been a long time coming…

…starting out this year with all sorts of changes, some of them unexpected, some of them not, but all of them keeping me pretty darn busy. I’ve had two more contracts come in since my last post so that means 8 so far this year. I’m still working my way through them. Luckily, I’ve also just closed my third deal for the year and have two more offers on the table. I expect (hope for!) a drought in February, during which I will catch up on my reading (and the housework!). Yeah…. and there’s this bridge in Brooklyn….

Meantime, I’ve never managed to find the time to get back to those questions that I offered to answer before the holidays! Yeesh. So, I’m taking a brief breather and…

jesshartley asked: How does one prepare for the career of literary agent? What are the essential qualities (in your opinion) to be a good one, and how did you end up on this path? Is it where you want to be, 10 years from now, or is it one part of a longer journey?

I’d tell you how to become a literary agent, but then I’d have to kill you. *pause* Well, alright, then. First thing — do you love books? Because if you don’t, you’ll never make it. The process of the rituals to raise the correct spirits to bring the good authors your way – and frustrate your competitors – requires a lot of sacrifices (not all of them human!). Seriously, it’s a job that requires long hours, offers oft-time erratic pay, and seems to demand the ability to endure mountains of mediocre (or worse) attempts at crafting a novel in order to find the gems. Ah, but when you find them… and when you get an offer for one of them… That’s the best.

Anyway, that list is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve known a lot of drop-outs. I was almost one myself (around the two-and-a-half year mark). It’s a labor of passion. It’s a career. It’s a calling. Or at least, it’s that way for me. I do know of some agents who are little more than business managers. They are salespeople. And they are darn good at it. But the definitely don’t seem to be coming at it from the same angle as I am. From where I sit, it’s more than just a job. Yes, I plan to still be doing this in 10 years (and thereafter), God-willing.

How does one prepare to be a literary agent? Good question. I was an English Lit major at a little ivy school. I think I learned a few things that are serving me well. Thinking critically. Assessing literature and theme. Knowing how to write book reports. Heh. But, I know a lot of literary agents with a variety of educational background (one of my closest agent-friends was a sociology major, I believe). And they have a lot of different backgrounds professionally too. Working at DMLA was my first job out of college and I essentially lucked into it. Others have worked at publishing companies, film production companies, magazines; as lawyers, as teachers, etc. Most of my actual agent-skills I’ve learned on the job. Trial by fire. Jump in and see if you can swim. I spent almost two years as an assistant before I took on my very first client. I asked a lot of questions. About everything and anything. And I paid attention to the answers. I went to a lot of writers conferences and listened hard to other agents and to editors, and to the writers. I offered to do every task I could get my hands on – reading submissions, vetting contracts, tracking payments, putting together sales material for trade shows…

Qualities I think a literary agent should strive to have: loving books (I know, I already said that one), having a good instinct for story and voice, being able to juggle mutliple tasks on a daily (hourly, by minute) basis, detail-oriented, obsessive-compulsive (*g*), constructively critical, a healthy sense of competition… I’m sure there’s some I haven’t thought of….

2 responses to “been a long time coming…

  1. Thanks for such a detailed and well thought out answer, Jennifer. It’s definately not my calling, but I’m interested (obviously) in the industry and want to know as much as I can about as many facets as I can. I really appreciate the “insider’s view” your journal provides, and your personal (and very human) insight into the process.

  2. You said, “It’s a labor of passion. It’s a career. It’s a calling. Or at least, it’s that way for me.
    First, let me thank you for taking the time (or adding the time to your day) to share your knowledge and experience with the rest of us out here. I don’t think we can truly express how valuable it is to us. Thank you.
    I’ve been following your journal for a few months now and am less spastic and anxious about submitting my work for doing so. With that said, I’m a writer from DC well into the rewrite of my first book. And if I had my choice, I would pick the agent in love with books over the salesman even if the salesman could guarantee me more money. I get that its a business but its a personal business. To me, how you described yourself is the “ideal” or higher form of agenthood. I imagine you are exactly what most writers are hoping for when they submit, which is probably why your “in box” gets the workout it does.
    Again, thanks.

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