Friday, October 12, 2012

In Answer To Your Questions--a post by Jenny

I recently received an email from Chris Branam, a graduate student at Antioch University Midwest.   As part of his course work for their creative writing program, he is required to interview a literary agent and he sent me the following questions:

1.       When did you realize you wanted to become a literary agent?
2.       How was the process of becoming a literary agent?
3.       Where should someone wanting to become an agent begin?
4.       Is New York an essential pilgrimage for anyone wanting to become an agent/writer?
5.       There are clearly trends in the publishing world that spread like wildfire (vampires, YA dystopian novels, etc.) Are there many agents still willing to look at authors who are not genre based and work in literary fiction/non-fiction?
6.       Is it prudent to get some work out there in literary magazines or otherwise before looking for an agent?
7.       Has the publishing world changed since you began your career and in what way?
8.       Is it advisable for an author to keep a blog?
9.       What makes you choose one writer over another?
10.   Is there any further advice for new authors that comes to mind?

I asked Chris if I could answer his questions on my blog, since it struck me that this might be good information to share with aspiring agents and writers alike and he graciously agreed.   

Here are the answers to Chris's questions.

1.  When I was a kid, my mom got me this great book called something like, "careers for people who love to read."   I have no idea if it's still available but it pretty much changed my whole life because it was then that I realized I wanted to be in publishing.  Then, in college, I took a terrific class called "Magazine Editing and Publishing" and Joyce Johnson, author of IN THE NIGHT CAFE, came and spoke to us.  I'll never forget it because she told us, in so many words, "When you're an editor, you can't buy what you want to because you have to answer to a bunch of different people in house who will tell you what you can and can't do.  Be an agent--you have a lot more freedom."   And so that pretty much decided it for me.  I knew I was pretty independent and entrepreneurial and that I'd probably be a lot happier if I could make my own decisions about what books I wanted to work with.

2. It was hard, really hard!  I started out as an assistant to an agent.  I sort of had it in my head that I would be an assistant for a while and then one day I would magically get a promotion and someone would say, "congratulations, you're an agent!" and I would start selling books right away and be paid a salary for it.   But it really didn't work that way--my boss, understandably, wanted an assistant, not a junior agent.  So after a few years I left that job and went to work for an agency that paid me on commission alone.   I had a mortgage and no salary, so I had to really hustle to make a living--looking back, I think it was a great way to start, because if I didn't sell books I would have been in a lot of trouble.   I also thought it was going to be really easy to sell books and it turned out it was hard.   I had  to create a name and a reputation and I had to get a sense of what editors were looking for--and I also had to build a client list from scratch.

3. I think with an internship or at a publishing course or really both.   And then start as an assistant either for a publisher or for an agent.  I always wished that I had some experience at a publishing house so I had more first-hand knowledge of how the acquisitions process went.   I did work at a book store for a while though, and that has been invaluable experience just in terms of understanding how people make decisions about what books to buy.

4.  Not necessarily.   Kristin Nelson, for one, has been a very successful agent without ever living in NYC.

5.  A great many agents focus still on literary fiction.   Look at people like Eric Simonoff, Bill Clegg, Marly Rusoff, Leigh Feldman, and Zoe Pagnamenta, just to name a few, who are very successfully focusing on selling literary works.

6. There are a lot of ways to attract the attention of an agent these days.  You can publish in literary magazines, you can create a successful blog or vlog, you can build a twitter or Facebook audience, you can self-publish successfully, or you can just be a great writer with a great concept.   I tend to advise people to focus on what they do best--if you are a good short story writer, for instance, focus on magazines.   If you are good at social media, focus on that.

7. I blogged on this recently and so I'll be lazy and just link to it here.

8. Well, see my answer to 6. above.  I think if you are good at it and you enjoy it and you know how to drive traffic to it, yes, you should blog.   Otherwise, not.   If you don't like it, you probably won't be consistent, which is important when you're blogging, and if you don't know how to drive traffic to it, it's not going to do much in terms of building your audience.

9. Quality of writing, quality of ideas, in a nutshell.   There are other factors but those are the biggest.

10. Tenacity is more important than anything else.  It even trumps talent, I would say.   Believe in yourself and never give up, no matter what.  

Thanks very much to Chris Branam for contacting me with such good questions and for letting me share them with you.   Chris can be found blogging here if you'd like to reach him.

Have a great weekend everybody!



  1. I bet if I had discovered a book called "careers for people who love to read" in high school my life would have turned out a little differently! :-)

    Thanks for sharing, Chris and Jenny!

  2. Great interview. As someone who works in book promotion, I can attest to #8. I feel you either like blogging or you don't. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground.

  3. Your submission standard is for the query, with the first 10 pages in the body of the email. My work isn't finished yet. Do you recommend people only submit queries once finished with the entire book?

    1. As a general rule, yes, you should only query a finished work. If you are a multi-published author you can query a partial, but most first time authors should wait until their ms is finished.

  4. I often wonder about #8 looking for quality of writing. Some of the Mega Best Sellers, like Fifty Shades and Twilight, are not known for their quality of writing. Reading tweets of a few literary agents about the quality of writing of two novels, I assume that most literary agents would not accept these novels for represenation. But if the main goal of a litetrary agent is to monetize the author's novel for the higher amount, for the benefist of both, it seems that quality of writing might not be the best factor to consider. While literary agents, editors and publishers care about quality of writing because their love to literature, millions of readers care more about about the storyline and whether they can identify with the main characters. I respectfully submit that if there is a profitable market for some novels, their quality of writing should be less important. Quality of writing can always be improved by authors paying, for example, for interns of literary agents to go over the manuscript and rewrite some parts. Best wishes,

    1. I think you make a good point, Glora. But quality of writing is subjective--whether or not Fifty Shades or Twilight were well written is I think open to interpretation--some agents might feel that they were very well written indeed. Still, maybe I should add "quality of storytelling" to the list of things that make me want to rep one author over another?

    2. Yes, quality of writing is subjective and I was wrong to make a general statement about most agents, after reading a few tweets by some of them. I only read a few tweets here and there and if I read all the tweets by agents, I will find many who praised these two books for the overall experience of reading and connecting with readers. Their amazing sales and the breadth of their appeal to women and female teenagers are the ultimate judge.

  5. Thanks for the insights. It's always good to hear what agents are thinking. I was especially happy to see your answer #6. So often, authors hear we HAVE to blog. So it's nice to hear, you CAN blog OR get published in magazines OR ....

  6. Thanks, Jenny, for being so great and forthcoming with information. Everyone should read this blog!

  7. Thanks, Jenny, for everything. Everyone should read this blog!

  8. I love sharing Agent's advice and their stories. Do you mind if I share your blog post on my blog?