Funny You Should Ask: How Do You Become a Literary Agent?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader’s question about how to become a literary agent.
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Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers a reader’s question about how to become a literary agent.

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Dear Focused,

This question has an answer as varied and nuanced as each of our industry’s agents. Some folks get on track as an English major undergrad, some by going to law school. Others start in an entirely different track and then hop trains to a program like the Columbia Publishing Course. There are summer internships, mailroom positions, friends of friends who hear about an open entry-level assistant position. There are also those who think to themselves, Hey! I love to read and I really love my own opinions. So they charm and cajole—some might say hound—an amazing literary agent until finally she calls while they’re on a run in Central Park and says, “You just won’t go away, will you? That alone means something to your potential. Do you want the job?” And then, Pow! You’re an agent!

 Guide to Literary Agents 2019

Guide to Literary Agents 2019

Okay, okay, maybe not that last one. That seems too crazy to be true. [Side eye.]

The most ubiquitous trait you can find in an agent, however, is the story they tell when asked, “Why books?”Sometimes books helped to escape; sometimes they helped to stay grounded. Sometimes books were an only friend, or they were the only friends you wanted. Some-times you saw yourself in a book, sometimes you saw someone else in one. Sometimes they provided the laugh you didn’t know you needed. Sometimes they provoked the cry you knew you did. Because you have to love these delicious, wondrous, marvelous things—these books. The baseline for any agent is the love of the story.

I believe similar characteristics extend to editors—those invaluable muses, those keepers of the craft— and that might be another path for your daughter to investigate. As an editor, you are still working with words and helping to shape art and education (disguised as entertainment—whee!). And not to put too fine a point on it, because I am usually very, very subtle, but editors receive a salary. Agents work on commission: We get paid when we sell a book. Basically, we only eat what we kill, and there can be some mighty feasts, but also some terrible famines.

Wanna see the math? Let’s say that on Day 1, an agent sells a book to Putnam for $100,000. Wowie! A six-figure deal! But before you order the caviar, let’s unpack that number a bit. The agent takes 15 percent, which in this make-believe scenario comes out to $15,000. As part of an agency, the starting rate for an agent is usually half of that 15 percent—meaning the agent takes home $7,500. But that $7,500 is often paid out in halves (or smaller fractions). One half on contract signing, the other half on Delivery and Acceptance (D&A) of the client manuscript. So that is $3,750 up front, and the other $3,750 around six months later.

Before taxes.

So, less caviar, more … fish sticks.

This peek behind the curtain is not meant to discourage, only to reveal one of the many aspects that differentiate the editorial side of publishing from the agenting side, and both are very worthy, very fulfilling avenues to keep books as your passion and your vocation. I’m just saying, it might make sense for your daughter to keep her mind open. But at age 16, the most important education/preparation she could have—before taking a class, enrolling in a publishing course or targeting a Master of Fine Arts program—is to read, read, read. Everything. Tell your daughter to think of the books she devours in the context of what else is out on the shelves, making comparisons like, “That book is The Devil Wears Prada meets The Martian.” (OK, whatever that book is, I really need it.) And make sure she’s able to substantiate it. Encourage her to enter into discussion with others about what they are reading, and to facilitate a genuine interest in why they’re reading it.

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And if she’s still set on the agenting side? Tell her to start to … challenge norms. But with flair! I mean obviously not your norms. Rules are rules! (Psst … hey, kid … you want half an hour added to your curfew? Ask for an hour, get the “No,” counter with 45 minutes and a check-in call. They’ll settle at that extra 30. Boom.) Being an agent is about finding the path that leads to everyone standing up from the table feeling that their needs were met—and that is achieved through persistence and, quite frankly, panache. So, she needs to read and persevere. Then, who knows? Maybe your daughter will be jogging in Central Park one day and I’ll give her a call.

I hear that’s a thing.

ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to writers.digest@fwmedia.com with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on WritersDigest.com and in Writer's Digest magazine.

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