Q11: Agent Training

What training/experience do you recommend for someone who’s interested in becoming an agent?

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Read lots of new books in the genres of your interest, and read the acknowledgements to see which agents and editors worked on them. Read agenting blogs; I particularly recommend Kristin Nelson’s “Agenting 101” series. Get a job on the publisher side of things, particularly marketing, publicity, editorial, or contracts. Get a job as an agency intern or assistant. There are no particular degrees or programs for agenting; it’s all about the work experience.

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Agenting is an apprenticeship business. Get an internship with a reputable agency and be willing to work 50+ hours a week for free if you can. Read on nights and weekend and always say “yes.”

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My training came on the job.  I started as an unpaid intern for a literary agency, eventually got hired as an assistant and from there started acquiring authors once I was officially an agent.  Some people come to agenting from some other part of the publishing world, most commonly from editing.  For anyone who is interested in becoming an agent, I’d start by getting an agency internship.

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Intern and apprentice. Keep a firm hand on the market in the areas you would like to represent some day.

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A B.A. in some English related major is a prerequisite, a lot of agents have an English related M.A. as well.  NYU offers a graduate level Publishing degree (and I’ve heard they have a fairly successful job placement program as well) if you’re interested.  Mostly though, the only way to learn how to be an agent is join an agency.  A background working in trade publishing (in editorial, contracts, or subsidiary rights for example) is certainly helpful.  Otherwise, you’ll have to get some sort of apprenticeship type position at an agency, usually starting as an assistant. Publishing contracts have their eccentricities and the industry has a lot of strange and bewildering precedents that one has to learn before they can be an effective agent.

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Go to law school, work for authors, work in ANY part of showbiz.

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Get an internship! It’s not a perfect process – it’s actually a huge pain and cost-prohibitive for those who aren’t lucky enough to live within commuting distance of an agency – but apprenticeships have lasted since the Middle Ages for a reason. There’s nothing quite like watching someone who is good at their job and helping them as much as possible to teach you a trade. If that’s not possible, do whatever you can to get some editorial experience: reading the digital slush pile for an agent, helping on a local or school literary magazine, working for a school group to help students revise. Also, get a summer job in an office – any office – if you can. Prove you’re willing to make copies and answer phones and do filing, because that’s where you’re going to start. I still do all that.

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I wish I knew a step-by-step guide to becoming an agent. If I did, I would’ve used it myself. Definitely publishing experience through jobs or internships is a must. Not just at agencies either, though obviously that never hurts. The agent’s job extends to a lot of different parts of publishing. Editorial, contracts, marketing, publicity, digital, finance, and other publishing departments are good places to learn about the industry. Sometimes I wish I could’ve worked in all the departments! I would like to know more about EVERYTHING. And when I first moved to New York, I initially only sent job applications to editorial or agency jobs which I think might’ve been a mistake because there are so many more applicants for those positions (and I didn’t have a degree from a fancy university). But if you do apply to other departments, you can’t just look at it as a stepping stone to something greater, or you won’t absorb all the knowledge you can. Also you never know where you are going to meet people who will help you along the way.

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Intern, intern at publishing houses, intern at agencies and then be an assistant and/or find an agent mentor at an established agency who can teach you the ropes. I can’t imagine being an agent without that!

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I’d suggest you get a real job with a salary benefits and stop making your mother worry. If you stubbornly refuse to follow this sound advice, start off as an unpaid intern or very-underpaid agency assistant. Prepare to make NO MONEY for at least a year, and not to make a good living for at least five. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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1 thought on “Q11: Agent Training”

  1. To the person who suggested that an internship was the same as an apprenticeship: Didn’t apprentice-masters have to pay for their apprentices’ room and board? Not QUITE the same situation there–though today’s interns are probably also less likely to be beaten.

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