Question of the Week: What Education is Required in Order to Become an Agent? (and then some)

12 Mar

This Question of the Week is actually 2 questions, and comes from cgwriter – who we thought should get an answer ASAP. Since we get a number of questions about how to go about getting a career in the publishing industry, we thought it would be useful to answer this question in regards to becoming an agent with how to become an editor as well. Cristina (cgwriter) asked us these questions (and we hope this helps!):

“1) I am currently an English major, with no minor. I’d like to decide pronto whether I minor in anything or not, seeing as I’m already a sophomore.

My question is, what kind of minor (or classes) should I take if I want to be a literary agent? As in, what kinds of classes will be helpful to me? I was told I need to have a background in law and marketing; is that true?

2) It can be kind of daunting seeing you guys so successful so young. Would you consider yourselves to be the minority? I can’t imagine myself being published, engaged, etc at only 23, yet you guys managed to pull all of that off. It’s inspiring, though!”


1) As a writer, I don’t know much about how to land a job as a literary agent, but I do know other people who have graduated from college as an English major (or History major, or something super random), and the stuff they’ve done AFTER graduation has helped them. Doing an MFA program for creative writing can definitely give you a leg-up. But for a quick-and-dirty thing that’ll give you a bit more of an edge on your competition, check out programs like the Columbia Publishing Course. My friend took the course right after she graduated from college, and it ultimately helped her land a job as an editorial assistant at a major publishing house.

2) There are plenty of young, successful authors out there–but I think everyone (no matter their age) feels that there are people who have become successful far earlier than them. You just have to stop comparing yourself to people–it’ll only make you crazy. My age didn’t play a part in getting my dreams accomplished–I just knew that I wanted to be published, and have spent many years working towards it. If anything, I think that seeing other successful young writers should inspire–not intimidate. It’s all about hard work and dedication. If it’s your dream to be published, then you’ll work for that dream every single day, until it’s accomplished. Age ain’t nothin but a number.


1.       A lot of agents that I know of are English majors. Other majors that might be helpful would be Journalism, Creative Writing, and Business. The most important thing, however, is to take something you enjoy. Having a minor in another subject would be useful (for any position in publishing, really). But again, consider having a minor/second major as icing on the cake. It isn’t REQUIRED, but having more under your belt doesn’t hurt either. If you minored in history, for example, you would have a knowledge base that would allow you to take on historical fiction (not that you NEED a history minor/major for this, but people would certainly respect you more), or non-fiction (here, having the minor/major in history could be important). Decide what books you would want to rep as an agent. If all you’re interested in repping is YA, then perhaps having a History minor isn’t necessary.

I’m going to take this question a step further by looking at editorial jobs, as well. For becoming an editor, being an English major might make things a bit difficult. Here’s why: First, the majority of people going into publishing are (gasp!) English majors. So, there ends up being a CRAZY amount of competition. Having a major (or minor) in another subject can help you get an editorial job in specialized/ niche areas. Have a major in art? You could be THE editor for all the awesome art books. Heck, you could even be the art director at a publishing house. Business major? You’d be a shoe-in as an editor for business self-help books.

I know that while I was doing my undergrad, I had no clue what was needed to get into the industry. I ended up finding a publishing program at Ryerson University for people who have finished their undergrad studies. I also know that at York University in Toronto, there are publishing courses that you can take during your undergrad (although they are normally third or fourth year courses), and they also offer a joint Book and Magazine Publishing certificate course. For anyone interested in Publishing, check all the colleges/universities in your area. They might have a Publishing degree (I know that the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia offers both publishing degrees and certificates, for example). In Toronto, in addition to York U and Ryerson, Centennial College and Humber College also offer Publishing certificates. These courses are invaluable; I can’t even begin to describe just how much I’ve been taught taking these courses. In fact, I think it’s THESE courses that will help. Some places will offer mandatory internships; others will have internship postings you can apply for (which is how it works at Ryerson).

Internships are REALLY key. It’s the way to get your foot in the door, no matter what position you want in the publishing industry. I got my internship through the Publishing program at Ryerson (and it wasn’t easy). Mandy got hers by networking with other agents and agencies; following them on their blogs and on twitter, and by applying once she saw they were looking for interns. Publishing is an industry that requires experience, so the more you have, the better! Look for an internship; it’s your BEST way in. Also, networking is HUGE in this industry. In order to make it as an agent, you need to know editors. Author/book launch parties, any groups you can join (for Canadians – esp. Torontonians – check out the Young Publishers of Canada group for events, or become a member of the BPPA [the Book Publishers’ Professional Association]). For any job in this industry, it’s all about who you know.

