Thursday, March 21, 2013

How do I become an agent? By Terry Burns

I've had people ask me about becoming an agent, and it's true that anybody can hang out a shingle and say they are an agent. There are no licensing requirements, courses one has t take or tests to pass, which is why people have to be leery of unknown agents. But acquisitions people know this and a submission from an agent they don't know can receive even less attention than a slush-pile submission from an unknown author. Personally I would have never jumped off myself without being associated with a known agency like Hartline.

So, how do people start new agencies successfully? Most come out of publishing where they established their name in the industry with a known publisher. I'm one of few that came out of the writing side. The key is having contacts, having people in the industry who know who you are. Either that or they get accepted to intern at a big established agency. Most agencies have such interns patiently working their way up the ladder. Most have college degrees.

The next key is building those contacts. The first few years I worked doing writing conferences at the rate of a couple a month, building my name and building exposure. I was looking to acquire some good clients, but maybe even more importantly I was firming up those contacts with editors. Not a lot of money made during this formative period. Being a little off the beaten path I had the choice of apologizing for living in the Texas Panhandle or coming right at it. I'm not big on apologizing, so I wear the big hat and boots and a flowing mustache and hope it causes people to remember me. I've cut back and this year only doing a dozen conferences and if the economy keeps going the way it is going may cut back a bit more.

At Hartline Joyce was my agent, and still is, but she gave me my start and mentored me. I'm very grateful to her and loyal to her as well. In return I have mentored some people myself. I had a young lady come up to me at a conference and convince me that I needed an assistant and that she would work for free to get the experience. This is known as a remote internship. I helped her get the experience she needed to go on and found her own Indy press. 

Since then there have been others willing to work to get the experience they need and to start forming contacts. One has gone on to become a Hartline agent alongside me, two others have become editors at small presses and one founded her own PR company. I have a couple of others working in that capacity with me now and they put in quite a bit of work as I let them try more and more of the process to learn what is going on.  I worked with a client to form his own literary agency and another client to found another Indy press. Those who have moved on from it did 2-3 years with me until they had enough of a grasp of what was required for me to be able to write them a letter of recommendation to someone.

So what am I saying it takes to become an agent? It takes learning the business somehow, from someone. It requires gaining visibility and contacts either by getting with an established organization or building credibility ourselves. It takes learning about contracts and negotiation and getting comfortable doing both. It takes learning how things work in the industry and how to keep up with the people changes as well as the publishing changes.  It takes some business savvy and sales ability. In short, it takes a whale of a lot more than someone just announcing that suddenly they are an agent.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting insight into the industry.

Davalyn Spencer said...

Appreciate your faithfulness, Terry.

Jeanette Levellie said...

How did you earn your living during this time of training? That's the sticking point for so many of us working our way up the ladder, or, out the corporate door and into the playground (LOL) of the publishing world.

Thanks for taking the time to enlighten us, Terry.

Terry Burns said...

I was part time at first still with outside income and writing income.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago my Mom made the comment that I would become a literary agent one day. At the time,I laughed at her, but it did make me wonder how a person did become a literary agent. Your post answered that question for me. Thanks for the insight, Mr. Terry!