I’ve been seeing some comments around the Internet expressing surprise in response to revelations by agents (myself included) that they have day jobs. I am likewise surprised that anyone would think this was strange! I guess this is a post I should have made a while ago, but it honestly didn’t occur to me that there were people who were unaware that not all agents start out earning a full-time living as agents. In fact, most don’t.

Here’s something I know most of you will not be surprised to learn: publishing pays very little, especially in the beginning. There are always exceptions--particularly for those becoming agents after establishing careers elsewhere in the industry--but the vast majority of new agents are either working in some other capacity at a literary agency in addition to representing their own clients, are independently wealthy (or lucky enough to have a partner who can afford to support them), or have some other source of income. I know agents who are bartenders and bookkeepers, freelance editors and website designers, sales clerks and substitute teachers... basically, whatever pays the bills while they build their lists and start making enough sales to be able to give up their day jobs.

I had the honor and privilege of working with Robin Rue at Writers House for two years, and for that whole time I performed the duties of an assistant, as well as those of a junior agent after I began taking on my own clients. (This is roughly the same as how editorial assistants begin acquiring their own projects and eventually become editors, by the way.) It was an invaluable apprenticeship and I can’t say enough good things about Robin or about all the wonderful opportunities to learn the business that I was fortunate enough to have at Writers House, but I was still working forty hours a week doing something other than representing my own clients. Any time I had for reading my own slush, developing my own list, or selling projects for my own authors had to be made after I did my other work, and with the support and permission of my boss. Again, I was lucky that she was incredibly supportive, but for practical purposes a lot of my own agenting was still being done “on the side”.

Now that I think about it, I can of course see why the default assumption given the lack of any other information might be that all agents do this full time, but the reality is that it takes most agents several years to get to the point where they can support themselves on their commissions alone. The reality is also that not everyone can afford to pursue this career for that long, but I know people who work full time and/or support families while putting themselves through law school, medical school, and so on, and are successful at it. If they can do that, why would it be any different in publishing?

Finally, one of the things I think is important for me personally is not feeling like I have to take on projects which I consider marginal just to pay my bills, because that’s not the kind of agent I want to be. I don’t think being that hungry is good for either author or agent in the long term, and whether someone ultimately ends up being in this business for a few years or a lifetime, I believe it’s important to try to see the big picture in terms of the career longevity of every client I take on: not just, what books can we sell now, but where will that author’s career be in five years? Ten? Twenty?

Naturally the answers to this question will vary, and I’m sure everyone can think of cases of an author who only had one book in them--preferably an immortally beloved bestseller, for my money--but as far as I’m concerned succeeding as an agent is just like any other success in publishing: you try to always do your best work, and if you’re gifted and lucky maybe you will be one of the few to grab that brass ring, the bestseller (or better yet, series) that makes your career and gives you financial security. Or, you carve out your financial security by focusing on quantity and representing many books that might never make bestseller lists, but which will consistently earn out smaller advances and lead to more contracts (for example, with category romance the agent may only make a few hundred dollars per book after expenses, but people buy a lot of books in that genre and the money adds up). Or, you win the lottery. The good news is that until any of these things happens, you can still have a career in the meantime...

You’d just better be able to pay your rent.
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