Top Seven Things I Learned as a Literary Agency Intern

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I have previously blogged about my experience as an editorial intern at a children’s books imprint, as well as various other topics pertaining to the publishing industry: how to find an internship, what the interview might look like, and tips for getting an internship.

This past summer, I had a bit of a different internship experience, this time with a literary agency (which, like the publisher I interned with, shall remain unnamed.  My views do not reflect their views and all that).  Seeing the industry from a different perspective was interesting, so I wanted to share some of what I learned, both to help those who might be deciding if they want to work in publishing and to help those who might be trying to get a manuscript published.  Or just for the general interest of people who like books.

  1. Secrecy is the key word. I signed a confidentiality agreement before starting the internship, basically asserting that I would not discuss my work outside of the agency (mostly regarding clients, manuscripts, and deals). Agents don’t want other agents to know they’re considering X book because someone else might attempt to woo their potential client away from them.
  1. Agents want to have their authors’ backs. They are experts in the industry and will fight to get their authors the best deals, whether that means selling rights primarily to a single publisher, or pursuing selling separate rights to multiple publishers.
  1. I mentioned this in regards to editors, but it applies to agents, as well: They want to work with people they like. You don’t necessarily need to be best friends with your agent, but you should always be polite, respectful, and open to the fact that you’re going to have to edit parts of your manuscript. No one wants to work with someone rude or whiny.  And if you lie to them about how many other agents are interested in your work, they will find out, and they will not be pleased.
  1. In addition to culling submitted manuscripts for great books, agents are also looking for the Next Big Thing on their own. They stay in touch with popular culture and look for journalists, bloggers, celebrities, etc. they think could write a compelling book and sometimes pitch an idea to them!
  1. Having “influence” can only help aspiring authors. Agents and editors want to know that your book is going to sell, so if you have 90,000 followers on Twitter, you want to include that information in your query letter, as well as your intention to market your book to said followers. (Keep in mind, however, that for social media numbers to matter to agents, they have to be big.  Two thousand followers are not going to sway them.)  This does not mean, however, that if you are a completely unknown author that no agent will be interested in your book.  If it’s good, it’s good.
  1. As a corollary to this point, if you want to sell a nonfiction book, you need to have expertise in the subject you are writing about. You need to convince the agent (who will then need to convince an editor) that you are the person to write about a diet, or DIY remodeling, or whatever. List any degrees you’ve earned, any articles you’ve written, etc. that are relevant to your topic.  But make sure they matter and are unique.  Saying that you are a mother is not a fast track to publishing your book on parenting.
  1. It’s generally not easy to just “become a literary agent.” Agents get paid when they sell books to publishers. This means that those looking to start out in the industry often have to take on other roles in the agency (ones with a more stable salary) as they build their client list.

Overall, I had a great time at this internship and learned a lot about how the publishing industry works.  As always, I’m happy to answer any questions, especially from readers interested in getting a publishing internship of their own!

12 thoughts on “Top Seven Things I Learned as a Literary Agency Intern

  1. karaebenhack says:

    Wow, I’m surprised you had to sign a confidentiality agreement. I interned for a pretty big lit agency in NYC back when I was in college and didn’t have to do that… It was just something that was implied that you don’t go snooping at addresses and phone numbers and what not if you want to keep your job.


    • Briana says:

      Interesting. I was reading a blog post by an intern at a different literary agency about a week ago, and she had to sign one too, so apparently they’re not completely uncommon. The agent I was interning with does a lot of memoirs, though, so in addition to the obvious not snooping for our fave authors’ phone numbers 😀 there was concern about interns talking about projects AT ALL with anyone outside the agency. They didn’t want us going on Facebook and gushing that X celebrity had sent them a memoir manuscript, for instance, and didn’t want us telling anyone how much such a manuscript had sold for to a publisher. Some of it comes from worry that if another agency sees that X celebrity is looking for a book deal, they might try to woo them away from our agency.

      Liked by 1 person

      • karaebenhack says:

        Ahh I can see with the celebs why that would be the case. We had a bunch of celebs at ours too but the head agent and her assistants only dealt with them (though I got to answer the phones one day and talked to some celeb chefs!). I got to hang out with the two YA agents because they pegged me for a YA addict the first day I walked in there!


  2. saraletourneau says:

    That must have been a fantastic internship, Briana. Thanks for sharing your insights with us! I think these are also helpful things for aspiring authors who want to take the traditional publishing route to keep in mind. Especially #3. Even though that bit is common sense, we really can’t forget to treat the agents we query with respect.


