publishing company, particularly if you have an editor’s name, but they get so many submissions that it can take months for them to look at yours. If you have an agent who is moderately respected, an editor will take a look at the book sooner, knowing that the book has to be pretty decent to have this agent going to bat for it.
SO you have all these authors trying to get agents. And a number of agents in New York who get swamped with query letters and manuscripts.
Still, many of them are willing to work with new authors if they get a project they really love. It’s just that there are all these obstacles, everyone fighting for time and ink. As a result, you hope that the books that do end up making their way to the finish line are really good, or at least, really serve a purpose.
Fall starts in three days
I took the photo below last autumn in New England. I try to get up there at least once each fall.