Interview with a Literary Agent

in Entertainment, Jobs in Writing, Jobs involving Commission Pay

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Read as literary agent Elizabeth Evans talks about her career.  You can find her on her website at www.jvnla.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I work as a literary agent, representing authors and managing the rights to their book projects.

How would you describe what you do?

It combines the creativity of writing with the business of book publishing.  If you have a love of books and a mind for business, it’s a fantastic job.  First and foremost, I am an advocate for my clients, often acting as a liaison between the author and the publisher.   I oversee the entire production of the book and I’m always working to make sure the process is progressing properly and the author is satisfied with the work being produced.  I strive to make their books as successful as possible, whether it’s making deals to develop their audio or film/TV rights, or supporting them in requesting a different cover or editorial direction.

When I take on a new client I will work closely with the writer to prepare their work for submission, which often entails a lot of editing and shaping, and then I submit their work to my contacts at the publishing houses.  It’s a little bit like playing matchmaker – it’s my job to know the different editors and what their tastes are and what kind of projects they’re seeking – so that I can connect my author with the right publishing editor.  I negotiate the deal for my client, navigate the contract, and provide guidance throughout the publishing process.

What does your work entail?

A lot of communication, reading, editing and research.  Most agents spend their office hours on the phone or on email.  In the evenings and on weekends, we’re editing our clients’ work, reading incoming submissions from prospective clients and scouting for new material.

What’s a typical work week like?

It’s always different and a little bit unpredictable, which is part of what makes it fun.  No workday is the same.  Some days I’m in the office pitching a project to editors or negotiating a deal.  Other days I’m racing around the city meeting with clients or making new publishing connections.   And whenever we can find the time, what we agents most love to do is read.  There’s nothing more exciting than discovering a great new voice.

How did you get started?

I got involved in agenting through my MFA program in writing at the University of San Francisco.   One of my workshop instructors suggested I might be a good fit to intern with her friend who owned a literary agency.  I started interning as a reader for six hours a week and ended up enjoying the work so much that I began agenting full time right after I graduated.    Before I began as an intern, I didn’t know literary agents existed!  I think a lot of us come to this career unexpectedly.

What do you like about what you do?

There is so much to love about this work!   First, I am always learning and being exposed to ideas and subjects I might not encounter otherwise.  Also, as I specialize in nonfiction, I’m privileged enough to work with many top experts and specialists in their different fields.  Whether it’s working with a pioneer of robotic surgery, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in sustainable development or an accomplished pastry chef, I’m constantly encountering fascinating and inspiring people.  I want to help them bring their ideas and stories to a wide readership.   It keeps the work fresh.

Another aspect I really enjoy is being part of the book community.  Because much of our work – writing and editing – can be so solitary, publishing people tend to be a very social bunch.  I love getting together with my clients to brainstorm ideas, or to meet an editor or an agent friend for a drink after work.  And since we share a common love of reading and of books, I think we have a similar sense of curiosity and imagination.   I genuinely enjoy the people I do business with.

What do you dislike?

It’s not the kind of work that  you can leave  at the office.  And you’ll never feel you’ve finished everything or completed all you need to do.  There is always more to read, edit and research, and this can be overwhelming.   I’m in a constant battle with my email inbox, and I get close to three hundred new submissions a week from writers seeking an agent.  Because agents mainly spend our business hours communicating with clients and publishers, we do most of our reading  out of the office on our own time.  It can become consuming if you let it.  It’s not uncommon to have 1-3 books to read or edit over the course of a weekend (and 10 more in line after those).

What I find most frustrating is that I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure, and this was always my favorite past time.  Now, reading a book for fun almost feels like I’m sneaking a treat or getting away with something.  Over time I’ve learned to shush the little voice in my head that tells me I should be reading a client’s manuscript instead.  Still, occasionally I’m frustrated that I spend an immense amount of time talking about books I may never get to read.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

Agents make money on commission by taking a percentage of the author’s earnings when we secure them a deal.  The standard commission is %15.

How much money do Literary Agents make?

This varies widely depending on the size and activity of our client list, the type of books we represent, and the success of our books.   Agents are keen to make strong deals that will be profitable for both their clients and themselves, but nobody gets into this profession to get rich.  It really is all about having a passion for books and a deep respect for the people who create them.

It can take several years for an agent to build a strong client list and become established on the scene.  But then again, sometimes all it takes is one big bestseller to change everything and launch an agent’s career.  Most of the agents I know find the first 5 years pretty lean.   It’s a lot of scraping by, especially if you live in Manhattan with high rents and cost of living.  Then, gradually, it gets easier and becomes more stable and rewarding.  The upside is that there’s no limit to an agent’s potential success.   With a big bestselling author, an agent can do extremely well.

It depends almost entirely on how an individual agent’s books perform (which varies year by year), coupled with an agent’s arrangement at their agency (do they share commissions or do they keep the entire 15%).  I’m hesitant to give numbers, because I’m really not sure of their accuracy.

I know the low end from my own previous experience as a beginner (25k-35k range), and I know top agents easily make well into the six figure range and potentially higher.  If they get a film/tv adaptation by a major production company or a cable network like HBO, they’re certainly having terrific success.  I guess an average for an agent might be between 50k and 75k, with outliers on both ends.

How much money did/do you make starting out as a Literary Agent?

Most people begin in publishing through student internships, and while some pay most do not.  After getting a foot in the door, a first year agent will usually make an entry level  publishing salary of approximately $25,000-$30,000 a year.  Not all agencies provide a salary, however.  Some operate on commission only.  Most agents begin their careers within established agencies and split their commissions.  Each agency has its own arrangement.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

There is no formal schooling or set path to becoming an agent.  Strong reading, editing and writing skills are a must.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Inevitably, all agents encounter rejection as we pitch our projects to publishers.  You have to be determined and you have to believe in the worth of the books you represent, so that when fifteen editors pass on a submission you still have the drive to send at least fifteen more.  It’s frustrating to be madly in love with a book and feel like no one else is “getting it” or seeing it clearly.   There’s a lot of perseverance involved.  One of my favorite agent sayings is “They can tell me no, but they can’t tell me I’m wrong.”

What is most rewarding?

It’s a toss up between the moment when you open the box containing the finished book you’ve shepherded through the process from manuscript to book form, and having a client phone you to express their delight and gratitude.  To see it and hold it and feel happy with it is truly thrilling.  It’s also wonderful to feel that you’ve played an important role in bringing a quality book into the world.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Define early on what you feel it means to be a successful, and keep sight of that.  Is it financial success?  Critical success?  A certain number of books sold a year, or long and happy relationships with your clients?  These are good questions to ask yourself going in, and they will help you set and stick to your goals.

How much time off do you get/take?

I get two weeks vacation, but there are also some excellent perks to working in publishing, such as Summer Fridays and an extra week off between the Holidays and New Year’s when most of publishing is closed.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That agents get to spend everyday sitting on the couch reading and going on three martini lunch dates.  I wish we did!

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

To keep representing books I find valuable and rewarding and to see those books achieve great critical recognition and commercial success.  I want my authors to feel secure, fulfilled and energized.


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