You’ve spent months, maybe years, working tirelessly to tell your story and you’ve done it. You’ve written a book. What follows may be even harder: getting it published. It’s the word on every writer’s mind, and it can be scary, especially if you’re choosing to go the traditional route.
In this three-part series, we hope to answer some of your burning questions, like What makes a literary agent tick? How do I craft a query letter? What are the best ways to utilize social media?
To answer these questions, we went straight to source: literary agents.
This article will give you a glimpse into the inner workings of the publishing world as experienced by literary agents. We asked them the following questions:
- What’s a big misconception authors have about what you do?
- What do you wish authors knew about your job?
- What is the hardest part of your job?
- How did you decide to become an agent?
- How do you manage your day to day responsibilities?
- What do you love about being an agent?
- Describe an upcoming book/author of yours that you’re excited about.
What you learn may surprise you.
What’s a big misconception authors have about what you do?
Sharon Pelletier: It sometimes seems like writers think that agents are eager to say no to queries, gleefully set up their guidelines to fail writers on seemingly petty grounds, and don’t understand how vulnerable and disappointing it is to get a rejection. Quite the opposite – we are so eager for the next amazing project that we fall in love with, the next client whose voice we can’t get enough of! Most agencies have specific instructions for how to submit to us, but that is not intended as a barrier to entry; our guidelines are aimed at keeping our submissions manageable and are designed to keep us effective at identifying the talent that is right for us. That emphasis is important: I’ve passed on writers many times where I knew there was talent there, but I wasn’t passionate about the story or the voice, and thus wouldn’t be the right advocate for the writer in a very tough business. I know it’s disappointing to hear a No, but your hard work deserves an agent who is fully and completely in love with your work and eager to work with you.
Noah Ballard: The biggest misconception is that I’m some sort of heartless gatekeeper. While most publishers won’t look at an un-agented book project, just because I represent it doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. The only reason I have a good batting average, however, is that I only take swings at pitches I think I can hit. And when I swing, I swing with everything I’ve got. That’s my promise to my clients.
Julia Kardon: I think authors are sometimes resentful of agents because they get rejected so much: but every time we are opening our queries we are genuinely hoping to find something we love. I personally would rather reject something that goes on to sell than work with someone just because I think their book could sell: when I sign a client, I hope it’s a career-long relationship and I need to have genuine enthusiasm about them before offering representation.
Laney Katz Becker: There are still writers who think of agents as nothing more than gatekeepers who are preventing them from reaching the editors and publishers. A real turn-off for me is when I get a query that states, “My work has been professionally copy-edited and is ready for submission.” Really? Silly me! I thought I was the one who determined if/when a proposal was ready for submission.
Andy Ross: Most authors believe that literary agents wield some kind of alchemical power, that an agent can get them a six-figure deal, when they, themselves, could only get chump change. That’s probably not true. It is true most publishers won’t accept un-agented projects. But the value added by a good agent has more to do with helping the writer shape the book in such a way that a publisher would find it appealing. If you end up with an agent who isn’t willing to work with you on development, you probably aren’t being well-served.
What do you wish authors knew about your job?
Miriam Goderich: How hard it is to reject material. Someone once told me that it’s just as hard to write a bad book as a good one and I always remember that when I have to turn something down. My colleagues and I respect how hard authors work and it pains us when we have to say no. And, how hard most of us work in and out of the office. Most of us need quiet and calm to review manuscripts and proposals and we find ourselves working at home on evenings and weekends. (It’s not a glamorous life.)
Jamie Carr: I think it’s helpful to know that a good part of our job is about identifying and communicating with you, the author, about where we suspect your book idea or manuscript meets the current publishing market. Sometimes what you’ve been told in MFA or in classes isn’t quite in line with the kinds of elements that have to be bone-strong to sell—and in that case, the author has to decide if they want to do a deep dive edit to try and get the book there (or closer to there) or if maybe that particular book is better suited with a small press or as a short story, or in some other form. To sell a book to a traditional publisher (indies included), both author and agent have to be reading and thinking about the market—and talking about where the author’s work falls into that equation.
