I came into this summer with all sorts of expectations about what I would learn from working at a literary agency, ranging from little things like what kind of query letters are the best, to gigantic things like what I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s safe to say that some of these expectations have been met, while others are definitely going to take a bit more time. Like publishing, life is trial and error.
As I was hoping, I learned a lot about what authors look like from the other side. When I was sending out queries for my novel, I made some of the mistakes made by the authors querying my agency, without knowing what big mistakes or annoyances they were. For instance, if an agency asks for a query letter and 5 pages, send a query and 5 pages. They’ve decided that’s what works for them. Don’t send a random middle chapter, 10 pages, the entire first chapter, or the entire book, thinking that that’ll make it easier. It doesn’t. It’s just annoying to sort through things that don’t fit into the system we’ve set up, and it makes you look unprofessional and potentially irritating to work with.
Don’t put cutesy, clever things in your query bio. They’re usually not cute or clever; mostly, they’re just useless to us. Unless they’re utterly charming and your book is written in the same utterly charming style as your bio . . . and those are few and far between. Don’t say that 4 or 5 or 20 complete strangers/close friends have read your book and loved it — that’s not statistically significant. Even non-math people like me can tell you that. Don’t say stuff about how writing is your calling and it flows forth from your soul — we’re not looking for platitudes; we’re looking for a book. Either you’ve got one or you don’t.
And if you’re rejected, please be gracious about it. Don’t get defensive, don’t say we clearly don’t know how to read, don’t call us racist, don’t beg us to read the next chapter and reconsider. If your project didn’t interest us, we’re not the right agency for it. You want someone passionate about your book. You’ll truly be better off looking for them than shouting at us. And please don’t ask us to explain exactly why we rejected your five pages — that often leads to us saying something that you don’t agree with and email wars and frustration and you sullying our reputation across the Web and overall bad stuff. If we say it’s not right for our agency, just trust us. Please.
I’ve learned a lot of technical things, like how to use Publishers Marketplace to find contact information for editors and agents, and how to see what deals have been made recently. I’ve learned how huge the book blogosphere is and how influential it can be. I’ve learned that marketing is unbelievably crucial, and that if you find the right audience, you can sell a mediocre book on concept and publicity alone (but don’t tell anybody). I’ve learned that when you send out a book out to publishers, you need to send “Author’s Guidelines” — a brief synopsis, an extensive bio, a marketing plan, as well as similar books that have been published, and that any books mentioned in these Guidelines need to include the publication information. Like I said: technical.
I’ve also learned that mess-ups can happen on any level, from the publishers to distributors and on down, and sometimes you’re going to have to spend a lot of time on the phone trying to sort out why your client’s book is out of stock on Amazon.com or why your website has suddenly gone down. Organization is critical — agencies juggle so many projects, contracts, payment schedules, potential publishers, blogs, acceptances/rejections for clients, and so on that if you’re not on top of everything with a killer organization plan, things will slip through the cracks. So if we did actually request material from you and haven’t gotten back to you within a reasonable amount of time (read: 2 or 3 months, but that can vary by agency), a polite reminder or check-in email is not out of the question.
I’ve learned a bit about workplace dynamics. Obviously every boss is going to be different, and it’s going to take a bit of time to get used to his or her particular style. If someone’s been there longer than you, don’t be afraid to seek out their advice on how to cope if things seem overly demanding. If something seems strange or unfair, often your coworkers are on your side or have helpful insight that you don’t. At the very least, the coworkers that vent together stick together. If the new guy/girl seems to be having a rough time or seems overwhelmed by the workload, reassure them or offer a listening ear. A supportive eye-roll goes a long way, let me tell you. Basically, agencies are made up of people, just like everything else, so try to treat them that way.
Also, everyone goes on vacation in July. If you pitch a book to publishers then, you might as well be emailing a black hole.
Most importantly for me, I learned that if I want to do this for a career, I would need to do it at some other agency. Not because this was a bad one, or incompetent, or anything like that, but one of the biggest lessons I had to face was the fact that books and writing are enormously subjective. What I like and what my boss likes are two completely different things. I’ve spent a good portion of the summer reading things that I would not touch on my own, trying to determine their potential based on what I think my boss would think. Not the most foolproof way to evaluate manuscripts.
So if I were to intern or have a position with similar responsibilities at a literary agency in the future, I think it would be more productive to work at one with a greater concentration of Young Adult and realistic fiction. I was fairly useless when it came to evaluating epic fantasy — tends to all look like a bunch of weird names and generic good vs. evil — and when a really good YA manuscript came in, I wasn’t sure if our agency was fully equipped to shop it around, since we’ve dealt most successfully with non-fiction and memoir and niche fiction but are just getting started on YA.
I think it would be incredibly exciting to work for a boss who shares my taste, because then the chances of finding something I love would skyrocket.
SM Rosenberg is 21 years old and just began her junior year at the Macaulay Honors program at Brooklyn College, where she's majoring in Creative Writing. She's wanted to be a novelist since 4th grade, and began writing her first novel in 5th grade. After participating in 826NYC's 2005 Young Adult Writers Colony, an early draft of that book was published in a non-profit anthology, which sold over 600 copies, most of which she assumes were purchased by members of her immediate family. More recently, a revised version was named a Quarterfinalist (top 250 out of 5000) in the 2011 Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She's currently working on the sequels as well as a new novel, for which she's planning to do research in Hollywood.