    • Briana says:

      Yes, I see agents on Twitter all the time tweeting about prospective authors who have sent them rude emails, whom they subsequently want nothing to do with. And while I do sympathize with aspiring authors because it can take a very long time for some agents to respond to queries or even fulls (I know someone who’s been waiting on a reply over a year from an agent who claims a 3 month response time), the fact is that sending frustrated emails or making frustrated calls just doesn’t inspire agents to work with you.

      The second most common “turn off” for agents are probably the query letters that start with some form of, “I don’t know why I’m even bothering because none of you people ever reply, but…” While I personally find these letters kind of amusing, and again, I sympathize because the sentiment expressed can be true, sounding dispirited or irritated with the publishing industry isn’t the best way to land a book deal.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Topaz says:

    I love this post (and WOW, what a wonderful experience – I’m slightly jealous! 😉 ). I think #3 is especially important – common sense, yes, but in the fast-paced publishing race, far too many authors tend to disregard the power of simple politeness. “Please” is the magic word, and all that. Agents are people too, and they want to get great books into readers’ hands just as much as authors do! 😀


  4. DoingDewey says:

    Fascinating! As someone on the boundaries of the publishing world as an ameteur blogger, I love hearing from those of you who have professional insight into how publishing works. It seems very interesting!


  5. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for posting this, Briana!! I’m currently waiting for an upcoming interview for an internship with a literary agency and have a few questions.
    1) Is it a bad idea to mention that I enjoy writing my own stories and/or am working on a novel (or eventually want to write one)? How much is okay to divulge? I don’t want them to think that I’m just trying to work there so that they’ll publish my book.
    2) Also, I saw your other post with publishing interview questions. Do you have any advice on specific ones a literary agency might ask?
    3) I’ve heard that generally literary agents take a lot of manuscripts home with them to read in their own time. If this is true, what do they spend their time at work doing? And I thought that they had assistants to read through the manuscripts first to weed out the really awful ones?
    THANKS! (By the way, this is kind of time sensitive if you have a chance to answer soon…)


    • Krysta says:

      I’m not sure when Briana will be back on, but I’ll add my two cents (as someone who has not worked for a literary agent).

      1) I don’t think I’d mention this just because I’m not sure how it’s relevant to the position. You want to demonstrate that you’re knowledgeable about the role and have experience that will translate to the tasks associated with the role. You don’t need to mention that you like reading or writing because they already know that–most people who work in publishing do. You want to set yourself apart by showing that you’re prepared to take on that specific job, not enthusiastic about writing in general.

      2) I’m afraid I don’t know. Sorry! My general advice is to familiarize yourself with the job description and figure out how you will describe yourself as being experienced enough for it, even if your experience is in other jobs/school.

      3) I’m guessing how much work agents bring home varies by agent. However, a lot of them do have interns. So, yes, it could be your job or a college student’s job to go through the pile and either write reader’s reports for the manuscripts or maybe just toss or save. But I could see the agents bringing home the manuscripts the interns put aside for them. I imagine their time at work is spent answering emails and phone calls, negotiating with authors and publishers, suggesting revisions or otherwise giving feedback to the authors they rep, that sort of thing. It’s a good idea to research the role of a literary agent so you can appear knowledgeable at the interview. You want to demonstrate that you see yourself having a career as literary agent and, to do that, you need a picture of what they do at the office.

      Good luck!


    • Briana says:

      I’ve honestly had some bizarre experiences interviewing for and interning for literary agents. A lot of them do “typical” interview questions like asking what you like to read, why you want to work there, etc., but I did have one where they asked me if I’d used specific software before and had done very specific tasks and seemed put out when I said no. So I’d suggest preparing for the more predictable questions because you can’t really prepare for the strange ones!

      A lot of people in publishing also write, so I don’t think it would be weird to mention, but I’d probably only bring it up as a relevant answer to a question. Like “What are your hobbies?” or something. Or if you have experience providing editorial feedback to other aspiring authors because you belong to a writer’s group or something like that. I have seen publishing employees recommend that you should apply to jobs in publishing because you want to work in publishing, not because you want to be published, so I would just keep the focus on how your writing experience would help you excel at the internship.

      Yeah, it seems that everyone in publishing takes their work home with them, which is the downside. Editors do the same thing because you typically do everything BUT read manuscripts while in the office. Agents and editors do use interns and assistants to weed out manuscripts, but then they have to read the ones the intern/assistant thinks they might actually be interested in acquiring.

      But agents will spend a lot of time at work negotiating contracts, writing pitch letters to send out manuscripts to publishing houses, maybe doing editorial work on a client’s manuscript. It’s the straight “I’m reading this because I MIGHT want to rep it” reading that gets done at home. At the office they’ll often focus on clients they have already signed.


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