Jeff Silberman: First, how much we care about you. If we sign you, it’s because we believe passionately in you and your work. And second, how much we appreciate you and what you do. Creating beauty, bringing forth greatness, takes a lot. And books make a difference. So thank you for bringing what you bring into the world.
Terra Chalberg: Such a great question. The more they value the agent’s role in the process and include us in book-related correspondence and decisions—even if it’s not directly correlated to the agent delivering immediate results or even if the agent is not explicitly advising on any particular detail, and even post-publication—the better the agent is able to advocate for them and their fellow agency authors, which heightens the level and quality of service all around. Experience and knowledge are worth so much and so many authors don’t get that. We best serve authors when authors take the long view.
Lisa DiMona: How grateful I am that I get to spend time helping to bring their books into the world.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Jim McCarthy: It’s so incredibly easy to become personally invested in the success or failure of your clients, and this can be a brutal business, so there WILL be failures. Some books won’t perform as well as expected; others will be poorly reviewed. When you put as much into the work as you do, even though it’s not ultimately YOUR work being judged, that line feels porous. Learning to brush off the bad news and focus back in on ways to move forward is an endless part of the job and, to me, probably the most challenging.
Rica Allannic: Patience. I get excited about clients and their ideas and then it can take a while to hone each one and craft it into the ideal proposal that gives the writer a real road map for the eventual book.
Kate Garrick: Rejection of all sorts. Not only the rejections I have to deliver, but the ones I receive on behalf of my clients. I have certainly developed a thicker skin than I had when I started out, but it’s never easy.
Farley Chase: The sound of crickets upon publication of a book into which author, agent, and publisher have put enormous amount of work and intention.
How did you decide to become an agent?
Sharon Pelletier: In some ways, I was lucky enough to stumble into it – I always wanted to work in publishing and started out at Barnes & Noble, then had a series of editorial jobs and a ton of freelance work until a friend connected me with the opportunity at my current agency. Mentors had always gently pointed me in the direction of agenting and I guess I should have listened to them a lot sooner, because it turns out I really love it and have the right aptitudes. I love talking about books I love, analyzing books I don’t, working creatively on edits with gifted writers, always being their biggest cheerleader…and being just intensely hyper-organized!
Julia Kardon: Publishing is a really tough field to break into, but there are so many agencies and they usually don’t have the same kind of formidable electronic HR filters that publishers do: it’s easy to get in touch with agents and inquire about internships and job openings. After interning at a literary agency for a few months, an assistant position opened up and I was able to successfully apply. I absolutely fell in love with the agenting side of things: the autonomy most of all.
Andy Ross: I was a retail bookseller for 35 years. I owned Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. When the store closed, I didn’t know what I would do next. I’d been a bookseller all my adult life. I thought I would only be qualified to sack groceries at Safeway. But I decided on the next best thing, becoming a literary agent. I love it!
Noah Ballard: It’s a long, not very interesting story, but with my passion for writing, editing and project management, it was an easy fit. There was no moment when I decided to be an agent, but it’s my favorite thing to be.
Laney Katz Becker: I began my career as an advertising copywriter. I later transitioned to working as a freelance journalist and author. After a couple decades of this (and, once the kids were out of the house), I found the writing life too solitary. Becoming an agent was a natural fit for my reading/writing and marketing skills.
How do you manage your day to day responsibilities?
Kate Garrick: Barely? I’m kidding. The good thing about this work is there are ebbs and flows throughout the year. August is a slow time, and so are the weeks around the holidays. While I certainly can find myself overwhelmed at times, I can usually keep treading water long enough to reach one of those quieter moments, and then I’ll catch up. I also try to keep the internet at bay for large chunks of the day so that I can focus on other things.
Jim McCarthy: Every day is a little bit different which keeps things fresh and exciting. In terms of keeping everything running smoothly, it’s part constant supervision of my email, part piles of to-do lists, part color-coded calendar, and part willingness to throw everything up in the air and scramble when priorities shift on a dime. So the nutshell answer is: flexibility.
What do you love about being an agent?
