Now that I’ve spent over three decades working as a literary agent, I’ve taken a few moments to reflect on my time in the business. As with life, the days have been busy and long, but I don’t know where the years went.
Thinking back to the beginning, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduating from college. I wanted to work in a creative field, but I didn’t want to be pressured to produce creatively all the time. I was interested in ideas, stories, and perspectives, but I didn’t know how to make a living from those interests. A part time bookstore job and then an unpaid internship at small publisher led to my first full time job as an assistant at a literary agency. In retrospect, what I really wanted was to surround myself with books and the people who create them.
When I started as a literary agent, the shelves in the offices where I worked were lined with boxes of manuscripts. Yes, there were shelves of books too, but the boxes took up a lot of shelf space because we used them to submit printed manuscripts. We ordered sturdy boxes separately from other office supplies, and agents used different colors (red, orange, gray) to make their boxes distinguishable from other agencies. I would go to a copy shop to ask them to make 6 copies of a manuscript when I had to prepare a multiple submission. In those days, editors responded by returning manuscripts to agents, and I could tell how many pages an editor read from coffee stains and how many pages were rumpled and how many were pristine. Ostensibly, editors returned them to us so we could submit them to other editors, but frequently the boxes and manuscripts were too worn to submit to another editor.
I used to carry manuscripts home to read, and they were heavy. I joked that I made my living in part by lugging around tree parts.
Computers were widely in use when I started, but email wasn’t. I spent a good part of the day on the phone talking with editors to pitch manuscripts and follow up on submissions. This was great because I was interacting with people all day and talking about books. Relationships developed and were reinforced with each call. Because of relationships like this, I was able to get opportunities for clients that they may have otherwise missed. Once I even sold a book to an editor who rejected it because I called to talk about the reason for the rejection after I received her response.
Email changed the industry because paper manuscripts and boxes were no longer necessary. Editors and agents switched to e-reader devices and no longer needed large backpacks for commuting to and from work with manuscripts. Because email was fast to send, people expected answers right away, and of course, thoughtful, detailed answers weren’t always as fast to generate. At first some publishers and agencies felt that email would make assistants unnecessary, but that was proven wrong quickly although not all employers, who’d been excited about reducing staff and salaries, were ready to acknowledge that assistants still fulfilled essential roles in the process. Once email became standard for the general public, agencies started receiving queries by email as well as regular mail. In short order, the number of submission expanded exponentially. It was easy to send submissions to multiple agencies without going to the post office or paying for postage.
Access to the internet made the biggest difference across the board in the publishing industry. Information was suddenly easy to access that had previously only been available by joining groups such as the AALA or looking in Publishers Marketplace, the official tome for authoritative information in the field of publishing. Before the internet, writers either took classes and counted on their teachers’ connections to get representation or looked in guides such as Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents. With the internet, books could be ordered without leaving the house, and professionals in publishing and readers who didn’t work in publishing could find out information about books, authors, publishers, and agents. With the popularity of blogs and social media, even the standards for reviewing and promoting books changed drastically.
While the mechanics of how I receive submissions from writers and submit projects to editors has changed, so much hasn’t changed. The heart of the business is finding new voices that resonate strongly in readers. Readers still love to be entertained, and stories are at the center of almost every type of entertainment. Platforms, applications, and media are just new spins on the everlasting enjoyment of stories. The world is hungry for new perspectives and a fresh understanding of both new and familiar topics, and there are so many stories yet to be told. I look forward to the next 30 years of guiding new writers into the book industry.
Keep an eye on this page for agency news, author interviews, and more!