How to become a literary agent

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  • Literary agent Juliet Mushens began her publishing career at HarperCollins after reading history at Cambridge. She now works for The Agency Group. Here, she shares her 10 tips for breaking into the publishing industry.

    1. Read widely

    The job is about finding and championing new writers, so it’s important to see what else is in the market, what’s working and what’s not working, and to develop and hone your taste. I meet a lot of people who say they want to be agents, but only read the classics. I think the best agents are widely read and aware of up and coming writers as well as established talents.

    2. Work hard

    Agenting is a job where you get out as much as you put in. When I was interning (which led to my first job) and assisting (which led to my promotion) I worked all hours and put as much effort into menial tasks as more glamorous ones. I have the same ethos now I’m an agent.

    3. Meet writers

    Your reputation is built by the quality of the writers you represent. But when you’re just starting out and establishing a track record it’s really helpful to attend creative writing courses and writing festivals and to give talks about what you are looking for – you want to encourage writers to submit their novels to you.

    4. Become a negotiator

    A big part of my job is to negotiate with publishers. It’s hard at first to be tough, to ask for more money and better terms, but it’s such an important skill to develop. I have to secure the best deal for my client, and you have to learn where to compromise and where to stick to your guns.

    5. Trust your gut

    I never look at a book and think ‘I can sell this’, I look at it and think ‘do I love it?’ I need that passion to work on a project.

    6. Deal with negative situations

    It’s my job to ask the difficult questions, and to share the bad news as well as the good. When a publisher rejects a novel, or an author’s sales figures aren’t as good as we hoped I need to share that news in a positive way, and to come up with a strategy to move past this.

    7. Practise pitching

    I spend a lot of time pitching books to publishers. Knowing how to condense a 100k novel into a pithy blurb is hugely helpful when dealing with them – you need to know the hook that will get people reading. I love pitching, and selling, and marketing. Most people believe agents read books all day – but you need a strong business sense as, ultimately, we’re sales people.

    8. Become a master of multitasking

    You have to know how to juggle numerous tasks – reading submissions, offering editorial notes, negotiating contracts, dealing with book jacket problems, chasing sales figures and many more. Learn how to prioritise, how to write a to-do list – and how to complete one!

    9. Remember that the client comes first

    I work for my clients and it’s important to make sure that they have their needs met – that can mean payment chasing, editorial support, making sure they are happy with the book jacket and comfortable with the publishing process. I try and be really open and communicative with the author: publishing can be a really closed world so I want to keep them informed throughout the process.

    10. Love the job

    I thrive on finding new talent and helping shape an author’s career. It’s not a 9-5 job but I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Calling an author and telling them that their book will be published is the best feeling in the world.

    The Agency Group is the world’s leading music, speakers, literary, agency, representing a roster of over 2,000 musicians, speakers, authors and chefs.

    Looking for more career inspo? It’s not too late to book tickets for Marie Claire’s @ Work Live, in association with Cointreau and Next. A one-day event on 23 April 2016, featuring advice, tips and inspiration from incredible speakers.

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