Farley Chase: Some days it’s the discovery of something new in submissions. Or getting to write to someone you discover in the newspaper or a magazine and have them say “Yes, I would like to write a book.” There’s a special pleasure when, after having worked on a proposal with an author, you discover an extra dimension to the project even the author hadn’t realized. Reading a delivered manuscript and having it be great and not in need of tremendous edits! Seeing the cover for the first time. Seeing the book for the first time. Getting a first-time author a second book deal, then a third, etc. Seeing people read the book out in the world. Meeting people who have read and loved the book. Seeing film/TV deals turn into actual programs, and having foreign publishers release translations of books that were unsolicited submissions.
Rica Allannic: I love the connection and genuine relationships formed with authors over the course of their writing careers. I also enjoy the creative side, the chance to meet new people and dream up book ideas.
Kate Garrick: I love discovering a powerful new voice, and I love watching total strangers discover that voice. It’s just an absolute honor to help guide my clients through this process.
Jim McCarthy: Nothing is more satisfying than calling to tell someone that they have an offer on their very first book. Calling to offer people representation is pretty awesome. Giving a ring to let someone know they have made the New York Times bestseller list comes close. But truly, the best moments of my job are those when I tell someone their first book will be published. It’s when it is most obvious that I have played a part in making someone’s dreams come true, and it’s a profound rush. I also love working with clients editorially before their work goes out. It’s a thrill for me to spend years with a client working on shaping their career, watching their craft grow, and ideally seeing them achieve greater success. Other highlights: seeing someone on the subway reading a copy of one of my authors’ work; getting rave reviews, especially from friends and colleagues; seeing my clients win awards; reading fan letters they’ve received; and on and on.
Describe an upcoming book/author of yours that you’re excited about.
Lisa DiMona: I’m excited about all of my authors’ books! Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours is the next memoir I have coming. Her book is perfectly timed with our cultural moment and shows how one woman learns to speak her truth even as others have often tried to silence it.
Jamie Carr: I’m excited about MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev, which recently published a few weeks ago by Simon and Schuster (and the-editor-of-our-dreams Zack Knoll). It’s a lyrical memoir about a young woman who, when she is 11 years old, immigrates from Russia to the US away from her alcoholic mother and then returns in adulthood—after becoming a mother herself—to piece together the story of what happened to her mother. It starts as a memoir but quickly becomes a feminist manifesto on motherhood, immigration, alcoholism and art. It’s transporting, sweeping, smart, genre-bending, and totally gutsy.
Miriam Goderich: As an agency we sell about 150 books a year. It’s hard to single one or two out. We put a lot of time and passion into the books we represent and our clients are a talented and eclectic bunch, as are their books. I like to think we’re excited about all of them.
Jeff Silberman: Agents are excited about all the books we represent, or we wouldn’t represent them. The next book I’m going out with is a memoir, the story of an ingenue’s journey into womanhood that takes us from a small North Carolina town to Italy, France, and England, and is set against the backdrop of the greatest cultural transformation since the Renaissance. Fellini’s Rome, the French New Wave’s Paris, the Beatles’ London. And the author immersed herself in all of these circles, and knew all these players. Everything in the world was changing – art, fashion, music, sexuality, women’s consciousness…. And amidst all that, she needed to discover who she was, and what being a woman was all about. It’s an absolutely beautiful story, eloquently told. Oops. I just claimed it. But you’ll have to trust me on that one since I can’t share the prose here.
Terra Chalberg: Bethany Webster’s first book on the Mother Wound, which argues that patriarchy is its root cause, is coming out from William Morrow in May of 2020; it promises to be an eye-opening, controversial book destined to be a feminist classic about all the ways women suffer from mother-daughter conflict, which she argues is primarily founded upon women’s experiences up till now being disempowered in their roles as mothers living in a patriarchal society, and how mothers unconsciously and unintentionally pass that suffering down to daughters. Right now, my list is trending toward books with a personal development component that seek to address wider cultural issues.
Stay tuned for part two, which explores publishing with a focus on the writer. Query letter do’s (and don’ts), what agents look for in a manuscript, and questions you should ask before you sign with an agent.
Thank you to all the agents who contributed their time and insights for this article.
