Thursday, March 4, 2010

How does one land a job as a literary agent?

"My daughter will be graduating from high school in June and will be pursuing a degree in journalism in the fall. Her goal is to become a literary agent. Although I trust she will receive good advice at the university she plans to attend, she has many questions now about coursework and internships that I can't answer. Can you help me to advise her?"


Your daughter is very wise to plan so far in advance, and this alone will give her a great advantage. Indeed, one of the best ways to land a job in the publishing industry is to simply allow yourself enough time to do so—in her case, with 4 years of planning, her chances will be very strong.

You should not assume that her university will prepare her: most universities do not, in fact, teach students much practical information about the publishing industry, or prepare them for a job in it. When I attended Brandeis, for example, I was a double major in English and Creative Writing, and yet there wasn’t a single course offered about the publishing industry. So unless she is attending a college which specifically boasts a publishing program (like Emerson), then you can assume there will be no instruction or guidance. Some schools will host guest publishing speakers from time to time (Harvard, for example, has a “Writers in the Parlor” series, where I spoke last Fall)—but this is still not the same as having a full-fledged publishing program.

As far as her coursework, the best thing she can do is to major in English and/or Creative Writing. This is by no means a prerequisite for working in publishing, but it is certainly the most relevant major. Having a legal background (particularly entertainment law) is also good preparation for becoming an agent, since a good portion of what agents do involves deal-making and lengthy contracts.

Much more important, though, will be internships. She must intern in the publishing industry before she graduates (for example, during the summer months). Internships are probably, in fact, the single most important thing one could do to lay the groundwork for a job, since they provide practical (and resume) experience, allow her to see if she really likes the profession, provide knowledge about the industry, and perhaps most importantly, give one personal connections. These contacts (and the resume experience) will be all-important when it comes time for the job search. If two candidates compete for a job, and one has publishing internship experience and the other does not, it is nearly certain that the former will land the position. But she mustn’t assume that, because she has a dozen contacts, she will be assured a job upon graduation; publishing is all about timing, and if there are no openings when she graduates, her contacts may be useless. Thus she mustn’t become complacent. If she can’t find any internships with a literary agency, then she should be open to finding one in a publishing house. And it should be in New York if at all possible.

Although it is still a bit early for her, at some point before graduation she should start reading the industry trades on a weekly basis ( and are good places to start). She will absorb much industry information, and she will start to learn the names of companies and of people in the industry. As a starting point, it will be crucial that she has the names of all the major publishers and imprints memorized—it is a crucial foundation for becoming an agent, and it will be necessary, too, for her to know which publishers to apply to.

Finally, when she graduates and it is time for her to actually search for a job, she should 1) move to New York City (if she doesn’t already live here); 2) submit her resume as widely as possible to literary agencies; 3) give herself at least 6 months of searching (the biggest mistake candidates make is giving up after a few weeks or months); 4) not settle for a job which is not to her liking, or work for a boss who is unpleasant; and 5) apply for assistant jobs at book publishers if she cannot find one on the agency side. Working for a major book publisher is also great for the resume, and will help her land an eventual agency job. She should also remain open to the idea of working for the Subsidiary Rights departments of major publishers. This is something that few candidates consider, but which can end up being the most effective technique: it can be a much easier job to land, and literary agencies like to hire employees with Sub Rights experience, because many of the job duties overlap.

In the ideal world, she will land a job at a literary agency as an assistant literary agent, work for an agent who is encouraging and supportive, and within a year or two will be promoted, handling a list of her own authors. Some agents (and agencies) are more supportive of promoting their assistants than others, though; if she finds herself in an environment where assistants are not promoted after several years (or at all), or where her boss is not supportive, she may need to eventually switch agencies in order to become a full-fledged agent.