As for a background in law and marketing, I don’t think that’s necessary for becoming an agent. If you have that, all the power to you, but everything concerning rights will be taught to you at an agency while you are interning there (and unless you were an editor or some other big-shot in the publishing industry before setting your sights on agenting, you’ll NEED to get an internship). Getting a part-time job at book store as well while taking your undergrad would be useful, but not necessary – but it would show that you have always been passionate about books, and would prove that you know the market.

2.       I’m not sure if I would consider myself successful just yet! I’m certainly not published, nor do I have a real job in the industry just yet – my foot is only halfway through the door! But I like to think that my passion for books is what has helped me land such a great internship. If in a year or two (or three, or four, etc) I see my name on a book, I will probably just die of complete and utter happiness. There are so many people who are younger and even more successful than I am – but that doesn’t mean I am not talented enough to make it! It’s all about looking for those opportunities, and spending hours among hours honing your craft and improving your skills. All I can say is… just keep on pushing – the road to getting ANYWHERE in this industry is pretty daunting; but so long as you’re passionate and keep your head up, you’ll be fine! You just have to put yourself out there – which can be scary, and will most likely result in some people telling you that you’re not good enough – but who cares what they say? You just keep on pushing. And then one day, you’ll be standing on top of the (publishing) world, laughing.

The Writer Writing Her First Book


Everyone’s perspective of success differs. I’m twenty years old and am neither engaged nor published. However, I still consider myself to be successful. Why? I completed a 90,000 word historical romance. I have mustered enough courage to query to agents. Two agents replied to my first batch of query letters and asked for partials. While the first agent later rejected me, the second agent was interested and asked for my full manuscript. I’m still waiting for her to respond. However, whether she offers representation or not does not define my success. Success to me is that I’ve gotten this far in the first place, and that I am enjoying my journey to publication.

-The Writer Who Got a Full Request


So, we were wondering – how many of you also plan on (or are thinking of) pursuing a career in the publishing industry? (Other than becoming a successful author, or course!) If you are, where in publishing do you want to end up?

8 Responses to “Question of the Week: What Education is Required in Order to Become an Agent? (and then some)”

  1. cgwriter March 12, 2010 at 10:40 PM #

    Thanks guys! I really appreciate the hasty response. :] It was helpful!!

    • cgwriter March 12, 2010 at 10:41 PM #

      I actually have an internship at the moment. I’m glad you guys mentioned that. Mine is more in the journalism world though–I’m a reporter for a local newspaper–but writing experience is writing experience, I guess!

    • Vanessa March 13, 2010 at 11:54 PM #

      Glad we could help!! 😀

  2. Dani March 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM #

    First, I just wanted to say that I’m new to your blog but am really enjoying it so far. You guys are providing a great look at the writer’s and agent’s perspectives, and it’s thanks to you guys that I got really excited for an author when I got to make a request for a partial.

    As for me, I’m an intern at a literary agency with an editorial internship under my belt, and am currently an M.S. Publishing candidate at NYU (another wonderful publishing program that has really helped me “get my foot in the door”). I’m looking to join the industry as an editor or literary agent in YA.

    Looking forward to your next posts!

    • Vanessa March 14, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

      Hi Dani!

      It’s great to hear new voices! I’m glad you are enjoying what we’ve written so far.

      I love that you’re another literary agency intern! (WOO!)
      Although I must admit that I am very jealous about that editorial internship! Do you mind if I ask where you currently are interning/ have interned?

      And publishing programs are great, aren’t they?

      • Dani March 15, 2010 at 10:10 AM #

        Hi Vanessa,

        I was an editorial intern at Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books and am currently at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency.

        If you’re looking for an internship, check out Media Bistro, Publisher’s Weekly, and company websites; there’s usually something. =)

  3. Landon March 16, 2010 at 4:09 PM #

    I’m not at a crucial career-deciding point in my life right now, but I can’t see myself going into anything other than publishing (except for maybe just writing, but that’s not as likely).

    • Vanessa August 26, 2010 at 10:54 AM #

      It took me a long time to figure out that I wanted to work in publishing. At one point in time, I was planning on becoming a graphic designer!

      It’s hard feeling like you have to plan your career so far in advance. I was just lucky to have decided to work with books when I was young because I loved to read – and that turned out to be invaluable when looking for a job in this industry! So, just do what you love!

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