Andy Ross was the owner of the Legendary Cody’s Books in Berkeley from 1977-2007. In 2008 he started the Andy Ross Agency. Andy works in a range of genres including: narrative non-fiction, journalism, history, current events, literary and commercial fiction, and teen fiction. He is the author of The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal.
Farley Chase has worked at The New Yorker and Talk Magazine. He has worked at The New Press and later became an editor at Talk Miramax Books. He spent eight years as a literary agent at the Waxman Literary Agency and founded Chase Literary Agency in 2012.
Jamie Carr works with journalists, culture writers, activists, and novelists. She represents authors such as Sasha Velour, Noor Tagouri, Kimberly Drew, among many others. A recent title is MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev (S&S/February 2019). Born and raised in Lower Manhattan, she has also lived in Portland, Oregon, where she cut her publishing-teeth with the indie publisher Tin House. She has worked at WME for five years.
Jeff Silberman began his career as an entertainment attorney, and is a literary agent with Folio Literary Management. He represents a wide range of authors and considers himself a perpetual liberal arts student with an undeclared major. He gets to take electives in anything that interests him.
Jim McCarthy is a literary agent and vice-president at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, where he has worked ever since starting as an intern twenty years ago.
Julia Kardon is a literary agent at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency. A native New Yorker, her first job was at the fabled Strand Bookstore. She represents literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, including New York Times best-sellers, National Book Award 5-under-35 recipients, and Center for Fiction Emerging Writers fellows. She lives in Brooklyn.
Kate Garrick joined The Karpfinger Agency as an agent in 2015. Previously she was an agent and director of contracts at DeFiore and Company. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Florida State University and an M.A. in English and American Literature from New York University.
Laney Katz Becker is an agent at Massie & McQuilkin. Laney’s authors have made the New York Times, national and international bestsellers’ lists, have been selected for the B & N Discover Great New Writers program and Target Book Club picks. Laney is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Lisa DiMona joined Writers House in 2013 as a literary agent after twenty-plus years running her own agency and book development company. At Writers House, she specializes in practical nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. Authors on her list include James Clear, Julie Zhuo, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, and Josh Kaufman.
Miriam Goderich is a partner at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, a mid-size literary agency which represents a diverse roster of award-winning authors of general fiction and non-fiction. Miriam’s interests include narrative non-fiction in the areas of popular history, culture, politics, and science.
Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He studied creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency. Noah focuses on literary fiction, short story collections, and narrative non-fiction, including memoir, journalism, and pop culture. Noah has appeared at graduate writing programs and writers conferences across the country speaking about query letters, building non-fiction platforms, and submission etiquette. A New Jersey native, Noah currently lives in Brooklyn.
Rica Allannic, a literary agent with the David Black Agency, represents authors from diverse backgrounds writing cookbooks and narrative nonfiction. A graduate of New York City public schools and Yale University, Rica worked in professional kitchens before joining the editorial teams of Scribner (Simon & Schuster) and then Clarkson Potter (Penguin Random House).
After graduating from UCLA and working in film development, Terra Chalberg began her publishing career in 2002 at Scribner. Later, at Simon & Schuster and Simon Spotlight Entertainment (now Gallery), she edited and acquired a diverse list of projects. As an agent, she represents a range of fiction and nonfiction writers, including Melissa Radke, author of Eat Cake. Be Brave. and star of USA Network’s upcoming show “The Radkes” and Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby.
Sharon Pelletier grew up in the Detroit suburbs, moved to NYC in 2009, and joined DG&B in 2013 after working for Europa Editions and Barnes & Noble. In addition to her own list, Sharon oversees digital projects and social media. While her interests are broad, Sharon is especially seeking smart women’s fiction and fierce narrative nonfiction, and welcomes marginalized voices in all categories.
NATALIE GASPER is an internationally performed poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Write Launch, The Hickory Stump, The Remembered Arts Journal, Noon by Arachne Press, and ellipsis…literature & art, amongst others. She works as an interviewer and reader for The Nasiona, and is an editorial intern with a prominent New York literary agency.
Featured image: Photograph by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.